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Hebrew in Lamentations 4:14-16 reads:

נָעוּ עִוְרִים בַּחוּצוֹת, נְגֹאֲלוּ בַּדָּם; בְּלֹא יוּכְלוּ, > יִגְּעוּ בִּלְבֻשֵׁיהֶם. {ס} טו סוּרוּ טָמֵא קָרְאוּ לָמוֹ, סוּרוּ > סוּרוּ אַל-תִּגָּעוּ--כִּי נָצוּ, גַּם-נָעוּ; אָמְרוּ, בַּגּוֹיִם, לֹא > יוֹסִפוּ, לָגוּר. {ס}

14They wandered blind in the streets,

defiled by this blood,

so that no one dared

to touch their garments.

15“Go away! Unclean!”

men shouted at them.

“Away, away! Do not touch us!”

So they fled and wandered.

Among the nations it was said,

“They can stay here no longer.”

The text implies that the blood on their garments is the cause for their ritual defilement, and the reason people reject them. But as far as my knowledge goes, nowhere in the OT is blood associated with ritual defilement. On the contrary, blood is usually what purifies the person who has been defiled.

Now it's possible that these bloody victims have come in contact with corpses which would indeed render them ritually impure, but the text implies that the cause for the defilement is the blood, not something else.

So how should we understand these verses? Is it possible that were not dealing with ritual defilement but with physical defilement, i.e., the blood that made them filthy? That doesn't sit so we'll with me either. The text clearly indicates that this defilement is taboo like, comparable to the leper that no one dares to come close to, in fear of getting polluted. Furthermore, the word טָמֵא usually means a ritually impure person, not merely a filthy person.

So why are these bloody victims rejected by everyone and called ritually impure because of their bloody garments?

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This chapter is organized in couplets, so verses 13 and 14 are thematically related (NIV):

But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous.

Now they grope through the streets as if they were blind. They are so defiled with blood that no one dares to touch their garments.

The referent of "they" in verse 14 is the prophets and priests of verse 13.

These prophets and priests are defiled with the blood (from killing) of the righteous, they are טמא לנפש like lepers, as commanded in Numbers 5:2:

Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body.

And Numbers 31:19:

Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives.

Digging a little deeper into the verses, the word "blood" דם is a synonym for "soul" נפש in Hebrew folklore and as explicitly indicated in Leviticus 17:11

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

The verse 13-14 couplet continues the couplets of contrast from the begining of the chapter. In each couplet there is a paradoxical contrast. In 13-14, the priests and prophets who are supposed to be the epitome of purity become the epitome of defilement, and defilement of the highest degree at that, contact with corpses of the righteous whom they have murdered.

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  • Great answer - Jeremiah laments the great sons of butchery, murder and violence perpetrated on the righteous such a Zechariah and during the reign of Manasseh, etc. That blood now haunts them. +1
    – Dottard
    Jul 30, 2020 at 21:36
  • Your answer explains why they are defiled, and also why the text chooses "blood" over "corpses", it is to signify the innocent blood on their hands that they have spilled. cf Isaiah 59:3.
    – bach
    Jul 31, 2020 at 13:14

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