Tazria: Messiah's Eternal Sacrifice
Updated: Jan 19
Leviticus 12 -13
Our portion this week covers two main subjects;
Childbirth (and associated uncleanness)
A number of factors link the two subjects but for ease we’ll split the two chapters this week and address them separately.
Before we begin however I wanted to note that at this point in scripture that we’re going to come across some uncomfortable subjects. I wanted to warn you that certain things and phrases are now officially on the table. So let’s mention them now, feel uncomfortable, get over it, and then talk about it. Firstly, child birth, it includes a whole bunch of discharges that cause ritual uncleanliness so I suppose we’ll be talking about ‘discharges’ at some point. Menstruating, we’re going to talk about menstruating; it’s weird for me, but hey it’s in the Bible. At some point in the near future the Torah will discuss genital discharges; what’s a more awkward phrase, that or ‘lochia’, which is also mentioned (don’t look that up!)? We’ve also got leprosy, it’s not actual leprosy but the Bible also talks about the ‘discharges’ from this skin disease. It’s kind of gross but God put it in there too.
The sages say, ‘live in the times’, meaning that we should all be immersed in the cycle of Torah Study and that our life should be in sync with God’s word. Well, what a time to be alive!!
Part of the opening phrase to our portion this week, found in Leviticus 12, is ‘when a woman has conceived…’ and the portion continues to discuss how, when giving birth, that a women becomes unclean and then explains the prescribed ways in which she can remedy this. It includes a period of time, 7 days or 14 days depending on the gender of her child, where she is like a ‘menstruant’ (i.e. a woman who is menstruating) and how there is then another period of time, either 33 or 66 days, where she is considered unclean with regard to the tabernacle.
I’ll try my best to clarify and explain but I suppose the first hurdle is in realizing that the process of giving birth, or of menstruating, places a woman in an ‘impure’ or ‘unclean’ state.
To begin I wanted to clarify a couple of practical aspects with regard to the process of uncleanliness.
First, a woman, though unclean from birthing, is not exiled from the camp due to this. History suggests that Jewish settlements had a place where menstruating women could go, but I want to stress that the Bible does not say to exile them.
Secondly, the first 7 or 14 days of her period of uncleanliness is distinct from the remaining 33 or 66 days. The first period of time the woman is considered to be like a woman who is menstruating. At this point the Torah hasn’t detailed the laws pertaining to menstruation but they can be read in Leviticus 15 as below;
Leviticus 15:19–24 (The Scriptures)
19 ‘And when a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her flesh is blood, she has to be in her separation for seven days. And whoever touches her is unclean until evening.
20 ‘And whatever she lies on during her separation is unclean. And whatever she sits on is unclean.
21 ‘And anyone who touches her bed has to wash his garments, and shall bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.
22 ‘And whoever touches any object that she sat on has to wash his garments, and shall bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.
23 ‘And if it is on the bed or on any object on which she sits, when he touches it, he is unclean until evening.
24 ‘And if any man lies with her at all, and her monthly flow is on him, he shall be unclean seven days. And any bed he lies on is unclean.
From this we learn that during the first period of time that the woman’s uncleanliness is transmittable. Therefore, if she touches anyone it makes the other person unclean. The person who becomes unclean from her touch can’t spread uncleanliness but the menstruant can during this time period. Due to this you have the existence, as I mentioned above, of a place where menstruating woman could go so as to not spread their uncleanliness. This practice appears to have been widespread during the first millennium.
A fragment from the Qumran Scrolls reads ‘and in every city you shall allot places…for the women during the menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they may not defile in their midst with their menstrual impurity.’ The Mishna makes mention of ‘a house for impure woman’ and the Tosefta also discusses ‘washing places for women’. Josephus also attests to the quarantine of women for 7 days due to menstrual impurity.
With regard to menstrual impurity you might have heard of it as a woman’s time of ‘niddah’, which is the Hebrew word (or ‘niddot’) that is translated as ‘menstrual impurity’ in our text. Niddah refers to menstruation but it also became a phrase synonymous with the woman herself. The laws of niddah are those pertaining to a menstruant and typically niddah, due its spread of impurity, refers to a woman’s ‘time of separation’. If someone ever asks you ‘do you practice niddah?’, they are most likely referring to the period of separation between a man and woman where they do not have sex during this time; biblically speaking, that’s a no deal.
