Leviticus 14-15

Good morning! This section of Leviticus is where we earn our merit badges! Passages like today’s in Leviticus 14-15 have me wondering about the wisdom of reading the entire Bible in a year. Thankfully, modern medicine has advanced significantly beyond these ancient treatments for skin and reproductive system disorders. I read with curiosity for how other cultures might have treated similar situations, and how these remedies might have indirectly helped the health of the whole people.

At the beginning of chapter 14, it feels like we’re reading an ancient medical textbook—and I suppose we are as close to one as there was in those times. The combination of “two living clean birds and cedar wood and crimson yarn and hyssop” that are required for the ritual after a skin disease is cured sounds no different from what we would now dismiss as witchcraft. (Maybe this means we need to regard ancient rituals from beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition with more kindness.) The repeated shaving of hair for a person being cleansed is because it was thought that porous hair could hold on to unclean impurities even after a person bathes. Making guilt and sin offerings in response to being cleansed suggests a theology that being sick is a sign of sinfulness—a (flawed) theology that continues into our own time. The latter part of this chapter reveals that the priest is also part of the public works and inspection division, responding to complaints of diseases in a house. I can imagine that the remedies of taking fungi or other putrid discolorations outside the camp could keep plagues and epidemics from wiping out a people. Such quality control would at least encourage people to be vigilant about maintaining the cleanliness of their homes.

Chapter 15 focuses on natural and unnatural bodily fluids, so I’ll understand if you want to skim or skip over this one. Reading with curiosity, I’m trying to imagine the life of someone who has an active sexually-transmitted infection (which is what the discharge from a male “member” sounds like to me). Such a person would be perpetually unclean unless their body cured itself, which means that according to these rules the person would forever be on the margins of Hebrew society. Perhaps this served to protect the whole of the people, lest a disease be passed around unchecked. Likewise, does naming something as commonplace as ejaculation or menstruation “unclean” and calling for ritual baths, help people stay cleaner than they would otherwise? At least the priestly architects of these rules recognize a distinction between normal and abnormal bodily function, in that at least there’s no guilt/sin offering after ejaculation or menstruation, though there is after infections.

I find two redeeming virtues in these Levitical laws, even as I look forward to getting through them before much longer. First, the fact that such usually-private bodily functions are discussed in such detail in the Bible shows that God cares about “our whole lives” (which is the title of a sexuality education curriculum often used in the United Church of Christ). If the Torah gives this much space to describe (one ideal for) healthy sexuality, it suggests that nothing is too private or off-limits for God. Second, note that these ancient treatments are given from the Lord to Moses. If that’s the case, then all the later advancements in science, medicine and public health may be regarded as divine in origin as well. I am grateful that “God is still speaking” about healing in body as well as soul, and has revealed different methods for treating sickness in our own time. “Happy” reading!

Read Leviticus 14-15.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Leviticus 16-18. Thanks for reading!

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