Dr. Jason Garwood

Narrated By: Scott Tucker
Book: Outside the Camp
Topics: , , ,


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Chapter Text

Now that we’ve seen some of the contextual factors, let’s consider the passage in more detail.

Leviticus 13 & 14 is situated within the third book of Pentateuch, which, as we’ve seen previously, coincides with the giving of the law. Leviticus is about legislation. The book itself consists of moral law expressed with ceremonial/ritual symbols as it pertains to God’s demand for holiness and strict subscription to the provisions of redemption (i.e., tabernacle, sacrifices, clean/unclean declarations, etc.). Chapters 13 & 14 deal specifically with the “leprous disease” (13:2, 8). The Hebrew word is here is צָרַעַת (tsaraath) and while most modern translations use the word “leprosy” to describe the condition, perhaps it is better suited for us to call it “a scaly skin condition.”[1] “Here the issue regarding a scaly (with lesions) skin disease is not infection/contagion in the sense that it would make other people physically sick. Rather, the concern is with protection of the sphere of holiness, centered at the sanctuary, from defilement by ritual impurity.”[2]

The scaly, dusty skin condition consisted of the following: 1) raw flesh (vv. 9-17); 2) boils (vv. 18-23); 3) burns (vv. 24-28); 4) sores on head or chin (vv. 29-37); 5) white spots (vv. 38-39); and 6) skin diseases on the head that cause baldness (vv. 40-44).

Without showing all of my cards on the front end, I want to simply note that there is no “consensus” in the scholarly realm as to the legitimacy of calling this problem “leprosy,” or what is called in modern terminology, “Hansen’s disease.” There are a couple of reasons for not assuming this to be biological contagion or some contagious viral pathogen, and Nobuyoshi Kiuchi explains:

First, if the text is mainly concerned with hygiene or pathology, it is very strange that it does not provide a comprehensive list of the symptoms of ṣāraat. The prescription only arms the priests with two criteria and a colour test (white hair) as diagnostic tools. By contrast, pathological or clinical conditions are found in other contexts such as Num. 12:12. It seems likely that diagnostic criteria given in Lev. 13 are all that both the laity and the priest were able to use. More importantly, if the two criteria and colour test symbolize something theological and if this was what was of primary importance to the legislator, then it is conceivable that he focused on them, considering it unnecessary to provide detailed symptoms of the ṣāraat.

Second, in attempting to identify ṣāraat with a modern disease scholars have noticed that biblical ṣāraat is found not only in human skin, but also in clothes and houses. When it grows in clothes and houses, it is commonly envisaged that ṣāraat is something like mildew. But it is significant that the text does not say ‘fungus’ or ‘mildew’, but simply ṣāra’at.[3]

I would add to Kiuchi’s shrewd observations that not only do we have the tsaraath affecting clothing and furniture, we have inside the text itself an indication—coupled with the context of the entire book—of this being bigger than simply a case of medical quarantine. In fact, this isn’t about quarantining a “sick” person at all! To call this a scenario in which the civil magistrate has the right a duty to quarantine the sick is to ignore the internal and contextual elements of the tsaraath as it pertains to ceremonial uncleanliness in the camp and what that is supposed to mean for Israel in terms of redemptive history. In Genesis 3:17-19 we read, “And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Emphasis mine). Here we have God’s cursing of Adam, the man, and all his posterity, of which Leviticus 13 & 14 is an obvious echo. The curse of “dust” is picked up in our passage as a sign and sanction of judgement. If the flesh was raw, the man was unclean (13:14). If it has turned white (that is, flaky and dusty), he is pronounced clean, and the man is spared. Why? It would seem that this is because the man has come to terms with himself. He is but dust, and to dust he shall return.

