36. Health & Infections

Meditations in the Law : No.36 : Health & Infections

Lev 13:1-3 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 2″When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. 3The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease. When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.

Now this is really going to separate out the adults from the children! If you turn away from this meditation, I understand! If rules about childbirth seemed a bit off track, ones about skin diseases seem even worse. But hold on, if, just for a moment we believe Paul’s declaration that All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,” (2 Tim 3:16) and just for a moment we assume that the Jewish scholars and elders got it right in including this in the canon of the Old Testament, then we ought to have a look at it. One of my own underlying feelings about the Law of Moses, and a reason for writing these particular meditations is that within them we see the wisdom and knowledge and care of God for His people as He gives them very practical laws for living. One of the main premises behind this writing is the certainty that there is nothing freaky or weird about these laws, and they reveal much to us about the life of Israel and the wisdom of God.

Chapter 13 is a massive chapter on health care. God’s rules for life were not (and are not) all spiritual; they are practical and they helped Israel live in this Fallen World and cope when things went wrong. The earlier laws that we considered restrained sin and then dealt with it when it happened. These laws are health laws that seek to restrain infections. We don’t need to go into every detail but it will be helpful to observe the overall principles that are laid out.

Interestingly this starts out, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron…” (v.1) as was the case with unclean animals (11:1). Some things He appeared to share just with Moses and others it appears He gave to them both together. Perhaps the latter are to be considered bigger issues that would affect all of Israel. The first instruction here is about a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease,” (v.2) i.e. when the first signs of something that may potentially become infectious are seen, then action needs to be taken. The action: “he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest.” (v.2b) You will see a note in your Bible that ‘sons’ may also mean descendents, i.e. all subsequent priests. The priests were to learn to act as doctors.

What we then find is guidance for a clinical procedure. This wasn’t left to haphazard approaches; this was a process laid down. The priest was to examine it and assess its nature (v.3). If, by its nature, he determines that it is an infection the man is put in the ‘ceremonially unclean’ group which, as we’ve suggested before, is as likely to mean that he’s excused religious duties as much as it says anything about his spiritual state. It may be that the priest needs to carry on observing it and in that case (v.4) he puts the person in isolation for seven days to observe whether it is getting worse. On the seventh day he carries out a further inspection and makes a determination. If it is unclear then he stays in isolation for a further seven days (v.5). There is then a further inspection and makes a determination that either it is nothing to worry about or that it is infectious (v.6).

Now we have here a very simple and obvious process for checking health and preventing outbreaks of infection. These guidance rules then move on to when it is determined that it is a real infectious skin infection (v.9 on).  The crucial issue becomes whether there is ‘raw flesh’ or an open sore (v.10,14-16)).  This is the sign of something serious (v.11). If the skin infection just goes white that is a sign of it clearing up and he is all right (v.12,13,16,17).

The Law then continues on to cover boils (v.18-23), burns (v.23-28), sores, spots and rashes (v.29-44). When there is a clear, serious, infectious disease the person concerned is to live outside the camp in isolation (v.45,46). In such a way the disease will be limited. The remainder of the chapter covers mildew that may carry infections and how to assess it and deal with it (v.47-59). Chapter 14 goes on to describe the offerings to be brought after someone is healed of one of these diseases, rather in the same way and, I suggest, for the same reasons,  as the instructions for a woman after childbirth.

Of course what the Law doesn’t cover is the question of Healing. When the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt He declared, If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.” (Ex 15:26) i.e. obedience brings the blessing of health and healing from the Lord. At Mount Sinai He declared, “Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.” (Ex 23:25,26) i.e. again a promise of health with the relationship.

We see the Lord’s healing in operation in the Old Testament specifically in the case of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-). Similarly we see Hezekiah becoming ill, calling on the Lord and being healed (Isa 38). The Law, as we have said previously, covered situations where things went wrong, and this chapter, seen in the light of the verses about health and healing, becomes a chapter about grace – God’s provision of how to cope when they have not been in a good relationship with Him and sickness has invaded their lives. He was always there for them to call upon to bring healing, but healing requires faith!

35. Childbirth

Meditations in the Law : No.35 : Childbirth?

Lev 12:1-4 1The LORD said to Moses, 2″Say to the Israelites: `A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.

