Metzora (Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33)


Magic. Forces above nature which can be called upon by gods and humans to manipulate life and death. The ancients believed that it was possible, though very difficult, to tap into these powers and affect life and society when needed.

When we read in Torah that a person who has been afflicted with scale disease must shave all the hair from his or her body, bathe for a symbolic number of says, and gather items with the color red and two live birds, we seem to be reading the formula for an incantation. But all of this is contravened by a simple fact: the person is not seeking a healing since they have already been healed.

God turns “normal” around and sends a powerful message. Repentance brings healing. Ritual is an act not of manipulation, but gratitude, celebration, and purification. The scale-diseased person was under divine judgment and has now been redeemed. But the return from a condition of death to a status of life and membership in the community requires more than just physical healing.

There is a reparation offering to be made (usually translated guilt offering) to decontaminate the sanctuary from the guilt that led to the divine judgment in the first place. There is a ceremony to be carried out, as will be described in upcoming portions, to mark the return of one who was “dead” back to life.

Life is in the hands of God. Purification and worship he puts into the hands of people.

Purification ritual for one healed from scale disease (1-7), shaving all hair, bathing, and waiting seven days (8-9), sacrificial items needed (10-11), Guilt/Reparation Offering (12).

Once the scale-diseased person was declared clean, and after a wait of seven days, the priest was to perform a ritual with two birds, hyssop, cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and an earthenware vessel with pure water. One bird he killed so that its blood fell in the water. The other bird he held with the hyssop, cedar, and scarlet in his hand. He then would dip these into the water and sprinkle the cleansed person seven times. Afterward he would release the live bird.

This ceremony was not a magical rite and it did not heal the person. Healing had already been confirmed. Why such an elaborate ceremony after the healing had already taken place? Why were symbolic items gathered in a manner almost perfectly mirroring the kinds of magical rites used by the cultures surrounding Israel? This ceremony for one healed from scale disease looks like an incantation, a common sort of ritual magic.

The answer has to be divine revelation. Cedar and scarlet represent blood, life, atonement. The tzarua (person with scale disease) was like a walking corpse. One bird dies and another is released to fly away, representing life from death, resurrection, the healing of the tzarua and return to the world of the living. Instead of a magical rite before the person is healed, one that could supposedly cause life to regenerate, God provides a ceremony after the person is healed, celebrating the regeneration that already happened.

LEVITICUS 14:13-20

When someone returns from death we describe them as being “raised.” Also, if someone is taken from a lower status to a higher one, we refer to this as being “elevated.” To be raised from the dead involves a picture of someone who is horizontal in the ground becoming vertical again. In fact, some Orthodox Jews are buried near the temple mount in Jerusalem with their feet pointing at the temple so that in the day Messiah comes to raise the dead, they will become vertical facing the temple and be able to walk right in.

This idea of raising and elevating is what the eighth day sacrificial ceremony for a person who has been healed from scale disease is all about.

Having sinned in some gross manner, a man or woman of Israel became afflicted with a disease unknown to medical science. Their status descended from that of an Israelite, a priestly people among all the peoples of the world, to that of an outcast, someone banished from society completely. At the same time, they descended from life to a kind of living death.

Several departures from the usual procedure of sacrifices clue us in to the meaning of the restoration of a scale diseased person. It is a picture of resurrection and redemption and glorification. Usually the first sacrifice in a series is the purification offering, but for the scale diseased person it is the reparation offering. That is, they must first make a reparation for the sin that led to their condition. Usually only a few parts of an offering are first put through a ceremony of “elevation” (תְּנוּפָה tenufah, see comments below). But for the scale diseased person the whole animal and also the anointing oil are first elevated. Usually an Israelite is not smeared with blood, but only priests undergo the blood daubing ritual. Usually an Israelite is not smeared with anointing oil, but only priests undergo this kind of anointing.

The meaning is simple. The person who was afflicted with living death is brought back to life and also returned to a full status of holiness as an Israelite. It is like what we can expect on resurrection day, when we are raised and elevated, redeemed and glorified, restored and thoroughly included among God’s holy people.

The Guilt/Reparation Offering procedure for a scaled diseased person (13-18), the Sin/Purification and Burnt/Whole Offering (19-20).

Many of the details of the sacrificial ceremony for the metzora (מְּצֹרָע, person with scale disease, usually translated “leper”) are remarkable to readers who pay attention to the fine details of sacrificial procedure. The metzora has already undergone the first day ceremony with two birds and symbolic red objects followed by laundering and shaving and bathing (14:2-8). He has then moved back into his or her residence on the seventh day following another shaving, laundering, and bathing (vs. 9). Now on the eighth day he or she will undergo an expensive sacrificial ceremony in the sanctuary symbolizing a return to life as a member of the priestly people of Israel.

