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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 13

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



(1.) There is much disagreement among biblical scholars respecting the nature of the leprosy and the grounds of its treatment in the law of Moses. Some strongly insist that the term leprosy is a misnomer introduced by the Greek translators, and that the real disease is the elephantiasis, because the skin resembles the elephant’s in colour, roughness, and insensibility, or because the foot, after the loss of the toes and enlargement of the ankle, resembles the foot of that animal. But it is essentially different from the leprosy, as will be seen by a study of recent medical reports from fifty places on the shores of the Mediterranean, in India, China, Africa, and the West Indies, in answer to a series of questions relating to this subject. The answers returned give a good description of the ulcers which afflicted Job, but they are not by any means so accurate a description of the Mosaic leprosy as we could desire. Hence we have not adopted the theory which identifies the elephantiasis with the leprosy described in this chapter.

(2.) Was the Levitical leprosy contagious, and was this the ground of the cautious treatment enjoined by Moses? Modern biblical scholars are inclined to answer in the negative, though not unanimously. “There are in England, now, hospitals built for lepers, so ancient that their origin is unknown, such as the St. Bartholomew Hospital at Gloucester, and others. It is known that there were at least nine thousand hospitals in Europe for leprosy alone. Louis VII. of France left legacies to over two thousand hospitals for lepers in his country. Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury, held a synod at Westminster, in the year 1200, to carry out the decree of the Council of Lateran, (1172,) to build a number of churches solely for leprous people, for they had long been expelled from all parish churches. They were to have priests, officers, and graveyards exclusively for themselves. They were released at the same time from all claims for tithes for their land or cattle. So careful and determined were our ancestors to remove from sight and smell every leper, that a law was early in existence to enforce their removal out of towns and villages ‘to a solitary place.’ At the city of Bath, a bath, with physicians and attendants, was endowed exclusively for lepers and the endowments are still paid.” Joseph Parker.

The following facts would justify the conclusion of biblical scholars: 1.) No precautions are prescribed to the priests who are brought into constant and close contact with this disease. 2.) The priests did not become leprous more than the laity. 3.) The wholly leprous person was pronounced clean.

Verses 1-2


2. The plague of leprosy The word leprosy is of Greek origin, and literally signifies, the scaly disease. For its general meaning see note on Numbers 5:2. But the disease here treated of is evidently the so-called white leprosy, ( Lepra Mosaica,) which is still found among the Arabs under the name of Baras. It is described by Trunsen as follows: “Very frequently, even for years before the actual outbreak of the disease itself, white, yellowish spots are seen lying deep in the skin, particularly on the genitals, face, forehead, or in the joints. They are without feeling, and sometimes cause the hair to assume the same colour as the spots. These spots afterwards pierce through the cellular tissue and reach the muscles and bones. The hair becomes white and woolly, and at length falls off; hard, gelatinous swellings are formed in the cellular tissue; the skin gets hard, rough, and seamy; lymph exudes from it, and forms large scabs, which fall off from time to time; and under these there are often offensive running sores. The nails then swell, curl up, and fall off; entropium ( inversion of the eyelashes) is then formed, with bleeding gums; the nose is stopped up, and there is a considerable flow of saliva. The senses become dull, the patient gets weak and thin, wasting diarrhea sets in, and incessant thirst and burning terminate his sufferings.” There are three chief symptoms of this disease. (1.) A rising or swelling. (2.) A scab. (3.)

A bright spot This was of a white colour. These are described under six different circumstances, namely: 1.) Developed without any apparent cause, 2-8. 2.) Reappearing after the supposed cure, 9-17. 3.) Arising from the scar of a boil or a burn, 18-28. 4.) Appearing on the head or chin. 29-37. 5.) In the form called bohak, not unclean, 38-39. 6.) In a bald head, 40-44.

Unto Aaron the priest The treatment was to be ceremonial, not medical. The command that the leper present himself not to the physician but to the priest, shows that the leprosy was in some way intimately associated with sin, for the priest’s office related to guilt. “There was no doctor then; he is a later creation. The Church is the true lazar-house; the Church is the great hospital. We have no instruction to the effect that one leper is to look on another; the distinct direction is that the priest the holy, pure man shall look at the leper handle him, undertake him.”- Joseph Parker.

Verse 3

3. The priest shall look The eye is still the chief instrument in the diagnosis of diseases. The microscope has greatly enhanced the accuracy of its reports, especially in cutaneous diseases, each of which has its peculiar manifestations. In practice the inspection took place on clear days from nine o’clock to twelve, and from one to four, because colours were best discerned then.

