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Vayikra/Leviticus 13:24 Or flesh where there is on his skin, a burn from fire ...
As we make our annual pilgrimage through the sections of the Torah dealing with purification after childbirth and skin diseases, the text outlines the basic rules for identifying tzara'at (13:1-17), then lists four possible areas of uncertainty or ambiguity for clarification: boils, burns, a mark on the head or in a beard, and bright spots. This text starts the second situation (vv. 24-28): enabling the priest to tell the difference between the healed mark from a burn and tzara'at.Rashi points out that "the signs of a burn and the signs of a boil are identical" and then asks, "Why does the Torah list them separately?"
Chazal asked, "What is a boil, and what is a burning?" Their answer is that "a wound caused by wood, or stone, or olive-peat, or the hot springs of Tiberias, or any wound that is not caused by fire, including a wound caused by lead just taken from the mine, is a boil. And what is a burning? A burn caused by a live coal, or hot ashes, or boiling lime, or boiling gypsum, or any burn that is caused by fire, including a burn caused by water heated by fire, is a burning" (b. Chullin 8a). The Sages debate whether two wounds, one caused by a boil, the other by a burn, but each of which is only half the size of a g'ris bean, together make a burn or a boil and consequently are large enough to make a person unclean. They conclude that they do not. Rashi says that this is why the Torah has a section for boils and a section for burns: "to teach that two small potential sites of tzara'at do not combine as if they were a single larger site - the size of a large bean - and so make a person unclean."
As moderns, tzara'at is one of the biblical terms with which we struggle. What is it supposed to mean and what does it look like? Medical experts have carefully read the Torah's description of the symptoms and have agreed that whatever else it is, it almost certainly isn't leprosy - now known as Hansen's disease. It might be some form of eczema, psoriasis or impetigo, or even leucoderma - which turns skin white. TheSeptuagint translated tzara'at as , which is why many Bibles (ESV, NASB, NRSV, JPS) in turn translate it as leprosy or a leprous sore. Widely feared and stigmatised in the past, even though not very contagious, leprosy is easily cured today with a combination of two or three antibiotics taken for six to twelve months, although some of the nerve and other damage caused before diagnosis and treatment may be irreversible. However, it important to recognise that this passage of the Torah is not concerned with medical practice; there is no mention of doctors, medicine or a process for a 'cure'. While the priest examines suspected cases of tzara'at and makes a diagnosis, this is for ritual or cultic purposes, not medical. If confirmed, the person is isolated to prevent ritual contamination, but not offered any treatment. What they do in their isolation is up to them. Once the symptoms have disappeared, the person is re-examined and declared clean and undertakes a ritual process to complete that transition from unclean to clean.
In the Jewish world, the word for someone suffering from this condition , one with tzara'at, is re-vocalised as , one bringing out evil - a slanderer - to teach that tzara'at is a sign of divine judgement upon someone who is a gossip or spreads slander among the people. Unlike leprosy, gossip is highly contagious and can spread like wildfire. The various steps of examination are separated by seven day periods to allow time for reflection and repentance, so that the judgement will be withdrawn, leaving the person unmarked once again. Even the status of 'unclean' does not start when the symptoms appear, but once the person has been examined and declared unclean by the priest. The Sages granted a stay of execution in certain circumstances - "A bridegroom on whom a tzara'at sign has appeared is granted exemption from inspection during the seven days of the marriage feast in respect of his own person and also in respect of his house and his garment. Similarly during a festival, one is granted exemption from inspection during all the days of the festival" (m. Nega'im 3:2) - so that people are not penalised or excluded from statutory times of rejoicing. Being declared 'unclean' and the consequent isolation outside the camp gives the offender a sharp lesson so that he or she may repent of their gossiping or slandering so that, in turn,HaShem may withdraw the tzara'at and the person may request another examination by the priest in order to be declared 'clean'.
