This week’s portion is titled Metzora (Leviticus 14-15). The word is typically translated “leper”, but it actually refers to a person who’s been afflicted with the mysterious condition known as צָרַעַת (tzara’ath).
On the affliction itself
No one actually knows what tzara’ath is in modern medical terms, but a quick read of the symptoms in Leviticus 13 and 14:33-48 shows that it’s not what’s commonly known as leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, today. … The Jewish sages teach, in fact, that tzara’ath is not actually a physical malady, but a bodily manifestation of a spiritual problem – a punishment that’s meant to show the victim (and others around him) the error of his ways.
I was skeptical of this view, initially, but after looking into the Scriptures, I found several things to support it. The first is the response prescribed by God Himself as to how a metzora should be quarantined. Leviticus 13:12-17 says,
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. 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.
If tzara’ath was an actual illness, it would make no sense for a sufferer who’s covered from head to toe in it to be declared clean (and, conversely, for him to be declared unclean if part of his flesh began to return to normal) – one would expect the opposite to be true. Moreover, Leviticus 14:36 says that if someone suspects tzara’ath has developed in their home, the priest has to command that the house be emptied before he goes to examine it, because if he declares it unclean, then nothing can be retrieved from the dwelling – which, again, would make no sense if you were dealing with a real disease that required a proper medical quarantine. So clearly, contagion is not the concern here and if a person contracted tzara’ath, then he/she must’ve been declared unclean and placed into isolation for reasons other than the potential spread of disease.
The second factor is the cleansing ritual for a healed metzora. The process was long, involved, and detailed, being divided into 3 main stages; and interestingly, the first stage is quite similar to the atonement ritual for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement – it involved the sacrifice of the life of one creature (in this case, a bird) and the release of another, signifying the removal of iniquity – while the third stage of purification required the metzora to make 3 offerings, the first of which was an asham, or guilt offering… the offering which is made precisely for sins that involve intention/knowledge, rather than unintentional sins.
And thirdly, all known cases of tzara’ath which get more than a passing mention in Scripture are recorded as being the result of deliberate, willful sins:
- Miriam (Numbers 12) – was afflicted for causing dissension, speaking against Moses, and pride
- Joab (2 Samuel 3:17-39) – had tzara’ath announced as one of the things with which his line would always be cursed, for his treacherous and vengeful murder of Abner in direct defiance of David’s wishes
- King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16-23) – was struck on the forehead for his pride and presumption in wanting to offer incense in the Temple, when only Aaronic priests were allowed to do so
- Gehazi (2 Kings 5:20-27) – was struck, along with his descendants, with the tzara’ath of Naaman for his greed
All these incidents involved rebelliousness of some form or other in the offender, and indeed, the sages teach that tzara’ath was a punishment for sins of bloodshed, false oaths, sexual immorality, pride, robbery and selfishness, because the victim displayed a particular failure to empathise with the needs and hurts of others. They say that God rebuked such anti-social behaviour by isolating guilty individuals from society so they could repent, and this makes sense of the fact that when a metzora was identified, he/she had to rend their clothes, uncover their heads, and cover their lips (all signs of mourning) as well as cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” and dwell alone outside the camp.
These are not remedial measures for treating a disease, but actions which could serve only one purpose: to cause the sufferer, as well as any people who saw them, to recognise the condition they were in (and likewise, the cleansing ritual for a metzora wasn’t curative – the sages teach that it was repentance that would heal a person and restore them personally, after which they THEN underwent the ritual so they could be officially restored to society; and if you think about it, this is probably what made Yeshua’s healings of lepers especially spectacular to those with eyes to see… because He was actually demonstrating His power to remove/forgive sin).
And when one looks at it this way, the peculiarity which I highlighted before in Leviticus 13:12-17 becomes comprehensible. If tzara’ath was a progressive affliction and its aim was to cause the sufferer to repent through ostracisation, then it stands to reason that a person who’s become completely covered by it from head to toe has reached a point where they are beyond repentance – i.e. they’ve become completely hardened against any sense of wrongdoing.
With such people, there’s no point in disciplining them any longer. Instead, declaring them “clean” and allowing them back into society serves a secondary purpose: being totally covered in tzara’ath, these individuals were bright, white, walking signposts warning others how not to be (… whereas if part of their flesh started to turn normal again, it was possibly a sign that they were beginning to change, and so they were put out of the camp again to make them reflect – and to prevent people from thinking it’s acceptable to sin willfully if you’re a little sorry for it). I believe these are the kinds of people Jude was referring to when he wrote his letter:
For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Likewise also these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries. … But these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves. Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.
These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.
These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage. But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.
And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.
When you compare Jude’s language with the things written in the laws of Leviticus 13-14, there’re elements undeniably descriptive of the metzora, and the sins which incur tzara’ath, about his choice of words. … I don’t think this is a mere coincidence.
In fact, to sum up the law of the metzora, you either had to be completely free of tzara’ath, or completely covered in it, to be considered ritually clean – a fact that recalls Jesus’ words:
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)
Thus it’s those who were in between, who had part of their flesh healthy and part of it diseased, who were ruled ritually impure and unacceptable in Israel’s theocratic society – as if God was telling His people to make up their minds what they would be, so their relationship with Him would be unambiguous and, in that sense, pure.