Hair… turned white The leprosy is so radical in its nature that it whitens the hairs in the leprous spots. “There must be at least two in the body of the white spot.” Maimonides.

Deeper than the skin Deeper than the general level of the skin. White spots frequently appear from some defect in the pigments which lie immediately beneath the transparent cuticle. The leprosy must be carefully distinguished from this cutaneous whiteness.

Verse 4

4. Shut up seven days The community, and not the suspected leper, was to have the benefit of the doubt. Every safeguard against the ceremonial impurity was to be taken. Precisely the same measures were adopted in the island of Barbadoes when the leprosy broke out there. The patients were at first shut up seven days in order to determine between the leprosy and the crowcrow, an African itch. At Guadaloupe the citizens petitioned the authorities for a universal inspection of suspected persons, and their confinement in quarantine, and, in the case of the lepers, their removal to permanent pest-houses. It was found that the board of health had in this chapter a code of laws framed to their hand and ready for use with only the change of the word “priest” to physician.

Verse 5

5. Seven days more It would seem that the suspected leper must necessarily be imprisoned two weeks. But if the symptoms had disappeared entirely at the end of the first week, the man was doubtless entitled to a discharge, otherwise there would be no use of any examination till the end of the second week. The priest who made the first examination must make the second also, as another could not tell whether the disease had spread.

Verse 6

6. Pronounce him clean Ceremonially pure, though he may have other loathsome diseases, and be morally vile. The action of the priest, literally translated, is, to make him clean, as in the third verse he is to make the leper unclean. In both cases the action is declarative and not causative or judicial. This suggests the proper meaning of the apostolic binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19, and the remitting and retaining of sins in John 20:23.

He shall wash his clothes “As the very cause that had led to his being suspected showed that there was some impurity in his blood, a slight purification was prescribed, the moral effect of which would naturally be to teach that the very appearance of evil is an adequate ground of humiliation to any one that fears God.” Bush.

Verse 7

7. If the scab spread The white spot has now taken the form of a rapidly spreading scab. When the patient observes this he is under obligation to go to the priest to be examined again. According to Maimonides his neglect subjected him to the penalty of leprosy cleaving to him for life, as the leprosy of sin will cleave to the sinner who neglects to come to the great High Priest, Jesus Christ.

Verses 10-12

10-12. The rising This was a decisive indication when it was white and accompanied by white hair and raw flesh in the swelling. There was in that case no doubt that the virus of leprosy had been long in the blood, making it an old leprosy.

Shall not shut him up For the case is no longer doubtful. The man must now be excluded from the camp or city with bare head, covered face, and rent garment, the badges of his dreadful malady. See Leviticus 13:45, note.

Verse 13

13. All turned white: he is clean Here is a paradox; the partial leper is unclean, the total leper is clean. The explanation of Patrick is, that this uniform white covering is indicative of some other disease, and not the real leprosy, yet it has so strong a resemblance as to prompt the writer to give it the same name. But the more common theory is, that the crisis of the leprosy is reached when the patient becomes white from head to foot “broken out blooming on the skin,” with an enamelled, hard, dry scurf, incapable of communicating the contagion by contact. Canon Cook argues that the disease treated of in this chapter is the elephantiasis, and not the leprosy, and that when the entire surface turns white it indicates that it is not the elephantiasis, but some other disease, which did not render the man unclean. This solution of the difficulty agrees very nearly with Patrick’s. It is a prevalent opinion that the leprosy is here treated, not on sanitary but wholly on ceremonial grounds, and that the leprosy is arbitrarily pronounced unclean, just as a corpse is unclean a moment after life is extinct, and that the ceremonial pollution, by arbitrary appointment, continues only so long as the disease is spreading.

Verse 14

14. Raw flesh This is the proud flesh, the appearance of which, after the universal spread of the white scurf, indicates that the disease has not yet entirely left the blood. Maimonides says that the size of the “raw flesh”

must be that of a lintel, in order to justify the verdict of uncleanness. The person is still unclean.

Verse 17

17. The plague The stroke of the leprosy is viewed as a direct infliction by God. Sometimes it is abbreviated to the plague, just as we say of the paralytic, that he is suffering from a stroke.

Verse 18

18. A boil In the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 28:27; Deuteronomy 28:35, the same word is found, and is translated in Leviticus 13:35, “a sore blotch which cannot be healed.” Both Gesenius and Furst think that the ulcers of elephantiasis, or “the joint evil,” is here intended, which leave tender scars susceptible of the leprous eruption.

