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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Leviticus 13

Verse 1

The priests had the responsibility of distinguishing between the clean and the unclean, and they had to teach the people the difference (Leviticus 10:10-11).

Verses 1-46

Abnormalities in human skin 13:1-46

God dealt with 21 different cases of skin diseases in this pericope. Some of these may have included measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, and other diseases characterized by skin rash. [Note: Harris, p. 577.] Some authorities believe that exact identification of the various forms of scaly skin disorders described in this chapter is impossible today. [Note: Browne, pp. 5-6.] Others feel more confident. One authority suggested the following identifications. [Note: Hulse, pp. 96-97.]

The swelling, scab, or bright spot (Leviticus 13:2-28)Psoriasis: a chronic, non-infectious skin disease characterized by the presence of well-demarcated, slightly raised reddish patches of various sizes covered by dry grayish-white or silvery scales.
An infection on the head or beard (Leviticus 13:29-37)Favus: a much more severe and damaging infection in which the fungus invades both the hair and the full thickness of the skin.
Bright spots on the skin (Leviticus 13:38-39)Leucoderma: a slightly disfiguring condition in which patches of otherwise normal skin lose their natural coloring and become completely white.

Verses 1-59

3. Uncleanness due to skin and covering abnormalities chs. 13-14

Many translations and commentaries have regarded the legislation in these chapters as dealing with leprosy, but this is misleading. The confusion has arisen because the term "leprosy" appears in most English texts in these chapters, and English readers automatically think that what we know as modern leprosy is in view. However as the chapters unfold it becomes increasingly clear that what is in view is not modern leprosy (Hansen’s disease). [Note: See S. G. Browne, Leprosy in the Bible; E. V. Hulse, "The Nature of Biblical ’Leprosy’ and the Use of Alternative Medical Terms in Modern Translations of the Bible," Palestine Exploration Quarterly 107 (1975):87-105; John Wilkinson, "Leprosy and Leviticus: The Problem of Description and Identification," Scottish Journal of Theology 30 (1984):153-69; Rebecca A. and E. Eugene Baillie, M. D., "Biblical Leprosy as Compared to Present-Day Leprosy," Christian Medical Society Journal 14:3 (Fall 1983):27-29.] The solution to the problem involves recognizing that the Septuagint version has influenced the English translations of the Hebrew word used here, tsara’at. In the Septuagint, the Greek word lepra translates tsara’at, and the English translations have simply transliterated this Greek word because of similarities with modern leprosy. The Greeks used a different term for human leprosy: elephantiasis, not lepra. That tsara’at does not mean leprosy becomes especially clear in chapter 14 where we read that tsara’at appeared as mold and mildew in clothes and houses, something modern leprosy does not do. What tsara’at does describe is a variety of abnormalities that afflicted human skin as well as clothing and houses, coverings of various types. Lepra etymologically refers to scaliness, and tsara’at may also. [Note: See Hulse, p. 93; and Browne, p. 5.] Evidently there was enough similarity between these abnormalities for God to deal with them together in this section of Leviticus.

The section contains three parts. Moses frequently divided various material into three subsections in Leviticus. Each part in this section begins, "The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron" (Leviticus 13:1; Leviticus 14:1; Leviticus 14:33), and it closes, "This is the law for" (Leviticus 13:59; Leviticus 14:32; Leviticus 14:54).

The diagnosis and treatment of abnormalities in human skin and clothing ch. 13

We may further divide this chapter into two parts: the diagnosis and treatment of abnormalities in human skin, and the diagnosis and treatment of abnormalities in clothing and similar articles. A more detailed outline of the chapter follows. [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 194.]

Introduction Leviticus 13:1

First set of tests for skin disease Leviticus 13:2-8

Second set of tests for skin disease Leviticus 13:9-17

Third set of tests for skin disease in scars Leviticus 13:18-23

Fourth set of tests for skin disease in burns Leviticus 13:24-28

Fifth set of tests for skin disease in scalp or beard Leviticus 13:29-37

A skin disease that is clean Leviticus 13:38-39

Baldness and skin disease Leviticus 13:40-44

Treatment of those diagnosed as unclean Leviticus 13:45-46

Diagnosis and treatment of skin disease in clothing Leviticus 13:47-58

Summary Leviticus 13:59

Rooker saw seven types of infectious skin diseases in Leviticus 13:1-44: skin eruptions (Leviticus 13:1-8), chronic skin disease (Leviticus 13:9-17), boils (Leviticus 13:18-23), burns (Leviticus 13:24-28), sores (Leviticus 13:29-37), rashes (Leviticus 13:38-39), and baldness (Leviticus 13:40-44). [Note: Rooker, pp. 186-92.]

Before proceeding, we need to note that by "treatment" we do not mean that God prescribed a way by which people or objects afflicted with "leprosy" could recover. Rather the "treatment" dealt with how people were to relate to God and the sanctuary in view of these problems. He was not dealing with them as a physician but as a public health inspector. His objective was not their physical recovery in this legislation but their proper participation in worship.

Typically in each case we read four things: a preliminary statement of the symptoms, the priestly inspection, the basis of the priest’s diagnosis, and the diagnosis itself and the consequences.

Verses 2-8

Serious skin disease apparently began with some sort of swelling or a shiny patch on the skin (Leviticus 13:2). Serious skin disease resulted in uncleanness, but less important conditions might not.

