Leviticus 13 – The Diagnosis of Leprosy
A. Instructions to the priests for diagnosing leprosy.
1. (1-8) The method of examination for leprosy.
And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean. But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the sore seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore appears to be as it was, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him another seven days. Then the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore has faded, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only a scab, and he shall wash his clothes and be clean. But if the scab should at all spread over the skin, after he has been seen by the priest for his cleansing, he shall be seen by the priest again. And if the priest sees that the scab has indeed spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is leprosy.
a. When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot: This larger part of Leviticus (chapters 11 through 15) deals with laws of purity. In chapter 11, the laws of purity regarding the eating of animals were given. In chapter 12, the laws of purity regarding childbirth were given. In chapters 13 and 14, we have laws regarding growths and sores on the skin, walls, and fabrics. These were investigated for the presence of leprosy.
b. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body: It was the job of the priests of Israel to examine these potentially diseased areas. In this sense, the priests served as public health officers and diagnosed the disease from these carefully defined criteria, not from intuition or guessing.
i. “The Hebrew priest-physicians appear to have been the first in the ancient world to isolate persons suspected of infectious or contagious diseases.” (Harrison)
ii. “The law provided that there should be most careful distinction made between actual leprosy and that which may appear to be leprosy. When the case was a clearly defined one, the method was drastic in the extreme.” (Morgan)
c. If the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore: The methodology in this passage erred on the side of safety. If a person could not be pronounced clean (free from leprosy) with certainty, they were then isolated until they could be pronounced clean.
i. These judgments were based on sound medical diagnosis and concern. These judgments were made with a concern for the benefit of the afflicted person, but with an even greater concern for the health of the community from the outbreak of disease. “These two principles are perpetual in their application. The State should ever have the right of inspection and examination. It should, however, use its right with the greatest care that no wrong be done to any individual.” (Morgan)
ii. “The type of infectious disease is not specified but has often been associated with leprosy (Hansen’s disease), since the noun sara at was translated lepra in the LXX and thus ‘leprosy’ in earlier English translations.” (Rooker)
iii. “The Hebrew word does not exactly correspond to what we call ‘leprosy’ today. It is rather a very general term that perhaps includes ringworm, psoriasis, leucoderma, as well as ‘Hansen’s disease’ (the modern medical terminology used to refer to what is commonly called ‘leprosy’ today).” (Peter-Contesse)
iv. Illnesses such as smallpox, measles, and scarlet fever might start out with a skin condition considered to be leprosy – and the person would be isolated for the necessary time until the condition cleared up. This quarantine helped prevent the spread of these kinds of diseases among the people of Israel.
d. It is leprosy: Leprosy was dealt with so seriously because it was such a horrible disease. It was also a dramatic picture of sin and its spiritual operation in human beings.
i. When leprosy first appears on a victim’s skin, it begins as small, red spots. Before too long they get bigger, start to turn white, having a shiny or scaly appearance. Soon the spots spread over the entire body and the hair begins to fall out – first from the head, then even from the eyebrows. As things get worse, the fingernails and toenails become loose; they start to rot and eventually fall off. Then the joints of fingers and toes begin to rot and start to fall off piece by piece. In the mouth, the gums start shrinking and are unable to hold teeth, so several teeth are often lost. Leprosy keeps eating away at the face until the nose is literally gone, and the palate and even eyes rot – and the victim wastes away until death.
ii. “Even until to-day leprosy is so dire a disease that it completely baffles the skill of the physician. Much may be done to alleviate the distress which it causes, but there is no cure for it. In countries where sanitary laws obtain, it is almost eliminated, but that is done by removing causes, not by curing those suffering from it.” (G. Campbell Morgan in 1926)
iii. “Leprosy was indeed nothing short of a living death, a poisoning of the springs, a corrupting of all the humours of life; a dissolution little by little of the whole body, so that one limb after another actually decayed and fell away.” (Trench in Notes on the Miracles)
iv. “These precautions were taken not merely for sanitary reasons, or to guard against contagion, for it is not certain that leprosy was contagious, but in order that the people might be taught through the parable of leprosy, what a fearful and loathsome thing sin is in the sight of God.” (Taylor)
v. Leprosy is like sin in many ways. There are some good reasons why many ancient rabbis considered a leper as someone already dead. Leprosy is like sin in that:
· It begins as nothing.
