Holiness and Disease Leviticus 13:1-14:32


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Leviticus 13:1-14:32

Some of you said to me last Sunday evening that you had been wondering what sermon I would preach on Leviticus 12, with its account of purification from ritual defilement after childbirth. Well, the emphasis on blood in that chapter made it much easier to see and explain the larger issues, theological and moral, to be found in, under, around, and through the ceremonial regulations. It is the next two chapters, 13 and 14, that offer the real challenge to the preacher.

First they are long chapters; long enough to seem tiresome to most any reader. 59 verses in chapter 13, another 57 on the same subject in chapter 14, 116 verses altogether. The three chapters of the prophecy of Joel amount to only 73 verses; the four chapters of Malachi to only 55; and the seven chapters of the prophecy of Micah only 105! In fact, these 116 verses are only 30 shy of the 146 that make up the entire nine chapters of Amos! I decided almost immediately that I was going to summarize, not read the text. If I didn’t, there would be no time left for a sermon. I said in the bulletin that I would be preaching this evening from one of the “boring” parts of the Bible. To be sure, disease is not boring to the one who suffers from it. No one is “bored” when he learns that he has cancer or that he must have surgery to repair some organ of the body. But this is not just any disease. The subject itself poses part of the difficulty we have in appreciating this text.

There is no blood here; just what is called in Hebrew צרעת, ṣᾱra‘at, a term that the ESV translates “leprous disease,” a translation that works only if clothing and the walls of a house can contract leprosy! In human beings ṣᾱra‘at manifested itself as several different types of skin diseases, hence the assumption that it referred to leprosy. Such diseases were marked by discoloration, by the damage they caused under the surface of the skin, and by their tendency to spread. [Sklar, 181] So infestations of clothing or the walls of a house that had similar characteristics were also ṣᾱra‘at.

Once again, however, we are never told here or anywhere else in the Bible why ṣᾱra‘at resulted in ritual impurity. It has been suggested by some that such skin diseases made the afflicted look as if he were dead and it was this appearance of death that explained the ritual impurity. Blood, as you remember from last time, was associated with death. So that makes sense. In chapter 14 we will read that the ritual for purification from such disease is the same as that employed for someone who had come into contact with a corpse (Numbers 19). On the other hand, that explanation doesn’t explain as well the impurity that attached to clothing or to the walls of a house. Others have suggested that the principle at work was more like that distinguishing clean from unclean animals: a matter of wholeness or fitness — what a human being ought to look like, what a garment ought to look like, what the walls of a house ought to look like. The deviation from the norm rendered the person or the garment or the house unclean. [Sklar, 181] But, whatever the reason, it seems obvious that such skin diseases were not uncommon in Israel in that time, the condition was visible, and in some cases was known to be contagious. [Levine, 75]

This section — two chapters in our editions of Leviticus — falls neatly into five sections. [Levine, 75]

  1. The first section, 13:1-46, first describes how the priest was to identify whether or not a skin condition was ṣᾱra‘at (1-44), that is, whether the condition was acute or transient (Levine, 75). All skin conditions did not produce ritual impurity. Temporary, surface afflictions that were not infectious were not ṣᾱra‘at. If the condition were judged to be ṣᾱra‘at, we then read in 13:45-46, what becomes of the unclean person.
  2. The second section, 13:47-59, covers the same ground in the case of infected clothing.
  3. The third section, 14:1-32, concerns the purification of someone healed of ṣᾱra‘at.
  4. The fourth section, concerns ṣᾱra‘at in houses, the consequences of it and the process required for purification.
  5. The fifth and final section, 14:54-57, is a short summary of the whole.

Let me summarize the first section, then, that dealing with the identification of ṣᾱra‘at. But first a word on leprosy. Since the diagnostic signs listed are broad and could apply to a variety of skin diseases and since some of the classic symptoms of leprosy per se (Hansen’s disease) are not mentioned — such as the loss of feeling — and some of those mentioned are not its classic symptoms — such as the shedding of dead skin — it is now rather universally assumed in biblical scholarship that the term does not refer to the disease we call leprosy. Indeed it is argued by some that leprosy as we understand it did not exist in the 15th century B.C. in the ancient near east, though that conclusion is certainly not universally held. [cf. Ross, 280] Rather, the conditions described could be several different ailments, a number of them actually, (including some less serious ones we are familiar with such as psoriasis and eczema). You’ll notice that the ESV has a marginal note explaining that “leprosy” was a term for several skin diseases. The problem with that explanation, of course, is that it suggests that the Hebrew term still ought to be translated “leprosy” and it seems rather clear that ṣᾱra‘at ought not to be so translated. Jay Sklar of Covenant Seminary prefers the translation, not very specific, but certainly accurate, “a ritually defiling skin disease.” [184]