… Accordingly, when you look at the purification ritual for a healed metzora, some things stand out as being strikingly meaningful. One, as mentioned before, is the fact that the first stage of the ritual resembles the Yom Kippur atonement; the second is that a healed metzora undergoes a sanctification process that’s very similar to priestly dedication (or rather, similar, but reversed at crucial points).
On purifying the afflicted
Like Aaron and his sons, a metzora had to be washed; wear clean garments before approaching the sanctuary; and he had to bring 3 animals, a grain offering, and oil.
In Aaron’s case, the 3 animals were a sin offering+burnt offering and a consecration offering; but for the metzora, it was a trespass offering, then a sin offering+burnt offering. So when you look at the order of sacrifice, you’ll notice that blood consecration came last for the priests; but for the metzora, it came right at the beginning. And to me, this communicates the truth that when you’ve seriously sinned, the first thing that must be addressed is that sin, and it’s where God will heal you first.
Now here’s what was done with the blood and oil:
The priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. And of the rest of the oil in his hand, the priest shall put some on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot, on the blood of the trespass offering. The rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord. (Leviticus 14:14-18)
Not only were Aaron and his sons daubed with blood at the last while the metzora was daubed at the first, but while Aaron’s consecration came from a separate animal, the metzora had to be purified with the blood of his own trespass offering. This indicates that the sins of the metzora were very specific, and it was from these sins that he needed to specifically repent, as signified by the placing of atonement blood on his right ear, thumb and big toe (which, as I’ve mentioned in this post, respectively symbolise one’s ability to hear/obey, what one does, and how one walks).
And here’s the second interesting reversal: Aaron was anointed with oil on his head right at the beginning of the consecration process, before offering his sacrificial animals; but the metzora was anointed after he’d offered the trespass offering, upon which he then also had the oil daubed on his right ear, right thumb and right big toe – on top of the blood – as well as poured on his head.
… To me, this indicates that when it comes to setting apart someone for His purposes, God will call you before He cleanses you; but when it’s about restoration, God will address your sin first, before anointing you again – and in the very places where you sinned. Thus while the oil of Aaron’s anointing signified him being set apart, the metzora’s anointing basically signified a reversal of his former state – or being set apart again, if you will, after the blood of his trespass had been covered – as if the healed person was not just being declared acceptable again, but holy: a sign of deep spiritual restoration.
After this, the usual procedure applied: a sin offering made for unintentional sins, then a burnt offering and grain offering signifying rededication (for more on what the offerings meant, see The sacrifices of God: part II).
So, again, as I’ve written before in Aaron’s dedication: a brief study, when you take the time to really look at the sacrificial system and understand it,
It reveals a God of order, who requires His servants to go through a logical, step-by-step process by which they become acceptable vessels of service; a God of all-encompassing intent and foresight, who vested His ritual instructions with layers of meaning that would echo into the future with an undiminished ability to communicate, illustrate and educate; a God of consistency and absolute reality, who grounds human beings in the truth through the concrete media of visual, tactile worship… who helps us apprehend the heavenly by rooting us in the earthly because He made us, and He knows how we tick.
Consequently when you look at [the rites of the sacrificial system] you see an absolute sequence of events that applies to all believers, its meaning fleshed out in the powerful symbolism of the actions involved.
… And I don’t know about you, but I find that a truly awesome thing to realise.
Some last thoughts
Now after looking at all this, we’re faced with a couple of questions. First: does this mean that all metzora were guilty of the tzara’ath sins? … Well, the honest answer is we can’t say for sure. We only know what Scripture tells us, and can infer a few other things; but Job was a righteous individual and he was struck from head to foot with boils to test him, so there’s a possibility that some metzora were struck for reasons other than sin, as well (though we should recall that when Job was afflicted, he didn’t curse God for it, either).
Second: did all individuals who were guilty of the tzara’ath sins get struck with the disease? Not necessarily. Jesus said in Luke 4:27 that many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, but we know from the Bible record that there were many wicked people living in that same time period who committed sins that would’ve been worthy of tzara’ath, as well – and yet they were not afflicted.
Personally, I think that the presence of tzara’ath was often (if not always) a sign of God’s displeasure, but its absence was not, on the other hand, a guarantee of His favour, either – and this is something that’s true of life in general. Bad things can happen to good people, and many times the wicked carry on unpunished. But in spite of the gaps/silences and ambiguities of Scripture, the word does tell us enough to teach us what we ought to learn, and that is this: he whom the Lord loves, He chastens… so in the end, it will all still come back to our relationship with Him.
What kind of relationship do we have with God?
- Are we people whom He loves, whom He’ll test/discipline when He deems it necessary?
- Are we people who can recognise when that’s happening – who’ll repent and be restored/sanctified in Him once more?
- Or are we those whom God has given up to the tides of earthly fortune – left to go about our business as we ourselves see fit, like the totally engulfed metzora of old, white as wandering stars among His people?
These, I believe, are the enduring questions posed to us by the Biblical figure of the metzora, and they are as relevant to us today as they were in ancient Israel.
Next week, we move on to the Day of Atonement, the sanctity of blood, and the laws of sexual morality. Shalom all, and may you have a blessed week ahead~