Why is this in the Bible? Skin Disease and Mildew (!)
***Note from Priscilla: In my study of Leviticus this morning, I found myself pondering why the law was so strict on the lepers, of all the illnesses that could have been brought up. So I googled it, and was so blessed by this sermon. Hope it blesses you as you read through all of God’s word!***
April 13, 2005
“Why is this in the Bible? — Skin Diseases and Mildew (!)”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I’d invite you to turn with me to Leviticus 13. This is a long chapter. Leviticus has some short chapters, and then it has some long chapters. Leviticus 12 was just eight verses, but Leviticus 13 is 59 verses and it’s very specific material, most of which deals with skin diseases and how the priests are to distinguish between things which are not serious skin diseases and things which are serious skin diseases which preclude you from being able to come into the assembly of God’s people within the camp, and which preclude you from coming into the tabernacle to worship the Lord. And so, again, the passage that we are studying tonight is continuing this discussion of clean and unclean, of ceremonial purity and holiness in Israel; and it’s doing that to make some very important points.
Now, before we look at this passage, let me suggest that we look at the outline provided. And you see that the introduction to this passage comes in verse 1: “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying….” This particular phrase indicates a new section that Moses in introducing you to in this stage of the Book of Leviticus. You realize, of course, that when Moses first wrote the book he didn’t give “chapter 13” or “chapter 14” or “chapter 15”; he gave other literary indications that he was getting ready to move on to another section or part, or portion of the book, and this is the phrase that he used to indicate a new section, a new treatment, within this larger passage of Leviticus 11-16.
Now, the rest of the chapter, from verse 2 to verse 59, deals with skin disease and with clothing contaminated by, presumably, skin disease, and how that could contribute to a person’s being declared unclean; and how persons who were not infected by serious skin diseases could be pronounced, nevertheless, “clean” by the priests as they were examined.
The idea behind this, again, is that disease and decay are incompatible with the blessing of the presence of God in the assembly of His people. God is holy, and in contrast to that disease and decay remind us that we live in a fallen world, and that we ourselves have the effects of the fall exhibited in our bodies. It’s a picture…it’s a type, as it were, of sin. And therefore these diseases (if they are accorded to be one of the serious diseases in this passage, upon the inspection, the examination of the priests) become things which exclude you from the assembly of God’s people in His presence and worship.
Now, the rest of the chapter describes this in some detail. Two parts you will note: verses 1-46 deals with skin diseases; verses 47-59, the second part of this section of the chapter, deals with the contamination of clothing (again, presumably associated with skin diseases).
Let’s walk through the first part of the chapter together. In verses 1-8 you have the instructions on whether a person was going to be declared clean or unclean, but it’s on the basis of the examination and diagnosis of the priests. Isn’t it interesting that the priest is to carefully examine a person before that person is declared to be clean or unclean? This isn’t supposed to be something that is done, as it were, through impressions or instincts. The priest isn’t sort of supposed to ‘give it his best shot’; he’s supposed to do specific examination, and if those particular conditions which are specified in verses 1-8 are there, he is to make certain pronouncements.
Then in verses 9-17 we have specific instances of people who would come to the priests with diseased flesh. It may have been a raw or an open flesh wound, and in that case that person was pronounced to be unclean, and restored to the status of ritual cleanness after the healing of that particular wound. But if the wound remained, if there continued to be an open wound, the person continued in the state of uncleanness.
In verses 18-28 there’s a third section of this first part of the chapter, and it deals with whether the priest is to pronounce you clean or unclean, based upon the types of skin infections you were bringing to be examined: inflammations, boils, burns, things of this nature.
Then, if you flip over to the other side of the page and look at Section IV, this section from 29-37 deals with whether the priest was to declare someone ritually clean or unclean in relation to skin disorders that impacted the hair or the beard.
Then in verses 38-39 we are told that there are certain types of skin diseases which do not constitute uncleanness. You may have these rashes, or these manifestations of eczema or something of this nature, and these things are not disqualifying skin disorders. And so, he’s sort of telling us that this is a false alarm. If someone comes in to the priest and has this condition of eczema or something of that sort, then he’s not to be pronounced unclean.