Zooming out for a moment, and by way of reminder, we find that chapters 13 & 14 are situated inside a larger point. There are five speeches given by the legislator in Leviticus 11-16. Chapter 11 has to do with food laws and what the Israelites were forbidden to eat (an echo of the Garden); this, too, coincides with the five points of the covenant, as we’ve seen. Chapter 12 is about childbearing defilement—the covenantal hierarchy as it pertains to the family and the perpetuity of the covenant. Chapter 13 explains the law in terms of man’s propensity to hide his sin (we’ll come back to this). Chapter 14 deals with the sanctions of the covenant and lays out the terms of cleansing and healing and holiness. And the end of chapter 14, along with chapter 15 & 16, deals with restoration and successional/covenantal arrangements (chapter 16 being the Day of Atonement—the high, holy day of Israel). While we went over this already, I simply want to remind the reader that we’re dealing with ceremonies pertaining to covenant faithfulness or unfaithfulness. And not just faithfulness or unfaithfulness; we’re dealing with very specific processes for what it means to dwell with God as a priest in His garden-world. These are shadows of the gospel and the work of Christ—they are pointers to Christ the man who does not hide Himself, but rather ministers publicly and without secrets,[4] a picture of a pure man; the Son of Man who brings healing in His wings.

Kiuchi also sees the connection of Leviticus 13 & 14 to the Genesis account. “‘Uncleanness’ and ‘cleanness’ symbolize the states of ‘hiding oneself’ and ‘uncovering oneself’ respectively.”[5] His proposal is that tsaraath “symbolizes the human egocentric nature.”[6] He goes on: “Although ṣāra’at is viewed as a serious skin disease, the prescription uses a number of its symptoms to portray various manifestations of the human egocentric nature (it is a skin disease that can portray the human propensity to hide oneself).”[7]

The symptoms that are described in the text indicate that the condition can change rather quickly, which is uncharacteristic of Hansen’s disease (see vv. 6, 26-27, 32-37). Again, we’re not dealing with biological contagion, we’re dealing with a symbol that would appear from time to time which would come upon the man who forgot he was dust. Most likely it was someone who was hiding serious sin in the camp, attempting to dwell close to God while also wishing to hang on to his idolatry—a mark of pride. The person who desired to have his cake and eat it too would experience a biological manifestation of that sin in the form of tsaraath—a physical complication that began spiritually in the heart but surfaced most visibly on his or her largest, most visible organ, the skin. In the Levitical economy, the status of “cleanness” had virtually nothing to do with the healing of disease (only in this case). As mentioned before, it didn’t always have to do with sin, either. However, in this particular scenario, the person’s skin manifested what was going on in the heart, a spiritual matter.[8] Kiuchi notes that healing of tsaraath presumes cleanness, but cleanness does not always presume healing.[9]

John Calvin remarks:

“[T]he Israelites were instructed by this ceremony to serve God in chastity and purity, and to keep far away from those defilements, whereby religion would be profaned. Since, then, leprosy was a kind of pollution, God was unwilling that those who were cured of it should be received into the         holy congregation, except after the offering of a sacrifice; as if the priest reconciled them after excommunication.”[10]

The issue is the profanation of pure religion, not virology. The “pollution” represented the profanation. In no way do we have any textual indication that being excluded from the holy congregation was done so because of a medical emergency. Being excluded from the camp, along with the dozens of others who were put there for dozens of other reasons, was not a quarantine as we know it today. It was a judgment and sanction; a reminder that God is holy and that man is cursed, and that God is the only hope of salvation. Calvin states the issue further:

“The office of cleansing is imposed on the priest; yet he is at the same time forbidden to cleanse any except those who were already pure and clean. In this, on the one hand, God claims for Himself the honour of the cure, lest men should assume it; and also establishes the discipline which He would have to reign in His Church.”[11]

The pronouncement of the priest isn’t medicinal, as though he were a doctor, nor is it magisterial as though he were a civil judge: it is ministerial, meaning that the priest was to acknowledge the healing that God Himself had done in the person.[12] Commenting on 13:44, Calvin adds that the man “is sentenced to just ignominy, for Moses takes it for granted that God holds up to public infamy whomsoever He smites with leprosy, and thence reminds them that they justly and deservedly bear this punishment.”[13] If the man was plagued by God, and the priest could only acknowledge the skin disorder (not treat it), it follows that the man can only be healed by God, and the priest can only acknowledge the cleansing. The priest is not acting as a judge over a civil matter, he is acting as a witness over a matter of ceremonial law. He’s not even acting as a medical professional.

