LEVITICUS 12:1 – 13:5
The Torah calls for Israel to distinguish between the pure and impure (clean and unclean). But the key to the symbolism is never directly stated. What is impurity? Is it related to some concept of sin? If it is not sin, why must it be purged and in some cases even purged with an animal sacrifice and blood applied to the altar?
While the dietary laws of chapter 11 begin to unfold for us the meaning of impurity, a clearer case begins in chapter 12. Childbirth puts a mother in a state of “impurity” for forty or eighty days, depending on whether the child is a boy or a girl. Leviticus does not say why the woman becomes impure. The key to the symbolism of impurity is never given. It must be deduced from a reading of the whole section of purity laws in Leviticus 11-15 and also Numbers 19.
It becomes apparent that “impurity” is related to the forces of death. Childbirth involves bleeding, which is loss of life-blood. Also a life passes out of the woman into the world, which is yet another way in which there is a kind of loss of life. In addition to these, the mother comes close to death in giving birth.
Therefore, she must be quarantined for a period of time to limit the spread of her impurity. And at the end, she must purge this impurity with an animal sacrifice at the sanctuary altar. In this way, she will keep the principle stated most clearly in Leviticus 15:31 and Numbers 19:20, the keep impurity away from God’s dwelling place on earth.
Impurity and childbirth (12:1-8), start of scale disease (“leprosy”) diagnosis regulations (13:1-5).
Leviticus 11-15 is about impurity (uncleanness) and how Israelites are to deal with it. But what is “impurity” and why must it be dealt with? The basic answer, which will become more clear as the chapters unfold, is that “impurity” is symbolic and not real. All of the impurity laws are related to the symbolism of life and death. This symbolic meaning of impurity, its relationship to death, is never stated. It is determined from the overall system of Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19.
What could be impure about something as joyful as the birth of a little boy or girl? Why is the mother in a state of “impurity” for forty or eighty days respectively depending on whether the child is a boy or girl?
There are two ways in which the birth process creates impurity: bleeding which is a loss of life-blood and the issue of a child from the womb which is life passing from the mother into the world. That is to say, the woman loses the substance of life, which is blood, and at the same time a life that was within her passes out of her. She also comes close to death in the birth process. Strangely, the glory of birth is veiled in the signs of death.
All forms of death and loss of human life are to be kept far away from God’s sanctuary, since he is the God of life and not death. Therefore, the symbolic system of purity laws in Torah requires the woman to observe restrictions to keep her impurity quarantined and then a ritual to purge the impurity at the end of the time period. The woman completes a ritual including a sacrifice in order to purge all death from her life and continue in a state of life purified from death.
Regarding childbirth, the issues are essentially: (1) an initial period of impurity which is contagious for seven or fourteen days depending whether the child is a boy or girl, (2) a note that circumcision happens for boys the day after this initial period of impurity, (3) a lesser period of impurity which is not contagious for thirty-three or sixty-six days depending again on the sex of the child, (4) offerings for restoration of purity at the end of the forty or eighty-day period, (5) and a provision of a less expensive offering for the poor. Why is the period of impurity longer for the birth of girls? It is likely because a female will grow to have monthly impurity (during menstruation) and have children, so a baby girl renders double the length of impurity. Other Near Eastern cultures had longer impurity for girls as well (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale).
In chapter 13, a very long section on scale disease begins. Biblical scale disease is often translated leprosy though it is not the same condition which is known as leprosy today. The main signs of scale disease are shiny marks, discolorations, scabs, and the hair turning white in the affected areas (Milgrom). Scale disease makes a person look like a corpse or variously its spots look like fungus and rot, hence its impurity in the life-death symbolic system.
“Leprosy” in the Torah is not what we know as leprosy today. The choice to translate צָרַעַת tzara’at as “leprosy” is unfortunate. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) calls it “scale disease,” a vague term because the descriptions of this disease in Torah do not fit any known condition.
A person with צָרַעַת tzara’at (scale disease) is called a מְּצֹרָע metzora, usually rendered “leper.” This scale-diseased person is virtually a walking corpse, a sort of zombie, during the course of their affliction.
Since the purity laws of Torah are all about a symbolism of life and death, the scale-diseased person is a potent example of what the whole system is about. His or her impurity must be quarantined. Impurity travels like air pollution and pollutes the sanctuary and the altar. The place where God dwells on earth is contaminated by it. Ultimately, after the person recovers and is pronounced pure — requiring a long and detailed ritual procedure — animal sacrifices will be required to purge this contamination from the sanctuary.
Two more seven-day periods of examination for scale disease (6-8), the case of already formed scale disease (9-11), the sign of healing whiteness all over the body (12-13), when apparent healing reverses (14-15), when healing returns (16-17).
This portion is part of a long, extremely detailed section on scale disease (mistranslated traditionally as “leprosy”). Leviticus 13:2-8 is about a person brought to a priest when the scale disease infection is not yet fully formed. Three separate periods of seven-day quarantine are needed for a final diagnosis of purity. Those who are cleared after one period require less purification than those who need two or three periods to be declared clean.
