Friday, November 13, 2009

If You Are Sick, You Are Guilty

In this part of the book of Leviticus, God is instructing Moses to instruct the Israelites on the finer points cleanliness. Having established how baby girls are twice as dirty as baby boys, God moves on to cover skin diseases and mildew. God lumps skin disease and mildew together as though they are related. The recommended treatment of those people and things with skin disease and mildew begins in Leviticus 13 and continues on to Leviticus 14, our entry point in this study, covering the purification of people with skin disease and houses with mildew.

If You Are Sick, You Are Guilty
Imagine a time long ago on a continent far away. You become ill, so you go see the local shaman, or medicine man, to cleanse you of the evil spirits causing the illness. The shaman puts on his sacred costume which is adorned with all kinds of feathers and animal bones. He gathers two birds and then kills one of them over a pot of clean water. Taking the live bird, some scarlet yarn, and a sprig of hyssop, he dips them into the bloody water and sprinkles you seven times with it to begin the cleansing process.

This cleansing ritual may have seemed like some primitive pagan ceremony to you, but it comes right from the Bible as a command of God. Well, everything is there except for the feathered costume. God had different designs for what priests should wear.

In Leviticus 14:1-32 is an instruction manual for the purification process which is to occur after you are healed from a skin disease. Leviticus 14:1-7 covers the bit about killing the bird and sprinkling the bloody water. After that, the person shaves off all of their hair and then bathes, waits outside camp for seven days, and then shaves off all of their hair and bathes again to become clean (Leviticus 14:8-9).

Then things get really weird.

Leviticus 14:10-20 (and the corollary for poor people in Leviticus 14:21-32) states that after a man heals from his skin disease and goes through this shaman-istic cleaning ritual, he must then make not one, not three, but five offerings to God! Two male lambs, one female lamb, fine flour mixed with oil, and a “log” of oil must be offered to God.

One male lamb is used as a guilt offering sacrifice, and some of its blood gets put on the man's right earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe. Oil from the log is sprinkled “before the Lord” seven times and then applied to the same locations as well as the man's head (Leviticus 14:10-18). This sounds more like some sort of magical incantation than the words of the true God.

After that, the female lamb is sacrificed as a sin offering and the other male lamb and the flour are sacrificed as a burnt offering (Leviticus 14:19-20).

The point of these steps is to make atonement for the man, as is repeated three times in the three verses of Leviticus 14:18-20. In other words, it is assumed that God afflicted the man with his skin disease due to the sins which he had committed. The natural conclusion: If you are sick, you are guilty of sins and therefore God is punishing you. This was a logical mindset in a time when the causes of disease were still mostly mysteries and superstitions ruled supreme, but now it stands off as yet another textual artifact which suggests that this tale is man-made.

Not convinced that skin disease was bestowed by God? I invite you to examine the surrounding contextual evidence.

Before this chapter, Leviticus 13 describes how to treat a man who has a skin disease, as well as how to treat mildewed items, as if they were related. That theme of disease-and-mildew relation continues in Leviticus 14, where you will find instructions for handling houses with mildew immediately after the purification and atonement of the man with skin disease in Leviticus 14:33-53.

In verse Leviticus 14:34, we find:
“When you enter the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as your possession, and I put a spreading mildew in a house in that land, ...” NIV
The “I” in this verse is God. Take a moment to think about this: God is putting mildew in people's houses. (I've got to find a way to keep God out of my shower!)

The whole account of household mildew in Leviticus 14:33-53 is a bit long, but one section stands out. There is a purification ceremony for the house in Leviticus 14:49-53 which matches the one performed for the man with the skin disease in Leviticus 14:1-7.

The last verse of that section, Leviticus 14:53, reveals the truth. The reason for the copied ceremony for the house is to make atonement for the house! It is not that the house sinned, but rather that the owner of the house has sinned. And so, just like with the skin disease, God applies mildew as a punishment for sin.

Oh well. I guess I will always have mildew in my shower. :-)

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