In the beginning

Column: Leviticus helped Hebrews order their chaotic world


Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Ebola spreads by contact with bodily fluids: blood, saliva, vomit, feces. The measles virus spreads far more easily. It can go airborne.

Because we know that many diseases are caused by microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria, we can employ means of hygiene to protect ourselves from them. Simple measures, such as handwashing, provide the first line of defense. Cleanliness is of utmost importance in promoting our health.

When the Bible declares that a person with leprosy is unclean and should live apart from the rest of society, we perhaps assume that it wishes to protect others from contracting the disease. Sunday’s first reading — Lv 13:1-2, 44-46 — offers the classic example of this instruction.

However, this would read modern understandings of disease back into the text. The writers of the Book of Leviticus did not know whether or not a person with leprosy was contagious.

The word translated as leprosy does not refer to Hansen’s disease, the terrible malady which can cause parts of the body to deteriorate. Archaeologists believe that Hansen’s disease had not yet reached the Middle East when Leviticus was written because human remains dating back to that time period do not contain any traces of that disease. Instead, the word “leprosy” in Leviticus is an umbrella term for a variety of skin diseases.

If the word “unclean” does not refer to physical contamination, what does it mean? When placed in the context of the rest of the Book of Leviticus, its meaning emerges: ritually impure.

Leviticus proposes other examples of those who have become unclean, that is to say, ritually impure: one who has touched a corpse a woman who is menstruating, a man and a woman who have engaged in sex that day. Even objects can contract ritual impurity.

A wall or a piece of cloth with mildew is said to have leprosy and, by that fact, is unclean.

Uncleanliness, ritual impurity, is a religious category. The Book of Leviticus structures a way of life which divides everything into two categories. It is either clean or unclear. This process of division reflects God’s act of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.

God takes the primordial chaos and divides it into the elements of the universe. God separates light from dark, water from the dry land, in order to create the world. Similarly, the Book of Leviticus sorts everything out into either clean or unclean.

As Christians, we do not follow the dietary law outlined in the Torah or ob- serve the separations called for in Sunday’s first reading. At the same time, we seek to distinguish between right and wrong, between good choices and bad choices. In that way, we also can imitate God in creating order out of chaos.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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