Our approach to these lengthy chapters will require we divided things into two different studies. This morning we’re going to look at the protocols for diagnosing a leprous infection in an individual (Leviticus 13:1-46), an outbreak of leprosy in a person’s clothing (Leviticus 13:47-59), and then we’re going to skip ahead to Leviticus 14:33-57 which explains what should be done if leprosy is discovered in a physical dwelling.
This approach will allow our second study to then focus exclusively on the amazing ritual laid out in Leviticus 14:1-32 for a person who finds themselves cleansed of their leprosy.
Before we dive into the text there is one thing we do need to address… What is leprosy? I know that sounds basic, but in actuality defining leprosy is much hard than you’d think. For starters, you will find this term leprosy with its variations of leper or leprous occurring 68 times in the Bible: 55 in the Hebrew Old Testament and 13 in the Greek New Testament.
In the Hebrew the word we have translated as leprous or leper is tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath). The word simply means to strike and can be used to describe the one stricken. Because this word is vague, the etymology of the Hebrew and the development of our present translation ends up being vitally important when attempting to define leprosy.
When the Hebrew Old Testament was transcribed into the classical Greek around 200 BC (this is known as the Septuagint) this word tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) ended up being translated as lepra — which stemmed from the Greek noun lepis meaning scaly like a fish. It’s from this Greek word that we eventually ended up with the Latin and English word leprosy.
For reasons that will make more sense later in our study, please keep in mind the link between the disease we’re encounter in Leviticus 13-14 and what individuals were infected with during the time of Christ was clearly established for us by Jesus at the end of Mark 1 when He instructs a cleansed leper to present himself to the priest for inspection.
This is really important to understand… The Gospel authors used the Greek word lepra when talking about an infected person for only one reason — it was the term the Hebrew scholars chose when they translated Leviticus 13 from Hebrew into Greek in 200 BC.
Problems arise because lepra is actually a terrible translation of the Hebrew word tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath). Since there wasn’t a Greek equivalent to this word the translators landed on a word that simply described the physical aliment. Sadly, confusion has ensued.
One scholar I read on this topic called this literally a “linguistic blooper.” In fact, in the late 1940’s a group of rabbinical scholars re-examined the translation of tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) into the Greek as lepra and concluded it was terrible mistake. Here’s the point… What is being described in Leviticus 13-14, in the rest of the Old Testament, and by extension the Gospels is not actually leprosy in our modern understanding of this disease.
Today, we know leprosy as Hansen’s Disease — the disease was renamed in 1873 after the Norwegian scientist who discovered the underlying bacterium. And yet, the problem with defining what we find presented in the Bible as being leprosy is that, while there are some similarities to Hansen’s, the pathology has some unavoidable differences.
First the similarities… While they both manifest as a scaly skin disease, we understand this only to be an outer symptom of a deeper ailment — in the case of Hansen’s, leprosy is actually a neurological disorder. In both diagnosis Biblical leprosy and Hansen’s were considered death sentences as they were incurable. As a human infection both were painfully slow moving and would yield devastating effects in a person’s physical frame.
Finally, in both situations, once diagnosed, the infected party would be quarantined from the rest of society. The irony is that because Hansen’s Disease is bacterial and not viral it’s actually very difficult to transmit between humans. Pertaining to Biblical leprosy I’m not sure it was contagious either and that the quarantine had an entirely different purpose.
Regarding the differences… Most notably, whatever is being described in Leviticus 13-14 was not limited to human biology! As we’ll see tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) could also infect the fabric in clothing (linen and leather) as well as the stone and plaster in the walls of a home. Furthermore, in every instance Biblical leprosy always turned the skin “white as snow” — a physical characteristic never associated with Hansen’s Disease.
In closing our study I’m going to return to this discussion about tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) because what’s happening in this passage is much more radicle that you’d ever think or imagine. That said… What you need to know before we work our way through the text is that what’s being described here is not leprosy as we historically understand it.
Let’s begin with the protocols for diagnosing a leprous infection in an individual…Leviticus 13:1-3, “And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling (literally an inflammation), a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore (has the appearance), then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body (concave), it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean.’”
