Why Leper Laws Matter to You

I’ve been reading Leviticus lately, which is not the most thrilling book of scripture. However, each time I read it, I’m struck by how much beauty and foreshadowing of Christ it contains. The laws concerning lepers take more space than one would consider quite necessary until you realize this probably comprises the extent of their medical textbook. In the description of these public health practices, we get a foretaste of Christ’s sacrifice.

A person with leprosy was removed from the camp, not allowed to dwell with the people. This was to prevent the spread of infection, but it cut off the leper from community and from the tabernacle where God’s presence dwelled.

If a leper was healed of leprosy, he was to present himself to the priest for examination. If the priest sees the infection is gone, he is to perform a ceremony of cleansing.

The priest takes two birds and kills one of them over a bowl of fresh water. Then he takes the second bird along with cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop and (this is where it gets weird) dips all of that — live bird included — into the blood and water, and he sprinkles the mixture onto the leper using the live bird. Afterwards, he releases the live bird into a field to cope with what happened to it.

Freedom Declared

Look at the symbolism.

Scarlett yarn — an image of redemptive bloodshed — appears a few times in scripture: twice with female ancestors of Christ (Gen. 38:27–30, Josh. 2), as well as in the high priest’s clothes and in the tabernacle. Always associated with foreshadowings of Christ, it whispers of the coming Messiah who would shed his blood to redeem his people.

Cedar, long associated with healing, was the material used for kingly palaces and eventually, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Messiah wouldn’t merely be a Savior. He would be a King and Priest.

The blood and the water mix. The hyssop, a medicinal herb, is dipped with cedar and scarlet. Blood on hyssop and wood. The Hebrews had seen this before. A lamb’s blood spread on wooden door posts with hyssop purchased the lives of their sons and ushered them into freedom from captivity.

They feel the memory of their escape from Egypt. They know that as the blood dipped hyssop brought them from slavery to freedom, the once-leper was being made free.

Free as the bird released to the fields. Free to live in community. To dwell with his people. Most importantly, to dwell in the camp where God’s presence filled the temple. Freedom purchased by a king and priest through redemptive blood shed.

Promise Fulfilled

Later, more blood would be spread on wood, and Christ would be offered bitter wine to drink at the end of hyssop stalk (John 19:28-30). His death, like the death of the bird, would declare healing and freedom. He would die in our place so we don’t have to suffer the just punishment of sin.

His death on the cross ushers in forgiveness of sin for everyone who is his. His suffering and death brings us life. His wounding heals our wounds. His bondage make us free. Our sin was placed on his head, and his name is given to us: Righteous, Holy, Clean.

But, the story doesn’t end with his death. One bird was killed for the leper. One was set free. Christ didn’t merely die; he rose again. He defeats death — that undefeatable foe. The bird that declared freedom for the leper also shouted the hope of the resurrection to come.  The victory over sin and death and all the brokenness that breaks bodies and causes disease. Defeated.

Foretaste Divine

Before he went to the Cross, Jesus healed a man with leprosy (Matt. 8). He told him to show himself to the priest and “offer the gift that Moses commanded”. As that man was sprinkled with the blood and the water, he didn’t know these acts foretold the very man he had just met.

He knew this man was extraordinary, but he did not know he would go to the Cross. He didn’t know this miraculous healing was only his first healing. He would soon receive a spiritual healing because of his faith in Christ. This first freedom meant he could go to home, approach the Temple, worship with his fellow Israelites. But he did not know there was greater freedom to come. Freedom to dwell with God in his Eternal Home and worship him forever.

His joyful first healing was only a shadow of the joy to come.

Treasure to Find

It’s easy to spend a lot of time in the New Testament or the Psalms. They have the comfort of familiarity and are easier to glean encouragement or application from. But we loose a lot when we don’t learn from the whole of Scripture. The ‘dry’ or ‘difficult’ ones hold treasures ready to be mined.

This week, I challenge you to pick a book of the Bible you haven’t read in a while — or possibly ever — and start reading it. When you come across a section that peaks your interest, focus on it. Read it slowly and repeatedly until it starts feeling familiar.

Ask questions of the text. Look for the answers within the text itself.

Learn about unfamiliar places, names and objects. I didn’t know hyssop was a medical herb until I Googled it. That piece of knowledge revealed layers of meaning in the text I would not have seen otherwise.

Find out if something appears elsewhere in scripture. Do those other occurrences she light on the passage? I Googled “Scarlet yarn Bible” and learned about a beautiful element of Scripture I had not heard before. It was a fascinating rabbit hole to fall into.

Articulate what you’ve learned to someone else and see if they have any insight as well. In a conversation with my husband, he noticed the symbolism of the death and resurrection in the two birds. Then share what you’ve learned with friends, or put it in the comments below.

I’d hate for us to miss out on the wonders the whole of scripture holds. Let’s look in the less familiar parts to see what they have for us.

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