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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Leviticus 14




Leviticus 11-15

The Preliminary Conditions of Sacrifice: the Typical Cleanness and Purifying”—Lange.


There has been no little debate as to the origin and ground of the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Such a question can only be settled historically. In Genesis 7:2 Noah is directed to take into the ark “of every clean beast by sevens, the male and his female,” while “of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.” There was then already a recognized distinction, and this distinction had nothing to do with the use of animal food, since this had not yet been allowed to man. After the flood, when animal food was given to man (Genesis 9:3), it was given without limitation. “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.” It may therefore be confidently affirmed that this distinction did not have its origin and ground in the suitableness or unsuitableness of different kinds of animal food, as has been contended by many. Neither could it possibly have been founded in any considerations peculiar to the chosen people, since it is here found existing so many ages before the call of Abraham. Immediately after the flood, however, we have a practical application of the distinction which seems to mark its object with sufficient plainness: “Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). The original distinction must therefore be held to have been between animals fit and unfit for sacrifice (comp. Calvin in Leviticus 11:1). On what ground the selection was originally made for sacrifice is wholly unknown; but it is altogether probable that the same kind of animals which were “clean” in the time of Noah were included in the list of the clean under the Levitical law. Many of the latter, however, were not allowable for sacrifice under the same law, nor is it likely that, they ever were; on the other hand, all were admissible for food in Noah’s time, while under the Levitical law many are forbidden. While, therefore, the original distinction must be sought in sacrificial use, it is plain that the details of this distinction are largely modified under the Levitical law prescribing the animals that may be allowed for food.

When inquiry is now made as to the grounds of this modification, the only reason given in the law itself is comprehensive (Leviticus 11:43-47; Leviticus 20:24-26; Deuteronomy 14:21): “For I am the Lord your God; ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy.” “I am the Lord your God, which have separated you from other people.” This points plainly to the separation of the Israelites by their prescribed laws of food from other nations; and it is indisputable that the effect of these laws was to place almost insurmountable impediments in the way of familiar social intercourse between the Israelites and the surrounding heathen. When this separation was to be broken down in the Christian Church, an intimation to that effect could not be more effectively conveyed than by the vision of St. Peter of a sheet let down “wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air,” with the command, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). The effectiveness of the separation, however, is to be sought in the details, not in the general character of the distinction, as it is now well known that the ordinary diet of the Egyptians and other nations of antiquity was substantially the same with that of the Israelites. Various reasons given by the fathers and others, with replies showing their fallacy, may be found in Spencer, de leg. Hebr. I. c. vii., § 1, what he considers the true reasons (seven in number) being given in the following section. Comp. also Calvin in Leviticus 11:1.

It is to be observed that the distinction of clean and unclean animals has place only at their death. All living animals were alike clean, and the Hebrew had no scruple in handling the living ass or even the dog. The lion and the eagle, too, as has been well observed by Clark, were used in the most exalted symbolism of prophetic imagery. But as soon as the animals were dead, a question as to their cleanness arose; this depended on two points: a) the manner of the animal’s death; and b) the nature of the animal itself. All animals whatever which died of themselves were unclean to the Israelites, although they might be given or sold to “strangers” (Deuteronomy 14:21), and the touch of their carcasses communicated defilement (Leviticus 11:39-40). This then was one broad distinction of the law, and was evidently based upon the fact that from such animals the blood had not been withdrawn.

But a difference is further made between animals, even when properly slaughtered. In a very general way, the animals allowed are such as have been generally recognized among all nations and in all ages as most suitably forming the staple of animal food; yet the law cannot be considered as founded upon hygienic or any other principles of universal application, since no such distinction was recognized, in the grant to Noah. Moreover, the obligation of its observance was expressly declared to have been abrogated by the council at Jerusalem, Acts 15:0. The distinction was therefore temporary, and peculiar to the chosen people. Its main object, as already shown, was to keep them a separate people, and it is invested with the solemnity of a religious observance. In providing regulations for this purpose, other objects were doubtless incidentally regarded, such as laws of health, etc., some of which are apparent upon the surface, while others lie hidden in our ignorance of local customs and circumstances.