Vss. 9-11 concern a person who comes with the scale disease already fully formed. In vss. 12-13, the whiteness all over the body is a sign of healing (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) through the shedding of dry skin. Yet, in vss. 14-15, it is noted that some start to heal and then the infection returns.
In yet another reversal we see in vss. 16-17, the sign of healing can return after a new onset. The procedure is very thorough about diagnosing exactly when a person is pure and when a person is impure and the cycle of healing, reinfection, and continued recovery. All this elaborate medical detail is given for a disease which is unknown to modern medicine.
The very term “leprosy” is problematic and has been misapplied over the years to a condition known as Hansen’s disease. What we call leprosy today, a condition which is not related to the disease considered impure in Torah, is a deadening of nerves in the extremities. Victims of leprosy cannot feel injuries in their hands and feet leading to frequent infections.
Ancient Greek physicians used two unrelated terms for diseases known the them. What we call leprosy in modern medicine was known as elephantiasis whereas skin diseases involving discoloration were called lepra (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible consistently refers to lepra and not to elephantiasis. Similarly the New Testament uses the term lepra.
The problem came about in the 9th century when an Arab physician began applying the Greek word lepra to what had always been called elephantiasis. Thus, “leprosy” is not even the correct word (historically) for Hansen’s disease, much less for the condition described in Torah as a kid of walking death. More likely the old Greek term lepra referred to serious skin conditions, which the biblical scale disease could be categorically related to.
In the details of diagnosis and procedure given in Torah for the priests, quarantine periods are not because scale disease is contagious. They are for observation to be certain about a diagnosis and to be able to observe changes in the skin. If a person was declared impure, their banishment and the restrictions placed on them also had nothing to do with contagion. Rather, like all other cases of impurity, the issue was keeping human death out of the sanctuary where God’s Presence rested and to keep the people of Israel separate from impurity.
Diagnosing an area of a boil for scale disease.
The boil of vs. 18 is, like scale disease, thought to be a disease God sends at times in judgment (e.g., Deut 28:27). Boils are a different affliction than scale disease, but apparently there was an expectation that if someone had developed a boil, the condition might progress into scale disease. A seven-day quarantine period helped the priest observe and diagnose the condition. If the discoloration continued below the skin and if it affected the hair follicles then it was the priests sad duty to “declare him impure” (וְטִמְּאו vetimme’u).
Scale disease is not found only in the Bible, but was a condition described in Mesopotamia and Greece as well, according to Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale). It was regarded as a curse of the gods as a punishment for transgressions against the deity. In Mesopotamian texts, scale diseased persons were banished, ostracized from the regular population.
But many other conditions of the skin happened to people from ordinary disease and even from burns that were not to be confused with scale disease. It seems in Torah that scale disease, unlike more common skin conditions, was always a divine punishment. Biblical texts associate scale disease with offenses against the deity and also moral failings. Miriam (Num 12:9), Gehazi (2 Kgs 5:27), and Uzziah (2 Car 26:18-21) are prime examples.
When a person exhibited conditions of the skin that resembled scale disease, including marks after a severe burn, they were sent to the priests to be examined and held in quarantine for a seven-day period to be sure of the diagnosis.
Reading these diagnostic descriptions, we may ask ourselves why some people suffer painful or disfiguring conditions and others do not. Biblical scale disease is a rare and simple case of divine punishment. Burns, boils, and other conditions are not necessarily punishment. Torah comes to the edge of addressing questions about why some people suffer and others do not. There is a bit of an implied answer here. Those suffering mere burns or boils are not impure. Only one very specific condition, scale disease, is impure. Therefore, we may not conclude when someone is suffering that they brought it on themselves by sinning.
Diagnosing an area of a burn for scale disease.
Some of the symptoms that develop in the skin after a deep burn could be confused with scale disease. Therefore, the Torah prescribes a process for the priest to diagnose a burned area. It is important for the priest to determine if the lesions in the skin are the result of the burn or of scale disease. The two criteria are the depth of the lesion and whether or not the hair has turned white in the region under examination. If the lesion is deeper than the skin and the hair is white, the usual quarantine procedure is in effect. If not, the patient is quarantined for one week to be sure the lesions do not spread.
“For ten things does scale disease come upon the world,” the rabbis say (Leviticus Rabbah 17:3, cited in Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale). “(1) idol worship, (2) gross unchastity, (3) bloodshed, (4) the desecration of the Divine Name, (5) blasphemy of the Divine Name, (6) robbing the public, (7) usurping [a dignity] to which one has no right, (8) overweening pride, (9) evil speech [slander] and (10) an evil eye.”
Torah gives long descriptions, difficult to read, about how the priests were to distinguish scale disease from other ordinary conditions. Scale disease itself seems to be different from all known medical conditions which occur naturally and was purely a divine judgment. Anyone who contracted scale disease was ostracized until it healed. They became like walking corpses and as human death is what Torah calls “impure,” Israelite society had to banish them.
But there was redemption, the description of which is coming in chapter 14. These walking corpses would come back to life.
