Saturday, November 12, 2016
Preparing for my Leviticus Sunday School class (audio of previous weeks available here), I came across a passage that grabbed my eye:
“When you have come into the land of Canaan, which I give you as a possession, and I put the leprous plague in a house in the land of your possession...” (14:34)
It seemed strange to me that God, the Holy One in whom there is no uncleanness, should put the tsaarat (translated “leprosy” in the NKJV, rather unhelpfully) in His land. This strangeness propelled me further into the text, giving me a new understanding of what the tsaarat is all about. The word translated “plague” is relatively rare before the tsaarat regulations in Lev. 13-14, occurring only two times in the Torah previously. Most of the time after the Levitical legislation, it has the semantic range of some sort of “strike.” The two places before Leviticus, though, are pregnant with meaning: Gen. 12:17 and Ex. 11:1.
In Gen. 12, Abram has just been told by God that this land of Canaan shall be given to him as a possession, so that he might become a blessing to all the families of the earth. Afterwards, at some point, the land gets hit with a severe famine, forcing Abram to flee to Egypt (the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean world) with Sarai, his wife. While there, Abraham poses as her brother (long story) and Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. “But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (v. 17).
In Ex. 11:1, YHWH is telling Moses about the final blow against Egypt, the death of the firstborn: “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. Afterwards he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will surely drive you out of here altogether.” Curiously, this is the first time the word “plague” has been used to reference what we normally call the Ten Plagues. Before this they were called “signs,” “wonders,” and “strikes/blows” against Egypt. As mentioned before, the word “plague” most often has an intensified sense of “strike,” so this isn’t necessarily surprising.
By the time we get to Leviticus and the discussion of the tsaarat, the only instances of the plague-terminology have been directed against Egypt, both times concerning -- at some remove in the case of the Genesis story -- the inheritance of Canaan. This helps, I think, to explain what tsaarat is, and why it comes upon the people when it does (which is rare -- only Miriam, Joab’s family by curse, Naaman the Syrian, some random lepers in 2 Kings, and Uzziah the king are recorded to have it in the OT). To have tsaarat is to be under the curse of the Egyptians (Ex. 15:16; Deut. 7:15), which is one of the final stages of covenant disinheritance (Deut. 28:60). Tsaarat is a powerful sign of the corruption of death in the world, a literal rotting, that is a sign of broken communion between God and His creatures. For Israel to be afflicted with tsaarat is a sign of great judgment, as they are to be the beacons of God’s purposes to the world: they are to show the proper divisions of the primordial creation, not the confusions of the world’s corruption under mankind (hence the food laws being divided by land creatures, sea creatures, and air creatures -- each ‘clean’ kind needing locomotion appropriate to where they live). For this reason, all leprous clothes must be burned, all leprous buildings must be torn down, and all leprous persons must be placed outside of the holy camp -- cut off from all society and required to announce the judgment upon them. (While it would take more time than I have to explore it, it is curious that many of the instances of tsaarat in the OT -- Miriam, Joab, Uzziah -- occur because of hubris.) Tsaarat, then, is a sign that should be paid close attention to when it occurs: it is evocative of everything wrong with the creation since the Fall and a means, therefore, of God’s cleansing judgment. It is not the ultimate uncleanness, death, but acts in a similar fashion: anything or anyone who touches a tsaarat-infected thing becomes unclean themselves. There is no cure listed.
When we reach the New Testament, tsaarat seems to be rampant. Yet, there is a difference. Jesus is easily able to clean the lepers He encounters; yet He adjures that they still follow the Levitical protocol: “go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matt. 8:4). What, exactly, is this testimony? It is that the Lord has come among them; they have been afflicted with the Egyptian curse, they have been in exile even in their own land, but now God has come, bringing cleansing and hope to the hopelessness of creation’s corruption by sin and death. The judgment is coming to an end, if they will repent and believe the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.