Before closing this note it is worthy of remark that the dualistic notions which formed the basis of the distinction between clean and unclean animals among the Persians were absolutely contradicted by the theology of the Israelites. Those animals were clean among the Parsees which were believed to have been created by Ormuzd, while those which proceeded from the evil principle, Ahriman, were unclean. The Hebrews, on the contrary, were most emphatically taught to refer the origin of all things to Jehovah, and however absolute might be the distinction among animals, it was yet a distinction between the various works of the one Creator.
The general principles of determination of clean animals were the same among the Israelites as among other ancient nations; in quadrupeds, the formation of the foot and the method of mastication and digestion; among birds, the rejection as unclean of birds of prey; and among fish, the obvious possession of fins and scales. All these marks of distinction in the Levitical law are wisely and even necessarily made on the basis of popular observation and belief, not on that of anatomical exactness. Otherwise the people would have been continually liable to error. Scientifically, the camel would be said to divide the hoof, and the hare does not chew the cud. But laws for popular use must necessarily employ terms as they are popularly understood. These matters are often referred to as scientific errors; whereas they were simply descriptions, necessarily popular, for the understanding and enforcement of the law.
Defilement by contact comes forward very prominently in this chapter, as it is also frequently mentioned elsewhere. It is not strange that in a law whose educational purpose is everywhere so plain, this most effective symbolism should hold a place, and the contaminating effect of converse with evil be thus impressed upon this people in their spiritual infancy. It thus has its part with all other precepts of ceremonial cleanness in working out the great spiritual purposes of the law. But beyond this, there is here involved the great truth, but imperfectly revealed under the old dispensation, that the body, as well as the soul, has its part in the relations between God and man. The body, as well as the soul, was a sufferer by the primeval sentence upon sin, and the body, as well as the soul, has part in the redemption of Christ, and awaits the resurrection of the just. The ascetic notions of the mediæval ages regarded the body as evil in a sense entirely incompatible with the representations of Scripture. For not merely is the body the handmaid of the soul, and the necessary instrument of the soul’s action, but the service of the body as well as the soul is recognized in the New Testament (e.g., Romans 12:1) as a Christian duty. On its negative side, at least, this truth was taught under the old dispensation by the many laws of bodily purity, the series of which begins in this chapter. The laws of impurity from physical contact stand as an appendix to the laws of food and as an introduction to the other laws of purity, and form the connecting link between them.

Verses 1-57

Laws Concerning Leprosy

Chaps. 13, 14


The disease of leprosy has happily become so rare in modern times in the better known parts of the world that much obscurity rests upon its pathology. The attempt will only be made here to point out those matters which may be considered as fixed by common consent, but which will be found sufficient for the illustration of the more important points in the following chapters.
In the first place, then, it appears indisputable that leprosy is a broad name covering several varieties of disease more or less related to one another. These are separable into two main classes, one covering the different, forms of Elephantiasis (tuberculated and anæsthetic); the other, the Lepra vulgaris. Psoriasis, Syphilis, etc. It is the former class alone with which Leviticus has to do as a disease. At the present time the tuberculated variety is said to be the more common in those countries in which leprosy still exists to any considerable extent, while the anæsthetic was probably more prevalent in the time of Moses. The latter is described by Celsus under the name of λεύκη, and Keil maintains that the laws of Moses in regard to leprosy in man relate exclusively to this. Clark, however, has shown “that the two in a great number of cases work together, and as it did in the days of Moses, the disease appears occasionally in an ambiguous form.” Wilson has recorded a number of cases in detail, showing the interchange of the two forms in the same patient. The symptoms of the disease intended by Moses sufficiently appear in the text itself, and if these symptoms cover what would now appear in medical nomenclature as different diseases, then all those diseases, classified under the general name of leprosy were intended to be included in the Levitical legislation.

