I have been sick. Really, really sick. The night after I last posted, I coughed so hard I wound up vomiting, which at least gave me an excuse to take the day off and go see a doctor. To let you know how bad a shape I was in, they took X-Rays to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia. When you’ve had a cold for almost 2 weeks, doctors get worried. I’ve been taking a ton of medication and feel a lot better, but that’s why I’ve been absent and that’s why I’m not going to finish Leviticus by the end of April: I’ve been sick.
Not, it would seem, as sick as the people in this chapter – though with what isn’t clear. Back in the day this was always translated as “leprosy,” but the NRSV instead goes for “leprous disease” with a footnote that nobody knows exactly what disease it is, and it might refer to several. The NCT simply says “series skin disease.” The point is that it’s not just Hansen’s Disease. In fact, the parts that are about white patches (v 4-7) sounds more like Vitiligo, which is genetic (one of my student’s daughters has it, as did her father) and apparently gets you declared “clean.” The NCT actively identifies what the NRSV calls an “itch” as ringworm (v 29-37).
More significant for diagnostic purposes is that the exact same word (tzaraath) is used for the mold that spreads on clothing in verses 47-59. Or at least the NCT calls it “mold.” The NRSV still says “leprous disease,” which is more consistent though less clear. Maybe it’s best to think of “leprous disease” as “anything that makes spots or irregularities appear on something.” In one case, if the disease winds up covering you entirely, so that you’re all the same color instead of spotted, then you’re clean again (v 12-13). So clearly while some of these proscriptions are intended to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, others are more about purity laws – where uniformity is a necessity for purity.
The treatment of “unclean” people is pretty wretched, even if it might keep plagues from spreading. Demanding that they live alone outside the camp yelling “unclean” to anyone who passes is harsh. How do they eat? It’s all well and good while they’re in the desert and can collect manna, but what do they do once the Israelites settle in Canaan? Do their family members bring them food? By Jesus’ day there seem to have been communities of infected living together. Did they set up alternate societies with farms and herds to feed themselves?
It’s also hard not to think of people infected with an infectious disease where no one knows the cause or cure and where the people are treated as outcasts without thinking of AIDS. I’m far from the first person to make that connection, but it’s one of those things that colors a modern person’s reading of these passages.
The Japanese: shisshin “eczema, rash,” hanten “speck,” houshin “herpes, blister” (v 2), kanbu “affected part,” hikashoshiki “hypodermis” (v 3), kakuri suru “to isolate, to quarantine” (v 4), hasshin “rash, eruption” (v 6), tadareteiru “sore, inflamed” (v 10), mansei “chronic” (v 11), kanja “clean” (v 13), enshou “inflammation, irritation” (v 18), akamigakatta “reddish,” kasho “place, point” (v 19), yakedo “burn, scald” (v 24), hakusen “ringworm” (v 30), nibui “dull” (v 39), toubu “head, cranium,” koutoubu “back of head” (v 40), zentoubu “front of the head” (v 41), hanshoku “breed, multiply, propagate” (v 49), akusei “malignant, pernicious” (v 51), fushoku “corrosion” (v 55).
Oh, by the way, not counting my first FAQ, THIS IS MY 100th post! Woohoo!