Spiritual death has a physical component to it. The original curse issued by God in the Garden of Eden came with physical implications: hard labor, painful childbirth, and the promise of eventual “return to dust” (Gen. 3). Death, disease, and pain are reminders that man has been separated from God by virtue of sin. So, the Levitical laws about skin diseases, like the laws about bodily discharges, remind readers that they are constantly living under the curse of sin in this world.
The world itself is under the curse of sin. Both Genesis 3 and Romans 8 make this clear. Our environment impacts us, and so the Israelites were confronted with the reality that they may acquire all sorts of diseases that would make them ritually unclean. This is not the same as suggesting that the diseases themselves were a result of personal sin. The issue is not personal immorality, but ritual uncleanness. Again, I remind readers of what we have seen in previous posts: ritual cleanness has to do with wholeness and the avoidance of death, symbolic or literal. So, a person may not enter the sanctuary with any disease, for the presence of the disease represented a lack of wholeness and an association with death.
Leviticus, chapters 13 and 14, then, may be broken down to demonstrate both the problem and the provision. The problem, outlined in chapter 13, explains that “disease and decay are incompatible with the holiness of God” (see Allen Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 277). The presence of contamination, then, must be addressed both in the individual and in their lives – that is even their dwellings. The latter part of Leviticus 13 addresses mildew in the homes of the people. This too was unacceptable in God’s community, so it had to be addressed. Chapter 14 outlines the provision: God offers “healing and restoration through removal of defilement and reconsecration through atoning blood” (277).
Each case of contamination required a person to present themselves or their home to the priest to be evaluated. If they were assessed unclean then they were relegated to life outside the camp. If they were determined to be clean they needed to go through a proper cleansing ritual and offer an appropriate sacrifice to rededicate themselves to the Lord. The details themselves are pretty straight forward, even meticulous. The theological significance, however, warrants some discussion.
The major point of this section is that diseases remind the people that they are under the curse of sin in this world. I like the way Allen Ross communicates this point when he writes, “Diseases are symptoms of human alienation from God and must be attended to” (279). Though most interpreters focus exclusively on leprosy, the word in the Hebrew does not signify leprosy. It is broader and speaks of skin diseases in general. These various diseases emphasize the lack of wholeness. Ross writes:
The main interest here is ritual impurity. A scaly skin disease was an open sign of some abnormality. The main point…is that “sara’at” is an aspect of death; its bearer was treated in much the same manner as a corpse. Skin problems openly displayed that they body was wasting away, and consequently this aspect of death was incompatible with the sanctuary. (280-281)
All skin diseases, like bodily discharges, serve as reminders of the brokenness of the world and the intrusion of sin and corruption. Yet, God offers a means of resolution to this ritual uncleanness.
God provides a means by which the contaminated person, having been healed of the disease, may be declared ritually clean and allowed once again to participate in the community of worshippers. The process involved two key rituals. One ritual takes place outside, the other inside the temple. The first ritual deals with purification, the second deals with offering.
So, the healed person, declared clean, was required to bring two live birds, cedar wood, scarlet thread, and hyssop to the priest. The priest would kill one bird, sprinkle the worshiper seven times with its blood, and then would release the other bird to go free. The worshiper was thus, in a ritual sense, declared clean. He would then be required to shave and bathe and be allowed to reenter the community.
The worshiper then had to bring one ewe lamb, two lambs, fine flour, and oil to the priest who would offer reparation, purification, burnt, and meal offerings for the cleansed worshipper. In 14:21-23 the poor are allowed some exceptions. God is sensitive to their financial challenges and allows birds to be substituted for the more costly animals.
The details of the first ritual are hard to fully understand. The cedar wood is probably used for its aromatic elements, and the red thread, symbolizing the blood, is used to tie the hyssop branch to the cedar and used in sprinkling the blood of the first bird. The two birds parallel the two goats described in Leviticus 16 and the day of atonement. The intent is to communicate that while one bird bears the weight of the consequences, the other is released in symbolic testimony of the removal of the consequences from the worshipper. So, one bird is killed as a testimony of what could have been the fate of the diseased person. The other is released in celebration of the healing God brought into their lie, and the removal of the disease from them. The sacrifices practiced inside the courtyard of the sanctuary are part of the routines of the cultic life of Israel and indicate that the worshipper has been restored to the worship of the community.
The emphasis of the two chapters is on the restoration God provides for the unclean person. Though their uncleanness was not their fault, but rather part of living in the fallen world, it nonetheless was incompatible with the wholeness and holiness of God. While chapter 13 is rather depressing in its constant emphasis that the diseased person is barred from the presence of God, chapter 14 encourages the worship to appreciate God’s provision of grace and restoration.
In the New Testament we see this provision even more clearly displayed. Jesus becomes not simply the sacrifice, but he reaches into the diseases of humanity and restores fellowship. While the diseased person was not permitted to be part of the community, could not be touched for fear of spreading the disease, and must live outside the camp, Jesus moves among the diseased. He touches them and heals them. He bridges the gap and brings immediate restoration. Again Leviticus points us to the hope of true restoration and healing. It is not merely that we are healed from our moral failures, our own personal sins. Jesus also heals the whole of creation. He restores the created order to God’s intended purpose. So Paul can write of the whole created order:
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:18-23)
The creation itself groans, but it will not always groan. It too will one day be set free from bondage and corruption and obtain freedom. The gospel is both for us as individuals and for our whole created world!
The purification laws in Leviticus, dealing with childbirth, leprosy, mildew, and bodily discharges are rather gross. They seem a strange inclusion in the Holy Word of God, and yet the remind us of great theological truths. They remind us of the curse of sin placed on the world, and how that same curse impacts us. These chapters also remind us that one day God is going to set the whole world right. What a glorious day that will be.