Some of the exceptional details of the metzora’s sacrificial ceremony on the eighth day include the following departures from the usual procedures: (1) the reparation (guilt) offering comes before the purification (sin) offering, (2) blood is applied to the ear and thumb and toe of the metzora, (3) sacred anointing oil is applied to the ear and thumb and toe of the metzora, and (4) the entire lamb for the reparation offering as well as the oil for anointing is first “elevated” (presented as a תְּנוּפָה tenufah).

The strange ritual of tenufah (variously translated “wave offering” or “elevation offering”) helps us understand what is different about the case of the metzora. In the Second Temple Period, we know from the rabbis (see discussion and evidence in Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) that a tenufah involved sacrificial parts ceremonially moved in a horizontal back and forth motion (“wave offering”). But the term means “something raised or lifted” (elevation offering). Although the procedure of the tenufah may have changed or been subject to differing interpretations, the meaning of it is clear: items elevated (or waved) were taken from a status of being common to a status of being holy (designated for God’s special purpose alone).

This is essentially what the whole ceremony of the metzora is about. Having transgressed in some severe manner, the metzora died a living death. During the period of their impurity and quarantine he or she has been one of the walking dead. This symbolic loss of life has included a loss of the holy status of an Israelite. To bring a metzora back to life requires a number of stages: (1) thorough purification including a seven-day initiation period similar to the priests’ ordination, (2) a reparation offering to make up for their transgression which caused the scale disease in the first place, (3) placing blood on the person to purge him or her from the taint of death, (4) placing anointing oil on the person to raise his or her status back to the holiness of an ordinary Israelite since they had lost that status, and (5) an elevation of the two restoring elements which were the reparation offering and anointing oil.

Of all the elements of the ceremony, the two most potent in effecting change have been the reparation offering (offered in this case alone prior to the purification offering) and the anointing oil (necessary to restore the person from death and ordinary status to life and holy status as an Israelite). Therefore, these two items alone are first subjected to the tenufah (elevation) ritual.

LEVITICUS 14:21-32

There are two areas majorly affected by the condition of the scale-diseased person (usually known as a “leper”). One is the person himself or herself. The majority of the ceremony for a person healed from scale disease has to do with the restoration of the person. But another area affected is the sanctuary, the place where God’s Presence dwelt in Israel’s midst long ago.

Therefore, following the reparation offering (which largely deals with the person’s guilt that led to the disease) there is also a purification offering. וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, “the priest will effect a purging on his behalf before Adonai.” This sentence is commonly translated in a way that obscures the meaning, such as the ESV’s, “And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for him.”

In the typical translation, using the theological buzz word “atonement,” readers are led to believe that the purification offering (usually translated sin offering) is about the sinner obtaining forgiveness. But this is a misunderstanding of the verb, which means “to purge, wipe, cleanse, expiate.” A better translation of Leviticus 14:31 is “the priest will effect a purging on his behalf before Adonai.”

Why does the scale diseased person need the priest to “effect a purging” on his or her behalf? It is because he or she has been a walking corpse and in the Torah’s symbolic system of impurity, the specific thing that is unclean is human death. The scale diseased person’s condition of living death has traveled like air pollution to the temple and defiled the altar. The blood of the offering acts like ritual detergent to cleanse away the pollution and eliminate the impurity from God’s sanctuary.

If Leviticus has not yet given enough indication what “impurity” is all about, it soon will, especially at the end of chapter 15. Not only is the whole section about the scale diseased person a lesson in resurrection and redemption, but the entire impurity system of Torah is about life overcoming death.

More on the ceremony for a healed metzora (one who had scale disease).

A poor metzora could substitute turtle doves for the purification offering and burnt offering. But there is no substitute for the reparation offering. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) says this indicates that the reparation offering is central to the ritual of the healed metzora.

The rationale for the offerings of a healed metzora concern the fact that he/she is symbolically returning to life. The metzora was a walking corpse and several of the healed metzora’s offerings are similar to those of priestly ordination. Israelites are a priestly people and the healed metzora is becoming an Israelite again though a symbolic elevation not only from death to life, but also from ordinary to holy.