Although the Hebrew Scriptures say almost nothing about medicine, it does not in any way preclude the practice of medicine or the seeking of treatment or advice at a time of illness. On the contrary, Moshe commands that if someone is injured by someone else, the latter must pay for any necessary medical treatment (Shemot 21:19). Ben Sira instructs, "Make friends with the physician, for he is essential to you; G-d has established him in his profession" (Ecclesiasticus 38:1) and adds that "the doctor has his wisdom from G-d" (38:2). Medicine has its place in G-d's economy; first G-d - "My son, when you are ill, delay not, but pray to G-d, for it is He who heals" (38:9) - then the doctor: "he too beseeches G-d that his diagnosis may be correct and his treatment bring about a cure" (38:14). Bringing the matter back to issue of tzara'at, however, Ben Sira cautions that "Whoever is a sinner towards his Maker will be defiant toward the doctor!" (38:15).
On one occasion, Luke tells us that a tax-collector named Levi gave a banquet at his house, in honour of Yeshua, to which many other tax-collectors and society outsiders were invited. "The P'rushim and their Torah-teachers protested indignantly against his talmidim, saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?'" (Luke 5:30, CJB). The Pharisees, who were working to raise the holiness and observance of the people of Israel towards the levels observed by the priests - so that Israel would be living in the "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:6) model - were particularly scornful of those they considered 'sinners', people who couldn't or wouldn't live according to their standards. The Pharisees thought of the common people as unclean - which most of them probably were, as they didn't observe many of the purity laws - and so isolated themselves from them. But Luke reports that "it was Yeshua who answered them: 'The ones who need a doctor aren't the healthy but the sick. I have not come to call the "righteous", but rather to call sinners to turn to G-d from their sins'" (Luke 5:31-32, CJB). People don't consult a doctor when they are well, but only when they are sick. Thousands of people flocked to Yeshua, to hang on His words as He taught them about the Kingdom of G-d, for healing and deliverance, and to feel some hope and assurance in their relationships with G-d. The people were not being defiant towards Yeshua; they welcomed Him and received His words about healing and wholeness; they received His forgiveness and the opportunity of a fresh start. They recognised His diagnosis of themselves as sinners and had faith in His treatment to effect a cure. Their social tzara'at was gone. Like the woman caught in adultery, they heard Yeshua say, "Neither do I condemn you; go and from now on sin no more" (John 8:11, ESV).
Another of Luke's stories concerns a group of ten men afflicted with tzara'at who met Yeshua. As the law required (Vayikra 13:45-46), "They stood at a distance and called out, 'Yeshua! Rabbi! Have pity on us!'" (Luke 17:12-13, CJB). Yeshua responded by telling them to go and be examined by the priests - the only ones who could declare them 'clean' - and as they went, the tzara'at symptoms were withdrawn. They had sought mercy and mercy was granted them. Once they had been inspected by a priest, been found clear of the physical symptoms, then they could be declared 'clean', offer the required sacrifices and be re-admitted into society - the camp. Their faith, the seeking out of the 'doctor' who could help them, their admission of fault and need was rewarded: they were healed. Matthew has a parallel story: "Two blind men followed Yeshua, crying aloud, 'Have mercy on us, Son of David'" (Matthew 9:27, ESV). He asks them whether they really believe that He can heal them and when they respond that they do, "He touched their eyes, saying, 'According to your faith be it done to you.' And their eyes were opened" (vv. 29-30, ESV). They too sought the 'doctor' and had faith that He could heal them.
Whether you have been burned by the fire of sin, burned by a relationship that went wrong, burned by the fire of unforgiveness and hatred, burned by being abandoned, then declared unclean by yourself or others, G-d wants to heal you and declare you 'clean' once again in Messiah Yeshua. You have to recognise your isolation and call out to Him, to receive His healing and ask for your tzara'at to be withdrawn so that you can be cleaned and be restored to your place inside the camp.
Further Study: John 9:39-41; 1 Timothy 1:15-17
Application: Is your faith strong enough to cry out to G-d to end your isolation, be that spiritual, physical, emotional or visual? Can you believe that your tzara'at - your symptom of sin and shame - is gone so that you may be declared 'clean'? Trust Him today and call Him on it - you won't be disappointed!
16:16 25Mar14 Paul Gasser: This was a wonderful drash about tzara'at. Gossip and slander are prevalent today, and our groups and congregations are not immune. I was wondering if you have a discussion board or something that will show practical application in our lives and communities today. Practical application of Torah is so important, and without examples, applying it correctly can be difficult at best. For example, how does tzara'at show up in lives today? How is it dealt with today individually as well as in a community. Every situation is unique, but examples can help.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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