The laws in those two chapters about quarantine or isolation benefit humanity. They come from God’s heart of love for people. Yet, there is a ceremonial uncleanness that the New Testament rises above even for disease, but how?
These two chapters in Leviticus are very long. So it would go past my purpose here to interpret the details. Online commentators, particularly Jews, can do that. (Google: Lev. 13 from a Jewish perspective.) Warning! Even some modern Jewish commentators seem disrespectful of these ancient laws, taking on slight condescension! However, it is clear to me that God put these laws in place to protect people. And laws that protect people come from the God who loves them. Yet let’s mot lose sight of the biblical truth that unclean and clean things have a moral dimension.
This post does not examine these laws symbolically (except maybe a little), but it asks how the New Covenant Scriptures deal with them, when they involve atonement sacrifices.
For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:
Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.
The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.
Here are some basic ideas from Lev. 13.
The priest was like a public health officer. It is difficult to call him a doctor as we know the term, but he had to have a high level of knowledge about skin diseases, so let’s call him a “proto-doctor,” if you will.
The skin diseases go beyond leprosy and can include poxes (e.g. small pox) or measles or scarlet fever.
The main theme of the chapter is whether the disease was virulent, spreading, and deeper than just the skin.
No medication is prescribed because nothing was available, though oil was put on the cleansed person. But the main way for keeping the community safe was a system which quarantined the infected Israelite. Somehow the proto-doctor figured out that contact spread the disease–the right and accurate conclusion.
More specifically, the diseased person was not to be quarantined in the house, for that would defeat the purpose of the quarantine. The disease could spread to family members. Instead the person had to go outside the camp. Good idea for the family and the larger community. Until recently people were put in “Pest Houses” to quarantine or isolate them (Harris, p. 578). It’s the same idea, only the levitical laws were done thousands of years ago.
What is tragic for those with permanent skin disease are these verses:
45 “The person who has a case of serious skin disease is to have his clothes torn and his hair hanging loose, and he must cover his mouth and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ 46 He will remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He must live alone in a place outside the camp.
He had to shout out his condition, even after covering his mouth, so the shout must have been muffled (inadvertent spitting on people was a bad idea; see Lev. 15:8). He announced to his whole world that he was a reject. Worst of all: “he must live alone outside the camp.” These laws of quarantine or isolation were tough emotionally and individually, but they still had to be done for good of the larger society.
Now let’s transition to mold or mildew, while remaining in Lev. 13.
Mold or mildew was a concern in clothing and houses. People’s clothing could be moldy, and the proto-doctor had to examine it to be sure it was not communicable. They couldn’t take chances back then. Caution is better than endangerment in this situation.
The article of clothing had to be washed and quarantined or isolated for seven days. If the mold remained but did not spread, it was unclean. Burn it in fire, a natural germ killer (Lev. 13:53-55).
If the mold did not spread but faded after washing, the proto-doctor could tear out that part and presumably quarantine the better part and infected part to see what happened to it. If it reappeared or spread, it was to be burned. If the mold or mildew disappeared, it was to be washed again and presumably quarantined to watch it. If the mildew did not come back, it was clean, or may have been declared clean after the washing.
As for the “infections” or mildew in the houses, the priest was to examine the house. If he saw mold, he ordered the stones to be taken out and placed outside the camp and replaced with new stones and clay. The house was to be quarantined for seven days. After seven days, if the mold had spread, the house could even be torn down entirely. However, if the mildew had not spread after it had been newly plastered, the house was declared clean. “The priest was to pronounce the house clean” (14:48). Speaking healing out loud is a good thing to do. Everything returned to normal.
In Lev. 14 laws of cleansing were prescribed, so let’s transition to this chapter.
For personal diseases, the laws involve shaving hair and ceremonial uncleanness. Bathing and washing was imperative, advanced for its time, when much of the world lives in squalor even today.
The laws also involved sacrifices. Why? It could be the case that the ancient Israelites, living under the Sinai covenant, which predicted all sorts of afflictions on them for disobeying the law, believed that divine judgment was a possibility (Deut. 28:15-68). Those laws in the linked passage are not pretty. (Anyone dare to go there and read them?) After all, Lev. 14:34 clarifies the issue: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession, and I place a mildew contamination in a house in the land you possess …” (Lev. 14:34, CSB, emphasis added). So it looks as though God may be judging someone and put mildew on the house, if we interpret the verse literally (and some interpreters do not; they say, “In Hebrew idiom, what God is said to cause is actually what he allows”).
Therefore, the priests could not take the chance that God’s wrath was not being poured out on a community for disobedience. Sacrifices had to be offered: the sin, the guilt, the burnt, and the grain offerings. But they seemed to be modified or added to, probably because of the unusual circumstances.
