Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentLEVITICUS 13
This long chapter provides instructions for the ancient priests of Israel to follow in dealing with physical conditions suspected of being leprosy. We have actually found no key whatever for any application of the instructions here to the concerns and interests of our society today, except in the general sense regarding the typical nature of leprosy as a type of sin, due to its loathsomeness, and its fatal consequences.
Since a number of different symptoms are enumerated here, some of which led to a designation of leprosy in the victim, and others which resulted in his being pronounced "clean," it is quite obvious that several different physical disorders resulted in the sufferer's being brought to the priest for diagnosis.
Knight identified the following diseases as coming under inspection in this chapter:
"(1) The horrible anaesthetic leprosy that exists unto this day; (2) tuberculous leprosy that begins with a skin disease and develops into deformities; (3) several kinds of skin eruptions resembling leprosy, but sometimes disappearing spontaneously; and (4) a number of diseases known and treated today under such names as herpes, ringworm, eczema, and psoriasis.F1
The Holy Scriptures were never provided in order to give men scientific information, and the thing that is in view here is the divine instruction to protect the spread of disease, especially that of leprosy. It is not the cure of this malady which is given here, but the rules for the isolation and quarantine of those having it. That such instructions are Divine should not be for a moment questioned. The human race has continued to isolate and quarantine lepers all over the world until this very day. The extreme repugnance of the disease, as well as its incurable nature, made it an especially appropriate type of sin. The fact that those ancient priests charged with the task of observing human maladies and deciding which was leprosy and which was not were probably subject to human error in their decisions should not obscure the truth that the method they followed was the best known and the most efficient that that age provided.
North commented that, "The application of the word leprosy in this chapter is very wide; and it has even been doubted that true leprosy is contemplated at all."F2
However, we need have no hesitance in believing that actual leprosy was surely included in this chapter, because other passages in the Bible plainly indicate the characteristics of leprosy in its worst form. Moses' prayer concerning the leprosy of Miriam has this: "Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed" (Numbers 12:12). "All references to this disease in the Scriptures imply that it was incurable and that its removal required the exercise of Divine power."F3 Naaman, it will be remembered, sought the cure of his leprosy, not because of any fancied skill of Israel's physicians, but because there was a "prophet of God" in Israel. And when Naaman inquired of the King of Israel, the king tore his garments and exploded with the remark: "Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy?" (2 Kings 5:7). Such references to the disease may be multiplied, but these are enough to show that there was indeed real leprosy in the land, and that the people knew it and recognized it. Any notion, therefore, that this chapter is dealing only with such a thing as psoriasis is ridiculous. There were probably, of course, many persons who came to the priests with diseases other than leprosy, and those of course, were, after investigation, declared "clean."
And Jehovah spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests: and the priest shall look on the plague in the skin of the flesh: and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up [him that hath] the plague seven days: and the priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if in his eyes the plague be at a stay, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more: and the priest shall look on him again the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague be dim, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean: it is a scab: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. But if the scab spread abroad in the skin, after that he hath showed himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall show himself to the priest again: and the priest shall look; and, behold, if the scab be spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is leprosy.
In the first 28 verses, four different cases of suspected leprosy are described, the first in this paragraph, the second in Lev. 13:9-17, the third in Lev. 13:18-23, and the fourth in Lev. 13:24-28. Note that extended observation in certain cases was required to determine if leprosy actually existed. There was also a provision, that even when declared clean, a patient might still be denominated as leprous and unclean, if the malady returned in such a manner as to justify such a decision. This indicated that the judgment of the priests in these matters was not considered "divine," but human judgment, exercised to the best of their ability.
When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest; and the priest shall look; and, behold, if there be a white rising in the skin, and it have turned the hair white, and there be quick raw flesh in the rising, it is an old leprosy in the skin of his flesh, and the priest shall pronounce him unclean: he shall not shut him up; for he is unclean. And if the leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his feet, as far as appeareth to the priest; then the priest shall look; and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean. But whensoever raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean. And the priest shall look on the raw flesh, and pronounce him unclean: the raw flesh is unclean: it is leprosy. Or if the raw flesh turn again, and be changed unto white, then he shall come unto the priest; and the priest shall look on him; and, behold, if the plague be turned into white, then the priest shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: he is clean.