Verse 19

19. Somewhat reddish The redness is that of the inflamed circumference of the blotch. The two symptoms of white hairs and manifest depth below the skin indicate leprosy.

Verse 22

22. A plague The plague of the leprosy.

Verse 23

23. Bright spot… spread not Diffusiveness is the decisive symptom of this disease. For this reason, probably more than any other, Christian writers have employed leprosy as a type of sin, though without any expressed authority in the Holy Scriptures. But see Matthew 8:2, note.

Verse 24

24. A hot burning The Hebrew is, “a burning of fire.” It is supposed to describe persons scarred by burns whose scars have become eruptive.

Rules very similar to the above are laid down for determining these cases, except that only one week was to be spent in quarantine, since the scar furnishes an apparent cause for the symptoms.

Verses 29-30

29, 30. Beard Since the woman has no beard, and since the beard could not have the leprosy, it is evident that the beard is by metonymy put for the chin.

Yellow thin hair This is a new symptom. White hairs on the head or chin of an elderly person are natural, and hence they could not betoken leprosy. But yellow short hair on these parts is the peculiar mark of this scourge. Dr. Davidson, after carefully inspecting nearly a hundred lepers in Madagascar, says: “The hairs upon the part become yellow and stunted, and, after a time, fall off, leaving the hair bulbs empty and enlarged, especially on the face, so as to present one of the most diagnostic signs of the malady.”

Dry scall The word “dry” is not in the original. “Scall” occurs thirteen times in this chapter and once in the next, and nowhere else in the Bible. It signifies a scurf, scab, or mange. The Hebrews call it nethek, and describe it thus: “The plague of head or beard is, when the hair that is on them falleth off by the roots, and the place of the hair remaineth bare.” Since the scall is a different disease from leprosy it would have been better to have transferred the Hebrew nethek into our English version.

Verse 31

31. No black hair It is evident that the word “black” must here refer to the “yellow,” the colour betokening the leprosy. The words are different in the Hebrew, but the Seventy, Luther, Keil, Knobel, and Canon Cook render them both yellow. Thus they make Leviticus 13:31 harmonize with 30, 32, and 36. Since the original words for yellow and black differ in only one letter, there is, probably, a clerical error in the latter.

Verse 33

33. He shall be shaven This would afford a better opportunity to determine the question of the spread of the disease. The scall was exempted from being shaven, probably out of mercy to the patient, and as a safeguard against spreading it all over the head and of infecting others by the use of the same razor.

Verse 36

36. Not seek for yellow hair The rapid spread is a sufficient token of the leprosy, without the other symptom.

Verse 39

39. A freckled spot Hebrew, bohak. In the R.V., “tetter.” This constitutes a new case, since these peculiar spots do not appear on the parts where the hair grows thick, but only on the neck and face. It is remarkable that the modern Arabs have a kind of leprosy in which some little spots show themselves here and there, called bohak, a word containing the same consonants as the Hebrew term which we are now considering. These spots gradually spread, continuing sometimes only about two months, and then gradually disappearing. They are not contagious nor hereditary, nor specially painful. The treatment of the bohak in Leviticus 13:38-39 seems to be unnaturally sandwiched between the leprosy of the hairy head and that of the bald head. The sacred writers do not always observe that order of statement required by our canons of rhetoric.

Verse 40

40. Bald… yet… clean Literally, hind bald. Natural baldness was so uncommon among the Israelites that it subjected men to an unpleasant suspicion and public derision. It is perpetually alluded to as a mark of squalor and misery. 2 Kings 2:23; Isaiah 3:24. Herodotus says that “one would see the fewest bald Egyptians of all men.” He attributes this immunity to their construct shaving. It is here carefully distinguished from the methek, or scall, of Leviticus 13:29-39.

Verse 41

41. Forehead bald This is in distinction from the hind bald. Leviticus 13:40, note.

Verse 42

42. A white, reddish sore This alone was a sure token of the dreadful disease. Hence no seven days’ quarantine was enjoined; he is utterly unclean. Nevertheless the ancient rabbins inferred from the clause, “It is like leprosy in the skin of the flesh,” that all the criteria specified in the former case are to be applied to this, and that the quarantine of two weeks is to be enforced on the patient.

Verse 44

44. Utterly unclean “The Bible is everywhere careful not to allow the idea of partial goodness or partial uncleanness. There is a great moral suggestion in all this. Once let a man consider that he is not so bad as some other man, and instantly false standards of purity are set up. The Pharisee adopted this method of self-measurement, and separated himself from the publican by certain degrees of supposed righteousness.” Joseph Parker.