Verses 9-17

These tests were appropriate when raw flesh appeared in an infected area of the skin. White hair in the raw flesh area was a sure sign of serious skin disease.

If the afflicted person became completely white rather than blotchy, the priest was to consider him or her clean. Evidently it was the patchy condition of the skin that made the person unclean. Another explanation is that a totally white condition indicated that the disease was over or not contagious. [Note: Bush, p. 119; Keil and Delitzsch, 2:380.]

Verses 18-28

Similarly white hair in a deep infection or scar indicated serious skin disease. Psoriasis can occur on scars and at sites of burns and other previous injuries. [Note: Hulse, p. 98.]

Verses 29-37

Yellowing hair indicated another skin abnormality. Black hair in the suspected area indicated that there was no serious skin disease there, so the person was clean.

Verses 38-39

Patches of skin go completely white when a person contracts leucoderma (eczema). The law did not regard this type of skin disorder as serious enough to render the afflicted person unclean.

Verses 40-44

Baldness did not result in uncleanness, but serious skin disease on the head did. Psoriasis may be in view here. [Note: Ibid.]

Verses 45-46

Tearing the clothes, messing the hair, and covering the upper lip were all signs of mourning (cf. Leviticus 10:6; Leviticus 21:10; Genesis 37:34; Numbers 14:6; 2 Samuel 1:11; 2 Kings 11:14; 2 Kings 19:1; 2 Kings 22:11; 2 Kings 22:19; Ezra 9:5; Ezekiel 24:17; Ezekiel 24:22; Micah 3:7). Not every place outside the camp was unclean; there were clean places outside the camp (e.g., Leviticus 4:12). However the unclean person was to live in an unclean area outside the camp. The idea was that he or she could not come close to God who resided in the tabernacle at the center of the camp.

"The holiest area, where one was closest to God, was the tabernacle. It was here that the holy men, the priests, worked. The tabernacle was surrounded by the camp where Israel the holy people of God lived. This in turn was encircled by the area outside the camp. which was populated by non-Jews, sinners, and the unclean. To live outside the camp was to be cut off from the blessings of the covenant. It is little wonder that when a man was diagnosed as unclean he had to go into mourning. He experienced a living death; his life as a member of God’s people experiencing God’s blessing came to an end. Genesis 3 presents a similar picture. . . . As Adam and Eve experienced a living death when they were expelled from Eden, so every man who was diagnosed as unclean suffered a similar fate." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 201.]

". . . as human skin was the focus of guilt and shame in the beginning, so now diseases of the skin provide an occasion to demonstrate the need for human cleansing. In other words, just as the effects of the first sin were immediately displayed in human skin (’And their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked,’ Genesis 3:7), so the writer uses the graphic horror of skin diseases found in these texts to depict the human state of uncleanness before a holy God.

"According to the regulations in Leviticus, if one were found to be unclean, ’As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp’ (Leviticus 13:46). In the same way, the Genesis narratives show that when Adam (and Eve) sinned, ’the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. And he drove Adam out’ (Genesis 3:23-24). Like the unclean person in Leviticus, they had to live ’outside the camp.’" [Note: Sailhamer, p. 337.]

"Holiness in Leviticus is symbolized by wholeness. Animals must be perfect to be used in sacrifice. Priests must be without physical deformity. Mixtures are an abomination. Men must behave in a way that expresses wholeness and integrity in their actions. When a man shows visible signs of lack of wholeness in a persistent patchy skin condition, he has to be excluded from the covenant community. Temporary deviations from the norm do not attract such treatment, but if the symptoms last for more than two weeks, he must go to live outside the true Israel. . . . Anyone might fall victim to these complaints and face the prospect of being cut off from his family and friends for the rest of his days. Yet it was considered so important to preserve the purity of the tabernacle and the holiness of the nation that individuals and families might be forced to suffer a good deal. Individual discomfort was not allowed to jeopardize the spiritual welfare of the nation, for God’s abiding presence with his people depended on uncleanness being excluded from their midst (cf. Isaiah 6:3-5)." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 203.]

The Israelites evidently regarded "leprosy" as representing sin. It resulted in the leper’s separation from God and from other people. In many respects leprosy and sin were similar in both their character and consequences.

"Before the people of God can enter the presence of the holy God they must be free of all disease. . . . Bodily diseases are incompatible with the holy presence of the LORD." [Note: Ross, p. 282.]

The sacrifice of Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to enter God’s presence (cf. Isaiah 53:5: "By His scourging we are healed [spiritually now but also physically in the future, at our resurrection]").

"In the church today no rule prevents people with skin diseases from entering the place of worship, because it is simply an assembly of believers and not the sanctuary with the holy of holies and the actual dwelling of the glory of the LORD. Yet common sense should tell someone with a contagious illness to remain at home or in the hospital. That is the practical side of Leviticus. Nevertheless, the theological understanding behind any illness is that it is part and parcel of the fallen condition of human life in this world." [Note: Ibid., p. 283.]

Verses 47-59

Abnormalities in clothing 13:47-59

God mentioned three different cases of diseased garments in this part of the chapter.

Material objects do not contract illnesses, but they do occasionally become abnormal due to mold, mildew, or some other invasive agent. Mosaic law did not view these abnormalities as necessarily dangerous to the health of the Israelites. They did, however, represent deviation from a proper condition.

"Decay or corruption [in and of the environment] is incompatible with the holiness of the LORD and must be removed." [Note: Ibid., p. 297.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 13". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-13.html. 2012.