Now you can skim over verses 1-46 as I summarize them. Because it was a matter of ritual purity or impurity, it was the priest who examined the patient. If the evidence of ṣᾱra‘at, a ritually defiling skin disease were present or clearly absent the priest would make his judgment that the person was either pure or impure. If, however, the evidence was at this point inconclusive the person was quarantined for seven days or fourteen, whichever proved necessary, to allow time for the symptoms either to appear or begin to disappear. After the period of quarantine was completed the priest would make his judgment.

A couple of explanatory comments. First, one piece of evidence was that the hair on the skin had turned white, not apparently from the discoloration of the hair itself — apparently not a typical result of skin diseases — but because it was covered with the white flakes of dead skin. [Sklar, 184]

Second, the ESV’s translation of v. 13 seems to suggest that if the condition got worse the priest would pronounce him clean which does not make much sense in the context. Actually the sentence should be understood to say that if the raw flesh, wherever it appeared on the body, turned white — which, as we read in vv. 16-17 is the first sign of healing — then the priest shall pronounce him clean because the evidence that he is recovering from his disease is present. [Levine, 78-79]

The chapter addresses in turn various possible conditions that the priest would have to judge, the condition of the skin more generally, a lesion, a boil, a burn, skin conditions at certain places where hair grows (the scalp or the jaw for men), a form of rash that appears as white spots, a variety of what nowadays is a class of skin conditions called leukoderma, and finally baldness, which would only be defiling if accompanied by a reddish-white sore. [Sklar, 184-187] Believe me, people with medical knowledge have carefully studied this chapter and the commentaries are full of technical diagnoses for all of these, but there is no need to repeat all of that detail.

Now let me read vv. 45-47, which describe the three rules imposed on someone who has been judged to be unclean because of ṣᾱra‘at. The requirements amounted to:

  1. Adopting the appearance of a mourner;
  2. Warning others of your approach, since contact with you would defile them as well;
  3. And, living outside the camp. That did not necessarily require them to live alone. They could live with others whose condition was like their own and, for that matter, their family could live with them, though if they were to return to the camp they would have to purify themselves, though that might not require much more than minor inconvenience in the case of a family member. In any case, they could not worship in the sanctuary, a great loss for a devout Israelite. If they recovered from the disease, they were free to return to the camp upon their purification. I visited a leper colony in India in 1975 and it was one of the most memorable and saddest sights I ever laid eyes on. But, again, we are probably not here reading about what we mean today by the word “leprosy.”

The next section, 13:47-58, addresses infestations that affect clothing. In this case ṣᾱra‘at might be translated “defiling mold” or “ritually defiling infestation.” [Sklar, 189] These conditions were probably the result of a fungus, mold or mildew, most likely to appear during Palestine’s rainy season. Clothing made of wool or linen is especially susceptible to such fungi, but so is leather. If the condition spread, the garment had to be destroyed. But if the mold could be removed by washing, the garment was clean and could continue to be used.

Section 3, 14:1-32, describes the procedures for removing the ritual impurity after a man or woman had been healed of a skin disease. A three-fold process is described by which first a person was rendered clean enough to return to the camp (or to normal society), by which second he or she was clean enough to return to the sanctuary, and by which third, through the four offerings required to be made at the tabernacle (guilt or reparation offering, sin offering, grain offering, and burnt offering) and by additional rituals on the part of the priest, he or she was returned to normal life.

The rituals include some items and actions not yet introduced in Leviticus: wild birds, cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop, the same materials used, as we read in Numbers 19:6-7, to purify an Israelite who had come into contact with a dead body. The bird’s blood was added to water — the two primary agents of cleansing in the Levitical system — the hyssop for sprinkling or spreading the mixture, and perhaps both cedar and the yarn because their red color was reminiscent of blood. [Sklar, 191] We use red ink nowadays to highlight or to correct a text, so we can hardly argue that color doesn’t suggest — and sometimes powerfully — certain associations. I hated to see red ink on my papers when I was in school! The bird left alive after the first was killed for its blood was set free, symbolically carrying away the person’s impurity, much as the second goat, the so-called “scapegoat” will do in the ritual of the Day of Atonement of which we will read in chapter 16. In any case the ritual purified the formerly unclean Israelite. Then the person had to wash his or her clothes, bathe, and shave. The skin, in other words, had to be completely clean. The person then could return to the camp but had to stay outside his tent for seven more days.

