Moses, Leprosy and the Tongue

The portions of Leviticus that address the issue of leprosy (צָרָעַת/tzara’at) contain some of the most difficult laws of Scripture to understand. Why did the Lord demand such a separation for someone in medical distress? Was it an actual medical problem at all? Or, were the laws of the leper concerned with something else entirely?

“The one with leprosy who has the plague-mark shall wear torn clothes, the hair of his head is to hang loose, he is to cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ All the days during which the plague is on him he will be unclean. He is unclean. He is to dwell alone. Outside of the camp will be his dwelling.” (Leviticus 13:45-46).

Some rabbinic commentators have concluded that leprosy is connected with gossip or talebearing, and not related to the medical condition now called Hansen’s disease. The reasoning behind this is found in the calling of Moses, as he attempts to excuse himself from the calling of the covenant Lord, as we read in Exodus 4:1, “But look, they will not believe me or listen to my voice. They will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” The Lord then gives Moses three signs to demonstrate in Egypt, one of which is not demonstrated; rather, it is a sign to Moses himself: “The Lord also said to him, ‘Now put your hand within your cloak.’ So he put his hand inside, and when he took it out, his hand had leprosy – white as snow. Then He said, ‘Put your hand back into your cloak.’ So he put his hand back in, and when he took it out it was restored again as the rest of his skin” (Ex. 4:6-7).

Leprosy is connected to “they won’t believe me…” Moses reveals his feelings and fears about the children of Israel in this simple statement. When the Lord had Moses place his hand in his bosom, literally meaning to “place inside of you,” and bring it back out, He revealed the heart of Moses; but when the Lord had Moses reverse the procedure He revealed Himself to be the healer of men.

Scripture is replete with verses warning against spreading gossip and receiving gossip; as we read, “A talebearer goes about revealing secrets, so do not associate with a babbler (Pro. 20:19); and, “You are not to go up and down as a talebearer among your people. You are not to endanger the life of your neighbor. I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:16). The gossip, as we discover in Leviticus, seeks out opportunities to slander his neighbor, thereby endangering their life and livelihood; quite the opposite of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The gossip separates, divides and destroys the peace of a home and community; therefore, the one spreading the gossip will be separated by dis-ease in his own body.

The separation of the leper, however, was not without mercy and time for repentance. As we read in later verses of this portion, the Torah gives instructions regarding leprosy of objects: a house, leather and even garments. These, the rabbis explained, were warnings to the owner that something in his life was out of order. It also provided visible evidence that that which he had been doing in private, in a whisper, is now exposed for all to see. If this exposure did not cause him to repent, it was not upon his possessions that leprosy would come, but upon his person, in which case he must cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ as he walked through the streets of the community. As the leper called out “unclean!” he was actualizing the condition that his whisper had placed the target of his gossip in, in the minds of his listeners – an unclean, suspicious place of separation – unbeknownst to its target. Yet, by his pronouncement of “unclean!” everyone within range of hearing would know of his leprous – separated, isolated – condition.

Gossip, and the spiritual condition it reveals in us, is not in keeping with the ministry of Messiah Yeshua/Jesus, or with the scriptural revelation of the renewed man enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Gossip is a thing of the flesh, rooted in envy and spite, being watered by bitterness. Gossip does not seek the best for neighbor, stranger or enemy, in the form of self-sacrificial love, but rather seeks to destroy the one Messiah died for.

Messiah said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34); “For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are the things that make the man unholy; but to eat with unwashed hands does not make the man unholy” (Matt. 15:19-20). The apostle James warns followers of Messiah as regards the dangers of the tongue, “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is a world of evil placed among our body parts. It pollutes the whole body and sets on fire the course of life – and is set on fire by Gehenna” (Jas. 3:6).

It is self-control produced by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5) evidenced in the life of the believer that will douse the flaming tongue. Still, the wayward tongue is only but an outward sign of the inward condition of the heart: a heart in need of regeneration. The apostle Paul exhorts us when he writes, “Get rid of all bitterness and rage and anger and quarreling and slander, along with all malice. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other just as God in Messiah also forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32). By faith in Messiah, as we are progressively sanctified, the heart is cleaned of all the roots of bitterness and turmoil that spring out into unhealthy, and unfaithful, speech. We must arrest each thought, before it is announced, with the mind of Messiah who looked not on our miserable condition, but looked at each of us gracefully and with love to save us.

When we speak, let us be mindful: 1) of our words, 2) of our audience, 3) of the needfulness of our words, 4) of the impact of our words on those present and not present, 5) of our witness for Messiah, and 5) our need for continued reformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit.

James teaches us, “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters; let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger – for human anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. So put away all moral filth and excess of evil and receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:19-21).

How then shall we live? Not with gossip, but with grace.

“In other words, that definite distinction that Christians make between hating sin and loving the sinner is one that you have been making in your own case since you were born…You dislike what you have done, but you don’t cease to love yourself…Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” CS Lewis

Be well. Shalom.

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