Not only is it interesting a person was commanded to go to a priest and not a doctor to be examined (BIG CLUE), but the priest was to “examine the sore” to determine if it was “deeper than the skin.” Seven time we’ll come across this phrase in chapter 13 alone. The idea is the physical manifestation on the skins surface indicated a much deeper problem.
Leviticus 13:4-6, “But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the sore seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore appears to be as it was, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him another seven days. Then the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore has faded, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only a scab, and he shall wash his clothes and be clean.”
As we’re going to see, because of the seriousness of the situation, these specific protocols and the incredible amount of detail existed in order to insure there wasn’t a false diagnosis.
Leviticus 13:7-15, “But if the scab should at all spread over the skin, after he has been seen by the priest for his cleansing, he shall be seen by the priest again. And if the priest sees that the scab has indeed spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is leprosy.
When the leprous sore is on a person, then he shall be brought to the priest. And the priest shall examine him; and indeed if the swelling on the skin is white, and it has turned the hair white, and there is a spot of raw flesh in the swelling, it is an old leprosy on the skin of his body. The priest shall pronounce him unclean, and shall not isolate him (there was no need for an inspection period), for he is unclean.
And if leprosy breaks out all over the skin, and the leprosy covers all the skin of the one who has the sore, from his head to his foot, wherever the priest looks, then the priest shall consider; and indeed if the leprosy has covered all his body, he shall pronounce him clean who has the sore. It has all turned white. He is clean. (In the case where this scaly whiteness covers the entire body it’s not to be considered leprosy.)
But when raw flesh appears on him, he shall be unclean. And the priest shall examine the raw flesh and pronounce him to be unclean; for the raw flesh is unclean. It is leprosy. Or if the raw flesh changes and turns white again, he shall come to the priest. And the priest shall examine him; and indeed if the sore has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce him clean who has the sore. He is clean.” (Again, it was clearly important to God there was never to be a false diagnosis of leprosy.)
Leviticus 13:18-23, “If the body develops a boil in the skin, and it is healed, and in the place of the boil there comes a white swelling or a bright spot, reddish-white, then it shall be shown to the priest; and if, when the priest sees it, it indeed appears deeper than the skin, and its hair has turned white, the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore which has broken out of the boil.
But if the priest examines it, and indeed there are no white hairs in it, and it is not deeper than the skin, but has faded, then the priest shall isolate him seven days; and if it should at all spread over the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore. But if the bright spot stays in one place, and has not spread, it is the scar of the boil; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.”
Leviticus 13:24-28, “Or if the body receives a burn on its skin by fire, and the raw flesh of the burn becomes a bright spot, reddish-white or white, then the priest shall examine it; and indeed if the hair of the bright spot has turned white, and it appears deeper than the skin, it is leprosy broken out in the burn. Therefore the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore.
But if the priest examines it, and there are no white hairs in the bright spot, and it is not deeper than the skin, but has faded, then the priest shall isolate him seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the 7th day. If it has at all spread over the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore. But if the bright spot stays in one place, and has not spread on the skin, but has faded, it is a swelling from the burn. The priest shall pronounce him clean, for it is the scar from the burn.”
Leviticus 13:29-37, “If a man or woman has a sore on the head or the beard, then the priest shall examine the sore; and indeed if it appears deeper than the skin, and there is in it thin yellow hair, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a scaly leprosy of the head or beard. But if the priest examines the scaly sore, and indeed it does not appear deeper than the skin, and there is no black hair in it, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the scale seven days.
And on the seventh day the priest shall examine the sore; and indeed if the scale has not spread, and there is no yellow hair in it, and the scale does not appear deeper than the skin, he shall shave himself, but the scale he shall not shave. And the priest shall isolate the one who has the scale another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine the scale; and indeed if the scale has not spread over the skin, and does not appear deeper than the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean. He shall wash his clothes and be clean.
But if the scale should at all spread over the skin after his cleansing, then the priest shall examine him; and indeed if the scale has spread over the skin, the priest need not seek for yellow hair. He is unclean. But if the scale appears to be at a standstill, and there is black hair grown up in it, the scale has healed. He is clean, and the priest shall pronounce him clean.”
Leviticus 13:38-39, “If a man or a woman has bright spots on the skin of the body, specifically white bright spots, then the priest shall look; and if the bright spots on the skin of the body are dull white, it is a white spot that grows on the skin. He is clean.”
