Surviving the Unclean Parts of the Bible – Leviticus 13
Chapter 13 of Leviticus is hard to read, not only for its unsavory subject matter (skin disease) and entirely too repellent graphic details (e.g., close up examination of hairs growing in open sores) but for the end verdict it offers, pronounced by the Lord himself, upon the poor person unfortunate enough to suffer a skin disease that the priest deems “unclean”:
“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13.45-46 NIV).
Pondering this chapter, I must first say I’m thankful that, of all the passages of Scripture I’ve been asked about by nonbelieving or struggling acquaintances, this has never been one of them.
What’s to be done, though, when Scripture offends—in this case, with a picture of our loving Creator so seemingly loveless as to punish a person for suffering an illness over which the person has no control?
What people typically do with me—yes, I’m the sort of struggling Bible reader who’d confront a more confident believer about this passage—is remind me of God’s sovereignty.
“Who are you to question his ways?” they say, echoing Job’s God and also Elihu, the youngest of those taking Job to task in his suffering.
Others would reassure me that nowadays we have Jesus and don’t have to worry about those tricky Old Testament laws and their punishments. The Bible scholars in my acquaintance would likely expound on biblical uncleanness and suggest that the gruesome passage—the convincing concrete details notwithstanding—is not really about skin disease at all but about sin.
And through it all I would be mourning that poor unclean person’s suffering—dressed in rags, hands clasped to mouth, roaming the culverts, an offense to all who approach. And beneath that, I would be mourning the version of God I prefer to worship: the loving Father, Abba, Daddy, the one I can turn to in my suffering.
But, finally, it is that all-loving Dad who wins out in my assessment of the passage, the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3.16 NRSV). This Son, though unblemished by sin of any sort, suffered the very punishments of the unclean. Priests stripped and examined him, made all sorts of pronouncements upon him, dragged him outside of the city to alone on a cross. As Isaiah predicted long in advance of these atrocities,
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of sufferingand acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53.3)
That Jesus took on our worst punishments for our sake—and that his loving Father, out of love for us, allowed his Son to thus suffer—richly demonstrates that, however incomprehensible I might find some parts of the story of God’s history with us, the Lord of the Old Testament and the New has our best interests at heart.
It’s a job of work to really believe in God’s Word sometimes—both what he says in the Bible’s pages and the physical manifestation of that Word in Jesus, whom his best friend John referred to as “the Word” (John 1.1).
But if, as Jesus says in John 6.29, believing in him is the only work God requires of us, that’s considerably easier than what was expected of the unclean of yore—for which, this Lent, I’m grateful.
Patty Kirk is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She and her husband Kris live in eastern Oklahoma and have two daughters, Charlotte and Lulu, who are in college. She is the author of five books, most recently The Easy Burden of Pleasing God and The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent. PattyKirk-Writer.Blogspot.com.