But why the reparation offering and why is it so central? Milgrom says there is an assumption that the metzora had transgressed holy things and that the scale disease was a divine punishment. The case of Uzziah (2 Chron 26) shows that transgressing holy things was one possible reason for scale disease. Even if it was not known that such a transgression was the cause of a person’s scale disease, the offerings seem to be covering every possibility including unknown sin.

LEVITICUS 14:33-53

A house inflicted with a fungus outbreak is treated in many ways like a “leper,” a person with scale disease. The house must be examined by the priests with seven-day quarantine periods reminiscent of those for the scale-diseased person. The ceremony for a house declared clean (its affected stones having been removed and buried) is identical to one part of the ceremony for a scale-diseased person. Cedar wood, hyssop plant, red yarn, and clear water are used, with one bird slaughtered over the water and another dipped in the water and released.

The Hurrians had a strikingly similar ritual for a fungus house (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) also involving cedar, water, and birds. So we see yet another example of customs in Torah mirroring those of the ancient Near Eastern neighbors of Israel. But, as is always the case, there are key differences. The Hurrian customs have to do with magic to banish demonic powers. The Torah custom comes after the house is already free from the outbreak and is used to purge impurity from the land, with no demons or other powers involved.

The enemy according to Torah is not an unseen host of demons and malevolent forces. We are our own enemy, having brought death with us. The ceremonies of purification are about the symbolism of death being overcome by life which emanates from God. Milgrom says, “the entire purification process is nothing but a ritual, a rite of passage, marking the transition from death to life” (889).

Who is this God so concerned with life? Why is death the enemy? What does it mean that life is God’s desired outcome for his people and his land?

Fungus houses and the ceremony for a restored house (33-53).

The conditions considered impure in Israel all involve some connection with death and loss of life. The presence of severe fungi (mold, mildew) with green and red streaks that are deeply embedded in the stone and mud cement or wood of the house is a condition of rot. In Mesopotamia it was assumed that demons caused fungus to appear in houses (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale).

Leviticus attributes the cause to God: “when you come in to the land . . . and I put a fungus infection in a house” (vs. 34). Oddly though, the text does not say this is a punishment for sin, but offers no reason why God would so afflict a house. The owner does not make a reparation offering, which is a sign the cause is not assumed to be sin.

The fungus house is in many ways just like scale disease. It is called the same thing, tzara’at צָרַעַת, although it makes no sense to translate the word in the same way. On a person tzara’at causes white scales whereas on a house it causes a fungus outbreak. The ceremony for a restored house is identical to one part of the scale-diseased person’s ceremony: cedar, red yarn, clear water, and two birds (with one killed and the other released). Interestingly, Milgrom includes examples of similar ceremonies outside Israel, even involving cedar wood and birds. The difference is, in Torah, the ceremony is not magical.

There are some leniencies in its treatment: the person can remove belongings before the priest inspects the house and they will not be considered impure (vs. 36). Milgrom notes that the presence of impure places in Israel (i.e., the town dump, vss. 40, 45) suggest that land itself was not inherently holy, but what the people in the land did is what made the nation holy (or profane). The Israelite manner of handling fungus houses eliminates superstition and fear of demonic powers in the process, setting Israel apart from her neighboring peoples.

LEVITICUS 14:54 – 15:15

A man has an outbreak of gonorrhea. Yes, that is a subject in the Torah. He is called a zav זָב (a person with a discharge from his “flesh”).

That the laws of impurity in Leviticus are not about “sin” or morality is evident from the fact that the zav’s case is mostly about preventing him from spreading his ritual pollution or allowing it to go unpurified and thus overly contaminate the sanctuary where God’s Presence dwells. The principle in Leviticus 15:31 applies, “keep the people of Israel separated from their impurity, lest they die in it by contaminating my tabernacle.”

The ritual impurity of zav travels like air pollution and defiles the altar. But by following the procedures outline he decontaminates the altar. He must wait until his disease has run its course, then count off seven days, then bathe and launder his clothes. Then on the eighth day he must offer two doves, one for a purification offering and other as a burnt offering. Only then will the ill effects of his impurity be removed from the sanctuary so that God’s dwelling place will not be defiled.

But what about the immorality that led to the zav’s condition in the first place? The text does not address it. The “sin” involved is another matter entirely. That impurity is not equated with sin can also be seen in the other causes of impurity in Leviticus 15: nocturnal emissions, marital intercourse, menstruation, and feminine issues resulting in prolonged bleeding or other discharges.

There is, however, one sign that the zav’s case is more severe. He must wait seven days after his condition has healed. His partial quarantine is prolonged, perhaps because of the severity of his actions that led to his condition.