A scall of the hair or beard (29-37), a rash or white spots (38-39).
A scall is an infection that happens in the hair and beard areas of the skin. The criteria for scale disease in the hair and beard area is different, requiring a yellowing rather than a whitening of hair for a positive diagnosis. In the case of a scall, the quarantine period (for observation, not to prevent spread by contagion) is two weeks. If hair turns yellow, the discoloration is deeper than the skin, and if it spreads, this is scale disease.
A rash of white spots (some translations call them “tetters”) is not scale disease unless certain other signs are present. To be diagnosed as scale disease the spots must be shiny, deeper than the surrounding skin, and there must be whitened hair.
You had to put a tear in your own garment, which was a sign of mourning in their society. It was not torn for your mother or father, for a child or spouse. It was you mourning your own death. You were among the walking dead.
When any person approached they would see your torn cloak, your hair was left disheveled, your mouth covered with a cloth, and you cried out, “Impure! Unclean!”
Maybe they would give you a look of pity. Maybe they would show disgust and turn away. You were left isolated. Only other “lepers” would be company for you.
But you knew it would not be forever. Scale disease (erroneously translated “leprosy”) usually healed. There would come a day when you would be brought back among the living. Until then, you simply had to accept your death and wait for God to bring you back to life.
Baldness and scale disease (13:40-44), duties of one inflicted with scale disease (13:45-46), mold disease in fabrics and objects (13:47-54).
The priests of Israel had to distinguish between ordinary baldness and scale disease. The defining criteria in the head and scalp area was reddish-white infectious areas.
A scale-diseased person was required to remain ostracized from normal society. The rites of a “leper” (a misnomer since their disease was not actually leprosy) include torn clothing, disheveled hair, veiled mouth, isolation from others, and crying out “unclean” to those who approach. What do these rites have in common? They are signs of mourning the dead, as we see for example in Lamentations 4:15 where survivors mourned the destruction of Jerusalem.
This extreme rite of mourning marks the scale diseased person as being among the walking dead. All of the causes of impurity have a symbolic connection to death or the loss of life. The entire purity system is about God dwelling among the people, with the marks of evil and death constantly being purified. The symbolism of impurity in Torah is a picture of the world to come where God will dwell with humanity free from evil and suffering.
Signs of death could appear not only in people, but also in objects, such as cloth. Declaring moldy and mildewy fabrics impure is practical in a dry environment like Israel, but would be utterly impractical in the humid climates of the world.
What theology would cause a people to burn any fabrics anywhere in the land because of the presence of mold or mildew? Isn’t the idea of impurity in the Torah about people not bringing signs of death near the dwelling place of God in the tabernacle (and later the temple)? If so, what harm can come from a bit of mildew in a town far removed from the sanctuary?
The seriousness with which a mold outbreak was treated confirms that the priests did think the issue was serious. הוּא בָּאֵשׁ תִּשְׂרְפֶנּוּ hu ba’eish tisrefeinu, “It must be burned with fire.”
Someone could argue that moldy garments should be destroyed to prevent anyone from bringing them to the sanctuary. This is possibly true although if that were the only concern, a law could simply be made forbidding anyone to bring the affected garment into the sanctuary courts.
The law for mildewy garments seems to suggest another possibility, something that will become more apparent in the latter half of Leviticus. The call for a sort of “death-free zone” at the sanctuary spills over into the whole land of the Israelites. There is an imperative to make the whole land pure, removing where possible signs of decay from anywhere in the land. All Israel can be made holy.
The effects of this could become contagious if the Israelites would take it seriously. The blessings at the end of Leviticus declare that if the people will keep this Torah completely there will be no war or disease or hunger in the land. God holds out the possibility — which was never realized in actuality — of a land almost completely free from death. The later descriptions in Isaiah are really about what could have been historically in Israel if the blessings of Torah had been achieved: “There will never again be a child who dies prematurely or an elderly person who does not live out his days. If someone dies at a hundred it will be considered a short life and one who dies before a hundred will be thought cursed” (Isa 65:20).
Mold outbreak in fabrics.
Mold and mildew outbreaks in inanimate objects are related in some ways to scale disease in persons, but in other ways are unrelated. A person with scale disease bears on the outside of his or her body the signs of death and decay. Mold and mildew are agents of decay in inanimate objects. Therefore the editors of Torah have run together the two conditions, scale disease in persons and mold outbreaks in things.
But whereas scale disease (a condition that does not fit any known to medical science) appears to have been solely a divine judgment and not a natural affliction, the same cannot be said about mold outbreaks. If scale disease indicated that a person was guilty of offending God directly or indirectly, no such suspicion of guilt is involved with mold outbreaks. There are rabbinic texts which argue otherwise, regarding mold outbreaks in objects as a warning sent by God before scale disease sets into the person. But Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) definitively overthrows the “guilt” interpretation with a simple observation: mold outbreaks require no offering at the sanctuary. If there had been guilt or even suspicion of guilt, priestly theology would have required an animal sacrifice to decontaminate the altar at the sanctuary.