Then in verses 40-44, there’s a sixth section of these instructions; and again, this has to do with whether the priest has to declare clean or unclean someone who is bald or someone who has head infections of various kinds. I’m happy to say that most bald people were not declared unclean. I’m very happy to announce that!
Verses 45-46 give us the seventh and final section of this first passage, and this passage reminds us that the one who is declared unclean, during the entire time of his being in the state of ritual uncleanness, is to dwell outside the camp in the mode of a mourner, and he is to announce that he has been declared ritually unclean as he moves around, saying, “Unclean! Unclean!” lest someone who is ritually clean come into contact with him and be contaminated and declared ritually unclean himself or herself. And so there is a loneliness for those who are in this situation of being ritually unclean.
That’s an outline of the passage, because it’s pretty heavy sledding if you just kind of read through the passage without some idea of the structure and where it’s going.
Now, quickly, the second part of the chapter, from verses 47-59, which deals with clothing. First of all, in verses 47-48 explains (like in the beginning of the first half of the chapter) the responsibility of examination and diagnosis of clothing. Clothing which had been contaminated by these various diseases or decay was to be looked at; and again the rationale is similar to that before: because God is holy, this decay or this contamination must be removed from all the lives of God’s people. In fact, later on there are going to be instructions in the Books of Moses regarding to mildew in homes and what was to be done with that kind of decay. At any rate, the principle is: these effects of the fall have to be dealt with in order for the people of God to enjoy His presence.
In verses 50-58 it is basically specified that there are two fundamental ways that you deal with these contaminated clothes. You clean them, and if the cleaning works the clothes can be rescued; and, if the cleaning doesn’t work, you cut out the part it didn’t work on. And if that doesn’t work and the contamination returns, you burn the clothing. So it’s a fairly radical approach to dealing with contaminated clothing, and you see that in verses 50-58.
And then finally, in verse 59, we have a summary statement for the whole chapter when Moses reminds us that this chapter tells us as a whole how God wants us to deal with things which have been infected–even clothing–by the contamination of disease and decay.
So with that brief outline, let’s turn to God’s word and hear it read and proclaimed, and before we do, let’s pray.
Our Lord, we thank You for this passage. It’s not a passage, we confess, that we think about the way we think about John 3 or Romans 8, or Genesis 1, or Genesis 12, or Isaiah 53. There are hundreds of passages, perhaps, that come to our minds which are special and dear to us, and this one is strange and it’s a little bit obscure; but we gladly here tonight acknowledge that this is the very word of God. You tell us through the Apostle Paul that all Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for our reproof and correction, and training in righteousness. And so, we pray in the few minutes that we have to study this passage together tonight that You would by Your Spirit make it profitable to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear God’s word. (
Then the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,
2“When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. 3“The priest shall look at the mark on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the infection has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean.
4“But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and it does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and the hair on it has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate him who has the infection for seven days.
5“The priest shall look at him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the infection has not changed and the infection has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him for seven more days.
6“The priest shall look at him again on the seventh day, and if the infection has faded and the mark has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only a scab. And he shall wash his clothes and be clean.
7“But if the scab spreads farther on the skin after he has shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall appear again to the priest.
8“The priest shall look, and if the scab has spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy.
9“When the infection of leprosy is on a man, then he shall be brought to the priest.
10“The priest shall then look, and if there is a (C)white swelling in the skin, and it has turned the hair white, and there is quick raw flesh in the swelling,
11it is a chronic leprosy on the skin of his body, and the priest shall pronounce him unclean; he shall not isolate him, for he is unclean.
12“If the leprosy breaks out farther on the skin, and the leprosy covers all the skin of him who has the infection from his head even to his feet, as far as the priest can see,
13then the priest shall look, and behold, if the leprosy has covered all his body, he shall pronounce clean him who has the infection; it has all turned white and he is clean.
14“But whenever raw flesh appears on him, he shall be unclean.
15“The priest shall look at the raw flesh, and he shall pronounce him unclean; the raw flesh is unclean, it is leprosy.
