A lot of people take it upon it themselves to “read the Bible cover to cover” only to fall flat on their faces at one of the following speed bumps: the genealogies in Genesis, the description of the tabernacle in Exodus, or the monotony of Leviticus. It is very easy to give up because one simply does not see how many gems are hidden in the rocks of the Torah.
One such “diamond in the rough” is the teaching found in Leviticus 13-14. The chapters concern themselves with what we are to do with those with leprosy, as well as garments and houses with similar deterioration caused by mildew or mold. It is very easy to skip past these passages because they seem useless, but in fact they present to us a teaching about how we ought to prepare ourselves for worship, particularly through frequent confession and communion.
An exegesis of Lev 13-14. Let’s see what all the passages here have in common:
- A physical defect is found.
- This defect is then made known to the priest.
- The priest waits to see if the defect goes away before allowing the leper/object to be brought back into the community.
Permit me to take some liberties with my exegesis, as I will get a little creative. Here we go.
Let’s look at number 1:
When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests (Lev 13:2).
I think the descriptions here are significant. We have a “swelling” which is a sin that has been contrived in the mind, but not committed; a “scab” which is a sin committed; and a “bright spot” which is a sin that is not repented of and habitual–by far the worst. Yet, all of these sins are something we must go to the priest to, Aaron being the bishop or to one of his sons, a local parish priest that acts in the place of the bishop.
Now let’s go look at number 2:
The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean. But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the sore seven days (Lev 13:3-4).
The priest simply does not take the leper’s word for it that he “has sin.” Rather, the priest examines and probes with questions. A spiritual father should be active in the life of the penitent, with the penitent’s cooperation, examining the sins in his life.
As for the answers to the questions, what the priest sees on the leper is important. If the “hair has turned white” meaning the sin has now had an effect on the personality of the person (i.e. the difference between a sin of momentary weakness/forgetfulness/ignorance and a sin that is premeditated) and the “sore appears to be deeper than the skin” meaning the sin is having a calculable effect on the sanctification of the individual and/or others (appearances may be deceiving, but a priest cannot read minds or be perfect in his judgement), the priest pronounces the leper unclean–the penitent is given a severe penance and cut off from communion for a long period of time until it is fulfilled. If the hair has not turned white nor is the sore deeper than the skin, a lighter penance (“seven days”) is given so as to see whether there will be improvement.
Let’s go on to number 3:
After this lighter penance is given, “if the sore appears to be as it was, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him another seven days” (Lev 13:5) meaning another light penance is given. People may continually fall into relatively “minor” sins, such as fantasizing, and so the penance remains light so that through communion and a sincere desire to repent the penitent may overcome such a sin.
Perhaps the priest perceives precisely this: “the sore has faded, and the sore has not spread on the skin…it is only a scab” (Lev 13:6) meaning the sin has been committed in the past but is not longer being committed, as we said previously. “Then the priest shall pronounce him clean,” and there is no penance. The scab is the reminder of past sin. Communion may be given. The penitent “shall wash his clothes and be clean” (Lev 13:6), meaning the priest shall like Christ say, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more,” (John 8:11) as sinning no more is to wash one’s clothes.
If victory over sin is never required for communion, in such a system, then true repentance is likely never achieved–without which there may be no salvation. So, our sins must be scabs–healed. However, if one scratches a scab and causes another infection, then we are like the proverbial dog returning to its vomit. We must be vigilant not to scratch.
Speaking of a spreading scab, oftentimes a priest in time perceives what seems to be a minor sin that has grown into a far worse habitual sin, or that the truth of a sin was concealed and its depths have been brought to light. This is equivalent to when “the scab…spread over the skin, after he has been seen by the priest for his cleansing,” (Lev 13:7). Such a innocuous, but spreading “scab” “shall be seen by the priest again.” If “the priest sees that the scab has indeed spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean” (Lev 13:8), meaning a penance is given and time is taken to perceive the true nature of both the sin and the penitent’s repentance. The growth in the scab implies it is not the hearing of previous sin, but a growing moral defilement.
The penitent ought to be revealing his condition and the priest perceiving it. The priest (Lev 13:10) looks to see if what appeared to be “swelling” (i.e. a sin that has been contrived in the mind) is in fact “white” (which in other words is a “bright spot,” a sin that is not repented of and habitual), with “a spot of raw flesh” (i.e. a festering sin). If so, then immediate action should be taken. The penitent is cut off from communion (“shall separate him,” Lev 13:11 LXX).
The allegory gets increasingly convoluted at this point. Those who have the scars of sin, such as a broken marriage, but have repented, are allowed back into communion (Lev 13:12-13). The other kinds of sins, whether they be “scales,” “baldness,” “burns,” and etcetera all dealt with according to the same pattern. It is a great encouragement to us to see that as long as the defect goes away, there is always a way back into communion. There is no unforgiveable sin in the Church other than to curse the Spirit and not repent.