Leviticus 13:40-44, “As for the man whose hair has fallen from his head, he is bald, but he is clean. He whose hair has fallen from his forehead (receding hairline), he is bald on the forehead, but he is clean. And if there is on the bald head or bald forehead a reddish-white sore, it is leprosy breaking out on his bald head or his bald forehead.
Then the priest shall examine it; and indeed if the swelling of the sore is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, as the appearance of leprosy on the skin of the body, he is a leprous man. He is unclean. The priest shall surely pronounce him unclean; his sore is on his head.”
Leviticus 13:45-46, “Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (We’ll get to this in a moment.)
Let’s now look at the protocols for diagnosing an outbreak of leprosy in a person’s clothing… Leviticus 13:47-51, “Also, if a garment has a leprous plague in it, whether it is a woolen garment or a linen garment, whether it is in the warp or woof of linen or wool (these were the cross fabrics used in the loom), whether in leather or in anything made of leather, and if the plague is greenish or reddish in the garment or in the leather (no longer manifesting as white), whether in the warp or in the woof, or in anything made of leather, it is a leprous plague and shall be shown to the priest.
The priest shall examine the plague and isolate that which has the plague seven days. And he shall examine the plague on the seventh day. If the plague has spread in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, in the leather or in anything made of leather, the plague is an active leprosy. It is unclean.”
What do you do with the garment… Leviticus 13:52-59, “He shall therefore burn that garment in which is the plague, whether warp or woof, in wool or in linen, or anything of leather, for it is an active leprosy; the garment shall be burned in the fire.
But if the priest examines it, and indeed the plague has not spread in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, or in anything made of leather, then the priest shall command that they wash the thing in which is the plague; and he shall isolate it another seven days. Then the priest shall examine the plague after it has been washed; and indeed if the plague has not changed its color, though the plague has not spread, it is unclean, and you shall burn it in the fire; it continues eating away, whether the damage is outside or inside.
If the priest examines it, and indeed the plague has faded after washing it, then he shall tear it out of the garment, whether out of the warp or out of the woof, or out of the leather. But if it appears again in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, or in anything made of leather, it is a spreading plague; you shall burn with fire that in which is the plague.
And if you wash the garment, either warp or woof, or whatever is made of leather, if the plague has disappeared from it, then it shall be washed a second time, and shall be clean. This is the law of the leprous plague in a garment of wool or linen, either in the warp or woof, or in anything made of leather, to pronounce it clean or to pronounce it unclean.”
Lastly, let’s skip ahead and look at the protocols for diagnosing an outbreak of leprosy in a physical dwelling — namely a home… Leviticus 14:33-47, “And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘When you have come into the land of Canaan, which I give you as a possession, and I put the leprous plague in a house in the land of your possession, and he who owns the house comes and tells the priest, saying, ‘It seems to me that there is some plague in the house,’ then the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest goes into it to examine the plague, that all that is in the house may not be made unclean (steps to insure you didn’t loose everything in the home); and afterward the priest shall go in to examine the house.
And he shall examine the plague; and indeed if the plague is on the walls of the house with ingrained streaks, greenish or reddish, which appear to be deep in the wall, then the priest shall go out of the house, to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days. (Similar process we find for humans.) And the priest shall come again on the seventh day and look; and indeed if the plague has spread on the walls of the house, then the priest shall command that they take away the stones in which is the plague, and they shall cast them into an unclean place outside the city.
And he shall cause the house to be scraped inside, all around, and the dust that they scrape off they shall pour out in an unclean place outside the city. Then they shall take other stones and put them in the place of those stones, and he shall take other mortar and plaster the house. Now if the plague comes back and breaks out in the house, after he has taken away the stones, after he has scraped the house, and after it is plastered, then the priest shall come and look; and indeed if the plague has spread in the house, it is an active leprosy in the house. It is unclean.
And he (owner of the home) shall break down the house, its stones, its timber, and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them outside the city to an unclean place. Moreover he who goes into the house at all while it is shut up shall be unclean until evening. And he who lies down in the house shall wash his clothes, and he who eats in the house shall wash his clothes.”
Leviticus 14:48-57, “But if the priest comes in and examines it, and indeed the plague has not spread in the house after the house was plastered, then the priest shall pronounce the house clean, because the plague is healed.
