Light from the Sidra

Tazria ('She gives birth')

Torah: Haftarah: Lev.12:1-15:33.2 Kings 7:3-20

The Yechh Factor

Having lived the first eighteen years of my life as a virtual pagan, I had little knowledge of the Bible or church life when I became a Christian. One day, for a reason that now eludes me, I was alone in our church when a lady bearing a baby knocked at the door and asked if she could be ‘churched’. I had no idea what she meant and had to ask her to come back when our minister was there.

Some churches (the church to which I belonged was not one of them), conduct a ceremony for women after they have recovered from childbirth in which a blessing is bestowed on the mother. This ‘churching’ is similar to the ritual found in Leviticus 12:2-8, in which women were purified after giving birth, it involves no elements of ritual purification. Luke’s Gospel (2:22-24) in the New Testament records that the mother of Jesus, being an observant young Jewish woman, underwent purification at the temple after giving birth.

‘Uncleanness’ in ancient Israel was not only a moral or ethical issue. I was possible, through no fault of one’s own, to become ritually ‘unclean’ and as a consequence suffer exclusion from the presence of God in the Tabernacle.

Why should a woman need to undergo purification after what must be the most wonderful experience possible, bringing new life into the world? Why did she need to offer a ‘sin (or ‘de-sin’) offering’? Some people still think this is an indication that the Bible teaches sex is ‘unclean’ or even ‘sinful’.

Although Israel’s law of ritual uncleanness had a socially beneficial effect in that it provided the mother with a period of seclusion and privacy after birth, when a woman’s reproductive system expels an egg during her menstrual cycle (v. 2) she loses life-blood and, in a sense, a life is lost. Every month, a woman experiences the curse brought about the disobedience of the first man and woman, a curse that introduced pain (including the pain she experiences on a monthly basis) and death (which she also experiences each month). Women (and men of course) live in a cursed world that can no longer be described as ‘very good,’ and they bear in their bodies reminders of the Fall of humanity.

Lepers also bear the marks of ‘man’s first disobedience and fall’ in the skin diseases. God created the world very good but skin diseases are a reminder that the world has been corrupted and is subject to decay.

Israel’s laws of quarantine for lepers were apparently not observed by the nations around them. Naaman, for example, was a leper but served as a commander in the Syrian army, and the Haftarah recounts the tale of a group of starving lepers living in quarantine who thought the Syrians might accept them and feed them.

Houses could become mouldy and mildewed. The ancient Israelites¬†subject to harsh building regulations, and infected mud dwellings could be pulled down and rebuilt without too much difficulty. The lesson was there nevertheless: they lived in a world that is not what it was when God pronounced his creation tov meod, ‘very good.’

And then there were the bodily discharges (which we won’t go into because I’ve just eaten breakfast).

Chapter 14 deals with the elaborate ritual that was to take place after someone was healed of leprosy. An interesting element in the proceedings is that even though sin was not a factor in the disease, a sin offering and a trespass offering were presented to God. The priests had no ability to heal lepers (in the Tanakh there are only two accounts of lepers being healed, those of Moses’ sister Miriam and the Syrian officer Naaman); they were public health inspectors and could only pronounce when someone or something was leprous and when they were clean.

In Leviticus 13, leprosy includes skin diseases that are more than skin deep and those that spread on the skin. It would seem that in Leviticus leprosy is a symbol of sin, hence the presentation of sin offerings and trespass offerings. 

The Babylonian Talmud associates the Messiah with leprosy. Sanhedrin 98a, in reference to Psalm 95:7, states: ‘The Rabbis said: His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath born our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of YHWH, and afflicted.’

In the Gospels, many of the miracles Jesus performed were for those suffering from diseases that rendered them ‘unclean’ and so prevented them worshipping at the temple. Among those he healed were lepers and a woman suffering from a discharge of blood, making fellowship with God a possibility for them. After the physical cleansing of lepers, he made his final pilgrimage to Jerusalem to give himself as ultimate sin offering and trespass offering to cleanse spiritual lepers and restore them to fellowship with God.

Jesus identified with lepers by touching them and, in the process, taking on himself their uncleanness. But it was in his death that a greater and more wonderful transference took place: ‘For our sake God made Messiah to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (Second Letter to Corinth 5:21)¬†

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