a. Camp Must Be Kept Free from Those with Serious Skin Disease (5:1–4)
1 And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying:
2 “Command the children of Israel that they should send out of the camp everyone with a serious skin disease, everyone with a bodily discharge, and everyone who is unclean by reason of contact with a corpse;
3 both male and female you shall send, to the outside of the camp you shall send them, that they might not defile the camp in the midst of which I am dwelling.”
4 And the children of Israel did so and sent them to the outside of the camp. As Yahweh had spoken to Moses, so they did.
1–4 The structure of this unit is clear. Following the introduction, which claims divine authority for the legislation (v. 1), comes the legislation proper (vv. 2–3), followed by a concluding formula, which details faithful performance of the legislation (v. 4). The subject is the removal of that which is unclean (ṭāmē’) from the camp—the dwelling of holy Yahweh. Although a full discussion of the concepts of “clean,” “unclean,” and “holy” is not possible here, a few comments are in order. 1
That God is holy is a commonplace assertion of the Pentateuch (e.g., Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2). That which is unclean is the antithesis of that which is holy; it is impure and abnormal for its class. That which is clean is in a middle state; it is pure and normal for its class. That which is holy is made so by sanctification and is fitted for the divine use in the divine presence. 2 Therefore a basic principle is that the holy must not come into contact with the unclean (e.g., Lev. 7:19–21; 22:3). The three disorders named in the present passage all bring about communicable uncleanness. 3 The alternatives are being isolated from the camp where the holy Yahweh dwells or being “cut off.” 4
Whatever the precise meanings of the terms serious skin disease (ṣārûaʿ) and bodily discharge (zāḇ), the current passage advances the Levitical code only in that persons afflicted with these complaints are to be expelled from the camp. Those who have skin disorders are legislated out of the camp in Lev. 13:46, and although those with bodily discharges are not excluded in so many words, Lev. 15:31 legislates a “separation from their uncleanness” in the camp. The very least this means is that such people are forbidden to participate in worship.
Contact with a corpse is said to defile the priest (Lev. 21:1–3) and the high priest (21:11), and, in just a few verses, will be said to defile the Nazirite (Num. 6:6–12). The current passage extends defilement by a corpse from the priesthood to the laity. 5 The same alternatives apply to these unclean people as to the first two classes.
The term ṣārûaʿ has commonly been translated as “leprosy,” 6 but modern lexical and medical studies have widened the term to include a variety of complaints such as vitiligo. 7 In Leviticus this malady affects not only people but also houses and clothes, so that the reference must be to spots that affect part of the object and make it unclean.
In Lev. 15 and here the term zāḇ refers to a bodily discharge, particularly from the sexual organs. 8
unclean by reason of contact with a corpse (ṭāmē’ lānep̄eš)—here nep̄eš is used of a dead body. The term usually refers to living creatures. 9 The current usage is, however, also found in several other texts (e.g., Num. 9:6–7, 10), and is perhaps explained as a reference to the “person” (nep̄eš) who has died and not to a dead nep̄eš. One can see this in such a passage as Num. 19:13: “whoever touches a corpse, that is the nep̄eš of a person who has died” (nōḡēa‘ bemēṯ benep̄eš hā’āḏām ’ăšer–yāmûṯ). 10
1 See further G. J. Wenham, Leviticus, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 18–25. See also Mary Tew Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).
5 See the later legislation on purification after contact with a corpse, Num. 19:1–22.
6 The most common Greek translation was lepra; cf. BDB, pp. 863b–64a.
7 See HALAT, pp. 988b–89. On the derivation of this term see J. F. A. Sawyer, “A Note on the Etymology of SARA‘AT,” VT 26 (1976) 241–45. On the analogy of other Hebrew medical terms, Sawyer contends that the root meaning of ṣrʿ is not, as is sometimes argued, connected with Arab. ṣara‘a, “to prostrate,” but rather is derived from a description of an obvious symptom of the disease (cf. ṣāheḇeṯ, “jaundice,” related to ṣahoḇ, “yellow”). He then points to Heb. ṣir‘â, which, in its three biblical occurrences, is rendered “hornet(s).” Sawyer concludes that the person afflicted with ṣāra‘aṯ (i.e., a ṣārû‘â) had pain similar to a hornet’s sting. See also L. Koehler, “Aussatz,” ZAW 67 (1955) 290–91. Many scholars deny that ṣāra‘aṯ includes modern leprosy (Hansen’s disease): e.g., E. Hulse, “The Nature of Biblical ‘Leprosy’ and the Use of Alternate Medical Terms in Modern Translations of the Bible,” PEQ 107 (1975) 87–105. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus, TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1980), pp. 136–39, disagrees. Cf. Wenham, Leviticus, p. 192.
10 See E. Jacob, TDNT, IX:620–21.