Closing summary on tzara’at (“leprosy” and fungous, 54-57), opening introduction to genital discharges (15:1-2a), abnormal male discharges (gonorrhea, 2b-15).

The last few verses of chapter 14 recapitulate and summarize the section on scale disease and mold infestation. As expected, per the theology of Leviticus, the main issue is expressed as “to determine when they are impure and when they are pure.” Impurity representing the forces of death must be prevented from encroaching on the sanctuary where God’s Presence dwells.

As for the section on genital discharges, Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) notes it follows a chiastic structure centering on vs. 18 with marital intercourse as the hinge: (1) abnormal male discharges in vss. 2-15, (2) normal male discharges in vss. 16-17, (3) marital intercourse in vs. 18, (4) normal female discharges in vss. 19-24, and (5) abnormal female discharges in vss. 25-30.

Why are these conditions impure? Only one of them (abnormal male discharges, which equals gonnorhea) is related to immoral activity. They are impure because they involve substances of life (blood, semen) issuing from the members of life (the genitals).

The first subject is abnormal male discharges which occur as a result of gonorrhea. In the book of Numbers, the zav (person with gonorrhea) must be quarantined outside the camp. But Leviticus gives the law for general conditions (not merely during the wilderness encampment with its heightened sense of sanctity in the camp). The zav is not exiled from the town, but quarantined in the house.

The concern for transmission of impurity is over anything the zav sits or lies on top of. They are impure and anyone who touches them is impure. Vs. 11 shows that if the zav washes his hands, objects he touches with his hands (cup, vessel, etc.) do not become impure. Gonorrhea is impure, not because of its connection with sexual transgression (the sins of sexual impropriety are a separate matter), but because the life-causing member is diseased. As for the immorality of the man which likely led to the gonorrhea outbreak, that matter is not covered directly. If the man was sorrowful and determined to be redeemed, his offense could be considered inadvertent and he could purge the sanctuary of the offense he caused (this interpretation is based on deduction from the sacrificial laws, not something stated directly in the text).

LEVITICUS 15:16-28

Israel as a people was required to live out a set of practices of purification which sound strange to modern readers. Any circumstance or condition deemed impure had its own set of prescribed rituals for purification afterward or period of waiting. A person in a state of impurity could communicate that impurity to bedding or a chair or even to a person who touched them.

As unseemly as the topic may be, issuing blood or semen from the genitals was one of the categories of impurity. Semen is life and if it passes from a man, Torah regards this as creating a condition of impurity. Blood is life. Menstruation and other conditions of feminine bleeding results in impurity.

Purification for minor impurity required simply bathing and waiting until nightfall for a person to be “clean” again. More severe cases required a wait of seven days. The most severe forms of impurity — contact with a corpse (Num 19), scale disease, gonorrhea — required animal sacrifices in addition to other forms of purification.

These strange practices from the Torah were about a symbolism of God’s ideal of life, pointing to the eradication of death. God provided ritual observances such as bathing and periods of waiting, sometimes laundering clothes or bringing an animal sacrifice, as a means of separating the people from the symbolic forces of death. The whole system suggests that we live outside of God’s ideal in this present world, that there is something better, a deathless existence which God desire for us. The sanctuary of Israel, where God dwelt, was kept from from the contamination of human death.

Later in Israel’s understanding of God, prophets spoke of a future where death itself would be eradicated. Belief in the world to come developed from these early strains of priestly theology into a more thorough and coherent prophetic hope. God is life and death is a temporary condition. The inevitable outcome of God’s creating power and redeeming will is that our present state of death will come to an end and the universe will change, becoming what God ultimate intends it to be.

Male nocturnal emissions (16-17), marital intercourse (18), menstruation (19-24), prolonged or abnormal feminine bleeding (25-28).

The underlying principle of the whole system of purity laws is that the forces of human death should be kept at bay, especially that they should not encroach on the place where God’s Presence dwells. Israelites were expected to know which conditions in life were considered impure and how to purify themselves. The circumstances leading to impurity relate to loss of life or the experience of death.

The section of Leviticus (along with one additional chapter in Numbers) on impurity includes contamination from the corpses of animals, categories of meat which are considered impure, childbirth, scale disease, mold and rot, gonorrhea, emissions of semen, marital intercourse, menstruation, abnormal feminine bleeding, and (in Numbers 19) contact with or being under the same roof with a human corpse.