This is going to be a challenge!  If I was a betting man (which I’m not) I would place a mighty wager that this chapter probably rates as one of the least read passages of Scripture. The reasons are obvious: it needs thinking about to make sense, especially in the age in which we live. There are some obvious things that need to be dealt with before we move on to consider the detail.

The first is that this IS part of the Law that was given by God to Moses. It is not something that goes with the cultural mores of that day; it is specific instruction from the Lord and, as we’ve seen previously, God has practical reasons for everything He says. Second, we need to remind ourselves that specific Scripture is to be read in the light of overall Scripture. We may jump to the (wrong) conclusion, that when the word ‘unclean’ appears it means that there is something nasty about childbirth. No, definitely not. It was God who said, “Be fruitful and increase in numbers.” (Gen 1:28) and then, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen 2:24,25). Sex is God’s idea and so the sexual act and childbirth are God’s design and are not to be seen in a negative light. Similarly in the psalms we find, “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.” (Psa 127:3). Having children is good! To make the point even further, the blessing on a godly man was, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” (Psa 128:3) which is a clear indication of divine approval to having a family. Childbirth was God’s idea, so what is this chapter about?

Well, let’s see the various things this chapter speaks about. First, “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.” (v.2) Please observe the word ‘ceremonially’. Ceremonially refers to everything that happened at the Tabernacle (and later on the Temple). The word ‘unclean’, I would suggest, refers less to any moral or sanitary state but simply means ‘not in a fit state’ to go through the various rites of the Tabernacle worship. We may live in a day when drugs help many women to cope with their menstrual period, but many would still acknowledge that this is an ongoing painful period in their monthly cycle that they would rather do without. In Old Testament times such helps were not available and a woman’s period would often be quite debilitating. Indeed Rachel, Jacob’s wife, used it as an excuse not to get up: “Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” (Gen 31:35). What we thus come to realise is that the Lord in fact excused the woman having her period, or recovering from childbirth, from having to attend the ceremonial rites. It was in fact, a relief for her.

The next item covered was that of circumcising the boy: “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.” (v.3) Modern science tells us that the eighth day is the very best time to carry out such an operation with as little pain or risk as is possible. We then find, “Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.” (v.4) Again ‘purification’ simply means ‘is completely finished with and her body is starting to return to normal’. The ‘not touch anything sacred’ simply is an embargo on her going anywhere near the Tabernacle and the required rites. She is excused all this while she gets over her childbirth. If we think negatively of her in all this, it is more an expression of our prejudices than of God’s feelings towards her. If anything these rules highlight the special feeling of the time of childbirth and say, “You don’t have to worry during this time about all the ceremonial things; you just concentrate on recovering.”

Now I am aware that there will be those who feel that this interpretation of these rules takes away from the awareness of God’s holiness which was emphasized in the Law by the requirements of cleanliness, but I when I look at all of these laws I see God’s concern for His people – all His people – and He is constantly making provision for their well-being. He is not putting down any particular group, especially when they are performing the most natural procedure than ensures the ongoing human race. No, it’s our own legalistic and ‘nasty’ prejudices (because we feel badly about sex or about bodily functions) that see these laws negatively.

But there is more to come: “If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding,” (v.5) i.e. the periods are doubled for a girl. Commentators go all over the place in trying to deal with this. I’d like to make a simple suggestion, which may or may not be true, and perhaps only science will verify this, that in fact, even as the apostle Peter spoke of the ‘weaker’ sex (1 Pet 3:7), it is may be possible that the Lord knows that female babies were weaker and more vulnerable than male babies and therefore He allows a longer time of recovery and caring. Someone suggested to me that perhaps baby girls need a longer period to bond properly to their mothers. I don’t know the answer because we aren’t told. Time, science and medicine might shed light on this. My certainty is that whatever it is, we see here rules that provide God’s care and concern for women.