At the tabernacle on the eighth day, in addition to the sacrificial offerings themselves, both blood and oil were placed on the person’s extremities — the ear lobe, the thumb, and the big toe — indicating that the whole body had been cleansed and sanctified to God. As you will see both the person and the sanctuary were cleansed of the impurity by this means. The fact that two flock animals were required, rather than, as before in chapter 12, one flock animal and a bird, indicates the seriousness of the defilement. [Sklar, 193] Vv. 21-32 detail the procedures in the case of someone too poor to bring an animal from the flock.

The fourth section, 14:33-53, concerns similar infestations of mold or mildew in houses which caused distortions or discoloration in the plaster used to cover the building stones. [Levine, 89] Israel, of course, was in the wilderness living in tents when these regulations were given, so it is made clear at the outset that these laws would apply once they had settled in the Promised Land and were living in houses. Verse 34 reminds us that our afflictions are ultimately from the Lord, whatever other factors, known or unknown, might have been their instrumental cause.

“When…I put a case of leprous disease in a house in the land…”

In a fashion similar to what has gone before, we learn what is to be done if such mold or mildew is discovered, what to do if it spreads, what to do if it returned after the house was cleaned — in which case the house had to be completely destroyed and its ruins carted off to the dump –, and what to do if the problem had been corrected. We are still concerned with ṣᾱra‘at, a ritually defiling condition that, at least in some respects resembled the sort that can affect a person’s skin. Interestingly we conflate the two realms in the same way. We talk of paint that blisters, for example, using a skin lesion to describe a disfigured wall covering. [Sklar, 189] If the problem could be corrected, the house would be cleansed in much the same way as the infected person.

So far those two long chapters. Now, what are we to do with them? Well let’s begin here. People got sick in Israel in those long ago days, just as we get sick today. Some illnesses were temporary, as a cold or flu or even more serious conditions are temporary today. We get over them and are well again. But some illnesses then as now were both chronic and contagious. We are encouraged nowadays to stay away from others if we are sick so that we don’t spread our germs and infect others with whatever illness we are suffering from. Unless, of course, it’s a child with chicken pox, upon whom our mothers descend with their kids, like early morning shoppers on Black Friday, in hopes of their kids contracting the infection to get chicken pox out of the way. There is no doubt that the regulations of chapter 13 and 14 are primarily concerned with ritual defilement, but there is no reason to doubt that some of these regulations were also understood to serve as a means of containing disease. Quarantine was not simply for ritual purposes; in such cases the priest was a medical officer as well as a ritual one. [Levine, 75] Quarantine has been much in the news recently, as you know, because of concerns about the spread of the Ebola virus. We understand that quarantine imposes a hardship on the affected people, but we also understand the importance of preventing the spread of serious illness among the population. So did the Israelites.

The Bible mentions illness and disease a number of times in one way or another and various skin diseases on several occasions. Sometimes such a disease was punishment for sin, as in the case of Miriam’s leprosy, punishment for her rebellion against her brother Moses (of which we read in Num. 12:10-12), or of Uzziah’s leprosy as punishment for his sacrilegious activity in the temple (2 Chron. 26:19-21). Remember how, after Elisha had healed Naaman, the Syrian general, of his skin disease, Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, was punished for his greedily taking advantage of Naaman’s gratitude, by being afflicted with the same disease from which Naaman had been healed. Elisha said to him,

“‘Therefore the ṣᾱra‘at of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.’ So he went out from his presence a leper, like snow.” [2 Kgs 5:27]

But such afflictions occurred for other reasons; they were not always, perhaps not usually a punishment. Job had a skin disease that we are told explicitly was not punishment for some sin that he had committed. And so it was throughout the Bible with other physical afflictions. The man born blind, of whom we read in John 9, wasn’t being punished for anything; he had been given that affliction in order that Jesus might display God’s power in granting him sight. But even in the New Testament illness could be punishment for sin. Their profanation of the Lord’s Supper by their unkindness to one another was the reason why some in the Corinthian church were “weak and ill, and some [had] died.” [1 Cor. 11:30]