"And when the flesh hath in the skin thereof a boil, and it is healed, and in the place of the boil there is a white rising, or a bright spot, reddish-white, then he shall be showed to the priest; and the priest shall look; and, behold, if the appearance thereof be lower than the skin, and the hair thereof he turned white, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy, it hath broken out in the boil. But if the priest look on it, and behold, there be no white hairs therein, and it be not lower than the skin, but be dim; then the priest shall shut him up seven days: and if it spread abroad in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a plague. But if the bright spot stay in its place, and be not spread, it is the scar of the boil; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
"Or when the flesh hath in the skin thereof a burning by fire, and the quick flesh of the burning become a bright spot, reddish-white, or white; then the priest shall look upon it; and, behold, if the hair in the bright spot be turned white, and the appearance thereof be deeper than the skin; it is leprosy, it hath broken out in the burning: and the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy. But if the priest look on it, and, behold, there be no white hair in the bright spot, and it be no lower than the skin, but be dim; then the priest shall shut him up seven days: and the priest shall look upon him the seventh day: if it spread abroad in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy. And if the bright spot stay in its place, and be not spread in the skin, but be dim; it is the rising of the burning, and the priest shall pronounce him clean: for it is the scar of the burning."
From these instructions, it appears that the principal tell-tale signs of leprosy were: (1) white hairs in the affected area; (2) the encroachment of the disease below the epidermis; and (3) the progressive invasion of more and more body tissue. These certainly were "signs" that a priest could accurately discern and required no medical expertise to determine. Due to the very nature of such things as boils and burns, there must frequently have been occasions in which the people were beset with great anxieties in their fear of leprosy.
What of those who were declared unclean? Their lot was tragic indeed. They were compelled to dress as mourners (Lev. 10:6; 21:10; Ezek. 24:17; Micah 3:7), and to dwell apart from all human habitation (2 Kings 7:3; 15:5; Luke 17:12), and to warn any person passing by through chance by crying "Unclean! Unclean! ... Like the Pariah in India, they were untouchable."F4 How dramatically this contrasts with the teaching of Jesus who did not hesitate to touch lepers, or even the dead (Mark 1:40f).
This writer visited a leper camp (a shanty town), in Pusan, Korea, in 1953 and still remembers it as one of the most soul-shaking, repugnant, and heartbreaking scenes ever witnessed. The human misery and wretchedness of such a place is beyond description. Language as a means of conveying thought is unequal to the task of any adequate description, and the emotional impact of the place lingered for days. Having walked through the grounds, laid out in little rows where the inmates had improvised the worst housing ever seen on earth, and the little canals of running water that served the dual purpose of latrines and their source of drinking water, those of us who walked through had a feeling that the soles of our shoes were infected. Some of us cleaned our shoes repeatedly, but the feeling lingered! Food? It was garbage, not even "good" garbage, but the refuse of the teeming city of Pusan. May God have mercy upon those who exist in such camps until mercifully relieved by death! That it was such a place as this to which all lepers of that era were confined casts a grim light indeed upon the serious business described in this remarkable chapter. People, already desensitized by the horrible leprosy would smoke a discarded cigarette butt, allowing it to burn their stub fingers, no longer sensitive to pain -- eyelids missing, lips, teeth, hair, portions of the cheek, stub feet, arms, no ears, or only two holes for a nose. How horrible!
And when a man or woman hath a plague upon the head or upon the beard, then the priest shall look on the plague; and, behold, if the appearance thereof be deeper than the skin, and there be in it yellow thin hair, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a scall, it is leprosy of the head or of the beard. And if the priest look on the plague of the scall, and, behold, the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and there be no black hair in it, then the priest shall shut up [him that hath] the plague of the scall seven days: And in the seventh day the priest shall look on the plague; and, behold, if the scall be not spread, and there be in it no yellow hair, and the appearance of the scall be not deeper than the skin, then he shall be shaven, but the scall shall he not shave; and the priest shall shut up [him that hath] the scall seven days more: and in the seventh day the priest shall look on the scall; and, behold, if the scall be not spread in the skin, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin; then the priest shall pronounce him clean: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. But if the scall spread abroad in the skin after his cleansing, then the priest shall look on him; and, behold, if the scall be spread in the skin, the priest shall not seek for the yellow hair; he is unclean. But if in his eyes the scall be at a stay, and black hair be grown up therein; the scall is healed, he is clean: and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
Leprosy does not get well when left alone, and the fact of some of these instances eventually leading to a verdict of "clean" proves that actual leprosy was not present in all of the cases that came before the priests. We do not know exactly what was meant by such terms as "scall," used here. These signs, at least some of them, are recognizable today, and, "Among the Arabs leprosy is regarded as curable if the hair in the affected part remains black, but incurable if it remains whitish in color."F5 Keil rendered "mole" instead of "scall" here.