Nothing whatever is said in the law either of the origin, the contagiousness, or the cure of the disease. In modern experience it seems to have been sufficiently proved that it is hereditary, but only to the extent of three or four generations, when it gradually disappears; neither is it in all cases hereditary, the children of lepers being sometimes entirely unaffected by leprosy, and on the other hand the disease often appearing without any hereditary taint. In its first appearance it is now often marked only by some slight “spot” upon the skin, giving no pain or other inconvenience, but obstinately resisting all efforts at removal, and slowly but irresistibly spreading. Sometimes months, sometimes years, even to the extent of twenty or thirty years, intervene between the first appearance of the “spots” and their development. It is not improbable that in the course of many centuries a considerable modification in the rapidity of its progress may have taken place in a disease which is found gradually to die out by hereditary transmission. The question of its contagiousness is still much mooted among the medical faculty. The better opinion seems to be that it is not immediately contagious, but is propagated by prolonged and intimate intercourse in the case of susceptible persons. At least it is certain that in all known instances of the prevalence of the disease one of the most important of the means of control has been the segregation of the lepers, and where this precaution has been neglected, the disease has continued to prevail. After the leprosy has once acquired a certain degree of development, there is no known means of cure. Everything hitherto attempted has been found to rather aggravate than mitigate the disorder. It is asserted that it yields to medical treatment in its earliest stages when the “spots” first appear, and a number of distinct cases of cure are recorded; but the doubt will always remain whether the disease which yields is really leprosy, or whether something else has not been confounded with an undeveloped stage of the true disease. However this may be, it is certain that after it has once become developed to any considerable extent it is incurable by any remedies at present known, although spontaneous cures do sometimes occur. The reliance for its control is more upon diet, cleanliness, and general regimen, than upon specific antidotes.
Medical observations upon the disease in modern times have been made in the island of Guadaloupe, where it broke out about the middle of the last century, and was very carefully investigated by M. Peyssonel, a physician sent out by the French government for the purpose. An account of the result, of his examination, as well as of other investigations of English, French, and German physicians in other islands of the West Indies whither it had been imported from Africa, and in other parts of the world is given by Michaelis (Laws of Moses, Art. 208, 210). Also of especial importance is a “Report on the leprosy in Norway by Dr. Danielssen, chief physician of the leper hospital at Bergen, and Prof. Boeck” (Paris, 1848). The subject of late years has considerably interested physicians, and the London “College of physicians” have published a report upon it, based upon a series of questions addressed to nearly all parts of the world where the disease now prevails. Many other authorities are cited by Clark in his preliminary note to these chapters. A particularly valuable discussion of the disease may be found in Wilson, Diseases of the skin, ch. xiii. (5th Am. Ed., pp. 300–314 and 333–381). The disease appears to have been more or less common in Western Europe from the eighth century down, but received a great extension at the time of the crusades. At one time a partial enumeration by Dugdale mentions eighty-five leper houses in England alone, six of which were in London, and it continued to linger in Scotland until the middle of the last century. It still exists to a considerable extent in Iceland and Norway, and in all the countries bordering the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, especially Syria and Egypt, where it has found a home in all ages, in some parts of Africa, Arabia, and India.

