God is holy. His holiness saturates His entire being. The essence of His holiness is His otherness. God is wholly other. He is unlike anyone else. No one can compare to Him. Two times in Chapter 11, the people of God were commanded to be holy since God is holy (44 & 45). Since God is distinct, He wanted His people to be distinct from all other nations. God gave the Israelites specific rules and regulations so that the world would know that they belonged to Him. God is holy and His people were to be holy because they belonged to Him, served Him, and functioned according to His purposes.
Warning: Reading this entire section may be hazardous to your mental and emotional state today! The functional holiness of the Israelites was captured in the Holiness Code of Leviticus. The blend of dietary, health, and sanitation laws (ethical rules come later, cf. Chapters 17-27) were designed to help the Israelites, and their neighbors, see that they belonged to God. While some of these laws do reflect sensible hygiene for people living in close quarters, they were fundamentally, laws designed to reflect His holiness. The Israelites were journeying toward a land filled with idolatry. The idolatry was evident, among other things, in what the people living ate. For the Israelites, a distinct diet would serve as a shield against assimilation. The intricate guidelines of God’s Sinai Diet Plan were based on what was regarded as clean or unclean. The word clean means acceptable to God in worship. The word unclean means unacceptable to Him, and therefore, banned from the Tabernacle. In this case, the words clean and unclean were ritual concepts, not moral qualities. The categories for animal consumption were arranged according to their natural habitat: land (2b-8), sea (9-12), sky (13-23), and ground (41-43). The criteria for eating, for example, of eating cattle, sheep or goat as opposed to eating camel, rabbit or pig (no bacon!) was twofold: fully split hooves and chewing cud. The criteria for seafood was also twofold: scales and fins (no lobster!). There’s no criteria for birds, just a list of forbidden feather friends (harshly designated as “detestable,” supposedly because they fed on dead flesh). Among the insects, only those with joints which allowed for hopping were permitted on the menu (recall John the Baptist and locusts!). The creatures voted least favorable to the Hebrew palate were those that had unbroken contact with the ground (i.e. snakes, rodents, the lizard, and the lovable gecko!). All of these food laws helped keep Israel distinct from its surrounding culture.
The ritual impurity, not moral impurity, of childbirth was briefly addressed in Chapter 12. In this section, God was not denigrating the value of motherhood. There wasn’t anything sinful about childbirth. The objective was exactly the opposite. The physical discharges after birth rendered the mother ceremonially unclean because giving birth, while wonderful, is not a normal physical state (for most women!). After a period of ritual purification, the mother was restored to communal life and worship. If the mother gave birth to a boy, she was regarded as ritually unclean for one week. On the eighth day, she was restored and her baby was circumcised (3). For an additional thirty-three days, she entered a period of ritual purification. If the mother gave birth to a girl, she was regarded as ritually unclean for two weeks and her period of purification lasted for sixty-six days (Question: Why twice as long if a girl? Answer: We don’t know!). At the end of the purification period, whether she had a boy or girl, the mother gave a Burnt Offering, a lamb if she could afford one, or two turtledoves or a pigeon, if she could not. She also made a Sin Offering for atonement, the bird of sacrifice was again determined by her economics. It is worth peeking ahead and reading about Joseph, Mary, and the birth of Jesus as this special family in Luke 2:21 as this special family applied Leviticus 12 to their own lives. It was the depth of our Lord’s condescension that He came to earth and was born to a mother who, along her husband, was so poor that they could afford only two turtledoves.
In Chapter 13, God’s laws for His people shifted from motherhood to mildew and leprosy (i.e. skin diseases). Earlier, God told the priests that they had to distinguish between the holy and the profane (cf. 10:10-11). They had their work cut out for them with this responsibility. This entire chapter is heavy sledding because it deals with skin diseases (1-46), contaminated clothing (47-59), and how both issues affected a person’s ritual cleanness. Regarding skin-related diseases, the priest (though not a licensed dermatologist) provided a thorough examination based on specific symptoms. Certain diseases made a person unclean (i.e. psoriasis or leprosy), whereas, other concerns did not render one unclean (i.e. a rash, eczema, scars, burns, and baldness, whew!). Leprosy was a broad term that included a variety of skin diseases. In this case, a leper was declared ritually unclean and lived a lonely life, barred from communal life and worship.
In more ways than can be addressed these chapters point to our great need that can only be met in Christ. We are all sinners or lepers. When Jesus came, He dared to touch the lonely leper, against all medical protocol, and by His death He made the unclean sinner clean, forever!
Lord God, there is much in this section of Leviticus that befuddles us and even bothers us. However, we know that every word in Your Word is precious. This portion of Your Word is ultimately precious to us because it points us to Jesus, our Living Word, who was willing to come and give His life for broken and diseased sinners like us. Thank You, Jesus! In Your mighty Name, we pray, Amen.