March 10, 2007

Leviticus 14-15: FIrst, you kill a bird...

Today's reading is Leviticus 14-15 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the ceremony involved in declaring someone cleansed from leprosy; the ceremony involved in diagnosing and cleansing a house from disease; and laws about various types of unclean bodily discharges, including flesh wounds, semen, and menstrual blood.

When I first saw the heading titles for this chapter, I thought I was in for another slog. "Oh joy," thought I, "another set of tedious chapters devoted to infectious diseases and trivialities." But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading that the chapters are instead mostly devoted to a bizarre set of rituals for declaring someone healed of leprosy. In fact, the first half of chapter 14 is solely devoted to this purpose (Lev. 14:1-31) and later in the chapter there is a variation of it for declaring a house to be cleansed of disease. (Lev. 14:48-53)

Let us look at this ritual for a moment, and see if we can glean anything from it beyond, "wow, that's strange."

The ritual is actually done in two parts: the first while the leper is still awaiting judgement that he is healed, and the second a week later at the tabernacle.

The first part of the ritual proceeds like this, paraphrased from Lev. 14:1-8:

The priest comes to the leper and sees that the leprosy is healed. The priest then has the newly-cured person take two birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop. He (the patient) kills one of the two birds in an earthen vessel over running water. The priest then takes everything else, dips it in the blood of the dead bird, and sprinkles the blood over the cleansed man seven times. The cleansed man is pronounced clean, and the living bird is let free over an open field. Then the cleansed man washes his clothes, shaves his hair, bathes, and stays at his tent for seven days.

If you thought the bit about dipping a live bird into the blood of a dead one was bizarre, just wait until the second half of the ritual, paraphrased from Lev. 14:9-20:

After seven days, the man shaves his hair (again) and washes his clothes and himself in water. The next day, he takes two male lambs, one female lamb, 3/10 of an ephah (about 6.5 L) of flour, and a log of oil (about 1/3 L) to the tabernacle. The priest takes one male lamb and the oil, waves them around, and then kills the lamb. He places the blood on the penitent's right ear, right thumb, and right big toe. Then he pours the oil into his left palm, sprinkles it on the penitent, and anoints the man with it on the same places. Whatever is left over of the oil, he pours on the man's head. Finally, he kills the other two lambs, one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering. Then the former leper is declared spiritually clean.

A few further notes: if the man is poor, he only needs to bring one lamb and two turtledoves or two pigeons, which are used as the sin and burnt offerings, and 1/10 an ephah of flour instead of 3/10. The ritual otherwise proceeds exactly the same way as before. (Lev. 14:21-32)

What are we to make of this? Blood and oil on the ear, thumb, and big toe? Live birds dipped in the blood of dead ones? Three animal sacrifices, not counting the original one? It all seems pretty suspect to me.

To give an example of the obscurity of this passage, I tried searching for a while for the meaning of the "right ear, right thumb, and right big toe" anointing. Sad to say, I found very little of actual value. The closest I came to something that sounded reasonable was that the right ear represents that the man may now hear the words of God, the right thumb represents his ability to do the tasks that God requires, and the right big toe that he may go wherever he needs to in the service of God. Another explanation claimed that the ear, thumb, and toe represented the extremities of the body, symbolizing that the entire man was now clean. In other words, the man, who as a leper had been forced to live outside the camp in segregation, is now symbolically as well as physically re-accepted into the main body of Israelites. I can only imagine, however, that despite his two recent baths, he'd be shortly forced to take another one to get off the blood and the oil.

Another thing that seems downright strange is dipping a live bird in the blood of a dead one, using it to sprinkle blood onto the penitent, and then letting it go free. Now, I've never actually tried to use a bird for this purpose, but I can imagine that it wouldn't be hard to have the blood sprinkling all over the place off the birds wings. It would probably be flapping like crazy in an attempt to get away from its insane captors. I have no idea what the spiritual purpose of the exercise was supposed to be. Perhaps it symbolized the distinction between life and death, clean and unclean. I can only imagine it was pleasant for neither the bird nor the men.

So there you have it. If you thought the stuff you do in synagogue on Saturday or church on Sunday was strange, they don't hold a candle (or a pigeon) to the stuff your ancestors did. Be grateful for small miracles.

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