16“Or if the raw flesh turns again and is changed to white, then he shall come to the priest,
17and the priest shall look at him, and behold, if the infection has turned to white, then the priest shall pronounce clean him who has the infection; he is clean.
18“When the body has a boil on its skin and it is healed,
19and in the place of the boil there is a white swelling or a reddish-white, bright spot, then it shall be shown to the priest;
20and the priest shall look, and behold, if it appears to be lower than the skin, and the hair on it has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is the infection of leprosy, it has broken out in the boil.
21“But if the priest looks at it, and behold, there are no white hairs in it and it is not lower than the skin and is faded, then the priest shall isolate him for seven days;
22and if it spreads farther on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an infection.
23“But if the bright spot remains in its place and does not spread, it is only the scar of the boil; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
24“Or if the body sustains in its skin a burn by fire, and the raw flesh of the burn becomes a bright spot, reddish-white, or white,
25then the priest shall look at it. And if the hair in the bright spot has (E)turned white and it appears to be deeper than the skin, it is leprosy; it has broken out in the burn. Therefore, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an infection of leprosy.
26“But if the priest looks at it, and indeed, there is no white hair in the bright spot and it is no deeper than the skin, but is dim, then the priest shall isolate him for seven days;
27and the priest shall look at him on the seventh day. If it spreads farther in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an infection of leprosy.
28“But if the bright spot remains in its place and has not spread in the skin, but is dim, it is the swelling from the burn; and the priest shall pronounce him clean, for it is only the scar of the burn.
29“Now if a man or woman has an infection on the head or on the beard,
30then the priest shall look at the infection, and if it appears to be deeper than the skin and there is thin yellowish hair in it, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a scale, it is leprosy of the head or of the beard.
31“But if the priest looks at the infection of the scale, and indeed, it appears to be no deeper than the skin and there is no black hair in it, then the priest shall isolate the person with the scaly infection for seven days.
32“On the seventh day the priest shall look at the infection, and if the scale has not spread and no yellowish hair has grown in it, and the appearance of the scale is no deeper than the skin,
33then he shall shave himself, but he shall not shave the scale; and the priest shall isolate the person with the scale seven more days.
34“Then on the seventh day the priest shall look at the scale, and if the scale has not spread in the skin and it appears to be no deeper than the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean; and he shall wash his clothes and be clean.
35“But if the scale spreads farther in the skin after his cleansing,
36then the priest shall look at him, and if the scale has spread in the skin, the priest need not seek for the yellowish hair; he is unclean.
37“If in his sight the scale has remained, however, and black hair has grown in it, the scale has healed, he is clean; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
38“When a man or a woman has bright spots on the skin of the body, even white bright spots,
39then the priest shall look, and if the bright spots on the skin of their bodies are a faint white, it is eczema that has broken out on the skin; he is clean.
40“Now if a man loses the hair of his head, he is bald; he is clean.
41“If his head becomes bald at the front and sides, he is bald on the forehead; he is clean.
42“But if on the bald head or the bald forehead, there occurs a reddish-white infection, it is leprosy breaking out on his bald head or on his bald forehead.
43“Then the priest shall look at him; and if the swelling of the infection is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, like the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the body,
44he is a leprous man, he is unclean. The priest shall surely pronounce him unclean; his infection is on his head.
45“As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’
46“He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. 47“When a garment has a mark of leprosy in it, whether it is a wool garment or a linen garment,
48whether in warp or woof, of linen or of wool, whether in leather or in any article made of leather,
49if the mark is greenish or reddish in the garment or in the leather, or in the warp or in the woof, or in any article of leather, it is a leprous mark and shall be shown to the priest.
50“Then the priest shall look at the mark and shall quarantine the article with the mark for seven days.
51“He shall then look at the mark on the seventh day; if the mark has spread in the garment, whether in the warp or in the woof, or in the leather, whatever the purpose for which the leather is used, the mark is a leprous malignancy, it is unclean.
52“So he shall burn the garment, whether the warp or the woof, in wool or in linen, or any article of leather in which the mark occurs, for it is a leprous malignancy; it shall be burned in the fire.