The characteristics of the disease are the exceedingly slight symptoms at its first appearance; its insidious, and usually very slow progress, the horribly repulsive features of its later stages when the face becomes shockingly disfigured, and often the separate joints of the body become mortified and drop off one by one; and its usually sudden and unexpected termination at the last, when the leprosy reaches some vital organ, and gives rise to secondary disease, often dysentery, by which life is ended. Meanwhile, during the earlier stages, generally very prolonged, there is no suffering, and the ordinary enjoyments of life are uninterrupted.
Leprosy, with these characteristics, especially its hidden origin, and its insidious and resistless progress, has always seemed a mysterious disease, and among the heathen as well as among the Jews, has been looked upon as an infliction especially coming from God. In fact in Hebrew history it was so often employed in Divine judgments, as in the case of Miriam, of Gehazi, and of Uzziah, and was also so often healed by miraculous interposition, as in the case of Miriam also, and of Naaman, as to give some reason for this belief; while the peculiar treatment it received in the law tended still further to place leprosy in a position of alienation from the theocratic state, and actually included the leper in that “uncleanness” which was utterly excluded from approach to the sanctuary. The disease thus became a vivid symbolism of sin, and of the opposition in which this stands to the holiness of God; while at the same time its revolting aspect in its later stages made it such an image, and indeed a beginning, of death itself that it is often most appropriately described by Jewish as well as other writers as “a living death.” Much of the association with death and the body in the corruption of death, thus attached to leprosy and the corruption at work in leprosy. It is not necessary here to speak of the prevailing Hebrew notion that all suffering was the consequence of individual sin, and was proportioned in severity to the degree of that sin; for however deeply seated such ideas may have been in the minds of many of the Israelites, and however much they may have increased the popular dread and abhorrence of leprosy, they find no shadow of encouragement whatever in the law.
In regard to what is called “leprosy” in houses, in textile fabrics, and in leather, it is not necessary to suppose that the name is intended to convey the idea of an organic disease in these inanimate things. The law will still be sufficiently clear if we look upon the name as merely applied in these cases to express a kind of disintegration or corruption, such as could be most readily and popularly described, from certain similarities in appearance, by the figurative use of the word. In the same way the terms out of joint, sick, and others have come among ourselves to be popularly used of inanimate things, and such words as blistered, bald, and rotten, have a technical figurative sense almost more common than their original literal one. These modes of disintegration have been often investigated with great learning and labor; but it is not surprising that at this distance of time, and after such profound changes in the arts and the habits of men, the result of all such investigations should remain somewhat unsatisfactory. Just enough has been ascertained to show that inanimate things, of the classes here described, are subject to processes of decay which might be aptly described by the word leprosy; but precisely what the processes were to which the Levitical law had reference it is probably impossible now to ascertain definitely. The most satisfactory treatment of the subject from this point of view is to be found in Michaelis (ubi supra, Art. 211). He instances in regard to houses, the formation of saltpetre or other nitrous salts upon the walls to such an extent in some parts of Germany as to become an article of commercial importance, and to be periodically scraped off for the market. By others the existence of iron pyrites in the dolomitic limestone used for building in Palestine has been suggested as leading in its decomposition to precisely the appearances described in the law—hollow streaks of the green ferrous sulphate and the red of ferric sulphate—upon the walls of the houses affected; but proof is wanting of the existence in that stone of pyrites in sufficient abundance to produce the effects contemplated in the law. Both these explanations, however, are suggestive of methods of disintegration which might have occurred, but for the determination of which we have not sufficient data. It is the same with the explanation of Michaelis in regard to woolen fabrics,—that the wool itself is affected by diseases of the sheep upon which it has grown. The fact itself does not seem sufficiently well authenticated; nor if it were, would it be applicable to garments of linen. Nevertheless, this is suggestive of defects in the materials,—which were in all cases of organic production—arising either from diseased growth, or from unskilfulness in the art of their preparation, which would after a time manifest themselves in the product, much in the same way as old books now sometimes become spotted over with a “leprosy” arising from an insufficient removal of the chemicals employed in the preparation of the paper pulp.

But whatever the nature and origin of this sort of “leprosy,” it is plainly regarded in the Levitical law as is no sense contagious, or in any way calculated to produce directly injurious effects upon man. It is provided for in the law, it would appear, partly on the general ground of the inculcation of cleanliness, and partly from association with the human disease to which it bore an external resemblance, and to which the utmost repugnance was to be encouraged. Even the likeness and suggestion of leprosy was to be held unclean in the homes of Israel.
No mention has thus far been made of a theory of this disease adopted by many physicians, and which, if established, might really assimilate the leprosy in houses and garments and skins to that in the human body, and explain the origin of all alike by the same cause. According to this theory, the disease is occasioned by vegetable spores, which find a suitable nidus for their development either in the human skin or in the other substances mentioned. If this theory should be accepted, the origin and effects of the disintegrating agencies would be the same in all cases. The late eminent physician, Dr. J. K. Mitchell, in his work upon the origin of malarious and epidemic fevers (Five Essays, p. 94), after quoting the law in relation to leprosy, says: “There is here described a disease whose cause must have been of organic growth, capable of living in the human being, and of creating there a foul and painful disease of contagious character, while it could also live and reproduce itself in garments of wool, linen, or skin; nay more, it could attach itself to the walls of a house, and there also effect its own reproduction. Animalcules, always capable of choice, would scarcely be found so transferable; and we are therefore justified in supposing that green or red fungi so often seen in epidemic periods, were the protean disease of man, and his garment, and his house.” He further quotes from Hecker statements corroboratory of his views in regard to the plagues of 786 and 959. This theory, however, has not here been urged, partly because it yet needs further proof, partly because no theory at all is necessary to account for the Levitical legislation in view of the facts presented in the law.

