This week the portion goes into excruciating detail about the diagnosis and treatment of a frightening disease called tzara’at. It’s generally translated as leprosy, but it’s not leprosy. This disease may have been understandable to the ancient mind, but it makes no surface sense to us.
1) The symptoms listed in the text are now generally believed to be characteristic of no exact physical disease, including leprosy;
2) There is no such exact disease of garments and houses, as described in the Bible;
3) Those who would diagnose and treat any such purely physical conditions in persons, garments, and houses could come from a variety of skilled individuals, but certainly not the priests, who get the assignment here; and
4) The rules of diagnosis, separation, and treatment bear very little resemblance to any protocol of quarantine that would fit any real and related physical condition.
We’re clearly directed to be mindful of something very serious, but it’s time we stop thinking this is about leprosy or some other worrisome purely physical plague. The Bible leads us to the real subject.
Miriam got the “disease” when she slandered Moses. Gahazi got the “disease” when he was duplicitous and wrongfully took a reward from Naaman. King Uzziah got the “disease” when he took over a key task God had assigned to the priest in the Temple.
Quite clearly, the text presents a powerful and metaphorical discussion of sin. It is sin that is the “spreading affection.” It is sin that comes on and grows in the manner of tzara’at. It is sin that concerns God so deeply and provokes God’s word here – as to how it forms, how it spreads, and how it can take over a person and taint, and even damage or destroy a community.
God guides us through these mysterious verses, encouraging us to go deeper into the text for meaning and clues about what this disease is about and what we’re to do about it.
God saw signs of the activating evil inclination in Cain in Genesis 4:6-8. The Divine warned Cain to control it, for, if he did not, “sin was crouching at the door,” waiting to lead him to wrongdoing.
Similarly, the Healer of all flesh calls out to us. God teaches us diagnosis and provides us with antidotes and remedies as well. The Divine gives us, here through words of another time, the means to restore our souls and spirits to health, for now and for all time.