And he shall take, to cleanse the house, two birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop. Then he shall kill one of the birds in an earthen vessel over running water; and he shall take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the scarlet, and the living bird, and dip them in the blood of the slain bird and in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times.
And he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird and the running water and the living bird, with the cedar wood, the hyssop, and the scarlet. Then he shall let the living bird loose outside the city in the open field, and make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean. (We’ll leave our commentary on these things for our next study because it’s a repeating of a fascinating process required for a person who was also cleansed of leprosy.) This is the law for any leprous sore and scale, for the leprosy of a garment and of a house, for a swelling and a scab and a bright spot, to teach when it is unclean and when it is clean. This is the law of leprosy.”
There is no question the consequences of being diagnosed with leprosy were severe and devastating. If leprosy was found in a garment, it was to be burned with fire — which in that day in age would prove to be very costly. Beyond this, if the plague was found in a home, the structure was to be utterly destroyed — a complete and total loss for the owner.
If you were diagnosed with leprosy, your life would never be the same! We read how your “clothes were to be torn and your head bare” so that all would know you were afflicted. In effect there was a public shaming involved. Additionally, whenever you approached a commoner it was your duty to “cover your mustache” or mouth and cry out “Unclean, Unclean!” This would insure people could avoid inadvertently coming into contact with you.
Aside from this, it was required the leper “dwell alone” isolated from any family or friends. The leper was also instructed to “dwell outside the camp” indicating he or she had been completely excommunicated from society. Understand, being a leper was now your identity! You were literally a dead man walking. In fact, it was normal for your family to have a funeral immediately following your diagnosis because you were never coming home.
So what exactly was leprosy in this context? If you’ve ever heard a sermon about leprosy or one in which a character involved was a leper, its likely leprosy was presented as a picture of sin. In truth the correlations between the two are obvious. Like leprosy, sin will slowly kill you for “the wages of sin are death.” Like leprosy, sin might manifest physically, but it’s always a much deeper problem of the heart. Like leprosy, in the end, sin will destroy relationships, limit genuine community, and ultimately separate you from God.
And yet, while leprosy clearly presents a picture of sin, I contend tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) was in actuality the judgment of God on account of sin! Biblical leprosy was much more than a type — it was a judgment! To this point there is no skirting the reality that in the Old Testament tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) did not behave like any other biological disease.
The very first mention of leprosy in the Bible is presented in Exodus 4:5-7… Moses is worried the Hebrew people won’t believe God appeared and commissioned him to liberate and lead them out of Egypt. So to help convince them God gives Moses two signs… The first was his staff turning into a serpent. The second was this trick of putting his hand into his shirt, pulling it out infected with leprosy, and then putting it back again in order to remove said leprosy. Not exactly a characteristic you typically find associated with disease.
Aside from this story, within the Old Testament, we have six additional references of leprosy. Two of them present characters already infected (four lepers in 2 Kings 4 who discover the Assyrian camp empty and Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5) — neither help us understand how exactly leprosy was contracted. That said, the other four references to leprosy reveal something really fascinating… Tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) possessed a spiritual pathology!
In Numbers 12 Moses’ sister Miriam ends up questioning his leadership and in judgment God strikes her with an advanced form of leprosy — she’ll be later cleansed via Moses’ intervention. Following Naaman the Syrian’s miraculous cleansing again recorded for us in 2 Kings 5, Elisha’s servant ends up being struck by God with leprosy on account of his greed.
Let me read you the other two accounts and see if you can pick up the theme… 2 Kings 15:3-5, “And King Azariah did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father had done, except that the high places were not removed (pagan worship); the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places. Then the LORD struck the king, so that he was a leper until the day of his death; so he dwelt in an isolated house.”
2 Chronicles 26:16-21, “When King Uzziah was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the LORD his God by entering the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. So Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him were eighty priests of the LORD — valiant men. And they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the LORD God.’
Then Uzziah became furious; and he had a censer in his hand to burn incense. And while he was angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the house of the LORD, beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and there, on his forehead, he was leprous; so they thrust him out of that place. Indeed he also hurried to get out, because the LORD had struck him. King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD.”