For the literature of the subject, besides the reference above given, see the art. by Hayman, Leper, Leprosy, in Smith’s Bibl. Dict., and the Preliminary note on these chapters in Clark’s Com. on Lev., together with the appended notes to the same.

At the opening of his “Exegetical” Lange has the following, which may be appropriately placed here: “First of all, it must be made prominent that the leprosy, under the point of view taken, and the sentence of uncleanness, is placed as a companion to the uncleanness of birth, as the representative of all ways of death, of all sicknesses. It is unclean first in itself, as a death element in the stream of life—in the blood—even as the source of life appears disturbed in the relations of birth; but still more it is unclean as a sickness spreading by transmission and contagion.
“Hence it appears also as a polluting element of physical corruption, not only in men, but also through the analogy of an evil diffusing itself, in human garments and dwellings. The analogous evils of these were, on this account, called leprosy.
“In this extension over man and his whole sphere it is, in its characteristics, a speaking picture of sin and of evil the punishment of sin; it is, so to speak, the plastic manifestation, the medical phantom or representation of all the misery of sin.
“Accordingly the leprosy, and the contact with it, is the specific uncleanness which excluded the bearer of it from the theocratic community, so that he, as the typically excommunicated person, must dwell without the camp.
“Nothing is here said of the application of human means of healing in reference to this evil. The leper was left with his sickness to the mercy of God and to the wonderfully deep antithesis of recovery and death; the more so, since leprosy in a peculiar sense is a chronic crisis, a progressive disease, continually secreting matter, whether for life or for death. Mention is made of external counteraction only in regard to leprosy in garments and houses. Hence, from its nature, it is altogether placed under the supervision of the priest. The priest knew the characteristics of the leprosy, and the course of its crises; he had accordingly to decide upon the exclusion and upon the restoration of the sick, and to express the latter by the performance of the sacrifice of purification brought for this purpose by the convalescent.
“Thus in conformity to the spirit of Oriental antiquity, the priest here appears as the physician also for bodily sicknesses, as a watchman over the public health. But for the cosmic evils he was still less a match than for those of the body; against such the prophet must reveal miraculous helps, e.g., against the bitterness of the water, and against the bite of the fiery serpents.

“The great contrast between the Old and the New Testaments is made prominent in the fact, that in the Old Testament the touch of the leper made unclean,—apparently even leprous;—while Christ by His touch of the lepers cleansed them from their leprosy. But it continued to be left to the priest, as the representative of the old covenant, to pronounce the fact. See Comm. S. Matt., p. 150.”
“The name Leprosy, צָרַעַת is derived from צָרַע to strike down, to strike to the ground; the leprosy is the stroke of God. Gesenius distinguishes the leprosy in men, the leprosy in houses (probably the injury done by saltpetre), and the leprosy in garments (mould, mildew). On this chronic form of sickness, fully equal to the acute form of the plague, comp the article Leprosy (Aussatz) in the dictionaries, especially in Herzog’s Real-encyclopädie, and in Winer. Four principal forms are distinguished, of which three are particularly described by Winer: 1) The white leprosy, Barras, λευκή. “This prevailed among the Hebrews (2 Kings 5:27, etc.) and has hence been called by physicians lepra Mosaica. See the description in Winer, I. p. 114. 2) The Elephantiasis, lepra nodosa, or tuberculosa, tubercular leprosy, Egyptian boil, thus endemic in Egypt. “The sickness of Job was commonly considered in antiquity to have been this kind of leprosy.” 3) The black leprosy or the dark Barras. Later medical researches (to which the articles in Bertheau’s Conversations-lexicon, and Schenkel’s Bibel-lexicon refer) show the differences between the various kinds as less defined; the contagious character is called in question by Furrer (in Schenkel). In this matter indeed, it is a question whether the rigid isolation of the leprous has not hindered, in a great degree, the examples of contagion.” For a catalogue of the literature, see Knobel, p. 469 and beyond.

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 14". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.