· It is painless in its first stages.
· It grows slowly.
· It often remits for a while and then returns.
· It numbs the senses – one cannot feel in the afflicted area.
· It causes decay and deformity.
· It eventually gives a person a repulsive appearance.
vi. “Every man by nature is like a leper, loathsome in his person, infected in all his actions and in all that he does; he is incapable of fellowship with God’s people, and he is shut out utterly and entirely by his sin from the presence and acceptance of God.” (Spurgeon)
vii. “In the light of these considerations, we remember that there came in the fulness of time One Who could not only look at, but touch the leper – One Who could cure. That is also the story of His dealing with sin.” (Morgan)
2. (9-11) Examining a swollen sore.
“When the leprous sore is on a person, then he shall be brought to the priest. And the priest shall examine him; and indeed if the swelling on the skin is white, and it has turned the hair white, and there is a spot of raw flesh in the swelling, it is an old leprosy on the skin of his body. The priest shall pronounce him unclean, and shall not isolate him, for he is unclean.
a. And the priest shall examine him: This section clearly shows the very specific rules for making an exact diagnosis of leprosy. The details given in so many different situations emphasize that God did not want this to be guesswork but the result of careful examination. Such a serious diagnosis should not be guessed.
i. A spot of raw flesh in the swelling: This “showed that this was not a superficial leprosy, but one of a deeper and more malignant nature, that had eaten into the very flesh, for which cause it is in the next verse called an old, or inveterate, or grown leprosy.” (Poole)
b. The priest shall pronounce him unclean, and shall not isolate him: If a man or a woman was diagnosed with leprosy, they were no longer in isolation under the supervision of the priests. They lived on their own, excluded from the larger community of Israel (as described in verses 45-46).
i. “The only thing that the priest could do, was to discover whether or not the disease was actual leprosy. If it were not, then there might be a period of separation, and presently a restoration to the community. If it were leprosy, nothing could be done other than to separate the sufferer completely from others.” (Morgan)
3. (12-17) Examining an outbreak over the entire body.
“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.
a. If leprosy breaks out all over the skin: It is apparent in this chapter that the Biblical term leprosy covered a broader range of skin diseases than the modern technical diagnosis of leprosy.
b. If the leprosy has covered all his body, he shall pronounce him clean: This is counter-intuitive but apparently dealing with these ancient skin diseases, this stage of the disease gave hope for recovery. In addition, it provides a powerful spiritual picture, given the association of leprosy with humanity’s sinful condition.
i. Rooker sees that the key phrase in regard to the one whose leprosy has covered all his body is, it has turned all white. “White skin indicated that a healing of the disease had taken place since the white skin would be new skin that had grown over the raw flesh.”
ii. “At first sight this seems a very extraordinary provision. When the leprosy was beginning to show itself, and whilst the marks were hardly distinguishable, the poor patient was treated as unclean; but, when it had fully developed, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, the priest pronounced the leper clean.” (Meyer)
iii. “As long as we palliate and excuse our sins, and dream that there is much in us which is noble and lovely, we are not fit subjects for God’s saving grace…. we must confess that from the crown of our head to the sole of our foot we are full of need and sin – then we are nearest Christ, and in a fit condition to be richly blest, and made the channel of blessing to others.” (Meyer)
c. He is clean…. he shall be unclean: The priest was to pronounce the afflicted person either clean or unclean, based on the instructions in this chapter.
4. (18-23) Examining a boil on the skin.
“If the body develops a boil in the skin, and it is healed, and in the place of the boil there comes a white swelling or a bright spot, reddish-white, then it shall be shown to the priest; and if, when the priest sees it, it indeed appears deeper than the skin, and its hair has turned white, the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore which has broken out of the boil. But if the priest examines it, and indeed there are no white hairs in it, and it is not deeper than the skin, but has faded, then the priest shall isolate him seven days; and if it should at all spread over the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore. But if the bright spot stays in one place, and has not spread, it is the scar of the boil; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
a. If the body develops a boil in the skin: The priests were given the criteria to examine and judge the severity of boils and their aftermath.
5. (24-28) Examining a burn on the skin.
