Further thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapters 13-14 (the leper and leprosy)

For the most part, I don’t want to spend too much time commenting on this passage as I have developed numerous points in my comments upon North’s text. A few lines should be sufficient for a lot of the divisions.

But Numbers 5:1-4 needs requoting here

‘YHWH said to Moses, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one having a discharge, and every one that is unclean through contact with the dead; you shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell” And the people of Israel did so, and drove them outside the camp; as YHWH said to Moses, so the people of Israel did’

The intention of the Levitical legislation concerning both the leper and leprosy (whether it be on an individual, a garment or a house) was to keep the camp of Israel free from defilement (what I refer to normally as ‘ceremonial defilement’). The legislation was intended for use while the children of Israel remained travelling through the wilderness towards the promised land as can be seen by the use of the word ‘camp’ in the above quote and in the Levitical passage (the notable exception is in Lev 14:33-53 which speaks concerning the time when the Israelites would be resident within the land of Canaan) - the ‘camp’ being the term used for the area that the tribes occupied around God in their midst.

Therefore, we see Miriam being exiled away from the camp when she was judged by God (Numbers chapter 12) and Gehazi seems to have fled from Elisha’s presence not to return (see II Kings 8:4) when he was judged of his sin (II Kings 5:27).

How the Israelites applied the Levitical legislation correctly to their situation when they came in to the land is far from certain (if, indeed, they did apply it correctly!). It can be noted that the four lepers that sat outside the city of Samaria in II Kings 7:3 hadn’t gone outside the nation’s boundaries after they’d been declared ‘unclean’ but had continued to reside in a place where they could find themselves the objects of acts of charity thus, theoretically at least, contaminating whatever they came into contact with.

What, then, should ‘camp’ be seen to denote when the nation occupied the land? As far as I can tell, there’s no indication in Scripture that it could have meant anything other than the complete home range of the nation and, as such, the lepers’ presence within the land would have been unlawful.

The army of the Lord were referred to as the ‘camp’ but the concept here is different to the wilderness wanderings. In the former it means the fighting men grouped together to wage war while, in the latter, it meant all the people who were in covenant relationship with God.

Uzziah also seems to have dwelt within the land (in fact, probably within the city of Jerusalem) when he was struck down by God for trying to assume the role of priest in the Temple (II Kings 15:5, II Chr 26:16-21). But this also seems unlawful.

All that can be said with certainty is that the legislation was given to prevent the camp from becoming unclean and that any future application of the statutes must be made extremely tentatively where there’s no direct Scriptural precedent given.

Lev 13:1-2

appears to be an introductory summation of the legislation that follows, therefore the phrase ‘swelling or an eruption or a spot’ is not seen to refer to the ‘spot’ that is being examined in v.3-8.

I’ve deliberately not tried to identify the present-day name for each of the conditions (except at one point when it seemed to be warranted) because the main reason for the legislation is to declare to the Israelites how they might keep the camp ceremonially clean, not which diseases had to be prevented from spreading. However, I’m of the opinion that God did have intentions through this legislation to restrict common (and not so common) diseases from spreading through His people.

Lev 13:3-8 (depth of skin disease under a (white) spot/colour of hair)

deals with the depth of a spot that’s found on a person’s skin and the colour of the hair follicles that are growing from it. Should the spot be more than skin deep and the hair has turned white, then the person is immediately pronounced unclean. If this isn’t the case, seven more days are given (but in quarantine) before a secondary inspection is carried out and, provided the disease hasn’t spread, a further seven days quarantine is given, after which time, if the diseased spot hasn’t spread in the skin then the person is pronounced clean but the person must wash his clothes.

If, after the initial inspection, the disease is seen to spread, then the priest must pronounce him unclean.

Lev 13:9-17 (white swelling/raw flesh)

deals with the discovery of raw flesh within a spot that’s similar to the first case. There’s no period of quarantine mentioned in this case as the absence of raw flesh satisfies the priest that the disease isn’t a problem. The first instance mentioned a spot, here it’s just labelled a swelling.

Lev 13:18-23 (boil tissue/white swelling or spot/depth of skin disease/colour of hair)

relates to an old scar of a boil. The advice to the priest is the same as the first situation except that only seven days are given at the end of which the area must be reinspected and a decision made.

Lev 13:24-28 (burn tissue/reddish-white or white spot/depth of skin disease/colour of hair)

relates to the healing process for a burn. If a spot develops then the priest must inspect the area and do similar to the first situation except that only seven days are given at the end of which the area must be reinspected and a decision made.

Lev 13:29-37 (head or beard itch/diseased area/depth of skin disease/colour and width of hair)

relates to an ‘itch’ that’s found in either the hair of the head or beard. Again, the treatment is very similar to the first situation and, this time, two periods of seven days’ quarantine are given after which a decision must be made and, if pronounced clean, the clothes must be washed.

