We are studying Leviticus 13:45-46 along with Luke 17:11-19 for Sunday, July 2. The Leviticus text is background for the Luke story, because it probably explains why Jesus encounters ten lepers “outside a town,” and why they keep their distance when asking Jesus for mercy.
“Leprosy” has a place in what we might call “the Christian imaginary.” I have a well-developed mental picture of lepers in the ancient world, a composite of Ben Hur, the scene from Jesus Christ Superstar where all the sick people are crawling out of caves and reaching out for Jesus, The Mummy (which is how we know lepers always look), that scene from Cabaret where Sally Bowles jokes acidly about her father’s telegrammatic indifference (“sincerely hope nose doesn’t fall off”), and an enthusiastic sermon or two. I suspect others have similar mental images.
That image probably explains why “leper” and “pariah” are functionally synonymous terms.
Jewish commentary on this part of Leviticus almost invariably begins with insistence that “leprosy” is an improper translation of tzaraat, the Hebrew term for the disease referred to in Leviticus 13 and 14. Whatever tzaraat actually is, and that is debatable and much debated, it’s not Hansen’s disease – what the modern, microbially informed world means by “leprosy.” That’s not even what the Greek lepra, the Septuagint’s translation of tzaraat, seems to have meant. Lepra, which seems to be the source of our English term “leprosy,” seems to have meant some kind of “scaly” skin disease.
In short, we should DEFINITELY NOT look up “leprosy” in a dictionary or on Google, read about Hansen’s disease, and then read that meaning back onto the Biblical text. Or pay any attention to “commentators” who do that. [Stop bad exegesis!]
So here are a few points about leprosy in the Hebrew Bible we might want to keep in mind as background for our study of Luke 17:11-19:
There are several significant stories about people afflicted with tzaraat in the Hebrew Bible; in most cases, those people are socially important, as well as narratively important:
- Moses (Exodus 4:6-7 – where the tzaraat and its instantaneous healing are a divine sign)
- Miriam (Numbers 12 – where it’s a punishment for gossiping about Moses; this story seems to be the ground for the rabbinical idea that tzaraat was in particular a punishment for evil speech, or slander; notice that the entire community waits for her cleansing before moving camp)
- Naaman (2 Kings 5 – a story Luke’s Jesus mentions specifically in Luke 4:27, as an example of God’s care for non-Israelites; in the conclusion of the story, Elisha’s servant Gehazi and his progeny are cursed with tzaraat.)
- Four Samarians who report the lifting of the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 7 – perhaps interestingly, they do not seem to be living “alone,” and they become messengers of good news)
- King Azariah / Uzziah of Judah (2 Kings 15:1-7, 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 – the tzaraat doesn’t prevent the king from being king, but it requires special administrative measures; 2 Chronicles tells a complete story about the tzaraat being a divine punishment for overstepping the king’s role)
The prescribed response of the Israelite community to tzaraat, in a person, a place, or a thing, is ritual and exclusive. So, tzaraat can afflict houses and materials. (Not so Hansen’s disease. Places and things no doubt cannot themselves gossip or slander, but maybe their owners can.) Once a priest has discerned tzaraat, and while afflicted with it, a person with tzaraat, a matzora, has to “live alone, outside the camp,” in a state similar to a state of mourning (torn clothes, dissheveled hair), and has to self-identify as “unclean.” See Leviticus 13:45-46.
One way to think about this is that tzaraat is a spiritual condition that manifests itself physically. It will make a difference to how we read the Leviticus text whether we see the prescribed treatment as “punitive” or “therapeutic.”
A clue that we ought to consider it therapeutic is that Leviticus 14 describes in detail a ritual for cleansing the matzora and restoring the person to the community. Notice that the procedure involves some of the same ritual action as used for the consecration of a priest (Leviticus 8:10-13 and 22-24). That is, the text suggests that cleansing will occur. [This ritual action seems to be implied in Jesus’s instruction to the ten in Luke 17 to go show themselves to the priests.]
If we follow the sages of the Talmud in thinking that tzaraat is an affliction imposed for wicked speech, gossip or slander, the solitude prescribed for the matzora might amount to particularly fitting therapy. Solitude affords the person no opportunity for gossip or slander; presumably forces the person to confront themselves and to spend a lot of time communicating with God; and reawakens the person’s appreciation for the community, which their gossip or slander wounded. [As long as that’s not too kindly a reading of text that probably strikes modern readers as cruel treatment of someone who’s ill, and as blaming the victim of affliction for their affliction.]
Here are some additional sources on tzaraat:
- Tamar Fox, “Tzaraat – A Biblical Affliction,” at My Jewish Learning
- Rachel Adler, “A Disease that Walls Get? Decoding Tzaraat and Facing Our Fears” at Reform Judaism – draws out the associations of tzaraat with death
- R.G. Cochrane, “Biblical Leprosy: A Suggested Interpretation” at BiblicalStudies.org – this is really long, and goes into the history of the disease of leprosy in the modern era, Biblical translation issues, and Christian exegesis
- Dr. Chaim Trachtman, “Tzaraat as Cancer,” at TheTorah.com – this is just really interesting, for a couple of reasons: 1, the suggestion that tzaraat might have had something to do with melanoma, which seems novel, and 2, Trachtman’s reflections on the significance of disease as a spiritual metaphor, and some of the difficult implications of what we do with that.