Thirdly, during the remaining 33 or 66 days, the woman remains impure but not as a menstruant. Her impurity goes down a level and in this regard we need to recognize that there are actually different levels of impurity within the Bible. It’s quite a complex system but the sages broke it down in an easy way to understand. The system goes something like this and it includes its own titles for the different levels;
Father of Fathers of Impurity
This is the highest level of impurity and refers to the impurity of a corpse. Simply been under the same roof as a corpse renders you unclean and that contamination can only be removed by the ashes of the red heifer.
Father of Impurity
A ‘father of impurity’ refers to impurity that contaminates other people and objects through direct contact. Examples include a person who has touched a corpse, a person with a sexual disease involving a genital discharge, a menstruating woman or a leper
First Degree of Impurity
A person who has contact with a ‘father of impurity’ contracts ‘first degree impurity’. This renders the person unclean but they cannot contaminate other people or objects; they can however contaminate food and liquid. A person with first degree impurity can neither eat sanctified food (i.e. peace offerings) nor go to the Temple.
Second Degree of Impurity
Second degree impurity refers to foods, liquids and human hands. Second degree impurity is not communicable to people or objects but it can defile sanctified food and for this reason priests were required to wash their hands every time they entered the Tabernacle.
A new mother contracts impurity as a ‘father of impurity’ until immersed after 7 or 14 days of giving birth. Following this she continued in first degree impurity until completing her 40 or 80 days after child birth.
Male/Female – Why the difference?
The difference with regard to the period of impurity changes depending on the sex of the child being born. It is twice as long for a girl as a boy.
There have been many suggestions as to why this may be ranging from suggestions that the discharge following the birth of a daughter is longer than that of a boy (which isn’t true) to midrashim suggesting that Eve was admitted into Eden 80 days after been created whilst Adam was admitted after 40 (which is also not true). One suggestion is that the impurity is shorter for boys because of their need for circumcision however this holds no weight as circumcision doesn’t address ritual impurity and circumcision, which is for the boy, has no impact whatsoever on the purity status of the mother.
No matter how you slice it ‘the reason for the disparity between the sexes is unknown’ (Jacob Milgrom). One suggestion I thought was interesting, from Rabbi Daniel of jewisheyes.org, gets at the heart of ritual purity and impurity. I’ll explain;
Now within the ancient world, the difference between the two (clean and unclean) was deeply connected to demonology and in many cases impurity was considered a demonic possession of sorts. Cultic rituals from other nations contemporary with Israel often included magic and a form of exorcism. What we need to remember though is that the words of Leviticus expel this form of ancient thinking and remove the demonic concepts so readily associated with Temples and Priesthoods in the ancient world. Rather than ‘demonic contamination’ the underlying concept behind impurity and purity in the Bible is life and death. Purity is associated with life and impurity with death, not demons. For this reason, the loss of blood inclusive of menstruation is considered unclean because of its association with death, not because a woman’s menstrual blood contains demonic contamination. Why the greater length of impurity for a girl then? Rabbi Daniel suggests because the birth of a girl contributes to the cycle of life and by default the cycle of death. I don’t necessarily prescribe to this theory but of the many suggested this is perhaps the most interesting.
Why a Sin Offering?
Following the woman’s period of separation she is compelled to bring a burnt offering and a sin offering to complete her purification.
Now fun fact; the commandment to bring the sacrifice including the 8th day circumcision was observed by Mary and Yeshua;
Luke 2:21–24 (The Scriptures)
21 And when eight days were completed for Him to be circumcised, His Name was called Yeshua, the Name given by the messenger before He was conceived in the womb.
22 And when the days of her cleansing according to the Torah of Mosheh were completed, they brought Him to Yerushalayim to present Him to יהוה—
23 as it has been written in the Torah of יהוה, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called set-apart to יהוה”—
24 and to give an offering according to what is said in the Torah of יהוה, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
How do we know Mary and Joseph were poor? Their sacrifice was the turtledoves which were given in case the woman couldn’t afford the sacrifice of a lamb etc.