As you remember from the Gospels, most of the Lord’s miracles by which he demonstrated his authority as the Messiah and the Savior of sinners, were physical healings. He healed all manner of diseases, from blindness and deafness, to paralysis and leprosy. That was leprosy in all likelihood. The rabbis in the days of Jesus had said that it was as difficult to cure leprosy as to raise the dead. Well Jesus did both: he cured lepers and he raised the dead. And you remember how often the language of physical healing and the language of salvation from sin and death converge in those healing accounts, the word “save” often translated “healed” in the English translations of those healing narratives. It is sometimes very difficult to know whether in one particular case or another the word ought to be translated “healed,” in the sense of physical healing or “saved,” in the sense of eternal life. And you remember Jesus making a point of likening the one to the other. Jesus made the physical healing, in any case, a picture of the greater healing, when he both healed a person from sickness and forgave his or her sins and likened the one to the other. When Jesus saw the faith of those who let the paralyzed man down through the roof, he first said, “Your sins are forgiven,” only later did he tell him to get up and walk.

Devout Israelites, as devout Christians ever since when they have fallen ill, have examined themselves to see if their sickness might be punishment for some sin.  In Psalm 38, which Allen Ross entitles “The Prayer of a Sick Man Suffering Because of his Sin,”  and which Peter Craigie entitles more simply, “A Sick Person’s Prayer, David prays:

“There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;

There is no health in my bones because of my sin.

For my iniquities have gone over my head;

Like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” [vv. 3-4]

Sickness then, as now, was an occasion for reckoning with God and prayer to God. In that same Psalm 38 we read in v. 15:

“But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.”

And in Psalm 30:2, David sings:

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”

As Christians today we are not unfamiliar with the role of sickness in a believer’s life. It is one of the principal afflictions of human life and so, for a Christian, an occasion for spiritual reflection and self-examination, as it is for prayer. When I call on folk in the hospital or who are sick at home, I have often left them with Bishop J.C. Ryle’s little pamphlet, Sickness, whose major sections are: I. The Universal Prevalence of Sickness; II. The General Benefits Which Sickness Confers on Mankind; and III. The Special Duties Which the Prevalence of Sickness Entails.

But, while we are not unaware of the place of sickness in life, Christians used to be much more familiar with sickness than we are today and thought more deeply about it because it threatened their lives at every stage so much more than sickness does today. I’ve been hospitalized but twice in my life: for a broken leg sustained in a soccer practice when I was in college and for appendicitis last May. Neither was life-threatening, neither impaired my life in any serious way, neither had any lasting repercussions. I know very well that others of you have struggled at length with sickness, in several cases with deadly diseases, but even so ill-health is not the scourge that it once was: carrying away more children than survived to adulthood, hosts of little children, cutting life short so often in the bloom of youth, and shortening life more often than not for everyone else. You never knew when it was going to hit; you never knew how many it would carry away at once.

To be sure most human beings still die of sickness of one kind or another, but in the western world they usually die at a ripe old age. Not always, by any means — my sister died at 49, my brother-in-law at 42 — but usually. And the result is that we don’t reckon with sickness, even we Christians, as people used to do. We expect to be healed of whatever sicknesses we have. Just as no one nowadays still uses the service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth, Commonly Called the Churching of Women,” so Anglican priests scarcely ever use “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick,” that you also find in the Book of Common Prayer with its beautiful collect:

“Hear us, Almighty and most merciful God and Savior; extend thy accustomed goodness to this thy servant who is grieved with sickness. Visit him, O Lord, with thy loving mercy, and so restore him to his former health, that he may give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Psalms are full of prayers just like that! All of that to say, that sickness is a very important part of human life and one of the principal ways in which the creation groans as in childbirth to this day. It is one of the primary ways in which the experience of life is darkened, in which real fear is injected into human experience, in which people suffer serious pain and misery for extended periods of time.

So, it should come as no surprise that the obligations of holiness should have been imposed on this dimension of human life as on every other one. As the eating of a meal, the sexual life, one’s work in an agricultural society, the birth of a child, and the death of a loved one were all subjected to the demands of holiness, the holiness of Yahweh, so too were sickness and health. Not all forms of sickness to be sure. As with all of these other regulations, a point was being made, a sacramental relationship between life and faith was being established, but there was no thought of magic, as if sickness had some power over the soul or was caused or healed by some force outside of the will of Yahweh himself. There were many more illnesses that didn’t create ritual impurity, in fact most ways in which Israelites got sick in those days did not create ritual impurity. In the same ways that there were whole categories of food in which nothing was unclean or there were large areas of agricultural activity in which the reality of God’s holiness didn’t determine how a farmer did his work. Certain very specific dimensions of each area of life were carved out for the purpose of educating God’s people in the demands of God’s holiness, impressing the demand for holiness upon the hearts and lives of Israel, cultivating in their hearts gratitude and commitment to God, and mediating to them the grace, forgiveness, and blessing of God.