Lev 13:38-39 (dull white spots)

relates to dull white spots that are found on the body - possibly the indication is that, unlike the previous examples, there’s no spot or swelling, no previous history of damage to the area, no raw flesh, no observable disease in the skin - in short, it sounds as if something resembling a skin depigmentation is meant here.

The condition is clean, anyway.

Lev 13:40-44 (baldness/reddish-white spot)

relates to baldness of the head. The presence of a reddish-white spot on the bald area causes the priest to declare the person unclean. There’s no quarantine possible here.

By the way, I just love the Bible’s statement here that

‘If a man’s hair has fallen from his head, he is bald...’

Logical, huh?

Lev 13:45-46

Here we are at the conclusion of the matter. These two verses summarise the position of the person who’s declared unclean by the priest before the rest of the legislation goes on to deal with garment leprosy, the cleansing of the leper and house leprosy.

In my comments on chapters 8-10, I showed how rent clothes and hair hanging loose was an external sign of grief and here the symbolism is the same. The added instruction to cover the ‘upper lip’ (RSV - Wenham points out that it may have meant facial hair) is also a symbol of mourning and sorrow as seen in Ezek 24:17,22 where Ezekiel is denied showing any sorrow over the loss of his wife.

Though the leper’s cry of ‘Unclean!’ is well-known by most people, actually trying to define the reason for it by reference to another Scripture is difficult. It seems best to follow the traditional interpretation that says that, by being used, it was declared to any who came near that, through contact, the ‘clean’ person may find himself in need of cleansing because of the impartation of ceremonial uncleanness.

How the person could mistake the leper for a ‘clean’ Israelite would be difficult, however - surely the hair hanging loose, the covered lips and torn clothes (and their presence outside the camp) would indicate the need to be wary? But, just in case it didn’t ring any alarm bells (or should that be ‘alarm trumpets’ as we’re in the Old Testament?) then a verbal declaration had to be made.

It may be the intention of the legislation to prevent lepers from forming communities when it says that they are to dwell ‘alone’ outside the camp. Maybe this is reading too much in to the Scripture, but, if a strict interpretation was meant, then no colonies would have been legislated for - the leper was not just to be separated from the congregation of Israel, he was not to have any companionship, either.

When we go on to look at the progressive nature of the leper’s cleansing in chapter 14, we’ll note that there were three specific areas that the leper lost, all three of which are either mentioned or hinted at here.

1. He became a loner (separated away from the presence of family, friends - and all those who owed him money!).
2. He lost his dwelling place (even though it was a temporary dwelling place used until they were to enter Canaan. As previously noted, the legislation was given to them for the journeying and, though it would have had to have been re-interpreted when they entered the land, the legislation speaks of the temporary dwelling place used for the journey).
3. He lived in death (that is, he was now separated from the presence of God which dwelt within the camp of Israel).

I shall mention and develop these points in a bit greater detail when we come to the progressive cleansing of the leper in chapter 14.

Lev 13:47-59

relates to the type of leprosy that’s found in garments - the list is quite comprehensive (v.47-48).

If there’s a greenish or reddish growth in the garment then the priest was to isolate it for seven days after which he was to re-examine it. If the disease had spread (how could he remember? Did he mark it’s extent?) then it was unclean and had to be burnt.

If not, then it had to be washed and shut up seven days more. If, on the fourteenth day, the colour of the disease hadn’t changed then it suffered a similar fate as that which was declared unclean after seven days.

But, if the disease had dimmed (how did he know? Could he remember the colour of every garment that he’d examined?), then the spot of infection had to be torn out of the garment (and burnt? And how much use would a holed garment be?), washed again and declared clean. However, if the disease reappeared in the garment then it was to be immediately burned.

I’ve added the questions and comments here to illustrate the point that either the priest must have been endowed with a fantastic memory if there were very many cases of garment leprosy or else the incidence of the disease was quite rare.

Lev 14:1-32

These verses represent the legislation for the leper ‘for the day of his cleansing’ (14:2), a surprising choice of phrase as the passage makes mention not of a single day of cleansing but of three and, on each one, it’s plainly stated that some sort of cleansing takes place (1st - 14:7, 7th - 14:9, 8th - 14:20). It therefore seems best to take the commands as three aspects of the one cleansing rather than three distinct and separate cleansings (in a similar fashion to the two goats of the sin offering of the Day of Atonement are treated the same). This is also how the New Testament Jews understood the legislation (see the Mishnah, Negaim 14:3).

The procedure represents a progressive cleansing in the life of the (ex-)leper, not so much a once only but a threefold method that restored the Israelite back into the nation.

