Our passage today is probably the most difficult section of Leviticus to get through without our minds wandering. Leprosy on people. Leprosy on clothes. Leprosy in houses. Bodily discharges. What’s this all about?
To start, realize that these laws are again both practical and religious. Leprosy in the ancient world was much more widespread than it is today. And leprosy was not one specific disease – there were a few diseases that fell under this heading. And they were all highly contagious. And in America in 2022, we know a lot about going into quarantine for 14 days (seven days in 13:4 and seven more in 13:5), and keeping our distance from others (v. 46).
Note that the uncleanness of leprosy is not evidence of the disease itself, but the contagiousness of it. That is why, when the skin disease was not spreading on a person, they were clean, but if it was, they were not (vv. 5-8, 22-23). Notice also that once the disease has destroyed a person’s entire flesh and they were no longer contagious, they were pronounced clean (v. 13).
Of course, the uncleanness of the body here represents the inward uncleanness of sin. The leprosy that slowly kills is like sin, which does the same. The extreme contagiousness of the disease is like sin, which spreads faster than leprosy in the ancient world or a virus in the modern world. This is why the leprous person must stay “outside the camp” like the unholy portions of an offering (v. 46 – see Lev 8:17).
In verses 47-59 we see the principle of uncleanness being passed through physical contact, even with objects. Certain skin diseases affected animals and humans, and garments made from the wool of a leprous sheep or the skin of a leprous animal could make the wearer unclean. We also see in this and the rules in verse 45 that what a person wears is, in a sense, an indication of their cleanness or uncleanness. We have seen already that sanctification requires the outward to be clean as a reflection of the inward (see Ex 19:10). We will see that this idea carries through the Bible as a metaphor for inward cleanness (see Zech 3:1-5, Rev 3:5, 19:8).
Chapter 14 talks about the ceremonial washing of the leper. Note that this ceremony is not to heal the leper, it is a ceremony for those who have already been healed (see Matt 8:4). Note here that ceremonial cleanness requires the shedding of blood (14:6-7, and verse 12 which is a guilt offering, and verse 14 which has the former leper “wearing” the blood of the sacrifice), which points us to the sin the leprosy represents and the need for atonement. We also see the representative washing of the outer garments (v. 8-9). Verses 21-22 show us God’s provision for all to be clean.
Verses 33-53 speak of diseases in houses (this may seem odd to us in America in 2022, but wait until black mold grows in your basement). Don’t gloss over verse 34. Notice God’s sovereignty here. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away (as Job told us). He will give them the land, and He may put a disease in a house. Nothing happens outside His will (see Prov 16:33).
Chapter 15 discusses rules for bodily discharges. The word “discharge” in the Hebrew can mean “drip” or “flow,” and refers primarily to the reproductive organs. Verses 2-15 likely describe gonorrhea, but may include other sexually transmitted diseases. So this is again practical and religious. Like leprosy, most STDs are highly transmittable. But like with leprosy, sin is in view here, in particular, the sin of fornication (sexual sin is often used throughout the Bible to represent sin as a whole). If a man and a woman wait until marriage, and only ever have sex within the confines of that marriage, then STDs cannot affect them.
Verse 16 is likely a reference to an involuntary nocturnal emission (see Deut 23:10). Verse 18 speaks of sex within a marriage. Verse 19 refers to a woman’s regular menstrual cycle. Verse 25 refers to an irregular flow of blood for a woman (we think of the woman in Luke 8:43). Having to be cleansed for any of these natural discharges is again practical and religious. Good hygiene and care of the sexual organs would be conducive to Israel reproducing (being fruitful and multiplying). Some suggest that the discharge of “life fluid” (semen or blood) from the reproductive organ is a reminder of the fallen life-cycle, which includes death, hence the uncleanness.
In these chapters, we again see the holiness of God. Nothing and no one unclean can be in His presence. But we see the grace of God, making a way for cleanness, and a way into His presence. We are unclean. Christ makes us clean.
Throughout the various rules for leprosy – on people, garments, and houses – note that God is not quick to destroy. He gives opportunity, as it were, for the unclean to become clean. But there comes an end to that, and the person is thrown outside the camp, the garment is burned, or the house is destroyed. As this relates to sin, we see that God is abundantly merciful, but will also punish sin. And in the New Testament, we see that it is Jesus, through His healing, that brings people who were “unclean” back into God’s presence.
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:5–7 (ESV)