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Vayikra/Leviticus 14:49 And he shall take, to purify the house: two birds and cedar wood and scarlet yarn and hyssop.
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As we reach our annual visit to the world of tzara'at, it is important to remind ourselves that this - despite centuries of mistranslation - is not the condition known as leprosy or Hansen's disease, an infection caused by the bacteria mycobacterium leprae.Nechama Leibowitz explains that "tzara'at is a Divine signal to the straying soul to return to the way of the Torah, a sublime manifestation of G-d's desire to bring the sinner back to Him." In the immediate context of our text - tzara'at affecting a house - Rabbi Yehuda quotes the verse, "When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I give a plague of tzara'at upon a house in the land you possess" (Vayikra 14:34), and suggests that tzara'at, rather than punishing the sinner directly, is a sign of Divine benevolence ( Sifra 75).
The second word in the verse - - also translated by Richard Elliott Friedman as "decontaminate", is the Pi'el infinitive of the root , to sin. The Pi'el stem usually adds an intensity or an urgency to the Qal meaning, but with this root it seems to perform the opposite: it reverses the action of the Qal: to purge, purify or cleanse from sin. Baruch Levine reports that, "in this sense it always involves actual physical contact with the object to be purified and it is never used with regard to the purification of a human being." Here, it is used for the house that has shown or developed signs of tzara'at. Looking back through the chapter,Gersonides observes that "while a person remains unclean after the bird procedure is performed until he has immersed and his offerings are brought, a house becomes clean by this procedure alone - since it is impossible to immerse a house in water."
Why, then, is a purging or purifying procedure necessary? In the immediately previous verse, the Torah tells us that, "if, however, the priest comes and sees that the plague has not spread in the house after the house was replastered, the priest shall pronounce the house clean, for the plague has healed" (v. 48, NJPS). The verb for "pronounce clean" is , the Pi'el 3ms affix form of the root . In Qal, this root means "to be (ritually) clean" and in Pi'el, "to declare clean". At the end of the verse 'healed' comes from the root , "to heal" that is used for all sorts of sicknesses and physical ailments. If the house has been healed and then declared ritually clean, what more could be needed? It seems as if there is a three-stage process going on here: the act of healing verified by the absence of signs and symptoms, the formal declaration of ritual purity by the priest and then the religious ritual to purge or remove sin.
Perhaps an illustration will help. In Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday, one of the main characters gets mumps, so is unable to return to school until a medical certificate can be signed to affirm that they are free from infection. This gives the whole group of children an unexpected extension to their winter holiday in the Lake District. As the book draws towards a close, the mumps naturally come to an end some days before the four-week quarantine period has elapsed; this is the absence of signs and symptoms. At the end of the quarantine period, the doctor makes a last call to confirm that the patient has fully recovered and sign the medical certificate; this is the declaration of purity. Lastly, the whole house is disinfected, the patient's bedroom by sealing all the doors and windows and burning sulphur candles, thus ensuring that the house is germ free; this is the purgation of sin. So it is in the case of the house that appears to have tzara'at. After the walls have been scraped and re-plastered, if there is no return of symptoms, the priest declares the house clean and the ritual with the two birds, cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop purges the sin that caused the tzara't in the first place.
We can see the same three-step process at work in the Apostolic Writings' classic formulation for processing sin committed by the followers of Yeshua. The verse - "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9) - shows all three parts most clearly. It starts with the confession of sin; that implies repentance and a recognition that some practice, action or attitude is wrong. That is turn implies a turning away from that sin, a halting of that action or practice - the cessation of signs and symptoms. Next comes forgiveness; when we pray to the Father to ask, because we come in faith and trusting in Yeshua, He pronounces forgiveness - He forgives us. Then, thirdly, He cleanses us from unrighteousness, the residual stain of sin incurred by our behaviour; that is to say, He not only forgives our sin but takes all record of it off our account.