The need however for the sin offering implies that the woman has sinned somehow in giving birth and many would attribute this to an assumed fact that women were viewed as inferior in Biblical times. In fact, many people even think that by even menstruating that a woman has sinned due to the associated state of ritual uncleanliness. Well let me be clear, giving birth or menstruating does not mean that the woman has sinned or committed any kind of immoral thing.
In order to understand these things we must understand the systems of Leviticus. With regard to purity and impurity, clean and unclean, I’ll just state the answer plainly because to be unclean, in the literal sense, has nothing to do with sin. Being unclean or clean is a matter of being ceremonially fit to participate in the Temple worship or not. That’s it.
Now with regard to the sin offering there’s a bit to discuss.
Firstly, the sages also pondered the question as to why, following a birth, a woman had to present a sin offering. Now only one sage attributed the need for the offering to the woman committing a sin. Notably, the sage says so not because of the birth itself, but because he assumed that during the birth that the woman uttered words which caused her to sin;
R. Simeon b. Yohai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that a woman after childbirth should bring a sacrifice? He replied: When she kneels in bearing she swears impetuously that she will have no intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sacrifice. R. Joseph demurred: Does she not act presumptuously in which case the absolution of the oath depends on her rejecting it? Furthermore, she should have brought a sacrifice prescribed for an oath!
- Bavli. Nid 31b
Now whilst that may be a humorous suggestion, it’s not true, nor is the Bible in some way legislating just in case a woman swears during labour.
Another suggestion for the sin offering that perhaps has some truth to it was suggested by Rabbi Bachya; an extegete of note from Spain during the 13th century. He suggested that;
Labor pains were decreed upon women in punishment for the sin of Eve; the offering brought by women after childbirth is to atone for that sin (i.e. Eve’s sin in the garden).
Whilst there may be some deep mystical truth to that fact it also doesn’t provide us with an actual answer.
The Sin Sacrifice
The answer lies in understanding the sin sacrifice itself; the answer is that the sin sacrifice was not necessarily for sin.
Before I’m stoned to death please allow me to explain.
The word for sin offering in the Hebrew is ‘chattat’. It shares the same root word for the word ‘to sin’ which is ‘chata’. Whilst it’s a fair mistake to make the connection between these two has created a false etymology for the word that is now commonly translated as sin offering.
The correct translation for ‘sin offering’ is in reality ‘purification offering’. Chattat is translated in this manner in a number of verses in the Bible such as;
Exodus 29:36 (Mine)
36b …And you shall purify the altar when you make atonement for it, and you shall anoint it to set it apart.
Psalm 51:7 (Mine)
7 Purify me with hyssop, and I am clean;
Wash me, and I am whiter than snow.
Numbers 8:7 (The Scriptures)
7 and do this to them to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purification on them…
Sin Offering Not Used For Sin
The purification offerings use in the Tabernacle even undermines the translation as sin offering. The most obvious been our topic right now of childbirth which was clearly not a sin. Purification offerings were also used for the completion of a Nazarite vow and were used in the dedication of the altar which I quoted above; neither of which imply an actual sin been committed.
Notably, the sages unanimously agree that chattat should be rendered as ‘purification offering’.
Rashi says ‘chattat is literally the language of purification’.
In response to Rabbi Ben Yohai who we heard from above the sages respond;
J. But from the perspective of R. Simeon b. Yohai, who has said, “The woman after having given birth is in the classification of a sinner,” [so the offering is not for purification at all], what is to be said?
K. When a woman after having given birth brings an offering, it is so as to be permitted to eat Holy Things and not so as to effect atonement that she brings the offering.”
- Bavli. Ker 26A
I.e. the sages said the offering for giving birth is not for forgiveness of sin, but that she may be purified so as to be able to participate in the Temple service again.
The sages even make the categorical statement with regard to the woman having given birth that ‘according to the literal meaning of the text her sacrifice is not brought for sin’ (Anchor Yale, Leviticus 1-16).
There’s a wealth of material out there which further explain the translation of chattat as purification offering. Some of it goes beyond what I can explain because it enters a level of Hebrew I’m not familiar with; however I can recommend Jacob Milgrom’s work for the Anchor Yale commentary series as a reference for some of the further grammatical reasons as to why chattat is really ‘purification offering’.
