The Lord said to Moses, “These are the regulations for any diseased person at the time of their ceremonial cleansing, when they are brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been healed of their defiling skin disease, the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the defiling disease, and then pronounce them clean. After that, he is to release the live bird in the open fields. “The person to be cleansed must wash their clothes, shave off all their hair and bathe with water; then they will be ceremonially clean. After this they may come into the camp, but they must stay outside their tent for seven days. On the seventh day they must shave off all their hair; they must shave their head, their beard, their eyebrows and the rest of their hair. They must wash their clothes and bathe themselves with water, and they will be clean. – Leviticus 14: 1-8
Some aspects of this narrative are good hygiene practices even today for a person with a contagious skin condition. For example, the shaving off all the hair and washing clothes in water are both good practices as hair and clothes can harbor contagion. The items described are known medicinal herbs/woods. Cedar is a known insect repellent and may very well have antimicrobial properties. Hyssop is reported to have antiviral properties. However, there are several aspects of this passage that puzzle me. What is the difference, at least from God’s perspective, between being healed (made clean) and being ceremonially clean?
Jesus healed both according to existing traditions, directing someone he healed to go make the offerings required by Moses (Mark 1:44), and broke with tradition by healing with no offerings (Mark 8:22-25). I guess it is not clear to me why “clean” is not always clean, and how being ceremonially clean is different. Perhaps there is an aspect of community “remembering” when one becomes ceremonially clean through public offerings and sacrifices for atonement that is lacking when one is healed in private. Perhaps the reason Jesus healed in both ways was that there was no need to “remember” God as he was standing right there!
There are other aspects of this passage that are head scratchers for me. For example, why two birds, one that gets killed, and the other that is set free after getting bathed in the blood of the one that was killed? Actually as I sit here trying to listen to God so that he can help me make sense of this it occurred to me that we are a bit like the bird that was set free. We are figuratively bathed in Jesus blood and set free after being made clean by his sacrifice on the cross. Perhaps this is a stretch, but it is something interesting to ponder. How did the freed bird feel? I suspect it would be asking itself “wow that was close”; “why was I spared?”; and “What was with that dunking in blood stuff”.
These are all questions not unlike ones I sometimes wonder about the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “Why was that necessary?”; “Why do I deserve to be spared?”; and “what was that whole crucifixion and whipping thing for?” The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection are two of the greatest mysteries to me. I have come to a peace about the sacrifice of Jesus, and I am confident that: 1) It was necessary; 2) I may not fully understand the event until I am with God after my body passes away; and 3) It was more important to God to set us free than to climb down off the cross.
Perhaps God’s perspective is a bit like moses’, there are certain spiritual rules by which both God and Moses must operate. For example, the sacrifices required for atonement described in Leviticus. C.S. Lewis explored this idea in the first book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”. Aslan (the Christ figure) is sacrificed to save Edmond who has betrayed Narnia and Aslan to the white witch. The “crucifiction” of Alsan satisfied the “deep magic” as Lewis put it. Perhaps there is spiritual “deep magic” that we cannot fully understand and that is the reason that Jesus had to allow himself to be sacrificed on the cross for us. I am content to be thankful that He did.
Prayer: God your sacrifice for us is a deep mystery which I do not fully understand. Help me to love and follow you despite my imperfect understanding.SDG