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Light from the Sidra

Metzorah ('One who is diseased') 4 April 2014. 5 Nissan 5774

Torah: Leviticus 14:1-15:33. Haftarah: 2 Kings 7:3-20.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Plight of the living dead

The last few years has witnessed a rash of movies about zombies, beings who can best be described as the ‘living dead’. The social commentator John W Whitehouse theorises that ‘These films are more than a frightening foray into cinema. They express our repressed fears and expose us to the dark side of human nature—something so destructive that it cannot be controlled. And once it is unleashed, all hell breaks loose’.

In ancient Israel, there was a class of people who were so ‘dangerous’ and potentially destructive to the nation’s holiness that they had to be excluded from normal society. Today, we don’t ostracise sufferers from eczema, psoriasis, ringworm, leucoderma or lesions caused by boils and burns, but in ancient Israel some skin diseases (called in our English Bibles ‘leprosy’) were so serious that they required the sufferer to be expelled from the community and thus from the temple, the house of God. If you suffered from leprosy, you were one of the living dead. You were cut off from contact with the people of God and from fellowship with God himself.

The priests served not only as the peoples’ representatives before God but also as community health inspectors, and it was part of the duties of the priest to examine skin diseases and to distinguish ‘leprosy’ from simple rashes and the like. The priest was not a doctor; all he could do was diagnose according to the guidelines in Leviticus 14 and 15, and pronounce whether someone was clean or unclean.

The Hebrew word metzorah – someone who suffers from leprosy – is very similar to the word for a gossiper and some rabbis taught that Leviticus deals with gossip rather than leprosy. Gossip, like leprosy, spreads and corrupts but there the similarity ends. It is impossible to consistently apply the details of chapters 14 and 15 to gossipers. Gossip is a sin, whereas leprosy was an unfortunate skin disease from which anyone could suffer. Ritual ‘uncleanness’ is not to be confused with personal sin. Nevertheless in the Torah, disease and sin were linked in the sense that they were a reminder that death is the result of sin (see Genesis 3) and any form of disease was an advance warning of death and could mark its imminence. The leper therefore was excluded from the house of God until he (or she) was certified ‘clean’.

When Jesus healed lepers, it was not merely that they might be restored to society but also they might also be restored to fellowship with God. Therefore, he instructed the lepers he healed to follow the cleansing rituals outlined in Leviticus 14 so they could once again partake in the worship of God.

The rituals prescribed in Vayikra 14 took place after healing had already taken place. In the Gospel according to Luke 17:11–19, Jesus instructed ten lepers to present themselves to a priest for cleansing before they had actually been healed. In so doing, he was calling them to an exercise of faith and, as the men believed, they were healed en route to the temple.

The cleansing rituals were lengthy, significant and public and, as Christopher J H Wright points out, they ‘amounted to the celebration of new life as the person was restored from virtual death to the land of the living and to communion with God.’

The choice of Haftarah is interesting because the lepers who bring salvation to Samaria were not healed; they remained outcasts even though they saved the city. In the Tanakh, the only record of a leper being healed is found in 2 Kings 5. The leper was Naaman, an enemy of the Jewish people; he never presented himself to the priest for cleansing; and he remained Torah unobservant, having to bow the knee to the pagan god Rimon when he accompanied the Syrian king to the temple of Ramón. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet but none were cleansed except Naaman, and although Naaman became a worshipper of the God of Israel, he didn’t have to become a Jew in order to be blessed by the God of Israel!

Something similar occurred during the second temple period. For the first twenty years of its existence, the Christian ‘Church’ was almost exclusively Jewish. When non-Jews began to follow Jesus the Jewish Messiah, the question most Jewish followers of Jesus asked was whether Gentiles believers in the Messiah needed to become Jews in order to know Israel’s God and experience the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. The Jewish leaders convened in Jerusalem and after considerable discussion recognised that, like Naaman, Gentiles could believe in the Jewish Messiah without being Torah observant.

Today, the question is whether Jews can believe in their own Messiah without becoming ‘Gentiles’. Put like that, it should make perfect sense that the most ‘Jewish’ thing any Jewish man, woman or child can do is to follow the Jewish Messiah. When Jews believe in Jesus, in a sense they become more Jewish. You could say that they actually become fulfilled in their Jewishness.

Leprosy in ancient Israel was a living death and the only record we have of anyone being cleansed from the disease is that of a Gentile. In the Bible, leprosy is not only a symbol of gossip; it’s a symbol sin. God told Adam that in the day he sinned he would die; and die he did. Adam and Eve didn’t die physically when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but they died spiritually and needed to be made alive. Ever since then, everyone – Jew or Gentile – has been born into a living death. We have all been born spiritual lepers and although spiritual leaders might be able to diagnose the disease, that are powerless to heal us. Only God can do that. And he cleanses through the blood of the Messiah.


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