Physical Impurity/Inadvertent Sin
The purification offering is brought for two reasons; either severe physical impurity (such as child birth or leprosy, genital discharge even) or because of inadvertent sins; the latter of which would imply a moral impurity too whereas the former does not.
In addressing these two reasons for bringing a purification offering the Hebrew language of the Scripture is quite telling and supports the fact that the purification offering was not necessarily brought for sin.
The Hebrew describes these two reasons for offering the sacrifice in different ways.
With respect to purification offerings brought for an inadvertent sin, which also implies an immoral impurity, the scripture always follows with the phrase ‘and it shall be forgiven them’;
Leviticus 4:20 (The Scriptures)
20 ‘And he shall do with the bull as he did with the bull as a sin offering—so shall he do it. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.
With regard to a purification offering brought for a physical ailment the Torah never says ‘it shall be forgiven them’ but always follows up with the phrase ‘and she/he shall be clean’. ‘Forgiveness’ per se is not required for a physical ailment because no sin has been committed and the cleansing is ritualistic in nature, not moral.
An example of this is found in our Torah Portion;
Leviticus 12:7 (NKJV)
7 Then he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
Purification of Who?
Rendering the ‘chattat’ as ‘purification offering’ brings us to our next question; who is being purified? It may be a surprise but the purification is not for the offerer but for the purification of the tabernacle.
With regard to ‘chattat’ for physical ailments the cleansing of the person occurs with the mikvah. What we need to realize however is that certain impurities, be they caused by sin or physical ailment, cause impurity to effect upon the tabernacle itself, as is the case with childbirth. The sacrifice actually cleanses the temple, not the woman.
Notably, with regard to ‘chatat’ for inadvertent sins there’s no need for mikvah. The Torah says that a person who commits the inadvertent sin feels guilt (implying repentance) and therefore has undergone that inner purification of themselves for their sin. All remains then is for the sacrifice to cleanse the tabernacle which their sin defiled.
Also of note is that when it comes to the purification offering, that it is the blood itself that is the means by which things are purified. Purification offerings are never applied to the person but always applied to the altar which it is cleaning (not the person!)
Therefore the menstruant is not a sinner; however the loss of blood which is associated with death requires cleansing and in certain cases such as childbirth the physical ailment requires a cleansing to occur within the tabernacle itself. There is no moral deficiency in the woman; there is no sin been committed.
I’m sure some of you might be thinking about the implications this has on the sacrifice of Yeshua. Hopefully I’ll cover that later but fear not, Yeshua remains the Messiah who died for your sins.
Trust me, understanding the levitical system accurately will give you a far greater appreciation for the sacrifice of Yeshua.
Before we move on to leprosy I just want to revisit the start of our portion and identify a nice little ‘shadow’ of the Messiah.
The grammar in the beginning makes no sense when literally translated. Our translations smoothe it out but literally the verse reads;
When a woman will conceive and she gave birth to a male child…
The Torah uses the future tense ‘she will conceive’ and then switches to past tense ‘she gave birth’. Continuing on the Torah maintains a consistent tense but for the male child been born it reads in an odd manner. It actually speaks as if the birth of the son is an already accomplished fact, as if it has already occurred.
The answer to who this son is, already born, is found in the verb ‘tazria’ which is the name of our Torah Portion which means ‘she will conceive’.
Tazria is not the usual word for conceive which is ‘harah’ (e.g. Gen 4:1). Tazria is actually related to the word for ‘seed’ which is ‘zerah’, so it’s more a conception of seed in that case.
That tazria is a form of the word for ‘zerah’ rightfully takes us back to the prophesied seed of Genesis 3 of which God says;
Genesis 3:15 (The Scriptures)
15 “And I put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. He shall crush your head, and you shall crush His heel.”
The seed which is born then, which is an accomplished fact, is the Messiah. In a mystical sort of way these commandments, which form part of the DNA of our Messiah, confirm and speak of His birth, the seed of David.
Chapter 13 introduces biblical leprosy.
Let’s cut to the chase. Leprosy as we know it today is not the leprosy being discussed in the Bible.
