Means of Determining Leprosy, image from the Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah, published in 1970, currently in the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England

The three chapters to be covered in this blog post are a big example of why people stop reading the Bible if they start from the beginning. Leviticus is essentially a handbook for the early Jewish priests, and as problems like skin diseases, molds and bodily discharges were seen to have spiritual as well as medical implications during the ancient times when these rules were conceived and written, the matter of how to handle them is discussed in quite a lot of detail. It’s interesting to ponder: some of the most engaging characters and stories in the Bible may only get a paragraph or two, but the guidelines for analyzing and judgment of skin disorders go on and on. It’s not only kinda gross to us modern readers, but it gets a tad tedious as well. So why all the attention – well, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s go over the details.

Chapter 13 is all about regulations involving defiling skin diseases. To keep it simple, someone suspected of having a problematic skin disease is to be brought to Aaron (or a priest) to be examined. If the person is deemed ceremonially unclean, he or she will be isolated for seven days. The priest will then inspect that person every seven days until either the disease fades and they’re cured and now clean, or it is deemed to be a chronic condition. There’s a whole lot of variance in judgment if there’s a boil involved, or a swelling, or a sore, or if there’s a hair in it (bleah). Anyone with defiling skin diseases is supposed to live outside the camp, wear torn clothes and keep their hair messy, and cover the lower part of their face, crying out to all, “Unclean! Unclean!”

At this point I would like to thank JBen and his TheWholeDangThing blog for his wonderful flow chart showing all the decisions to be made in how a priest is to determine if someone is clean or not due to their skin problems. If only much of Leviticus had been written as flow charts, the whole chapter would have been much easier to follow.

Wait, What? And Other Questions from the Bible: It seems really odd to us modern readers that the professional you’d consult in ancient Canaan if you had a weird boil with a hair in it was the priest. Biblical history professor Dr. Thomas Constable explains that in these situations the priest wasn’t acting as a doctor, but more like a religious health inspector. As such, the priest’s role wasn’t so much in determining an infected person’s treatment and recovery, but whether or not they could participate in worship activities within the religious community. One’s bodily health held clues to one’s spiritual health, which was of prime importance here.

Then we move on to how to handle fabric that has been ‘defiled’ by molds. Again, a priest is consulted and the fabric isolated for seven days. If the mold has spread, it’s unclean. If it hasn’t, then they just need to wash the fabric and the priest inspects it again. If the mold is gone, everything is fine and the fabric’s clean, but if the mold can’t be washed out then it has to be burned. It seems so odd to me that there’s a section in the actual Bible telling people they need to try to wash the mold out of their fabrics and to get rid of it if it doesn’t wash out, and yet there it is.

Chapter 14 then tells how the priest is to ceremonially cleanse people with skin diseases, as well as those moldy fabrics. If a person appears to have been healed of their skin problem, there are a LOT of steps involving rituals with two clean birds, some cedar, scarlet yarn and hyssop. The person gets sprinkled with water that was involved in the rituals and then he must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe, and then they’re clean again. Seven days later they have to shave everything again and bathe, but also bring two male lambs, a ewe lamb, a grain offering and a log of oil to the priest. The priest will then offer a male lamb as a guilt offering with the oil. There’s a lot of dabbing of blood on the person’s body parts, and then another lamb is sacrificed as a sin offering, and then the other is a burnt offering.

And we’re back to molds. Yay. While the previous chapter mentioned molds on fabric, this chapter talks about molds in general. If someone is reporting to a priest that he thinks something of his is moldy, they have to empty out the house so that nothing else in the house can be contaminated, and then the priest goes in to inspect the item and the house as well. If the mold looks suspicious, they must close up the house for seven days and if it has spread during that time they have to scrape all the mold off and dump all affected items/scraped mold outside the camp. If walls were affected, they have to then replaster. They check everything again seven days later, and if it’s still there then the house must be torn down. If the mold hasn’t come back, then they do the rituals with the birds and yarn and hyssop and purify everything and it’ll all be clean again.

Chapter 15 is all about uncleanliness related to unusual bodily discharges, ‘unusual’ being the operative word. The person who is unclean because of an unusual discharge spiritually contaminates everything and everyone he touches, which is a big problem. Even a person or animal that touches something or someone who has also touched an unclean person with a unusual discharge becomes unclean as well, and so you get a domino effect of uncleanliness. The good thing is that it’s easy to cleanse anything that becomes unclean by touching someone with an unusual discharge – you just have to wash it or yourself and your clothes. When the actual person with the discharge is cured or healed, he gives two doves or pigeons to the priest who then performs a sin offering and a burnt offering.

Somehow, a woman’s monthly menstruation is deemed ‘unusual discharge,’ so women are considered unclean during that time and cannot be touched without risk of becoming unclean. Everything she touches is considered unclean as well, and must be washed or laundered. When she’s done, she has to take two birds to be used as offerings, which means a woman needs access to a lot of doves or pigeons every year. In addition, if a woman and a man have ‘intimate relations’ and there’s a ‘discharge’ then they’re both considered unclean and must bathe and then wait until evening when they’ll be fine again.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: so, the Hebrew word for skin conditions or discharges that make one unclean is Tzaraath (from Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religion History, the Archaeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible by Thomas Kelly Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black, 1899). This part of Leviticus is all about things that are tzaraath. Interestingly enough, the word comes from the verb tzara, which means ‘to have a skin disease,’ and the root of that verb likely comes from a word that means ‘to smite,’ because for ancient Jews, to have a disfiguring or contagious skin disease meant one had committed a sin and this was a visible sign of their punishment. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an 1800s era Talmudic scholar and founder of the school of what is now contemporary Orthodox Judaism, stated that the concept of tzaraath had no medical or public health meaning, but rather was specific to spiritual or religious problems. The Talmud states that tzaraath is punishment for sin and there are seven possible causes:

  • Gossip
  • Murder
  • A vain oath
  • Illicit sex acts
  • Pride
  • Theft
  • Being a miser

Therefore, someone who did these things would be physically afflicted as divine retribution and would need to be inspected by a priest and then ritually cleansed with offerings given to atone for the sins.

Of course, the main way someone is going to use these concepts is in an opposite manner, that if someone had a chronic skin problem or weird discharge, it meant that they must have committed at least one of those sins. So, poor Shemuel with his rash might have just had eczema, but all in the community would be shunning him and wondering who he had murdered, stolen from, had sex with, or gossiped about to make him all itchy and have to live outside the camp. Ancient societies had no idea about germs and issues of actual physical cleanliness, so mysterious yet gross maladies appeared to have spiritual causes. The Torah does have verses that encourage those suffering from their skin and discharge problems to consult a physician for symptomatic relief, so there’s that – but the ancient Jews would know beyond all doubt that the true cause for their symptoms was their sin, and not the lice or allergic reaction or infection they somehow picked up. Plus, for the doctor to treat the skin problems, it would have made them unclean as well, so to be a sort of ancient dermatologist in this community would have meant a lot of repetitive cleanliness rituals. With so much spiritual cleansing necessary for so many people back then, the guy who farmed and sold the clean birds, the lambs and ewes must have raked in the shekels.

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