Verse 45

45. His clothes shall be rent This is the first visible sign which the leper was required to hang out as a warning to all not to approach too near to him. The outer garment was usually rent from the neck to the girdle. While it was a warning to others, it was to the leper the symbol of deep self-abhorrence.

His head bare The uncovered head and unkempt hair were an ancient and expressive token of sorrow. See chap. Leviticus 10:6, note. Rabbinical law exempts women from this and the preceding requirement.

A covering upon his upper lip He shall cover the beard.” By this act he expressed his unwillingness to speak, on account of shame and vexation.

As the beard was a symbol of dignity, to cover it with the hands indicated self-abasement. Yet he was required to herald his own defilement. Unclean! Unclean! The paraphrase of the Palestine Targum is very expressive, “Keep off, keep off from the unclean!” This humiliating and doleful cry, uttered as a warning to any one seen approaching, was requisite to an unmistakable announcement of his leprosy, since the three visible signs were also ordinary badges of mourning. The ground of this requirement is the fact that the touch of the leper ceremonially defiled every thing. According to the Jewish canons his very entrance into a house renders every thing in it unclean. If he stand under a tree and a clean man passes by he renders him unclean. In the synagogue there must be a separate compartment for him, ten handbreadths high and four cubits square. He must be the first to enter and the last to leave the synagogue. If the pronounced leper overstepped the prescribed boundaries he received forty stripes. We no longer wonder that the Jews abhorred this disease as worse than death, the scourge of Jehovah, ( 2Ki 5:7 ; 2 Chronicles 26:20,) and the most awful imprecation upon their foes. 2 Samuel 3:29; 2 Kings 5:27.

Verses 45-46


Moses having minutely discussed the various phases of the leprosy, and the methods of diagnosis, now prescribes a course of conduct for the lepers while in exile from society. Simple separation from the healthy was not a sufficient security against the loathed contamination. Additional prophylactics are required for the protection of persons without the camp or walls of the city.

Verse 46

46. Dwell alone “The camp was afraid of contagion. Save the untouched by expelling the defiled.” The picture of a leper is a forlorn man with bare head, sitting in his booth without the camp, with his pitcher of water and loaf of bread by his side supplies kindly left daily where he can find them, by his kindred within the camp or city. Where there is a number they were not forbidden to associate, as is seen 2 Kings 7:3; Luke 17:12. Such separated unclean persons may be still seen in the east. Dr. Thomson saw one on a rocky hill living in a booth of green branches. There she passed wearisome days and lonely nights till death released her. “We remonstrated against such barbarity, and the men consented to have her brought into a hired room, where we could provide suitable food and prescribe for her disease. But the women rose in furious clamour and rebellion against the proposal, and it had to be abandoned. I was amazed at the barbarity of the women. They passed her by until she died; then, however, they assembled in troops, and screamed, and tossed their arms, and tore their hair, with boisterous lamentations.”

Verses 46-59

LEPROSY IN A GARMENT, Leviticus 13:47-59.

Moses proceeds to describe a leprous garment in the very words used to describe the leprosy in a man plague or stroke of leprosy. This has moved the mirth of some and the wonder of others. For it is evident that the garments of the leper are not intended. 1.) The method of purifying these is described in Leviticus 14:8. Leviticus 14:2.) The infection is described as visibly spreading in the garment. This is totally unlike “the garment spotted with the flesh.” 3.) It is subject to priestly inspection and condemnation before it is to be destroyed. 4.) No connexion of the leprous garment with a leprous wearer is hinted at. There must therefore be possible in garments something analogous to the loathsome leprosy in mankind. Here modern science comes to our aid in vindication of the accuracy of the Mosaic account. It is well known that there are some skin-diseases which originate in a genus of small spiders called acarus, embracing the mites and ticks, and other cutaneous disorders proceeding from a fungus. The analogy between the insect which frets the human skin and that which frets the garment is close enough for the proposes of the ceremonial law.

47. Woollen… or linen Garments composed of the wool of sheep or of flax were, according to Jewish canons, exposed to this ceremonial impurity. Silk, hemp, camel’s hair, and other substances are not liable to the plague. But mixed fabrics in which wool or flax predominates are capable of contracting this impurity.

48. Anything made of skin Dyed skins and garments are not rendered unclean by leprosy.

Warp or woof The vermin or animalculae may eat the threads of either, leaving the other untouched. Michaelis in his researches upon this subject found an intelligent woollen manufacturer in Germany who testified that when dead wool, or the wool of sheep which have died of disease, is used for either the warp or the woof, vermin are apt to establish themselves in it, particularly when it is worn close to the body and warmed thereby. The cloth woven of such wool not only becomes very soon bare, but first full of little depressions and then holes.