The Hebrew word for leprosy is ‘tzara’at’ and it has nothing to do with any kind of medical ailment, not even a little bit; it is a purely spiritual, ritualistic phenomenon that needs to be considered thus. I’ll not belabor the fact because in my opinion knowing that ‘tzara’at’ is not Hansen’s disease (i.e. medical leprosy) is fundamentally basic to studying leprosy (I’ll still use the term because it’s easier to type). If you weren’t aware of that fact then welcome to finally studying your Old Testament, it’s good to see you; I promise you’ll learn a thing or two about Jesus.
Jacob Milgrom (a contemporary scholar) says it nicer than me. He states;
‘the enigma of tzara’at cannot be resolved by medical science but it can, at least, be illumed once the medical approach is abandoned and attention is directed to the text itself…’
He later says of Leviticus 13;
‘Nothing could be clearer: we are dealing with ritual, not medicine.’
- Anchor Yale Bible Commenatary to Leviticus 1 – 16 p. 817
Here’s a few key points from the text to support the fact that tzara’at is not leprosy;
- The description of the disease itself doesn’t fit what modern leprosy is
- The Bible clearly places it within the Levitical concepts of ritual purity and impurity, not disease
- The conditions of exile that surround the disease are clearly concerned with ritual impurity and not hygiene
- Only a priest can diagnose it
- Only God can heal it
- Should someone be completely covered with leprosy they, despite logic, are declared completely clean
- It infects garments and houses
- You only become ‘ritually contagious’ when a priest diagnoses it
Naturally, tzara’at draws the attention of the rabbis who can’t help but pour over the text and muse as to why someone would be afflicted with leprosy.
The common rabbinic answer to this question is that leprosy is afflicted upon someone by God due to their evil speech. The proof text which the rabbis quote to support this theory is the story of Miryam in Numbers 12;
Numbers 12:1–12 (The Scriptures)
Now Miryam and Aharon spoke against Mosheh because of the Kushite woman whom he had taken, for he had taken a Kushite woman.
2 And they said, “Has יהוה spoken only through Mosheh? Has He not also spoken through us?” And יהוה heard it.
3 And the man Mosheh was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.
4 And suddenly יהוה said to Mosheh, and Aharon, and Miryam, “You three, come out to the Tent of Meeting!” So the three came out.
5 And יהוה came down in the column of cloud and stood in the door of the Tent, and called Aharon and Miryam. And they both went forward.
6 And He said, “Hear now My words: If your prophet is of יהוה, I make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream.
7 “Not so with My servant Mosheh, he is trustworthy in all My house.
8 “I speak with him mouth to mouth, and plainly, and not in riddles. And he sees the form of יהוה. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Mosheh?”
9 And the displeasure of יהוה burned against them, and He left.
10 And the cloud turned away from above the Tent, and look: Miryam was leprous, as white as snow! And Aharon turned toward Miryam, and look: a leper!
11 And Aharon said to Mosheh, “Oh, my master! Please do not hold against us the sin in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned.
12 “Please do not let her be as one dead when coming out of its mother’s womb, with our flesh half consumed!”
In the story, Miryam speaks against Moses and the ensuing punishment for her transgression was leprosy. The rabbis see a clear cause and effect here.
Motzi Shem Ra
Indeed, a person who has leprosy, in the Hebrew is called a ‘metzora’. So when you think leprosy i.e. the disease, it’s tsara’at, and when you think leper i.e. the person with the disease, the Hebrew is ‘metzora’.
The rabbi’s engage in a bit of word play with ‘metzora’ and suggest that it’s derived from the phrase ‘motzi shem ra’ which means ‘slander’ or ‘defame’. Literally motzi shem ra means ‘wellspring of evil’ and the rabbi’s teach that the wellspring is the mouth of a person and in the case of a leper that theirs is used to bring forth evil.
The sages take a very harsh view to evil speech and they’re clear in their connection to tsara’at. The Midrash Rabbah says it plainly;
The plague of tzara’at comes only as punishment for lashon hara (evil talk).
- Midrash Rabbah
This view is throughout the Talmud;
Why is the metzora different from all other ritually impure persons in that the Torah said, “He shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall his habitation be”? With his gossip and slander, he separated a husband from his wife, a man from his neighbor; therefore said the Torah: “He shall dwell alone.”