53“But if the priest shall look, and indeed the mark has not spread in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, or in any article of leather,
54then the priest shall order them to wash the thing in which the mark occurs and he shall quarantine it for seven more days.
55“After the article with the mark has been washed, the priest shall again look, and if the mark has not changed its appearance, even though the mark has not spread, it is unclean; you shall burn it in the fire, whether an eating away has produced bareness on the top or on the front of it.
56“Then if the priest looks, and if the mark has faded after it has been washed, then he shall tear it out of the garment or out of the leather, whether from the warp or from the woof;
57and if it appears again in the garment, whether in the warp or in the woof, or in any article of leather, it is an outbreak; the article with the mark shall be burned in the fire.
58“The garment, whether the warp or the woof, or any article of leather from which the mark has departed when you washed it, it shall then be washed a second time and will be clean.”
59This is the law for the mark of leprosy in a garment of wool or linen, whether in the warp or in the woof, or in any article of leather, for pronouncing it clean or unclean.
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
It’s a long passage and it takes a long time to read, so let me quickly take you through two or three points of application from this passage. Leviticus 13 and 14, by the way, are a unit. They’re going to be separated in our study by two weeks because our choirs are going to be leading us next week–I think. Is it next week that they’re going to be leading in singing? And then we’ll come back to Leviticus 14. But this is a unit, because in Leviticus 14 we’re going to learn what you do when you’ve been declared clean, having been first declared unclean. What do you do when the Lord has cured you of these various diseases? And of course there’s much to say about that in the New Testament, as well. But these are part of the focus here in Leviticus 11-16 on the theme of purity and holiness before the Lord in every aspect of life, including the physical life; including our health, including even our clothing, in this case.
You see, skin disease and mildew are obvious, visible signs of ceremonial impurity, and in the cases of diagnosis of serious skin disease or contaminated clothing, they were visible manifestations of the effects of the fall of man into sin, and of his consequent separation from God. And so skin diseases and mildew of the variety here that cause you to become unclean–skin disease and contamination of clothing here are viewed as part of the contamination that has come from the sin of Adam; part of the contamination of this fallen world. So the main interest here is to show that purity and holiness is required for fellowship with God, and so the text walks us through a variety of skin diseases and clothing contaminations. In verses 2-8 you learn about minor swellings and rashes and spots; in verses 9-17 you learn about chronic skin diseases; in 18-23 you learn about diseases and scars; in 24-28, burns; in 29-37, problems of the scalp; and then in verses 38-39, even false alarms.
Now, the skin diseases here that are mentioned run the whole gamut: all the way from less dangerous things (eczema) up to psoriasis and leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. This description of various types of skin diseases runs the whole gamut. Let me quickly say that in this chapter, though the specific disease that we call leprosy, Hansen’s disease, is included within the types of skin diseases that can make a person unclean; it is not the only thing that is being spoken about when the word leprosy was being used. Leprosy was the generic term that could refer to many different kinds of skin diseases, so when you see leprosy there, don’t just think of a person who has contracted Hansen’s disease. As you can tell, even if you’re not a physician or a dermatologist, this passage refers to many more things other than just Hansen’s disease.
But at any rate, the main interest here is not primarily medical.The priest, though he may be a divine dermatologist here, is primarily interested in these dermatological problems because of the ritual or ceremonial significance. It’s ritual impurity that’s the concern. You see, a scaly skin disease was a visible sign that something was physically wrong with a person, and in some cases the physical problem was serious enough that it caused the person to be declared ceremonially unclean, unable to come into the presence of the Lord and His people.
And so the lesson, if you look at your outline again, in the italic letters on the first page is very clear: disease and decay–just like we saw last week, with certain bodily discharges–just as those perhaps indicated a state of ill health, so also some of these skin diseases indicate the state of a person less than whole, a disease, a contamination that is incompatible with the presence of the Lord, and therefore the person was declared ceremonially unclean.
So what do we do with this with regard to application? Well, I want to remind you of two or three things very briefly tonight.