As for the infections in the house and clothing, this was less personal. The priest was to take two birds, cedar wood, and scarlet yarn and hyssop. One bird was killed over fresh water in a clay pot. The other items (live bird, wood, hyssop and scarlet yarn) were dipped in the blood of the dead bird that was in the fresh water. He sprinkled the blood on the house seven times. The reddish color of the cedar wood and the scarlet color may correspond to the blood and symbolize life that was in the blood (17:11) (BTSB on 14:4). The ritual duly performed, the house or clothes were declared clean. Then the priest released the live bird in the open fields outside of town. “In this way he will make atonement for the house, and it will be clean” (14:53). Forgiveness was not needed, but ceremonial cleanness was. Presumably the bird carried on it the disease and pestilence away from the town, so it would not spread. It must have been a community event, as the inhabitants went out with the priest to the open fields to watch the bird fly away, with the blood of the other bird on it. Apparently the Lord God was appeased and the mildew-mold was lifted, after people had taken practical action.
How does the New Covenant view the laws of Leviticus 13 and 14?
What is so interesting about the remedy for these laws are the sacrifices. They are done to pronounce people clean (14:7). Israel was a holy nation and anyone unclean desecrated nation. Therefore, to reenter the holy nation, the ritual of purification had to be performed through sacrifice, after the infected person was visibly seen to be clean (BTSB on Lev. 14:12).
However, there may be another purpose.
As noted, the sacrifices seem to be designed to stop God’s divine punishment. Deut. 28:15-68 spell out the punishments. In the Sinai covenant, God would inflict punishment. Miriam was inflicted with a defiling skin disease: “When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease” (Num. 12:10). She was shown mercy and healed, but she still was sent outside the camp for seven says.
In the context of David’s unauthorized census: “So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead” (1 Chron. 21:14). And recall Lev. 14:34: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession, and I place a mildew contamination in a house in the land you possess …” (CSB). God may have caused the mildew or mold. (But some interpreters says that in Hebrew idiom, what God is said to cause is what he actually allows.) The priest couldn’t risk the skin diseases or molds coming about as divine punishment. Sacrifices had to be done. The animals took the punishment for the person, as a substitution.
However, the Sinai covenant was purposed only for a very small nation and does not apply anymore across the world. See my post:
So now what is God’s ultimate remedy in the New Covenant, which is better than animal sacrifices? Healing, just like healing or cleanness, was declared on the infected person. In the Old Covenant, sacrifices came after healing, to allow the formally infected person to come back in to the sacred community. But the healing in the New Covenant comes through Christ’s ultimate sacrifice–an eternally effective atonement. The sick person is never excluded from the New Covenant, whether he is healed physically or not.
First, in Is. 53, the Messiah will take on himself our iniquities and suffering and pain and heal our wounds.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:4-6)
In other words, we don’t have to sacrifice animals to atone for sins that may possibly lead to disease. Nor do we have to sacrifice animals to get God to heal us or accept us back into the New Covenant or the kingdom community. Jesus took all of those afflictions on himself and opened the way to healing in his name and never rejected us, during our disease. He never isolated us from the holy kingdom community.
Second, Matthew picks up this theme of healing through Jesus’s sacrifice and applies it to the beginning of his ministry, setting the stage for the rest of it:
16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“He took up our infirmities
and bore our diseases.” [Is. 53:4] (Matt. 8:16-17)
Third, Peter has the same insight:
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:24)
Here’s is just one instance of how Jesus applied his healing those with skin disease in a very moving scene:
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-13)
The NIV translators note that that the term for leprosy includes more skin diseases than just that one.
It seems evident and conclusive that healing is in the atonement, but it can get complicated nowadays. Please see my post:
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
As noted, please don’t make fun of or condescend towards these laws. They may seem primitive to us, but they were designed to protect people. God put them in place, as he spoke to his people in their own culture, which was not as scientifically advanced as ours, to safeguard them, not restrict them for the purpose of taking the joy out of living. Laws that protect people come from the God who loves them. Isolation without the religious overtones and connection to holiness on a moral level (to some degree) benefited society. Therefore, if we momentarily take away the holiness-moral aspect, this need for physical cleanliness is evident and still valid when we see that much of the world lives in squalor. People have to be taught to rise above their mammal nature and realize they are also made in the image of God.
See my post with lots of Scripture:
Finally, I am really moved by this passage about lepers who had to shout “unclean, unclean!” and live rejected lives. These verses speak of gratitude from a Samaritan who was doubly rejected by virtue of his leprosy and his being a Samaritan:
11 And so it happened that as he was going to Jerusalem, he passed through the middle of Samaria and Galilee. 12 He entered a certain village, and ten men with sin disease met him at a distance. 13 They raised their voice and said, “Master, pity us!” 14 He looked and said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests!” And it happened that as they were going away, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, seeing that he was healed, turned around, and with a loud voice glorified God. 16 He fell right in front of his feet, thanking him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus responded and said, “Weren’t ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18 Were none of them found returning to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.” (Luke 17:11-19, my translation)
“And he was a Samaritan” (v. 16). He glorified God with a loud voice. He shouted his happiness and gratitude. If you ever get a terminal illness, please seek the resurrected Jesus. He is alive and willing to heal you. You may have to go through treatment, but glorify God all the way through your process healing. Never give up. You will either get healed down here on earth, or you will get your ultimate healing with your new glorified body in the heavenly kingdom. In the meantime, down here on earth, God never rejects you or calls you unclean or unholy on a covenant or relational level. He always accepts you, whether sick or healthy.