(Talmud, Erachin 16b)
Evil talk kills three people: the speaker, the listener, and the one who is spoken of.
(Talmud, Erachin 15a)
Whilst there’s worth in the lessons of the sages they’re not entirely correct in stating that tzara’at can only be connected with evil speech and some rabbis argued for a broader understanding of leprosy’s cause. For example the Midrash also says;
For ten things does leprosy come upon the world. Idol worship, gross unchastity, bloodshed, desecration of the Divine Name, blasphemy of the divine name, robbing the public, usurping a dignity to which one has no right, pride, evil speech and an evil eye (greed).
- Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 18:4
A full examination of the Scriptural references to tzara’at cannot afford to be as specific as the sages have in providing an answer as to leprosy’s cause. Examination of the text can only draw one main conclusion as to tzara’at’s origin in that it is caused by a sin against God, whatever that may be. A beautiful example of this is found in 2 Chronicles 16 where King Uzziah took it upon himself to offer incense in the Temple, against the Torah’s instruction. The story says that the Levites stood against the King at this time…;
2 Chronicles 26:18–20 (The Scriptures)
18 And they stood up against Sovereign Uzziyahu, and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziyahu, to burn incense to יהוה, but for the priests, the sons of Aharon, who are set-apart to burn incense. Get out of the set-apart place, for you have trespassed, and there is no esteem to you from יהוה Elohim.”
19 And Uzziyahu was wroth. And he had a censer in his hand to burn incense. And while he was wroth with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the House of יהוה, beside the incense altar.
20 And Azaryahu the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and saw that he was leprous on his forehead. And they hurried him from there. And he also hurried to get out, because יהוה had struck him.
Leviticus provides no answer as to how one might be cured. The ensuing process of cleansing only occurs once the tzara’at has passed causing us to conclude that the cure alone belongs to God; to fasting, to prayer and repentance.
The picture that tzara’at creates for us is incredibly profound. For the person ‘diagnosed’ by the priest the consequences were severe;
Leviticus 13:45–46 (The Scriptures)
45 “As for the leper who has the infection, his garments are torn, and his head is uncovered, and he has to cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’
46 “He is unclean—all the days he has the infection he is unclean. He is unclean, and he dwells alone, his dwelling place is outside the camp.
My Soncino Chumash explains the symbolism employed here succinctly;
The customs of the leper are those of a mourner. He was to regard himself as one upon whom death had laid his hand. His was a living death, not only in the physical sense, as suffering from a loathsome and lingering disease; but also in the spiritual sense, as cut off from the life of the Community of Israel.
The leper was treated similar to a dead body and indeed a corpse itself was the only thing that rated higher in the levels of impurity.
Lessons for Messiah
This association with death and tzara’at gives us the key to understanding the symbolism of the purification of the leper and its importance to the Messiah. If leprosy symbolizes death then its cure symbolizes the transition from death to life, a very messianic concept. Knowing this also helps illuminate the 8 day process of cleansing for the leper which mirrors that of the priesthood’s inauguration and even included the same ingredients as the red heifer sacrifice (including the hyssop, red scarlet, cedar wood and living water), all of which have significant connections to the identity of the Messiah.
It should come as no surprise then to see leprosy play a prominent part in Yeshua’s ministry.
When asked by John the Immerser if he was the Messiah, Yeshua responded;
Matthew 11:4–6 (The Scriptures)
4 … “Go, report to Yoḥanan what you hear and see:
5 “Blind receive sight and lame walk, lepers are cleansed and deaf hear, dead are raised up and poor are brought the Good News.
6 “And blessed is he who does not stumble in Me.”
The New Testament’s first mention of a leper healing is found in Mark 1;
Mark 1:40–45 (The Scriptures)
40 And a leper came to Him, calling upon Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You desire, You are able to make me clean.”
41 And Yeshua, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I desire it. Be cleansed.”
42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.
43 And having strictly warned him, He immediately sent him away,
44 and said to him, “See, say none at all to anyone, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Mosheh ordered, as a witness to them.”
45 But he went out and began to publish it so much, and to spread the word, that Yeshua was no longer able to openly enter the city, but was outside in lonely places. Yet they came to Him from all directions.