You see there is no question Biblical leprosy was so much more than a picture of sin and something much different than Hansen’s Disease or leprosy as we know it. The Rabbis even went so far as to present tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) as an ailment specifically caused by a person’s sin and was to be seen as being the literal judgment of God.
Don’t forget the Hebrew word tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) means to strike! In ancient Israel they went so far as to call the disease that manifested “The finger of God!” For additional evidence of the divine origin look at Leviticus 14:34, “When you have come into the land of Canaan, which I give you as a possession, and I put the leprous plague in a house…”
To this point, it’s important you know there are examples all throughout the Bible where God’s judgment for sin does manifest as a physical malady or disease. For example, following the Golden Calf debacle at Mount Sinai Exodus 32:35 records that “the LORD plagued the people (to strike with some physical ailment) because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made.” Even in the New Testament Acts 13 records a story of how Elymas the Sorcerer was stricken by God with blindness when he stood against the Apostle Paul.
I will concede the idea God was illustrating for His people the severity of sin by striking people with tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) is something we find disconcerting! Sure, it would be theologically wrong to jump to the conclusion all disease should be seen as the judgment of God. And yet, it’s important to remember Leviticus 13-14 didn’t address all diseases and instead something very specific that only surfaces a hand-full of times in Scripture.
Personally, I have a greater difficulty seeing tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) as only being a type of sin and not an actual judgment. If this was not a divine judgment this person ends up being cut off from God and His people for no other reason than they got sick! Such a notion is contrary to what we know of God! A punishment must always be in proportion to a crime.
We’ll get to this more in our next study, but it’s worth pointing out a person was never healed from tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) — only cleansed! A perfect example of this was Naaman the Syrian. He was cleansed from leprosy only after demonstrating faith in God by dipping himself in the Jordan seven times when that made no rational sense. In both Testaments any recorded cleansing of leprosy only came via a direct act of God.
Again, it’s important to remember these chapters fall within the first section of Leviticus dealing with man’s relationship with God. I eluded to this earlier, but it’s not an accident the afflicted was instructed to come to a priest and not a doctor. The process of identifying tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) was extensive and incredibly detailed. And note the priest really only operated as an observer. It was ultimately the Word of God that made the diagnosis.
If tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) was seen and the evidence of God’s judgment undeniable, the person was swiftly expelled from the camp — not because they were contagious — but as an example to the seriousness of sin and a failure to obey God’s commandments. In fact, we see a similar process involved in a church enacting discipline through excommunication.
It’s worth pointing out in the two instances Jesus ministers to lepers in the Gospels (Mark 1 and Luke 17) their respective appeals confirm an understanding their physical affliction had manifested on account of some sin they were experiencing judgment. In Mark 1 the leper appeals to Jesus’ willingness to cleanse. And in Luke 17 ten lepers seek His mercy!
Not only does this perspective of leprosy still maintain the larger typology concerning the consequences of sin, but it illustrated the seriousness of sin itself. Though no specific sin is ever presented as the cause for tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath), it was apparent to everyone in Israel certain lines were never to be crossed without the real possibility of God’s judgment.
Look again at how this section closes (Leviticus 14:54-57), “This is the law for any leprous sore and scale, for the leprosy of a garment and of a house, for a swelling and a scab and a bright spot, to teach when it is unclean and when it is clean. This is the law of leprosy.”
Understand, seeing God’s judgment of sin manifesting in someone else’s life intended to remind everyone in Israel of two important truths (it’s the same today): (1) These classification of permissible behaviors (“clean”) and prohibited ones (“unclean”) were not suggestions, and (2) Since God took this stuff seriously, His people should as well!
While this is a heavy concept and one we’d be wise to take to heart… I do find a measure of grace in two additional components of “this law of leprosy.” First, within this judgment God establishes a built-in warning system. The very fact tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) could exist in a garment or home intended to illustrate to the people what would happen to them.
In a very practical way these things intended to illustrate to a person living in sin what would happen if they didn’t stop it. The lesson of tsara`ath (sigh·ra·ath) in a garment or home was clear — sin destroys. In fact, it was so costly you had to consider was it even worth it?
But there is another measure of grace in “this law of leprosy…” Within a law that articulated a judgment for which there was no cure or human remedy, God also establishes a procedure by which a person could not only be declared cleansed but fully restored!
No Additional Links.