The leper has often been taken to be a type of the non-christian through Church history and this is the interpretation that I’ve chosen to adopt as I seek to understand the reason for the three different aspects of the cleansing and compare it to the New Testament work of Christ.

I shall also try and cover the procedures for the days mentioned, but it would be best to read the passage for yourself as I don’t intend going in to it with any great detail.

First cleansing - 1st day (Lev 14:3-8a)
Living within God’s Boundaries/Coming within the camp

The priest goes outside the camp to inspect the individual who believes that he’s clean. Though 14:2 speaks of the leper being brought to the priest, it shouldn’t be thought that the Israelite comes within the camp, but probably only to the edge of the recognised camp boundary while the priest journeys out to meet him (I read somewhere that the camp was about 3 miles wide so he had about a mile and a half journey).

The priest, having examined the leper, carries out the standard procedure - though cleansing is declared to have been made, no atonement is specified as having been achieved even though blood has been shed. The two clean birds may have a similar concept applied to them as the two goats of the sin offering on the Day of Atonement (two aspects of one offering), but there are notable differences here - the leper doesn’t lay his hand upon the head of his offering, the birds are killed over running water (the New Testament’s ‘Living Water’ - see the Mishnah, Mikwaoth chapter 1) and the leper is sprinkled seven times with the blood of the dead bird. There’s also a washing and a shaving of all facial hair - this probably all took place outside the camp. My reason for saying this is that it seems to me as if the leper had to be declared clean before he could be allowed to come within the ‘clean’ camp of Israel and the removal of hair would facilitate this.

Having completed all the ceremony, the leper is pronounced clean by the priest.

The leper had been living away from the camp of Israel, alone in his own habitation (Lev 13:46) but his first cleansing is such that he’s now permitted to live within God’s boundaries. Before he had had no law to observe (the ceremonial law of God was only generally applicable within the camp of Israel, applying to the nation to keep and observe - he was still under categorical law [see under ‘A new hermeneutic’ in my notes on Leviticus chapter 11] - he could have done as he pleased to some extent because he was already condemned to a life away from the presence of God and nothing that he either did or didn’t do really mattered.

But now, having come within the framework of God’s area of rule, he’s once again subject to the Law of God - he must obey and observe the covenant as sealed by God with the nation at Sinai.

The first cleansing, then, is taken to illustrate the non-christian becoming answerable to God when they first commit their life over to follow Him. Once they lived outside the Law of God, and could live an autonomous life being answerable to no one - now they must decide to stop living their own way and start obeying the revealed will of God over and above the desires that they’d wish to go with.

Second Cleansing - 7th day (Lev 14:8b-9)
Journeying with God/Coming within his tent

The seventh day sees the leper having to perform another cleansing procedure after which he’s declared clean. This comprises of a part of the 1st day’s cleansing, shaving off all facial hair and washing both himself and his clothes.

For seven days (or seven ‘parts of a day’ as the phrase is often taken to mean in Jewish history - rarely are 24 hour periods meant when talking about a day) the ex-leper has had to live outside his tent but, at the start of the eighth day, at night, he can sleep for the first time within his own tent within the camp of Israel (an explanation is needed. The Jewish day began at sundown so that the end of the seven days would be the sunset of the seventh day. The sacrifices that would make him clean offered in the Tabernacle would take place once the night period had ended, but the cleansing of the seventh day would have resulted in the Israelite being able to sleep in his own tent for the very first time).

The Jews saw the significance of this in interpreting his entrance into his tent as being indicative of having sexual intercourse with his wife (Negaim 14:2 - last clause). This appears unlikely, though, seeing as sexual union at this stage would have rendered him unclean (Lev 15:16-18) and it seems a crazy scenario to think of the ex-leper risking his acceptance before God the following morning for one night of sex when just a few hours later he could safely sleep with his wife. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the Leviticus chapter 15 passage.

I prefer to see the symbolism of being able to return within his tent as indicative of the continuing journey with God into the Promised Land. The temporary tent that the Israelites dwelt in during that wilderness period became indicative of the entire wilderness wanderings - no place is better to see the this than the commands concerning the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (the ‘tabernacle’ is the name of the wilderness tent that gave it’s name to the festival - it is not, however, from the same Hebrew word that is used in Leviticus chapter 14 for ‘tent’).

Lev 23:42-43 reads

‘You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am YHWH your God’

Therefore, I see the symbolism of the returning to the tent as being indicative of journeying on with God, of going God’s way rather than our own. While the Israelite dwelt outside the camp, he had every right (freewill) to choose where he wanted to stay and to choose where he wanted to go - he could even have decided not to follow after the camp when it moved on through the wilderness wanderings towards Canaan. But now, residency within the camp of God demands that he follow the way that God directs the nation and forsake the way that he may want to choose for himself.