Understanding the mysterious nature of tzara’at and blatant lack of cure should help provide some context as to why the miracle was just so noteworthy.
Mark 1 poses a number of questions and before moving on there’s a couple of points I wanted to identify.
Most obvious is the fact that Yeshua touched the leper. Now that you are rooted in context and an Old Testament understanding you know now that Yeshua himself contracted the ritual uncleanliness of the leper. Many will engage in ‘theological acrobatics’ in order to disassociate Yeshua from the touch of the leper and the associated impurity, but knowing the actual laws around this teaches that it’s actually not a sin to be unclean and therefore it’s not an issue for Yeshua to have touched the leper. Yeshua, the one who knew no corruption, didn’t contract some kind of disease, nor was there any breach of the Torah.
I must really stress this; to be unclean is not a sin. That Yeshua became ritually unclean simply meant that at that time He couldn’t enter the Temple.
You can compare this incident with Luke 17 where Yeshua heals 10 lepers but makes the point of not touching them.
Luke 17:11–14 (The Scriptures)
11 And it came to be, as He went to Yerushalayim, that He passed through the midst of Shomeron and Galil.
12 And as He was entering into a certain village, He was met by ten leprous men, who stood at a distance.
13 And they lifted up their voices, saying, “Yeshua, Master, have compassion on us!”
14 And having seen them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And it came to be, that as they were going, they were cleansed.
The key difference between the leper of Mark 1 and the lepers of Luke 17 is in Yeshua’s destination. Following the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1 Yeshua remains in the Galilee and ‘after some days’ enters Capernaum. It’s fascinating because Mark 1 actually says that Yeshua remained ‘outside in the lonely places’ and that ‘after some days’ that He entered the city. Why? To not spread uncleanliness.
The key point to note with Luke 17 is in verse 11 which clearly states that Yeshua was going to Jerusalem. So why not touch the lepers? Yeshua was going to the Temple and would not be able to enter if he contracted ritual uncleanliness.
My other point with regard to these verses is simply in identifying the fact that Yeshua told the lepers to present themselves to the priests and in the case of Mark 1 He tells the leper ‘to offer for your cleansing what Mosheh ordered’. Point being that Yeshua was not circumventing the laws of Torah, even those which included animal sacrifice. He told the lepers to fulfill the Torah, to go and be complete their cleansing as per the Torah. One way to further understand this is in the fact that Yeshua may have provided the cure, which we know from Leviticus 13 belonged to divine intervention, whereas the priests where the ones that declared and completed the cleansing, as per the Torah.
My last point lies in Yeshua’s words to the leper of Mark 1. Notably, He says ‘go, and say none to anyone…’ i.e. be quiet about it. Now the assumption of our commentators here tends to be that Yeshua simply didn’t want news of his ministry to get out just yet. What’s fascinating though is that in Jewish context, remember, leprosy was caused by speech and gossip (which doesn’t have to be untrue for it to be a sin!). Yeshua’s words then to be quiet perhaps fit more in line with the Jewish understanding that leprosy was caused by slander and gossip.
The Leper Messiah
Having identified that the cleansing of lepers played a big part in Messiah’s ministry and 1st century expectation, I want to discuss another way in which leprosy is connected to Messiah.
Little did we know that rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 titles the Messiah as ‘The Leper’.
Amazingly, the following is recorded in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud;
… the Messiah.
D. What is his name?
E. The house of R. Shila said, “His name is Shiloh, as it is said, ‘Until Shiloh come’ (Gen. 49:10).”
F. Members of the house of R. Yannai say, “His name is Yinnon, for it is written, ‘His name shall endure forever, before the sun was, his name is Yinnon’ (Ps. 72:17).”
G. Members of the house of R. Haninah said, “It is Haninah, as it is said, ‘Where I will not give you Haninah’ (Jer. 16:13).”
H. Others say, “His name is Menahem, son of Hezekiah, for it is written, ‘Because Menahem that would relieve my soul, is far’ (Lam. 1:16).”
I. Rabbis said, “His name is ‘the leper of the school house,’ as it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted’ (Is. 53:4).”