The first thing is this: Think of it, my friends. If you had been a child of the Lord in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, and you had been declared ceremonially unclean, not only would you have been isolated from your family, but you would have been isolated from the worship of the saints, from the assembly of God, from the people of God coming together into His presence to worship. You would have been cut off.
And what function did that serve? Well, one thing it would serve is that it would remind us that the most important thing in the world and the greatest blessing in the world is to be with God’s people, in God’s house, in the worship of the living God. If you had ever been declared unclean and cut off for a time from the people of God in worship, one of the things that you would have delighted in most was your restoration to the worship with the people of God.
You remember what the psalmist says in Psalm 27:4 — “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple.” Being declared unclean would cut you off from that privilege. And doesn’t that beautifully remind us that the most important thing in life is the glory of God, and the greatest blessing in life is enjoyment of the glory of God? And so we, as the people of God who live in a generation who does not believe that God is the greatest blessing of life, (they believe that God is the means to getting whatever you think is the greatest blessing of life)…this ceremonial code itself reminds us that the greatest hardship that any believer in God could ever endure would be the inability to come into His presence with His people and worship Him. It’s a foretaste of our union and communion with Him in blessing and glory forever, and the ceremonial code would have beautifully illustrated that great point. It wouldn’t matter what other blessings you would be able to retain in your state of uncleanness: if you couldn’t have the presence of God, it would have been a very, very miserable experience. (And I leave aside the implications for your relationship with your family and with your friends.)
Secondly, I’d say this: when we come to this passage, it’s a passage which reminds us of the ravages of sin, and I immediately think of Matthew 8. You remember the passage where the leper comes up to Jesus and bows down before Him, and says, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”
Now, that’s a very poignant passage, first of all because you remember what Jesus does. Jesus reaches out and touches that leper. You know, in Leviticus 14 we’re going to find out what the priests were to do when a man was cleansed from leprosy. You know, there’s no passage in Leviticus 14 to tell a priest how to cleanse a man from leprosy, and that priest was never himself to touch a man who was infected, lest he be not only contaminated but declared ceremonially unclean. But Jesus stretches out His hand and He touches the man, and you remember His words: “I am willing. You are clean.” And then what does He tell him to do? “Go, and offer the sacrifice commanded by Moses.”
Well, that sacrifice is going to be commanded by Moses in the very next chapter we study. But isn’t that a beautiful picture of how Jesus is the only mediator between God and His people. No priest could cure that man, but the Lord Jesus, with the stretch of a hand is able to transform that man’s disease into wholeness, and that man’s uncleanness into cleanness. Isn’t it a picture of union with Christ, as we trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel? He is able to cleanse us from the inside out.
There is one more thing I want to call your attention to. I’d love to meditate on this passage with you all night, but you know we have said that the ceremonial ritual uncleanness of this passage ultimately points to…what? The problem of sin. And thus moral uncleanness and cleanness is being illustrated in ritual or ceremonial cleanness or uncleanness. And you remember what the psalmist says in Psalm 24:3: “Who may ascend unto the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully.”
What is that passage talking about? It’s talking about our own state of sanctification and the enjoyment of the presence of God,and that principle from Psalm 27 is illustrated in the ceremonial code. Those who are covered in sin, who are contaminated by the fall, cannot enjoy unhindered fellowship with God. They cannot enjoy the blessing of the presence of God, and so, what has to happen? They have to be declared clean.
Now, as I said, Matthew 8 points us to how God creates that cleanness out of this ritual uncleanness, and we’ll dwell more on that as we expound Leviticus 14 the next time we’re together in this book.
Let’s look to God in prayer.
Our Lord, we thank You for Your word, and we ask that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment as we contemplate the blessing of fellowship with You in the midst of Your people; as we contemplate the way our Lord Jesus Christ was able to heal that leper; and as we contemplate that if we would come into Your hill, the hill of the Lord, and worship You in Your holy place, we must do it with a heart which has been transformed by Your regenerating, saving grace. We thank You for these truths. We ask that You would bless them to our spiritual nourishment. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Grace to you and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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