Being placed outside the camp was a civil and religious penalty. The person who cried, “Unclean, unclean!” or “Ritually impaired! Ritually impaired!”[14] came from the mouth of someone who had been spiritually separated from God and thus needed to be physically separated from God (remember Eden?). Not all issues of uncleanness required this separation outside the camp. Some could wait until the evening sacrifice and thus they would be clean. Others could simply make atonement by sacrifice. But here, since the skin disorder is connected to something much larger than a mere bodily discharge, the requirement was for the man to be separated. Since he chose to hide himself in pride, the LORD would “hide him” outside the camp. The separation was put in place in order to deal with the man’s sin.

Calvin comments on Numbers 5:2, which instructs the leprous, the person who “has a discharge,” and the one who touched the dead to be put outside the camp (thus proving that so-called social distancing cannot be credibly established by these passages):

“God, in desiring the lepers to be put out of the camp, was not acting as a physician by any means, and       merely consulting the health of the people: but that by this external rite and ceremony He exercised them            in the pursuit of purity; for, by joining with the lepers those who had an issue, and who were defiled by the dead, He instructs the people simply to keep away from all uncleanness.”[15]

Far too often students of the Bible equate “clean” with “holy” and “unclean” with “sin.” While this is sometimes the case, it is not always the case. The context of the passage does give us a glimpse into what it means. To be kept from “uncleanness” was to attempt to be kept away from God’s judgments and cursings, the ones we have seen that trickle down the halls of time ever since Genesis 3. And to be kept from this required a strict obedience to God’s prescriptions. Deuteronomy 24:8 warns, “Take care, in a case of leprous disease, to be very careful to do according to all that the Levitical priests shall direct you. As I commanded them, so you shall be careful to do.” Why is it that one should “take care” to be “very careful” when dealing with a case of leprous disease? Is it because it is contagious, and we should wear masks today because people back then didn’t know any better? Of course not. We should take care because God is the one who brings the skin-plague and God is the one who prescribes the way out of it. Don’t circumvent the process.

Deuteronomy 24:8 references Miriam’s case: “Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt.” What happened to Miriam? In Numbers 12:10-15 we learn that Miriam, who was Moses’ sister, was the primary offender against her brother and God struck her with leprosy, making her an outcast of the community for seven days. She would only be allowed back in on the eighth day, the day of resurrection (cf. Leviticus 14:23). We have already seen the leprosy on King Uzziah because of his sin, and now we have a second case, in the situation with Miriam. God brings judgment in history.

Back to Leviticus. There are more exegetical things to consider, but perhaps the biggest one pertains to verses 12-13. “And if the leprous disease breaks out in the skin, so that the leprous disease covers all the skin of the diseased person from head to foot, so far as the priest can see, then the priest shall look, and if the leprous disease has covered all his body, he shall pronounce him clean of the disease; it has all turned white, and he is clean.” This seems rather strange, doesn’t it? If we’re talking about biological contagion and quarantining the sick, why in the world is this overly symptomatic man who is covered “head to foot” in the leprous plague pronounced “clean” and put back into the camp? The fact is, the opposite is going on.

We’ve already established that the text is not speaking of virology, masking, vaccination, and medical quarantine. Rather, the main issue is the sequestration of an individual who has death in his heart and on his skin. The correlation between death and tsaraath is seen in 13:45-46. If the man or woman had tsaraath, he or she was essentially a “mourner,” letting the hair hang loose as a sign of sorrow. The exclusion from the congregation did nothing to protect Israel from some sort of health condition, rather, since God Himself sat in the middle of the congregation, death could not be present, and nor could sin. When living in the presence of the Living God, sin is not tolerated. Living alone and dwelling outside the camp was spiritual mourning. Presumably the mourner would get to a certain threshold of sorrow that made the tsaraath break out all over his skin from head to foot.[16] The tsaraath would turn white, which represented cleanness. Holiness would come bursting forth as the man had stopped hiding. “Cleanness is experienced when the entire body manifests the symptoms of ṣāra’at.”[17] How is it possible that a fully symptomatic man or woman would be considered “healed” when covered head to toe in dust and sweat? This can only be true if we’re not talking about medicine and virology, but instead talking about ceremonial cleanliness as it pertains to God’s judgments. The only possible way for anyone to be healed of their “egocentric nature” is found in the uncovering of the self before the Living God.  That’s it. To be “naked” before Him, not hiding like Adam and Eve, but instead fully repentant, fully known by God, and fully “covered” in dust, that is, sorrow. “Cleanness is not necessarily equated with healing. And if cleanness guarantees one’s approach to the divinity, it may well be that to be clean is more important than healing.”[18]