That’s what we find here in chapters 13-14: another area of life submitted to the demands of God’s holiness, another area of life in which God’s people are going to have to honor and serve him. Another area of life in which impurity is created and so the importance of holiness before God is impressed upon mind and heart; another area of life in which that impurity is then removed by rites and ceremonies that conveyed the grace of God to his people in a way that neither diminished the importance of holiness nor the cost of it, either to God or to the people themselves. After all, what do we have here except what we have found everywhere else: a system designed to display human frailty and dependence upon the Lord, to affirm the reality of human sin and divine grace, to publish the summons to faith in and gratitude to God, and to make atonement through substitutionary sacrifice? At every turn these regulations forced Israel to face the fundamental realities of life and to respond to them in faith and obedience. They learned in this way that whatever they did, they were to do it to the glory of God; in whatever condition they found themselves, they were to live as becomes the people of God. The reality of God, the infinite personal God, was brought home to them in this way. Remember, these were people without a Bible. These were not people who had a Bible at home by their bedside to read morning and night. They were taught their faith and life in other ways.

There were probably very few Israelites who ever had to live their lives permanently apart from the rest of the people of God on account of a skin disease, but even they served as a lesson to the rest of the nation, just as the few people who die young impress upon us all the uncertainty of life. Like the rest of these regulations, they complicated life but only to a point. They were meant to help not to harm, to raise the heart heavenward not to cast it down, to give hope and comfort in the midst of the trials of life, not to lead to despair. When my father was first diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took his life, the first occasion he had to tell people what he had learned was a seminary chapel service at Covenant in St. Louis, and in that service he told them what he had learned from the doctors and then he had them join him in singing Samuel Rodigast’  fine hymn, Whate’er My God Ordains is Right. That is what Christians do and what Christians think when they get sick. They acknowledge that everything has ultimately come to them through the fingers of their heavenly Father, that this is his will for their life, that everything that he orders for us is ultimately for our good, and that it will prove our good if we respond in faith, hope, love and gratitude. We are to be believers in sickness just as we are to be followers of Jesus Christ everywhere else in our lives. They are to be believers there, followers of Jesus there, as much as everywhere else in life.

Jesus, remember, used his healings to teach people the grace and salvation of God. Again and again he did this. He was effectively saying to them that the spiritual life, the true authentic human life, the life of faith in God and love for God and the life of God’s favor, begins as healing begins for the body. It is like the healing of the body in that way, the gift of God. This system of regulation did the same thing in the everyday life of the people of God. It taught them who God was and what he was like; what was required of them as the people of God; and how they were to respond to God’s goodness to them, no matter whether healthy or sick.

There used to be a sign in the Kolkata airport in India that read “Don’t Feed the Children.” India had a terrible problem with beggars and begging children. The problem was compounded by the fact that their parents, usually beggars themselves and often lepers, actually exposed their children to the disease on purpose, because leper children elicited more pity and so brought in more money. It was a vicious cycle of disease and dependence, bound up as it was with Hindu concepts of caste and karma. I hope things are better now. I remember Mrs. Schaeffer saying how offended she was by that sign: “Don’t feed the children!” But you can understand what the government was trying to do: save the children from the ravages of a wasting disease. It was trying to keep them from being made lepers in order that they might be more effective beggars.

Well there is a very real sense in which that’s exactly what you and I need to be saved from: the ravages of a terrible disease, a disease far worse and more deadly than leprosy. The disease is sin, unholiness in record and in life. It threatens death because of God’s great holiness. But there is healing available if only we will take the disease as seriously as we should. Who belittles the disease will never seek a cure. Israel was being taught never to belittle the disease, a disease they knew very well was a signpost to a deeper, spiritual problem. And the cure is here as it was everywhere else in Israel’s ritual life: the provision God himself made for their restoration to health, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. True and living faith in him led a man or woman to seek purity in all things, in every part of life: whether sick or well, whether at home or in the field, whether the clothing that they wore or the food they ate. And the NT makes very clear that that is precisely the way we are to live our lives today.