However, there are certain extreme examples of sin that become a scandal to the whole community: publicly unrepentanted sins (1 Cor 5) such as the propagation of heresies and other sins which disturb the peace of the Church. They are called a spreading “plague” (Lev 13:51). Provided they do not “fade” away after being “wash[ed]” (i.e. publicly corrected and disciplined via a penance, Lev 13:56), the only solution is to “burn” the offending garment, which means to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:5) and “put away from yourselves the evil person” (1 Cor 5:13).
This is a stiff excommunication and an anathematizing of the sinner so it may be clear to all that the sin is dealt with so they may likewise not fall into moral ruin. This, unlike the severe penances for the lepers, completely cuts one off from the Christian community (but thankfully, even for such a person repentance is possible, see 2 Cor 2:6-8). However, public scandals are dealt with far more seriously and the sinners themselves are more accountable, which is why in Leviticus they are not given the dignity of being compared to lepers, but rather to inanimate, unreasoning, objects such as garments and houses.
The reconciliation of the leper to God is via a sacrifice conducted by the priest. Describing the ritual is perhaps a blog post in of itself. In allegory we see the payment of sin through Christ’s blood as well as the sin being completely remitted and “forgotten” by God (the bird left loose, Lev 14:7). This is a reminder that God is not satiated by sacrifice as a creditor exacting payment, but completely gratuitous in His grace and motivated by love. The leper has “all the hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows” shaved off so that he may re-enter the fold like a newborn baby, completely innocent (Lev 14:9)–so clean we are after being washed by Christ’s blood.
So, we must have great confidence in the sacrament of confession, that our sins are indeed forgiven, and praise God for His grace in the Eucharist–for we are truly brought into union with God Himself. We may have full confidence that God looks upon us as completely innocent, with the love and tenderness a mother holds her newborn infant–even though the birth comes with great pain. God’s forbearance with our sins likewise pains and saddens Him. But, despite all of this, He loves us.
Concluding thoughts. God cannot be tricked. A priest can be misled or strong-armed into granting absolution. However, true rebirth through “second baptism” (i.e. repentance) cannot occur under such circumstances. Saint Ambrose observed:
Some seek penance because they wish to be at once restored to communion. These wish not so much to loose themselves as to bind the Priest, for they do not put off the guilt from their own conscience, but lay it on that of the Priest, to whom the command is given:
Give not that which is holy to the dogs, neither cast your pearls before the swine; Matthew 7:6 that is to say, that partaking of the holy Communion is not to be allowed to those polluted with impurity (Concerning Penance, Book II, Paragraph 87).
The judgement that will be exacted on the priest is neither here nor there–the judgement of those who steal the Eucharist while stained with impurity will have their blood on their own heads. “[I]t is fitting for us to believe both that sinners must repent and that forgiveness is to be given on repentance” (Ibid., Par 80). Forgiveness is not given apart from repentance, even if one “goes through the motions.”
To the contrary, neither can a priest through tyranny withhold the grace of God from those truly repentant. Further, a priest cannot simply grant absolution and in effect magically make leprosy (sin) disappear. Actual repentance from sin–real healing from leprosy–must have occurred. We must cooperate with the grace of God. Saint Jerome tells us that:
Bishops and Priests…take to themselves something of Pharisaic pride, so as to condemn the innocent or think that they loose the guilty, whereas with God not the sentence of the Priest, but the life of the criminals, is the object of inquiry. In Leviticus we read of the leprous that they are commanded to show themselves to the priests, and if they have leprosy then the priests reckon them unclean, not that the priests make them leprous and unclean, but that they have knowledge of what is leprous and what is not, and discern who is clean, who unclean…[W]hen he [the Priest] has heard the various natures of the sins, he knows who is to be bound and who is to be loosed.
Quoted in Tertullian: Apologetic and Practical Treatises. Volume I. Trans. Rev. C. Dodgson. (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1842.) P. 388.
However, the sacrament of confession is not a mere “ordinance,” that being an outward sign of what we have already spiritually achieved. No. The sacraments are mysterious, literal sources of God’s grace. Hence, the New Testament priesthood exceeds that of the Jews, whose priests were only able to observe if leprosy had healed (i.e. sins have been repented of.) The priesthood of Christ through a divine synergy (that of the penitent having an actual contrition and thereby willing to cooperate with the grace of God; and the priest working with God by acting in His place by effecting His promises) actually forgives sins (see James 5:14-15).
And so, I will conclude this article with Saint John Chrysostom teaching on the passage:
The Jewish Priests had authority to release the body from leprosy, or, rather, not to release it but only to examine those who were already released, and you know how much the office of priest was contended for at that time. But our Priests have received authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness— not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away (On the Priesthood, Book 3, Chapter 6).
It is my hope that this article will help you read Lev 13-14 with new spiritual eyes and will be among the means God will use to effect salvific repentance in your life.