The Jews, from want of linen and from poverty, always wore woollen next the skin; hence their flesh was specially exposed to pollution from these infinitesimal insects of the moth genus. It has been suggested that the leprosy in linen is mildew, which spreads in partially coloured spots, till it gradually eats up the garment. In leather a delicate fungus or cryptogam eats holes under certain circumstances.

49. Greenish or reddish Moths by eating away the nap produce a slight discoloration, but mildew and rust cause spots of these colours.

51. A fretting leprosy Properly an inveterate or exasperated leprosy or corrosion.

55. It is unclean Here we observe that the spreading of the spot is not a required indication of uncleanness, but simply the continuance of the stain after washing and drying. Indelible rust or mildew would therefore render a garment unclean.

Fret inward Literally, it is a hollow in its back-baldness or in its front-baldness a depression of the front or back side of the cloth, caused by eating off the nap. This scrupulous care of garments was a part of that process by which the idea of spiritual purity was to be developed through physical purity. First, the natural, afterward the spiritual. 1 Corinthians 15:46. 1 Corinthians 15:4. ) The leprous garment is not treated as contagious, since washing would develop the infection. 5.) According to Jewish law a minor, a heathen, a proselyte, a leprous garment, and a leprous house of a non-Israelite, do not render unclean, nor does a bridegroom seized with leprosy defile any one during the first seven days of his marriage. 6.) Naaman, a leper, commanded the armies of Syria; Gehazi conversed with the king of Israel; and the leper in later times was not shut out from the synagogue nor from the Christian churches. We conclude, therefore, that the treatment of the leprosy prescribed by Moses was not sanitary, but ceremonial, like the separation and uncleanness of menstruous women, and other defilements under the Mosaic law as touching the dead, and having an issue, (Numbers 5:2,) the treatment of which had a far deeper reason than sanitary caution.

(3.) This view suggests the important question, Of what is the leprosy the type? It is not surprising that the Holy Scriptures, especially the New Testament, affords no direct answer, for there are some types, like some parables, whose spiritual import is so obvious that they need no further explanation. All minds instantly appreciate the intended moral lesson. It is enough for us to know that the principle is laid down in the Epistle to the Hebrews that the whole of the Jewish dispensation was typical a shadow of good things to come in the Gospel. Hence we are not to expect that every type in the Levitical ritual will be explained in detail, and that its antitype be indicated in express terms by the spirit of inspiration. The leprosy, the only disease which rendered a person unclean, is an impressive type of the great moral malady, sin. This plague corrupts and destroys the soul, excludes from the society of the holy, and banishes the incurable to the eternal pest-house of hell. For this the only cleansing is the blood of Jesus Christ, as typically set forth in the cleansing of the leper in the next chapter. Says Hengstenberg, “Every leper was a living sermon, a loud admonition to keep unspotted from the world. The exclusion of lepers from the camp, from the holy city, conveyed figuratively the same lesson as is done in the New Testament passages. See notes on Matthew 6:24; Colossians 3:5; Revelation 21:27; Ephesians 5:5. It is only when we take this view of the leprosy that we account for the fact that just this disease so frequently occurs as the theocratic punishment of sin. The image of sin is best suited for reflecting it; he who is a sinner before God is represented as a sinner in the eyes of man also by the circumstance that he must exhibit before men the image of sin. God took care that the image and the thing itself were perfectly coincident, although, no doubt, there were exceptions.”

Leprosy is a living death, poisoning all the springs and corrupting all the humours of life, dissolving little by little the whole body, so that limb actually falls away from limb through decay. Hence the leper is the type of one dead in sin; the emblems of his misery are the same as those of mourning for the dead; and the means of cleansing him are the same as those prescribed for one who has touched a corpse, and which were never used except on these two occasions. The penitent cry of David, after his deadly sins, “Purge me with hyssop,” (Psalms 51:7,) indicates a sense of utter spiritual defilement, faintly symbolized by the loathsome leprosy which was ceremonially cleansed with hyssop.

As the new-born children of leprous parents are often as pretty and as healthy in appearance as any others before the workings of the disease become visible in some of the signs described in this chapter, so the leprosy is a striking type of original or inborn depravity. If the sin principle in the sweetest babe is left unchecked by power divine he may unfold into a Nero, a Cesar Borgia, or a Robespierre.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Leviticus 13". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/leviticus-13.html. 1874-1909.
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