The final verses of the chapter are about the woman then bringing a burnt offering and a sin offering (v.6) to make ‘atonement’ (v.7). Is this because she has been sinful? Of course not!   Even the Virgin Mary had to do this. It is simply a recognition that for the times prescribed she has been out of contact with the available access to God (the Tabernacle) and these offerings bring her back into complete communion with the Lord. The very act of going and making these offerings, brings her right back into the life of Israel with God. It is to reassure her and re-establish her in the covenant community so she can have no doubts. Every new mother did it so there was no stigma attached to it. It was just part of God’s process for making sure she would come to meet Him after having been through childbirth. Perhaps we cannot understand the reassurance that she would receive; a re-establishing of ordinary life after this most significant of events in her life! How wonderful!  ‘Atonement’? See it as being re-established. ‘Clean’? See it as being brought back into the covenant process and being able to stand before God with thankfulness. Remember, ultimately the function of all the offerings was to bring the people to God and deal with anything that might separate them from Him. Hallelujah!

34. Cleanliness

Meditations in the Law : No.34 : A Question of Cleanliness

Lev 11:1,2, 44-47 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 2″Say to the Israelites: `Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat:….. I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. 45I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. 46″ `These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about on the ground. 47You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.’

I am sure that sometimes when we look at various of these laws that God gave to Moses, we look at them and wonder whatever relevance they have and fail to put them in the context of the day in which they were given. One thing I have seen over the years is that God’s revelation of Himself to His people has been gradual and therefore what He says in the Law is strictly limited to what they could cope with in that day. There are no great explanations (which would have gone over their heads), just simple instructions. Sometimes those instructions find explanation later in the Bible; sometimes they don’t. The ones we are going to briefly look at now don’t and so we will be left, in a measure, to speculate on a number of issues.

We have in the previous meditation briefly considered the question of clean and unclean foods. (We only did a brief introduction to the Offerings.) Because the whole of chapter 11 of Leviticus is given over to this subject, we need to note it in outline at least for it was a very real and significant part of the Law. In fact it was clearly still being observed in Jesus’ day and Peter, even though being just a common fisherman in background, was very much aware of it: He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:11-15) In a very dramatic way the Lord was telling Peter that it was all right to cross boundaries into the Gentile world, but up until then, these laws of cleanliness were clearly being observed.

Now perhaps to start to understand this more clearly we need to go back to the beginning of the Sinai experience: And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (Ex 19:10,11). In modern society today, those who might be invited to meet either the President of the United States in the White House, or perhaps the Queen at Buckingham Palace, are given strict rules of protocol, as to how they should dress and how they should act. These rules essentially say, respect this very senior person you are going to meet; recognise and honour the status of the role that is theirs. But the other side of that, is that you have just become a special person, one of the few granted an audience.

Now there is an element of this when Israel come to meet God. The instructions they receive tell them something of God and something about who they are becoming. He is the Holy One, the Lord of all things, and they are about to become His special people. Perhaps it is to help them constantly remember this that they are given various laws that separate them out from the rest of the world. That may be the first reason that they are given these rules about what food they may eat and what they may not eat. There will be constant reminders as to who they are – a people called by God into relationship with Him to be a light to the rest of the world. This covers animals on the land (11:1-8) sea creatures (11:9-12), birds of the air (11:13-19), insects (11:20-23), dead creatures (11:24-28) etc.

Now some commentators suggest that another reason for these distinctions is that some of these forbidden creatures were those used by pagan nations for worship, but that is not very clear. Perhaps the strongest reason, and a number have written on this, is to do with hygiene, as we noted in the previous meditation, that the forbidden creatures were the most likely to carry infection and this was one way that the Lord was protecting His people. I suspect that there is likely to be a combination of these reasons, but for the moment the Lord has not made it clear. We’ll have to wait until we get to heaven to find the answers.

Today our distinction, if we are Christians, lies mainly in the fact that we are now Spirit-indwelt and He is the One who now makes us distinct by His presence within us. No longer are these food-hygiene laws applicable for today we live in a very hygiene conscious age and anyone who has been on a hygiene course knows the rules and knows why the rules exist, which modern laws apply to protect us. We may not understand the detail when it comes to the laws in this chapter and so it is one of those parts of Scripture where we have to trust that the Lord knows better than we do.

In all the laws that we considered in Exodus, there were very clear, common sense reasons for every law. When we moved into the ceremonial, sacrificial laws of Leviticus, we moved into a completely new area of understanding about the sinfulness of mankind, and about the Lord’s understanding of us, and His provision for the people to be brought back into relationship with Him after a failure. Now in this area of the Law we must trust that, again, there are good reasons for each rule and they are designed to protect and bless God’s people. Let’s maintain a teachable spirit.