The issue in cases of menstruation and any discharge of semen is loss of the life-giving substance. Male nocturnal emissions and marital intercourse are not immoral, but they create a condition of impurity. These are minor forms, requiring only bathing and lasting only until evening. Menstruation renders and woman and anything she touches impure during the seven day period of her cycle. A kind of secondary impurity is created if anyone touches something she has rested on. Bathing and waiting until evening are the required acts of purification.

But having intercourse with a woman during menstruation is a more serious matter. It is forbidden (Lev 18:19; 20:18). Therefore, a man who does so is in a state of impurity for seven days and he causes impurity to whatever he rests on.

Prolonged feminine bleeding is also more severe. A woman will remain in a state of impurity for seven days after the bleeding stops. And in the next section, we find that she also must make an animal sacrifice (not for wrongdoing, but because her condition caused prolonged contamination at the sanctuary).

LEVITICUS 15:29-33

Among the famous verses of the Bible, Leviticus 15:31 deserves to be better known. This verse (along with Numbers 19:13 and 19:20) spells out a key principle of God’s covenant with Israel. God will dwell in the midst of Israel, setting his Presence in a powerful theophany in the temple, if and only if Israel will practice a thorough custom of ritual purity throughout the land.

The potential of this covenant is extraordinary. Israel could possibly be the only place on earth free from disease, war, hunger, and other causes of untimely death. The promises are spelled out in Leviticus 26:3-13. Most remarkable among them, “I will establish my abode in your midst.”

The way for Israel to achieve this nirvana is two-fold in Torah: by being a moral and just society and thus refraining from offending God and also by practicing a culture of ritual purity with specific customs of purification. The first part (moral justice) concerns “sin” and the second part (ritual purity) concerns “death.”

These are the two conditions that plague humankind. We have not been able to eliminate senseless violence or achieve a moral society (thus we “sin”). We are unable to attain the immortality we desire (thus we are trapped in “death”).

But the Torah raises a possibility — an unfulfilled potential — for a world free from sin and death. The Torah simply raises our awareness without providing a solution to our inability to achieve this state of perfection and enlightenment. Whatever solution God will provide will be consistent with Torah but will come after it as a higher and better promise (i.e., Messiah).

Offering of purification for abnormal feminine bleeding (29-30), section summary and vs. 31 is a crux for purification theology (31-33).

Vss. 29-30 complete the previous section, detailing the animal sacrifices required of a woman who had undergone prolonged feminine bleeding. Vss. 32-33 summarize the section on genital discharges. But sandwiched in between them (something here is seemingly out of place, perhaps vss. 32-33 being a later addition) is vs. 31, which stands out as one of the essence verses of the whole Torah.

Leviticus 15:31 is a crux for understanding the meaning of Torah’s theology of purification and keeping impurity separate from the holy places near the Divine Presence. וְהִזַּרְתֶּם אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל vehizartem et-bnei-Yisra’el, “And you shall keep the children of Israel separated.” The idea of separation is central to holiness. Something holy, in this case the status of an Israelite as one of the priestly people among all peoples of the world, is “separated from” and “separated to.” A holy thing or status is separate from that which is ordinary and it is separated to (designated for) God’s unique purpose. מִטֻּמְאָתָם mittum’atam “from their impurities.” All the circumstances that cause impurity and conditions of being impure have to do with the symbolism of death or loss of life. Israelites will be kept “separate from” these impurities by following the required acts of purification. וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם velō yamutu betum’atam, “so that they will not die in their impurities.” Although it is not immediately evident from this verse, the way they will die is that God’s covenant protection will be removed from the Land and war and hunger and disease will kill Israelites in the same way other peoples of the world suffer from these conditions (see Lev 26). Finally, בְּטַמְּאָם אֶת־מִשְׁכָּנִי אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכָם betamm’am et-mishkani asher betōcham, “by defiling my tabernacle which is in their midst.” The specific cause which will lead to the effect of the death of Israelites is that the sanctuary will become contaminated, God will depart from it, and the land of Israel will be left like every other land (void of the close Presence of God).

We can deduce key principles of the Torah’s purity and sacrificial laws from this verse. Mainly, the most important factor in the Torah’s system of laws is keeping God’s Presence in the Land. Second, the space where God dwells — the tabernacle and later the temple — must be kept regularly clean from ritual impurities or God will depart. Third, impurity, especially when un-purified, travels like air pollution and contaminates the sanctuary. Fourth, the thing which makes Israel special and keeps Israel supernaturally protected is the care with which it maintains the place of God’s dwelling on earth.