We are about to discuss what many consider to be a complicated topic called tzara’at. The main reason this can be hard for the average person to properly understand is because there are several Hebrew terms in the Biblical text that have no adequate English translation. Do not be discouraged by these foreign terms. Endure to the end, I’m sure you’ll be amazed.
Tzara’at is not leprosy [Hanson’s disease] as Bible translators have led us to believe. Tzara’at is a Hebrew word in which there is no common suitable English equivalent although it is possible it is similar to a dermatological condition known as leukoderma or vitiligo when it affects a person’s skin; however, we must remember it can also affect physical objects which is why it’s also translated as mildew.
Tzara’at, contrary to popular belief, is not contagious like a communicable disease that requires isolation to prevent its spread. This becomes evident if you carefully read the laws concerning tzara’at. The isolation prescribed is not for medical purposes. It was for spiritual purposes—to prevent a severe form of uncleanness from being transmitted to the temple and the people.
The Jewish Sages taught that tzara’at was primarily the result of the sin of slander because the Hebrew word metzora which is usually translated into English as leper is a contraction for the Hebrew word which means “one who spreads slander.” This is why Moses’ sister, Miriam was briefly struck with tzara’at. Tzara’at was also considered to be the result of other trespasses as well. It’s fair to say that tzara’at is a physical condition of a spiritual problem.
Leviticus 13:1-4 says: And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling [s’et], a scab [sapachas], or a bright spot [baheret], and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore [nega tzara’at], then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore [nega] on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean.
Note the three Hebrew words s’et, sapachas, and baheret. Two of these words are exclusively used in reference to tzara’at: sapachas and baheret. The Jewish Sages describe s’et and baheret as colors (not a swelling or bright spot) – each having its own sapachas (secondary category)—not a scab. Therefore there are four colors of tzara’at that a priest must compare to healthy colored skin. In addition, the color of hair in the afflicted areas must be checked as well. Nega which is translated as sore can also be translated as spot, infection, wound, or plague. The person who has been declared to be afflicted with tzara’at is called a metzora.
To see splotchy light colored places on someone who has a naturally darker skin tone is quite shocking and turns many heads in public places. I would not know for sure if these areas of skin which may have been once normal and suddenly lacking in pigment are truly tzara’at or not but I suspect that they are.
The following portions of Scripture are straightforward; however, I will try to share some things I feel will enhance our understanding.
The isolated person is automatically tamei (unclean) since he’s required to ritually immerse (wash) himself despite the fact he isn’t yet declared to be a metzora. To be tzara’at, the skin and hair must be white and the affliction must appear to be deeper than the skin. If it isn’t obvious, the person must be isolated for seven days to determine if the affliction is a healing sore or tzara’at. This may require another seven days if the identification of the affliction still isn’t clear.
S’et – Leviticus 13:9-17
If the affliction of tzara’at completely covers the person from head to toe, he is declared taher (clean) but if he begins to heal, he is once again declared tamei (unclean). This is one reason why tzara’at is not considered a true communicable disease.
Tzara’at on Inflammations – Leviticus 13:18-23
Most translations use the term “boil” for the Hebrew word sh’chiyn. This could also be translated as an inflammation. No matter what caused the boil or inflammation, once the wound is healed, if it appears to have a white s’et or baheret, it needs to be evaluated for tzara’at.
Burns – Leviticus 13:24-28
Any burn that has healed and has a white baheret that is streaked red or is all white needs to be evaluated for tzara’at.
Tzara’at of head or face – Leviticus 13:29-39
An affliction of tzara’at of the head or beard is called a netek which is often translated into English as a scaly leprosy, an itch, a scale, a scall, or dry scall. Again, we have a word in Hebrew that has no English equivalent. If golden yellow hair grows in an area of the head or face where hair would normally grow, then it is considered tzara’at. Other areas of flesh require white hair in order to be declared tzara’at.
Baldness at the front and back of the head –Leviticus 13:40-44
A person with normal baldness may be found to have a s’et affliction that is white with a red streak that needs to be evaluated for tzara’at.
Isolation of Metzora – Leviticus 13:45-46
“Everyone who has tzara‘at sores is to wear torn clothes and unbound hair, cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has sores, he will be unclean; since he is unclean, he must live in isolation; he must live outside the camp.” (CJB)
God commands the unclean to declare their uncleanness and live separate from His people. Isn’t it interesting how the wicked declare their sins to the world as if they aren’t doing anything wrong and live among us in order to get us to accept their lifestyles as normal. Their lifestyles even affect the churches despite God’s command to remain separate.
Afflictions of Clothing – Leviticus 13:47-59
“This is the law concerning infections of tzara‘at in a garment of wool or linen, or in the threads or the woven-in parts, or in any leather item — when to declare it clean and when to declare it unclean.” (CJB)
As I mentioned before, tzara’at is not mildew as our English translations suggest. Tara’at can occur in people, be on things, or afflict dwellings. Remember, tzara’at does not have an English equivalent.
Tzara’at seems to be a very mysterious affliction but hopefully this next section will give us a clue regarding its true nature.
