1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, 3 and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean. 4 But if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days. 5 And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up for another seven days. 6 And the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day, and if the diseased area has faded and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only an eruption. And he shall wash his clothes and be clean. 7 But if the eruption spreads in the skin, after he has shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall appear again before the priest. 8 And the priest shall look, and if the eruption has spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a leprous disease.
9 “When a man is afflicted with a leprous disease, he shall be brought to the priest, 10 and the priest shall look. And if there is a white swelling in the skin that has turned the hair white, and there is raw flesh in the swelling, 11 it is a chronic leprous disease in the skin of his body, and the priest shall pronounce him unclean. He shall not shut him up, for he is unclean. 12 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, 13 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. 14 But when raw flesh appears on him, he shall be unclean. 15 And the priest shall examine the raw flesh and pronounce him unclean. Raw flesh is unclean, for it is a leprous disease. 16 But if the raw flesh recovers and turns white again, then he shall come to the priest, 17 and the priest shall examine him, and if the disease has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce the diseased person clean; he is clean.” – Leviticus 13:1-17 ESV
Decay, disease, and death are the inevitable result of sin’s entrance into the world, and even God’s chosen people are susceptible to their influence. The Israelites had been set apart by God as His treasured possession and had been ordered to conduct themselves according to His laws so that they might reflect His holiness. Their lives were to mirror His.
“I am the LORD your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44 NLT
But even if the Israelites managed to keep all of God’s laws, a formidable and impossible task, they still faced the constant threat of being made impure or unholy simply as a result of living in a fallen world. Their relationship with God did not exempt them from contracting diseases or succumbing to death. The world was a dangerous place in which exposure to defilement was an everyday reality. Maintaining ritual purity was virtually impossible and the risk of spiritual contamination was unavoidable. It was just a matter of time.
So God established a series of purity laws that are outlined in Leviticus 13-15. The key to understanding these rather obscure and strangely specific laws is to focus one’s attention on the concepts of holiness and wholeness. These two characteristics are inseparable and interrelated. In the book of Genesis, Moses records a statement God made to Abraham in which He called His servant to a life of wholeness.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” – Genesis 17:1-2 ESV
The Hebrew word that is translated as “blameless” is תָּמִים (tāmîm), and it is sometimes translated as “perfect.” Abraham was 99 years old when he received this command from God and it would seem that a divine call to live a perfect life would have been an impossible task for him to carry out. Was God demanding absolute perfection from His elderly servant? Was He expecting Abraham to live a sinless and totally righteous life at all times?
The word, tāmîm, might be better understood as a call to wholeness or completeness. Its root word, תָּם (tām), carries the idea of uprightness or integrity. There is a sense in which God expected His servant Abraham to live a life marked by integrity and wholeness. There was to be no compartmentalization or secular/sacred split when it came to how Abraham “walked” before God. And this call to wholeness and holiness was passed down to Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites. They too were expected to walk before God and be blameless or whole. That is what the purification laws are all about.
In attempting to live holy lives in an unholy environment, they would find themselves occasionally contaminated by contact with a fallen world. Their wholeness and holiness would be compromised. They were not inoculated from disease and were not immune from its potentially deadly effects. It is important to note that the diseases and disorders discussed in these chapters are not sins in and of themselves. They are the byproducts of sin’s presence in the world. God’s point is not that the one who contracts these diseases has sinned, but that they have become ceremonially un-whole and, therefore, unholy before God. Just as the act of childbirth is not a sin, neither is contracting leprosy or any other skin disease to be considered a sin.
As chapter 12 revealed, a woman giving birth to her child is subjected to pain and suffers the loss of blood and bodily fluids in bringing new life into the world. This natural and necessary process renders her un-whole and in need of restoration. In the same way, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body” (Leviticus 13:2 ESV), he shall be considered unclean. The presence of the disease will have affected the wholeness of his body. The physical integrity of his body will have been compromised, rendering him unholy before the Lord. Again, it is important to remember that the disease is not an indication that the individual has sinned. This was a common misunderstanding among the Jews. Even Jesus’ disciples had been influenced by this misperception and it caused them to see those afflicted with maladies and disorders as somehow under the judgment of God. At one point, Jesus and His disciples passed by a man who had been born blind, and His disciples logically concluded that his disorder was the result of sin. So, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 ESV). To which Jesus replied, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3 ESV).
The man’s problem was not due to anyone’s personal sin but was simply evidence of the world’s fallen state. And it reflected this man’s lack of wholeness and need for healing. Jesus graciously healed the man by miraculously restoring his sight. He made the blind man whole.
In essence, that is what is taking place in Leviticus 13. The skin disorder described in verses 1-13 is referred to as “a leprous disease” (Leviticus 13:3 ESV). But the term, “leprous” can be misleading. What God describes bears little resemblance to what we know now as Hansen’s disease or leprosy. The skin conditions outlined in chapter 13 refer to a wide range of pathologies, from relatively mild to severe. But each had the potential to render its “victim” unwhole and unholy before God. The various symptoms provided evidence of a lack of bodily integrity or wholeness. These symptoms were visible to the eye and easily examined by a priest to determine their level of danger.
“Anyone who develops a serious skin disease must go to the priest for an examination. If the priest finds a white swelling on the skin, and some hair on the spot has turned white, and there is an open sore in the affected area, it is a chronic skin disease, and the priest must pronounce the person ceremonially unclean.” – Leviticus 13:9-11 NLT
While the results of these examinations could include quarantine or expulsion from the community, the ultimate goal was purification and restoration. Through a series of elaborate and detailed tests, the priests were to determine the ongoing state of the infected individual’s condition. The objective was to isolate in order to eventually reinstate the person to fellowship with God and the faith community.
“…the priest will then pronounce the person ceremonially clean by declaring, ‘You are clean!’” – Leviticus 13:17 NLT
Wholeness was the goal because the integrity of the entire nation was at stake. In a sense, the disease was a symbol of sin, which was a constant threat to the Israelite’s relationship with God. By focusing their attention on the visible signs of disease, God was helping them understand the invisible and even more dangerous presence of sin in their lives. These diseases, because of their infectious nature, could easily spread throughout the camp, and threaten the wholeness of the entire nation. The same thing was true of sin. If left unchecked, unconfessed, and unatoned for, sin could do serious damage to God’s chosen people, rendering them unwhole and unholy.
The presence of disease required separation and purification. Healing was necessary before access to God could be restored and reinstatement within the community could be enjoyed. By teaching His people to take skin disorders seriously, God was helping them to understand their need for moral and spiritual wholeness. Every area of their lives was critical to maintaining their relationship with God. Nothing could be overlooked or ignored. Examination and purification were necessary steps in protecting and preserving the physical and spiritual purity of the community.
King David reflected on his understanding of the need for constant examination and purification. He was a man who recognized his own inability to determine the wholeness and holiness of his life, so he pleaded with God to shine the light of His righteousness on the inner recesses of his own heart so that his sin might be exposed and his wholeness restored.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.