He’s cleansed from following his own direction to follow the way of God.

These first two ‘cleansings’, therefore, compelled the Israelite to both obey God (coming within the boundaries) and to follow God (coming within the tent of the journey).

Third Cleansing - 8th day (Lev 14:10-32)
Relationship with God/Coming within God’s tent

Two procedures are outlined for us, both of which ‘do the business’ and make atonement for the ex-leper (as opposed to the first two ceremonies which, although they cleanse, don’t atone). The differing procedures are a provision from God to make sure that the healed leper will be able to afford the price of his restoration with God.

The first requires two male lambs, one ewe, three tenths of an ephah cereal offering (with oil) and a log (about two-thirds of a pint) of oil - the second replaces the male lambs with two turtledoves or pigeons, the ewe becomes a male lamb and the cereal offering is reduced to one tenth of an ephah.

The offerings are presented in the order that we would expect, based upon our discussion on a previous web page about the reason for them. They follow the order

guilt - sin - burnt/cereal

I’ve previously commented on the reason for the guilt offering under my response to North’s chapter but, to repeat, it appears that the reason for it (when no restitution was payable) goes back to the legislation for the guilt offering in Lev 5:17-19 where God made provision for the Israelites to soothe a guilty conscience before God even when there was no ‘known’ sin. This would have direct reference to the healed lepers’ concerns over the reason why he’d contracted the condition (the Bible doesn’t say that leprosy is always a curse of God upon sin).

The sin and burnt offerings have to do mainly with his time outside the camp - forgiving any transgression and removing the effects of sin from the transgressor. Though he’s not within the limits of the covenant relationship (by being outside the camp), like the nations he must still give an account of himself. But the sacrifices here have to do with the uncleanness that’s imparted to him by being outside the camp in an unclean land - although he’s not obliged to observe ceremonial law while outside its boundaries, his uncleanness must be removed when he returns.

The cereal offering represents a gift of thanksgiving to God (that the leper is now healed).

I said I’d comment on both the blood and the oil that’s applied to the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the healed leper. As previously noted, I tend to agree with Harrison (page 100) that the three areas of application represent

‘...hearing God’s voice (the ear), doing what God wants to be done (the hand) and walking in the ways of God (the foot)...’

Wenham makes the point (page 143) that the right side was

‘...considered the more important and favoured side...’

and, by implication stood for the whole person. This does sound reasonable except that the priest could have sprinkled the healed leper ‘seven times’ had this meaning intended to be taken. I therefore prefer Harrison’s explanation.

The blood and the oil (and applied only in this order) refer in the New Testament to the death of Christ and the Holy Spirit (I have shown this on the web page dealing with Num 15:1-16) and, as items of symbolism, it does fit in with the previous two cleansings of obeying God’s laws and going God’s way.

Not only must there be cleansing to hear God’s voice unhindered, to do what God wants to be done purely and to go unswervingly the way God wants, there needs to be the anointing and power of the Holy Spirit to achieve all these tasks. Therefore, the application of both blood and oil makes sense here in the light of the cross. The blood can be seen to cleanse the old way and the oil to anoint and empower the new.

The remaining oil was also used to anoint the healed leper with.

It isn’t hard to see what I’m getting at - finally, a relationship with God is restored by the dealing with of the past and the empowering of the individual for the future. The unbeliever lives in spiritual death - separated away from the presence of God and living their own life according to the way they see situations.

But, to be restored into a dynamic and living relationship with Him where no hindrances stand in the way, obedience to God’s will and commitment to follow His way are an imperative state of life. The cleansing of the leper, therefore, speaks to us of conversion - but it was, nevertheless, a very real ceremony in the life of the Israelite nation that brought the healed leper back in to the will and purposes of God in history.

Lev 14:33-53

I’ve largely dealt with this passage in my comments on North’s Introduction to part 2 but I need to repeat here that the passage deals with a time when the Israelites will be resident in the land and doesn’t refer to the rest of the two chapters discussed which are primarily concerned with life throughout the wilderness wanderings.

The point here, again, is ceremonial uncleanness and what’s acceptable to be found within God’s territory - though the spread of disease may have also been God’s intention (the presence of transmittable microbiological organisms may have been largely unknown in the Israelite culture).

If the tent of the previous points represented the journeyings, the house represented the settlement within Canaan - symbolically, this shows us to be careful to remove from the Church everything that doesn’t belong within our territory and to be a pure house.

That the house that could not be cleansed was destroyed after opportunity was given it to be clean, should wake us up to the possibility that an established church or church organisation is of no use to God and does not deserve to remain in His Kingdom if it fails to conform to the standard that’s required of it.

Lev 14:54-57

are the two concluding verses which summarise the preceding two chapters.

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