From Leviticus 11-13
Skin diseases were a serious condition in Israel. Those with skin diseases were treated like they were the living dead. To be avoided at all costs. People with these conditions were banished from God’s presence in the tabernacle and the community.
This post is part of my bible in a year series.
Passage and Comments
Our passage continues the theme of purity, cleanliness and washings in the law of Moses.
13 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests (Lev 13.1-2)
‘Leprous disease’. Scholars have had difficulty pinning down exactly what is meant by the term. The common denominator in a variety of texts suggests the condition is some kind of repulsive scaly skin disease.
‘Brought to the priests’. Clearly the priesthood was involved in more than making sacrifices (‘Butchers’). They also determined what was clean or unclean and prescribed how conditions like these should be treated (‘Doctors’).
3 And the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean.(Lev 13.3)
‘Examine’. The priests would have been trained to recognise certain conditions. Here we see they gauge how deep the condition is and whether it is strong enough to affect the skin and hair around it.
4 But if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days.
5 And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up for another seven days.
6 And the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day, and if the diseased area has faded and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only an eruption. And he shall wash his clothes and be clean.
7 But if the eruption spreads in the skin, after he has shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall appear again before the priest. 8 And the priest shall look, and if the eruption has spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a leprous disease. (Lev 13.4-8)
‘Seventh day’. Sometimes diagnosis of the condition is not so clear cut. In instances where it is a bit ambiguous, the person has to wait in solitude a week before being looked at again by the priest. Hopefully the condition may have improved and if it is fading then the person will be pronounced clean. If the condition has worsened then they will be pronounced unclean.
Chapter 13 is a long chapter and several conditions are addressed. Significantly near the end of the chapter we read the following.
So what are the implications of being pronounced unclean as a result of having a skin disease?
45 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev 13.45-46)
‘Torn clothes’, ‘Hair hanging’, ‘Upper lip covered’. The poor person with the skin disease had to distinguish themselves from others in the way they appear. That way people can tell they are unclean and avoid them.
‘Unclean’. Furthermore, they are to call out they are unclean to the people around them. This would give others advanced notice they were coming. Again so they could be avoided.
‘Live alone’, ‘Outside the camp’. They were to separate themselves from the whole camp. Shunned. I suspect their existence would to a large degree depend on the compassion of those around them.
How would they live? Get food?
This puts the role of the priests in perspective. Their charge was not medical, promoting their healing. Rather their main concern was religious purity. They were charged with maintaining the purity of the tabernacle. Uncleanliness should be kept away from the presence of the LORD.
Story of Israel
A person afflicted with the appearance of “scale disease” was ritually impure to a high degree, as shown by the facts that he or she was banished from the camp, and the ritual process following healing was a long and complex one (ch. 14). The severity of the impurity can be explained by the close connection between scale disease and death, the concept on which the Israelite impurity system appears to be based (see ch. 12). Several pieces of evidence link scale disease to death, indicating that it could be characterized as the “blight of the living dead.” (Gane, R., 2004. Leviticus, Numbers, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)
Story of Jesus
There is nothing in the text which suggests the leper must have sinned and offended God. One notable OT passage does not indicate those with skin diseases needed forgiveness along with healing (2 Kings 5). Similarly, Jesus did not forgive skin diseased persons when he healed them. So we can leave behind the toxic moral stigma that some have attached to this disease.
8 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. 2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mt 8.1-4)
Jesus showed compassion to those who needed it.
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