The Purification Ritual for Cleansing A Healed Metzora – Leviticus 14:1-32
Leviticus 14:1-11 begins the law for the metzora’s day of cleansing: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. 3 And the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him; and indeed, if the leprosy is healed in the leper, 4 then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two living and clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop. 5 And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water. 6 As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. 7 And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field. 8 He who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean. After that he shall come into the camp, and shall stay outside his tent seven days. 9 But on the seventh day he shall shave all the hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows — all his hair he shall shave off. He shall wash his clothes and wash his body in water, and he shall be clean. 10 “And on the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, and one log of oil. 11 Then the priest who makes him clean shall present the man who is to be made clean, and those things, before the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.”
A metzora cannot simply perform the purification ritual for cleansing from tzara’at in order to be healed. He must first be healed by God. The priest must come to him outside the camp to see if he has truly been healed before the purification ritual can be performed.
The Hebrew word for “clean” throughout Leviticus 14:7-11 is taher. The Greek Septuagint uses the word “katharizo” (verb) and “katharos” (noun). The term “clean” is repeated several times for the various stages that occur over a period of 7 days. The Jews understand that the healed metzora experiences various degrees of contamination during the purification process.
- First — the healed metzora can enter the camp of the Israelites.
- Second – the person’s head, beard, and eyebrows are shaved.
- Third – the person brings offerings but still remains only at the entrance of the Tabernacle until the sacrifices are complete. Then he may finally enter the Tabernacle.
Luke 17:11-19 is the account of the ten lepers Jesus cleansed: “Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. 12 Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. 13 And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed [kathariso]. 15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed [iaomai], returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. 17 So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed [kathariso]? But where are the nine? 18 Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
The Hebrew word for healed is raphah. The Greek Septuagint uses the equivalent word iaomai for “healed” in Leviticus 14:3. Remember, God must heal a metzora and the priest must verify that healing has taken place before he can perform the purification ritual to accomplish cleansing.
This passage in Luke 17:11-19 is really an incredible story. The ten people with tzara’at asked Jesus for mercy so He told them to go and present themselves to the priest. As they were on their way to do so, one of them noticed he had been healed (iaomai) and returned to give thanks to Jesus. What’s amazing here is that verse 14 says they had been cleansed (katharizo). That’s what they were supposed to go to the priest for.
This would be as impressive as Jesus telling a crippled man that his sins were forgiven and then making it possible for him to walk again. In both instances, Jesus addressed both the spiritual and physical condition of men.
This was a great testimony of Jesus’ identity to the priests and others who had never seen a healed metzora. In Luke 4:27, Jesus said that during the three years of famine during Elijah’s time, only Naaman the Syrian had been cleansed (katharizo) of tzara’at even though many others were afflicted with it during that time. I don’t know of any record of others with tzara’at being healed or cleansed other than Moses’ sister, Miriam prior to Jesus’ ministry. Certainly, the presentation of numerous people healed of tazria caused many priests to believe Jesus was the Messiah.
The purification ritual for the healed metzora found in Leviticus 14:1-32 has similarities to the preparation of the ashes of a red heifer that are used to purify someone from sin when they’ve come in contact with a dead body which is found in Numbers 19:1-22:
- They both are performed outside the camp.
- Both have a 7 day purification period. On the eighth day, a new creature emerges.
- Both use cedar wood, hyssop, scarlet yarn, blood, and water as part of the purification ritual.
If we compare these elements to Jesus, the cedar wood is a reminder of the wooden cross that Jesus died on and the scarlet yarn is a reminder of sin. Hyssop is a reminder of how the blood was applied to the lintels and doorposts of the Hebrews’ houses prior to the Passover and a reminder of David saying, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) Blood and water is a reminder of the birth of a baby and also a reminder of the blood and water that flowed out of Jesus’ side when He was pierced by a soldier after his death (John 19:34). It also reminds me of Zechariah 13:1 which says, “In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.” Hebrews 9:18-22 explains, “This is why the first covenant too was inaugurated with blood. After Moshe [Moses] had proclaimed every command of the Torah to all the people, he took the blood of the calves with some water and used scarlet wool and hyssop to sprinkle both the scroll itself and all the people; and he said, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has ordained for you.” Likewise, he sprinkled with the blood both the Tent and all the things used in its ceremonies. In fact, according to the Torah, almost everything is purified with blood; indeed, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (CJB)
The purification ritual for the healed metzora found in Leviticus 14:1-32 also has similarities with the person who has made a Nazirite vow but became defiled due to contact with a dead body:
- Both have to shave hair off their heads on the seventh day—the day of their cleansing.
- They both have to offer a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a trespass offering.
The purification ritual for the healed metzora found in Leviticus 14:1-32 has similarities with the consecration of a priest described in Leviticus 8:19-21 because blood from the offering was applied to the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe. This leads me to believe that as a metzora is cleansed, he is consecrated to God.
Being a metzora and contact with a dead body show us the most severe forms of uncleanness because they require a purification ritual that pictures death, rebirth, and/or resurrection. All other less severe forms of uncleanness require immersion in a baptismal pool (mikveh=ritual bath) and time passing until evening.
Someone who has never trusted Jesus as their Savior is as spiritually dead as a metzora who still walks the earth. They are defiled and unclean. They need the atonement and forgiveness of sin that Jesus’ blood offers and they need their sins taken away. They need to be cleansed by the blood and water of Jesus’ sacrifice. Aren’t you glad 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us [katharizo] from all unrighteousness”? Once our sin is atoned and forgiven and once we are clean, we can be consecrated to the Lord for ministry!