Practically, we can see Yeshua working this out in during His earthly ministry in many of the gospel incidents. Take the healing of the lame man in Luke 5, for example. His friends dig a hole in the roof and lower him down to Yeshua; this is a formal statement that whatever his past actions or conduct had been, he was ready for change; absence of symptoms, mentally at least. Rather unexpectedly, Yeshua tells him that his sins are forgiven; this is the formal declaration of cleanness. Finally, Yeshua tells him to pick up his mat and go home; this is the purging of the paralysis from his body as he obeys Yeshua and heads for the door. Another story Luke recalls is of the woman who anoints Yeshua's feet while He is having dinner with Simon the Pharisee at the end of chapter 7. Her tears and the anointing show the absence of symptoms; Yeshua announces her forgiveness to the whole room, then as she goes He tells her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7:50, ESV); the purging of her past way of life.
Lastly, the brief story of the man with tzara'at is told by all three synoptic gospels: Matthew 8, Mark 1 and Luke 5. He comes to Yeshua to ask for physical healing, but in doing so address Yeshua as 'Lord' and his faith shows that he is ready for healing: the signs have gone. Yeshua touches him and announces healing and cleansing; this happens for him in real time, immediately! Then Yeshua sends him off to the priest for the formal pronouncement and to offer the ritual. Since this didn't need to be done at the Temple, this could easily be done locally without need for a potentially long trip to Jerusalem. That cemented the cleansing and provided a witness to the priest that G-d was moving again in those days.
I wonder if we fail to make sure that all three steps take place when we approach our Father for healing and cleansing, for forgiveness of sin and for the breaking of bad habits and patterns of life. Perhaps our failure to follow through is one of the reasons why we struggle to see change in our lives and the growth of real holiness and connection with G-d in our families and communities. While it is certainly true that only the first step is largely down to us - G-d taking the lion's share in the second and third steps - all of them require our active commitment and participation to bring the process as a whole to a good and appropriate conclusion.
Let's start with confession and repentance. This is so much more than just saying 'sorry' or regretting something that we have said or done. It means that we have to agree with G-d that what we did was sin; not just wrong or inappropriate. We have to resolve that we won't - so far as it is possible for us - do it again: either the action, the disobedience to G-d or ignoring the nudging of the Spirit and the pricks of conscience. The priest checks the house carefully for any sign of the mould marks, colouration or presence of tzara'at; how much more will the Ruach check our hearts to see if this is done properly. Remember David's cry - "Search me, O G-d, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Psalm 139:23-24, ESV)? We can do no less.
Secondly comes forgiveness. We can't do this bit; only G-d can, but we have to receive and accept it. We have to know in our hearts and by His word that He has forgiven us. If we don't believe or are uncertain - Was this too big? Did I do it properly? Was He really focusing on me that day? - the enemy will tear us to shreds and paralyse us with fear and uncertainty. This one is really a matter of reading and believing the promise. Let's just review it: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us" (1 John 1:9). Is there anything conditional or contingent in that? If we have confessed our sin then He will forgive us. Move on!
Lastly comes the cleansing from unrighteousness, the purging of sin. Is that really necessary for us? Absolutely; we are all creatures of habit and even if we have confessed our sin, it takes more than we have in us to break persistent habits and life patterns. Just ask an alcoholic! He cleanses us, but we have to work with Him in two ways: to let it all go and then to keep clean. We cannot just expect Him to do everything while we do sit back and do nothing. This part of the process may take some time - most of us have a lot of stubborn stains to scrub out - but He is committed to getting us clean, "without spot or wrinkle ... holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27, ESV). "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 1:6, NASB).
Further Study: Psalm 32:1-5; Proverbs 2:13; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; Philippians 2:14-16
Application: Have you been struggling to keep your head above water lately - as if everything is going the dogs, including you? It's a common feeling these days as the enemy presses in and steals our security and assurance in the Almighty. Strike out for the Rock today and make sure that you have completed all three parts of the confession-forgiveness-cleansing process. Call on Yeshua to show you where you're short and help you make it up!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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