You might have noticed that Isaiah 53:4 actually says ‘yet we did esteem his as smitten’ whereas the rabbis have quoted it and said ‘we did esteem him a leper’. They’ve done so due to a word play which we have missed.
What they’ve done here is note that the word for ‘smitten’, which is ‘nega’, is used to both describe the servant of Isaiah 53 and the leper of Leviticus 13. As both are ‘smitten’ they make the connection and translate as ‘leper’.
Another word play includes the ‘scourging’ with which the leper suffers. Isaiah 53 likewise says ‘by his scourging we are healed’. In the Aramaic, which was spoken widespread in the time of Yeshua, the sages note that the same word, ‘scourging’, also means ‘leper’. You may not translate it literally this way but understand the verse then as meaning not ‘by his scourging we are healed’; but ‘by The Leper we are healed’. Therefore the ‘sickness’ of the servant in Isaiah 53 which yes, is a symbol of sin in general, is deeply connected to the ‘sickness’ of ‘leprosy’.
The periscope of leprosy can then be applied to the Messiah and further lessons may be learnt from doing so. The Messiah is rejected as the leper is; The Messiah is exiled as the leper is; The Messiah is considered unclean as the leper is. Indeed, The Messiah is on the outside of the camp waiting the day when He is declared pure and can rejoin His brothers.
The leper’s association with exile amazingly again takes us to the Talmud which associates The Messiah as the one who sits in exile as a leper.
In this Talmudic story it portrays a rabbi as having a conversation with the prophet Elijah (it’s a parable). In the parable the sage asks ‘when is the Messiah coming’ and Elijah responds by telling him to go and ask the Messiah himself. The sage responds and asks ‘where is he sitting’ and ‘what are the marks that indicate who He is?’ and Elijah responds;
I. “He is sitting among the poor lepers, and all of them untie and tie their bandages all together, but he unties them and ties them one by one. He is thinking, ‘when the time comes that I am summoned, I must not be delayed!’ ”
Now I mentioned before that leprosy is deeply associated with death; to the point where the leper is treated similar to that of a corpse and that the cleansing then becomes symbolic of the leper going from death to life. We also learnt before that the foundation of ritual purity and impurity is life and death, indicating that on a broader scale that all impurity is associated with death and that all purity is therefore is associated with life.
That image can rightly be expanded even more and we can associate impurity with mortality and purity with immortality. In a state of purity Adam dwelt in the Garden of Eden and that same state of purity is the only way we could enter the Tabernacle and again dwell with God. Purity then reflects the clean and immortal nature of God; no impurity abides in Him and no impurity can stand in His presence.
Purity/immortality is required to dwell with God (in the literal sense).
At the end of the age when God returns to dwell with humanity, a purification of the world and of all humanity will be required. The 8 day cleansing of the leper corresponds to that 8th day when God will dwell with humanity. It corresponds to the fact that the world will need a purification which can only be wrought when The Leper is declared clean; the 8th day requires The Leper going from death to life.
This is the sacrifice of the Messiah.
He died not so that you could be spared the inconvenience of having to participate in animal sacrifice, He died so that all humanity could acquire the life required to dwell with God; He died so that the world could be cleansed for His coming Kingdom and for the restoration of the Garden of Eden.
Before, we identified that the sin sacrifice was not really for the sinner; not really for forgiveness which has always existed via repentance, but for the purification of the Temple. So it is with the sacrifice of Messiah, it is for the purification of the world and in corresponding with the immortal it is for your soul which no animal’s blood can cleanse. Yes impurity is caused by sin, so yes Yeshua died for your sins, but understand that the import of His death and resurrection stands for so much more. Through Him we have life eternal and as the leper we have acquired the resurrection from this world’s impure state. His sacrifice is the only cleansing that exists for humanity and it is the only cleansing that can prepare the world and bring about the redemption of all things.
His sacrifice is the cleansing required to purify humanity for the coming Kingdom of God.
In rabbinic thought leprosy is the sickness that Israel needs be cured of and will be cured of for the time to come. Emphatically we can say that Yeshua is our cure. Believe in Him, follow Him and when the day comes you just might find yourself cleansed and capable of standing in His literal presence. No other blood but Messiah’s can cleanse you for that day. No other blood can purify eternity.