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Vayikra/Leviticus 13:46 He is unclean; he shall dwell alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
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Back in the territory of ritual impurity - the condition causing it is known in Hebrew as tzara'at, but commonly mistranslated in English as leprosy - the 'he' in our text is one whom the priest has examined and pronounced to be 'unclean' because he exhibits the particular symptoms of tzara'at. Because he is unclean - a m'tzorah, one with tzara'at - he must live outside the camp until, upon a subsequent examination by the priest, he is found to be clean once more.
The earliest comment from the Jewish world is found in the Babylonian Talmud: "Rabbi Samuel ben Elnadab asked of Rabbi Hanina, or as others say, Rabbi Samuel ben Nadab, the son-in-law of Rabbi Hanina, asked of Rabbi Hanina; or, according to still others, asked of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: Wherein is the m'tzorah different that the Torah said: He shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be? He separated a husband from his wife, a man from his neighbour, therefore said the Torah: 'He shall dwell alone'" (b. Arachin 16b). TheBaal HaTurim helps us here: "he must dwell in isolation because he created strife between brethren [a paraphrase of 'one who incites brothers to quarrel' (Proverbs 6:19, JPS)] by speaking lashon hara and thus caused them to dwell apart", for "Six things the L-RD hates; Seven are an abomination to Him: ... a false witness testifying lies and one who incites brothers to quarrel" (Proverbs 6:16,19, JPS). Tzara'at is considered to be a divine punishment for slander and evil speech, for gossip and talking badly or lies about others in the community.
Rashi expands the Sages comment: "'he shall stay in isolation' - that others who are impure are not to stay with him. Our rabbis have said: Why is he different from others who are impure to stay in isolation? Since he caused a parting through malicious talk between a man and his wife and between a man and his colleague, he too, shall be set apart" and Avigdor Bonchek points out the function of the word in the text: "by adding the word 'alone', the Torah tells us that he is outside the camp and also alone. That is, he is kept at a distance even from others who are also impure, for example, one impure due to having come into contact with a dead person. The slanderer is to be separated even from these outside-the-camp people."1 Referring to Moshe's words to Aharon and his two surviving sons on the day that Nadav and Avihu died for bringing strange fire before the L-rd - "Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes" (Vayikra 10:6, JPS) - which forbid signs of mourning by the priests, Gunther Plaut comments that the slanderer is "judged to be under divine displeasure, is completely isolated and must observe the rules of mourning: 'his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare' (13:45, JPS)". The m'tzorah is isolated, as Ibn Ezra tersely explains, for "being unclean - as he truly is". Although it is the signs of tzara'at that trigger the ritual impurity, this only reflects the true or inner state of the slanderer and gossip.
The Torah shows the severity of this state, by prescribing that the m'tzorah must remain outside the camp until the signs have completely gone. A later historical narrative tells us, "There were four men, lepers, outside the gate" (2 Kings 7:3, JPS), they were kept outside the city walls. Baruch Levine adds that "an individual suffering from acute tzara'at may be permanently banished" and this regardless of status in society. Another historical fragment tells of King Azariah of Judea: "The L-RD struck the king with a plague, and he was a leper until the day of his death; he lived in isolated quarters, while Jotham, the king's son, was in charge of the palace and governed the people of the land" (2 Kings 15:5, JPS). It didn't matter who the offender was, isolation until the tzara'at disappeared was the rule.
Now let's see how the New Testament Scriptures broaden and re-interpret this rule. Matthew's dispute procedure is the first echo; Yeshua tells the disciples, "If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the congregation; and if he refuses to listen even to the congregation, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer" (Matthew 18:15-17, NASB). Although the 'sin' is unspecified, and the agents involved are ordinary fellow believers and the congregation, this is a very similar process to the three stage process involved in declaring someone ritually unclean and having them put out of the camp. In the Torah, the agent is the priest and there are several stages of inspection of the skin blemish at seven day intervals, but the result is the same: isolation from the community.
Rav Sha'ul, though omitting - or perhaps taking for granted - Yeshua's three-step approach, casts the matter in terms of a whole range of sins, but leading clearly to the same effect: "But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler -- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, G-d judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves" (1 Corinthians 5:11-13, NASB). Notice how complete the isolation is: not even eating, having table fellowship, with the person. In the close non-nuclear family society of biblical times, that was very sharp.
Is there to be no reprieve? Is this, like tzara'at, a permanent banishment? Sha'ul explains the purpose of the isolation and hints at the possibility of restoration: "And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, NASB). It is done that the man may feel remorse and be led to repent, receiving correction - while technically 'outside' the congregation - from the brothers who are still to treat him kindly. When the sin has been confessed and repented of with any due recompense made, the 'sign' has gone and the brother - for so he always remained, even when in isolation - may be re-admitted to the fellowship. More, Sha'ul gives instructions that the congregation should be looking to effect this process: "Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted" (Galatians 6:1, NASB)
James goes a step further, making it plain that it is the function of the congregation to reach out to the 'sinner' in order to draw him back, to guide him to recognition of his offence and the way of restitution, "My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20, NASB). While the Israelite case of tzara'at seems not to involve the community at all - he is isolated outside the camp, totally alone, and left to come to his senses on his own - presumably assuming that any afflicted person would know what was happening and why, the two seven day intervals between inspections giving him plenty of time to catch on - the New Covenant context implies regular contact albeit without any inclusion in the congregation meetings or affairs.
How are we to see this applied in our congregations and assemblies today? It would seem apparent, first of all, that tolerance has replaced mercy within the Body of Messiah. Rather than offend anyone, we should tolerate sinful speech, attitudes and behaviour, excusing it on the grounds that the person(s) concerned cannot help this, that they are only victims, that it is in their genetic makeup and other similar nonsense. This leaves the person in their sin, thinking that since the congregation has condoned it, G-d will too. This denies the person the opportunity to recognise and confess their sin as sin and to be forgiven by the congregation and, more importantly, by G-d. By tolerating sin and refusing to judge it appropriately, we deny G-d's mercy to the sinner, we lead the congregation and the Body of Messiah into disrepute and ridicule for not obeying our own instructions, and we commit sin ourselves.
Secondly we need to pay more attention to restoration and rehabilitation than to terminal isolation. Recognising that arms-length relationships are difficult, and that the person(s) concerned may not be interested in the confession-repentance-restoration cycle, we nevertheless need to be much more involved in staying in contact with those who have left our fellowships or personal circles because of sin. We need to pray for them regularly, create social opportunities - outside congregation - to meet and chat and keep relationship alive. Otherwise, how will they know that we still care? They will think that we have judged and dropped them (just like everyone else) and will add hurt and bitterness to their burden, becoming still more defiant and rebellious as a defence against what they see as our censure. It takes two to tango and if they are to be restored to the kingdom, we need to make sure that they can still dance with us.
1. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi - Vayikra, Feldheim, Jerusalem, 2000
Further Study: B'Midbar 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 5:19; 1 Peter 4:8
Application: Have you taken the initiative recently and reached out to someone who has branded themselves as untouchable? Perhaps today would be a good time to ask the Boss how we can undertake that role for Him and help to restore someone to a better standing in the kingdom.
Comment - 13:53 04Apr16 Tom: The mercy of God is clearly a priority. Nowadays I don't meet people who regard themselves as untouchable. I'll look out for such in Church now. I can see it as part of "Thy Kingdom come".
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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