Verses 38, 39
And when a man or a woman hath in the skin of the flesh bright spots, even white bright spots; then the priest shall look; and, behold, if the bright spots in the skin of their flesh be of a dull white, it is a tetter, it hath broken out in the skin; he is clean.
Keil described the "tetter" mentioned here thus: The harmless [~bohaq] did not defile. The Arabs still call it "bahak" and consider it to be harmless. It is an eruption on the skin in somewhat elevated spots or rings of unequal size, pale white in color, and which do not change the hair. It causes no inconvenience and lasts from about two months to two years.F6
And if a man's hair be fallen off his head, he is bald; yet is he clean. And if his hair be fallen off from the front part of his head, he is forehead bald; yet is he clean. But if there be in the bald head, or the bald forehead, a reddish-white plague; it is leprosy breaking out in his bald head, or his bald forehead. Then the priest shall look upon him; and, behold, if the rising of the plague be reddish-white in his bald head, or in his bald forehead, as the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the flesh; he is a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall surely pronounce him unclean; his plague is in his head.
"And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall he rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be."
The last paragraph here states some of the rules for lepers to follow after they were declared unclean. (For more on this see Lev. 13:28.)
The garment also that the plague of leprosy is in, whether it be a woollen garment, or a linen garment; whether it be in warp, or woof; of linen, or of woollen; whether in a skin, or in anything made of skin; if the plague be greenish or reddish in the garment, or in the skin, or in the warp, or in the woof, or in anything of skin; it is the plague of leprosy, and shall be showed unto the priest. And the priest shall look upon the plague, and shut up [that which hath] the plague seven days: and he shall look on the plague on the seventh day: if the plague be spread in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in the skin, whatever service skin is used for; the plague is a fretting leprosy; it is unclean. And he shall burn the garment, whether the warp or the woof, in woollen or in linen, or anything of skin, wherein the plague is: for it is a fretting leprosy; it shall be burnt in the fire.
Various kinds of rot, canker, mildew, and insect infestation are known to attack woolen or linen garments; and these seem to be in view here. The ancient word "fretting" is of interest because it occurs in the British Book of Common Prayer and in Ps. 39:11, "like as it were a moth fretting a garment."
Once cloth is woven, there is no way to separate the warp and the woof, and the obvious separation of the two in this passage shows that not only woven and completed garments were in view, but also the yarn made ready for the weaving and found to be infected before the weaving took place. The danger of infection from the use of infected clothing was the basis for the prohibitions here. Careful watchfulness marked their efforts to refrain from destroying any garment. Garments, in those days, were precious property.
And if the priest shall look, and, behold, the plague be not spread in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in anything of skin; then the priest shall command that they wash the thing wherein the plague is, and he shall shut it up seven days more: and the priest shall look, after that the plague is washed; and, behold, if the plague have not changed its color, and the plague be not spread, it is unclean; thou shalt burn it in the fire: it is a fret, whether the bareness be within or without. And if the priest look, and, behold, the plague be dim after the washing thereof, then he shall rend it out of the garment, or out of the skin, or out of the warp, or out of the woof: and if it appear still in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in anything of skin, it is breaking out: thou shalt burn that wherein the plague is with fire. And the garment, either the warp, or the woof, or whatsoever thing of skin it be, which thou shalt wash, if the plague be departed from them, then it shall be washed the second time, and shall be clean. This is the law of the plague of leprosy in a garment of woollen or linen, either in the warp, or the woof, or anything of skin, to pronounce it clean, or to pronounce it unclean.
There is really no way to know exactly what conditions produced the concern for the cleanness of garments as discussed here. It is important to note that the utmost care was exercised to avoid destroying anything usable.
Footnotes for Leviticus 13
1: G. A. F. Knight, Leviticus (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1981), p. 72.
2: Christopher R. North, Abingdon Bible Commentary, Leviticus (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929), p. 287.
3: S. H. Kellogg, The Book of Leviticus (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham), p. 330.
4: Christopher R. North, op. cit., p. 287.
5: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 379.