There is one more exegetical section that must be dealt with before we can conclude. In Leviticus 13:47 we find that clothing/garments (“skins”) can possess a mark of leprosy or mold/mildew on it.[19] A mark on clothing is reminiscent of Adam and Eve whose sewn-together fig leaves (which would later be animal skins) are just as susceptible to sin as anything else! Everything about man—his clothes, his house, his world—is vulnerable to the sin of autonomy.[20]

In Leviticus 14:34ff the issue of house affliction is brought up. As stated in the Warrenton Declaration, “…in order to prevent belongings in a “leprous” house from being declared “unclean” by the priest, the owner was permitted to empty the house of his possessions before the priest arrived for inspection (Lev. 14:33-36).” Should the house be inspected once and then twice, the place clearly showing signs of a plague, the place should be torn asunder (v. 45). As mentioned in passing before, Jesus Himself went to the “House” of Israel (the temple) and declared it ceremonially unclean two different times (Jn. 2:13-22; Matt. 21:12-17). It would later be torn down in judgment (Matt. 24; Mk. 13; Lk. 21). The tsaraath affected man and his environment and depending on how man dealt with the egocentric nature of himself and his environment, things could be “torn down” in judgment.

“From the Lord’s standpoint there is no difference if the disease is found by the afflicted person or     someone else. But since at the fall the man and woman become godlike in a spiritual sense, even though they are not God, they inevitably try to hide their true condition, albeit unconsciously. The prescription inculcates that self-examination is the beginning of the God–human relationship. It is not about some offence within oneself, but whether a person hides by pretending to be clean.”[21]

[1] This pertains to the physical manifestations on the body, not the house and garment.

[2]  Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 199.

[3]  Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, Leviticus, ed. David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 3, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Nottingham, England; Downers Grove, IL: Apollos; InterVarsity Press, 2007), 227.

[4] John 18:20, “Jesus answered him, ‘I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.’”

[5] Kiuchi, Leviticus, p. 228.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “[A]ll humanity is incorrigibly unclean, and in a state of hiding before the Lord. The recognition of symbolism within this prescription is not a midrashic enterprise but the essence of the prescription. Since the chapter presents various cases or potential cases of ṣāra‘at, it is further proposed that the variety of cases represent a variety of manifestations of human self-hiding before the Lord.”  Kiuchi, Leviticus, 241–242.

[9] Ibid., p. 228

[10]  John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 24.

[11] Ibid. (Emphasis mine).

[12] James B. Jordan writes, “Because of the involvement of the Levites in the cleansing rituals of the leper (Lev. 13, 14), it has sometimes been maintained that medicine is a proper use of the tithe. In the Bible, however, there is a difference between sickness as such, which is “healed,” and leprosy, which is “cleansed.” A woman on her period is unclean, but not sick. A child with measles is sick, but not unclean. A leper is both sick and unclean. Uncleanness is “ceremonial” in nature, not medicinal. Also, the Bible clearly distinguishes between the ritual healing work of Church elders (James 5:14) and the labors of a physician such as Luke.” James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 216. (Emphasis mine.)

[13] Calvin, Commentaries, p. 17.

[14] Cf. Lamentations 4:15; Isaiah 52:11-12;

[15] Calvin., p. 12. (Emphasis mine).

[16] Remember Job? “So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes” (Job 2:7-8). Job found himself in mourning and used potshards to scrape off the sores of affliction.

[17]  Kiuchi, Leviticus, p. 231.

[18] Ibid., p. 232.

[19] Along the Sea of Galilee it was very much a problem during the rainy season (October through March) as humidity would no doubt be a regular cause this sort of thing.

[20] “In terms of the human egocentric nature symbolized by ṣāra‘at, this last prescription makes an incisive criticism of the incorrigibleness of human hypocrisy: even when a garment or article used by a man is desperately infected, he pretends he is not infected. Humans are very reluctant to admit that the cause of trouble, suffering or hardship lies within them.” Kiuchi, Leviticus, 239. (Emphasis in the original).

[21] Kiuchi, Leviticus, 235.