“Or if the body receives a burn on its skin by fire, and the raw flesh of the burn becomes a bright spot, reddish-white or white, then the priest shall examine it; and indeed if the hair of the bright spot has turned white, and it appears deeper than the skin, it is leprosy broken out in the burn. Therefore the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore. But if the priest examines it, and indeed there are no white hairs in the bright spot, and it is not deeper than the skin, but has faded, then the priest shall isolate him seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day. If it has at all spread over the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a leprous sore. But if the bright spot stays in one place, and has not spread on the skin, but has faded, it is a swelling from the burn. The priest shall pronounce him clean, for it is the scar from the burn.
a. If the body receives a burn on its skin by fire: The priests were given the criteria to examine and judge the severity of burns and their aftermath.
b. The raw flesh of the burn becomes a bright spot: The examination and diagnosis of the skin diseases associated with a burn were the same as those associated with a boil (verses 18-23).
6. (29-37) Examining sores in the midst of hair.
“If a man or woman has a sore on the head or the beard, then the priest shall examine the sore; and indeed if it appears deeper than the skin, and there is in it thin yellow hair, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a scaly leprosy of the head or beard. But if the priest examines the scaly sore, and indeed it does not appear deeper than the skin, and there is no black hair in it, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the scale seven days. And on the seventh day the priest shall examine the sore; and indeed if the scale has not spread, and there is no yellow hair in it, and the scale does not appear deeper than the skin, he shall shave himself, but the scale he shall not shave. And the priest shall isolate the one who has the scale another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine the scale; and indeed if the scale has not spread over the skin, and does not appear deeper than the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean. He shall wash his clothes and be clean. But if the scale should at all spread over the skin after his cleansing, then the priest shall examine him; and indeed if the scale has spread over the skin, the priest need not seek for yellow hair. He is unclean. But if the scale appears to be at a standstill, and there is black hair grown up in it, the scale has healed. He is clean, and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
a. If a man or a woman has a sore on the head or the beard: The priests were given the criteria to examine and judge the severity of skin problems associated with hairy parts of the body.
i. A man or a woman: “The additional specification referring to the woman does not indicate that women were excluded from the previous cases but that rather because the following case involves specifically an infection on the beard it could be assumed that women were exempt. The text indicates that they were not.” (Rooker)
ii. It is a scaly leprosy: “The word used here literally means ‘a tearing off,’ something so annoying that the person who has it cannot keep his hands off it.” (Peter-Contesse)
b. He is clean, and the priest shall pronounce him clean: The priest had the power to declare someone clean or unclean, but only on the basis of what God had specifically commanded. The true power was not in the priest’s pronouncement but in his application of what God’s word instructed.
i. “If the priest had partially pronounced one clean who was not clean, his sentence had been null. And therefore it is a fond and dangerous conceit to think that the absolution given to any sinner by a priest will stand him in any stead if he do not truly repent.” (Poole)
7. (38-39) Examining bright spots on the skin.
“If a man or a woman has bright spots on the skin of the body, specifically white bright spots, then the priest shall look; and indeed if the bright spots on the skin of the body are dull white, it is a white spot that grows on the skin. He is clean.
a. If a man or a woman has bright spots on the skin of the body: The priests were given the criteria to examine and judge the severity of white bright spots and their aftermath.
8. (40-44) Examining skin associated with hair loss.
“As for the man whose hair has fallen from his head, he is bald, but he is clean. He whose hair has fallen from his forehead, he is bald on the forehead, but he is clean. And if there is on the bald head or bald forehead a reddish-white sore, it is leprosy breaking out on his bald head or his bald forehead. Then the priest shall examine it; and indeed if the swelling of the sore is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, as the appearance of leprosy on the skin of the body, he is a leprous man. He is unclean. The priest shall surely pronounce him unclean; his sore is on his head.
a. As for the man whose hair has fallen from his head: The scriptures pronounce such a man to be bald, yet he is clean. Through the centuries, this has been a comfort to men who lose their hair.
i. He is bald on the forehead: “The Hebrew had a special word for this type of baldness as opposed to the baldness on the top of the head. It is related to the verb meaning ‘to be high’ and is always used in contrast with the baldness of the top of the head. Compare the English expression ‘to have a high forehead.’” (Peter-Contesse)
b. If there is on the bald head or bald forehead a reddish-white sore: The priests were given the criteria to examine and judge the severity of sores that appear where the hair has been lost, and their aftermath.
9. (45-46) The result of leprosy.
“Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
a. His clothes shall be torn and his head bare: Once the diagnosis of leprosy was confirmed, everything changed for the leper. They lived in a perpetual state of mourning and in a perpetual state of public disgrace (he shall…cry “Unclean! Unclean!”). Furthermore, they were commanded to live in a perpetual state of exclusion (he shall dwell alone).
i. “The leprous person is required to be as one that mourned for the dead, or for some great and public calamity.” (Clarke)
ii. He shall dwell alone: “The emphasis is not on complete separation from all others, since people with this condition were permitted to live with each other, but they had to be away from the rest of the community (see 2 Kings 7:3–10).” (Peter-Contesse)
b. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone: As strict as all this was, eventually many of the Jewish people went further in excluding lepers from society. In the days of Jesus many Jews thought two things about a leper: You are the walking dead and you deserve this because this is the punishment of God against you.
i. Jewish custom said that you should not even greet a leper, and you had to stay six feet (two meters) away from them. One rabbi bragged that he would not even buy an egg on a street where he saw a leper, and another boasted that he threw rocks at lepers to keep them from coming close. Some rabbis didn’t even allow a leper to wash his face.
ii. But Jesus was different. He loved lepers; He touched them and healed them when they had no hope at all (such as in Matthew 8:1-4 and Luke 17:11-19).
iii. Because of modern drugs and treatments, leprosy is almost unknown in the western world. At one time there were two leper colonies in the United States, but they have been closed. Yet, worldwide there are some 15 million lepers, almost all of them in developing nations.
B. Diagnosing fabrics and leather contaminated by leprosy.
1. (47-52) Contaminated garments to be destroyed.
“Also, if a garment has a leprous plague in it, whether it is a woolen garment or a linen garment, whether it is in the warp or woof of linen or wool, whether in leather or in anything made of leather, and if the plague is greenish or reddish in the garment or in the leather, whether in the warp or in the woof, or in anything made of leather, it is a leprous plague and shall be shown to the priest. The priest shall examine the plague and isolate that which has the plague seven days. And he shall examine the plague on the seventh day. If the plague has spread in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, in the leather or in anything made of leather, the plague is an active leprosy. It is unclean. He shall therefore burn that garment in which is the plague, whether warp or woof, in wool or in linen, or anything of leather, for it is an active leprosy; the garment shall be burned in the fire.
a. If a garment has a leprous plague in it: In Old Testament times, the term leprosy had a broad definition and could include some forms of mold, mildew, or fungus.
i. In the warp or woof: “While the interpretation is far from certain, the meaning of these words is probably ‘any woven or knitted material.’” (Peter-Contesse)
b. The priest shall examine the plague: The priests had to make careful determination to see if a garment might pass on a contagious disease or if it could still be used. Fabrics were presented to the priest and isolated for seven days. If the mildew had spread after seven days, the fabric was burned.
2. (53-58) Garments that can be washed and preserved.
“But if the priest examines it, and indeed the plague has not spread in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, or in anything made of leather, then the priest shall command that they wash the thing in which is the plague; and he shall isolate it another seven days. Then the priest shall examine the plague after it has been washed; and indeed if the plague has not changed its color, though the plague has not spread, it is unclean, and you shall burn it in the fire; it continues eating away, whether the damage is outside or inside. If the priest examines it, and indeed the plague has faded after washing it, then he shall tear it out of the garment, whether out of the warp or out of the woof, or out of the leather. But if it appears again in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, or in anything made of leather, it is a spreading plague; you shall burn with fire that in which is the plague. And if you wash the garment, either warp or woof, or whatever is made of leather, if the plague has disappeared from it, then it shall be washed a second time, and shall be clean.
a. And indeed the plague has not spread in the garment: If the mold or mildew or fungus had not spread, the garment could be washed and isolated for another seven days. If the mildew remained after that seven days, the item was burned.
b. The plague has faded after washing: If the mold or mildew or fungus had faded, the infected portion could be torn away.
c. If it appears again: If the mold or mildew or fungus returned, the article was to be burned.
d. If the plague has disappeared from it: If after a washing the mold or mildew or fungus was gone, the garment or fabric could be used again after a second washing.
3. (59) Summary of the law regarding leprous garments and in leather.
“This is the law of the leprous plague in a garment of wool or linen, either in the warp or woof, or in anything made of leather, to pronounce it clean or to pronounce it unclean.”