by Doug Ward

An old joke says that dermatology is an attractive medical specialty because the patients do not die and also do not tend to get better.


Having had plenty of skin problems, I can attest that there is a certain amount of truth in this joke. Skin ailments are rarely life-threatening, but they tend to hang on for a long time. When I was twelve years old, a case of athlete's foot moved from my feet to my legs, and it took almost a year to get rid of the fungus. Not long after that, poison ivy spread over much of my body. Acne was a familiar companion during my teenage years. Seborrhea, mostly kept in check with small doses of steroid cream, has been a concern for me since it first flared up in 1993.


Because of my dermatological struggles, I have a special interest in one of most obscure sections in the Torah, the discussion of skin conditions in Lev 13. The Hebrew word for these conditions, tzara'at, is translated with the Greek word lepra in the Septuagint, from which we get the English word "leprosy." Scholars believe, though, that Lev 13 is not dealing primarily with Hansen's disease, the condition we call leprosy today.1 Whatever range of diseases is being described in Lev 13, they have in common the fact that they are visible and more than superficial. When a priest determined that one of these conditions was spreading, the sufferer was pronounced ritually unclean and required to live alone, outside the camp of Israel (Lev 13:46).


The Meaning of Uncleanness

These purity regulations require some explanation. Since skin ailments are not highly contagious, the isolation of the sufferer was not a medical quarantine. Ritual uncleanness was not about a lack of sanitation, nor was it a matter of sinfulness. Skin conditions and other circumstances that produce ritual impurity-sexual activity, menstruation, childbirth, contact with the dead-are part of ordinary human existence. Instead, uncleanness meant being temporarily disqualified from worship at the tabernacle or temple, a reminder that appearing before the Holy One of Israel was a privilege not to be taken for granted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains, "Going to the Temple should not be the same thing as going to the market. Attending to the birth of a child or the burial of a corpse should not be followed immediately by a return to the world of business as usual, but should require taking the time to recognize the power of life and death."2


In the case of a skin condition, the flaking of the skin is a visible representation of physical corruption, decay, and human mortality. Isolating the sufferer communicated the idea that death and decay had no place in the sanctuary of the immortal God. As Richard Hess notes, one who was unclean with a skin condition was "treated like a corpse, with similar restrictions."3


Being a walking symbol of death was not an enviable occupation. As in the old joke mentioned above, skin diseases did not quickly get better. The priests were given guidelines in Lev 13 to determine when ritual impurity began and ended, but they were not dermatologists. Without a miraculous healing of the kind received by Naaman (2 Kings 5), the period of uncleanness might be lengthy. The sages would later deem the healing of such a condition to be as difficult as raising the dead.4


Along with the prolonged discomfort and embarrassment that accompanied the skin disease, there were the added loneliness and shame involved in isolation from the community. In a few special instances-those of Miriam (Num 12), Gehazi (2 Kings 5:20-27), and Uzziah (2 Chron 26:16-21)-a skin condition was divinely imposed as a punishment. In all three of these cases, a person in a position of responsibility defied God's authority, and the punishment sent a strong message to the offender and to all Israel.


A Dramatic Healing

This background information helps us understand the significance of an incident recorded in Mark 1:40-45, Matthew 8:1-4, and Luke 5:12-16. In Galilee a man afflicted with a serious skin condition fell at Jesus' feet, pleading, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Mark 1:41 says that Jesus was greatly moved by this gesture, perhaps both by the sufferer's faith and by his plight. In any case, Jesus quickly healed the man.


Jesus instructed the man to go to a priest to be officially certified as ceremonially clean and carry out the sacrifices prescribed in Lev 14. These actions would be "a testimony to them," a powerful statement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. As has been noted, the healing of these skin conditions was considered to be tantamount to raising the dead. Jesus later mentioned such healings as evidence of his Messiahship (Luke 7:22). Symbolically, this miracle was a reversal of human corruption and decay, the restoration of one who had the appearance of death. It was a foreshadowing of Jesus' resurrection. News of the event traveled quickly, and crowds began to follow him seeking healing (Luke 5:15).


All three synoptic gospels mention that Jesus touched the man, an act of kindness toward someone who may have lacked human contact for some time. (Touching a person with a skin condition spread the person's uncleanness.) This action was also in keeping with Jesus' messianic mission. In fact, there is a rabbinic tradition, based on Isa 53:4, that the Messiah would spend significant time around those with skin diseases (b. Sanhedrin 98a-b). Specifically, one of the ways in which the Messiah would "take up our infirmities" would be by ministering to the dermatologically afflicted.5 Jesus' healing of "lepers" was just one of the ways in which he humbled himself and laid down his life for us (see Phil 2:6-8) to defeat sin and death. We are continually thankful for his love.


1Dr. Richard Hess states that there are no known cases of Hansen's disease in Israel before the time of Alexander the Great. See "Leviticus," in Genesis-Leviticus, Revised: The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 1, Zondervan, 2008, p. 692.


2Short Stories by Jesus, HarperOne, 2014, pp. 117-118.


3"Leviticus," p. 692.


4See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, p. 89.


5See "Metzorah: The Leper Messiah", First Fruits of Zion Weekly eDrash, April 3, 2011.

Issue 30


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 22 Mar 2015, 15:30.