Leviticus, Leprosy, and Lent—in the Light of the Corona Virus Crisis (Part 4)

The One Who Was Plagued to Save Us from the Plague

To the best of my knowledge, I do not have the Coronavirus. I have not been tested, so I don’t know for sure. I am working from home, go to school only to do some video recordings in my office for my classes, have made just a very few trips to the grocery store, the drug store, and the bank, and have tried to be as careful as possible. I have used more hand sanitizer in the last three weeks than I have the previous three thousand six hundred seven weeks of my life combined. The same thing might be true with regard to twenty-second hand washes. I do not want to get this virus, and I certainly do not want to die from it. I am awed by, and have the greatest respect for, the first responders, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, who have put themselves in harm’s way to attend to those who do have this virus, risking becoming infected themselves. I would not want to be in their position.

In Leviticus 13-14, there is one word in particular that merits our attention. It is the Hebrew word nega’. In these two chapters the word occurs sixty-one times. In contrast to the sixty-one times it occurs here, it only occurs another seventeen times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. In the NIV translation of these two chapters, it is variously translated as part of the phrase “defiling skin disease,” as well as “sore,” “affected person,” “affected area,” “mold,” and “spoiled.” Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, it is variously translated as “disease,” “plague,” “assault,” “flogging,” “disaster,” “affliction,” “wound,” and “scourge.”

Of the other seventeen times this word occurs, there are two I want to call special attention to. First, in Exodus 11:1, this word is used to refer to the last “plague” which God will bring on the Egyptians, the death of their firstborn sons. In actuality, this plague could just have easily fallen on the Israelites in their homes as well. But they were saved from this plague by the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.

The second occurrence is found in Isaiah 53:8. Earlier in that chapter, in verse 4, the verb form of this noun, naga’, occurs. In the NIV, the clause in which this verb is found is translated, “yet we esteemed him punished.” Perhaps most translations use the verb, “stricken.” In the Tanakh, the New Jewish Publication Society translation, it is rendered this way, “We accounted him plagued.”

But in verse 8, the noun form, nega’, occurs. However, the translations do not usually translate this word as a noun, but as a verb. So, for example, the NIV has “for the transgression of my people he was punished.” Most of the other translations do the same thing, using the verb, “stricken.”

But it is actually a noun in the Hebrew, the same noun as in Exodus 11:1, the same noun that occurs seventy-eight times in Leviticus 13-14. A more literal translation would be something like this:

For the transgression of my people, a plague for him.

In Isaiah 53, the Servant the Lord was led like a (Passover) lamb to the slaughter. This happened so that he might rescue his people from their sins and from the threat of punishment which they had rightly incurred for those sins. He took up their pain. He bore their suffering. He was pierced for their transgressions. He was crushed for their iniquities. He was punished that they might have peace. The iniquity of the people was laid on him. For the transgression of his people, “there was a plague for him.” The Servant of the Lord did not only put himself at risk of being plagued. He did more. He purposely took the plague into his own body. He purposely contracted the wound, the blow, the infection, the disease, the defilement, the contamination, the flogging, the scourge—the plague.

John Kleinig, in his commentary on Leviticus, looking at Leviticus 13-14 in the light of Isaiah 53, says it well:

The Suffering Servant would heal people with unclean diseases by being afflicted for them and with them. He would take on their sickness and impurity and give them his purity and health. The Servant would be stricken even unto death (Is 53:8–9) and give his life as a reparation offering (Is 53:10). By doing so he would justify the many sinners and make intercession for them (Is 53:11–12).

It should come as no surprise, then, that Matthew understands Christ’s healing ministry in terms of Isaiah 53 and Christ’s atoning work on the cross:

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matt 8:16-17)

The healings Jesus performed during his earthly ministry were for the purpose of serving as an anticipation, a picture of the ultimate healing that Jesus would bring to the people of God at the last day. But we should not forget, as Matthew reminds us by connecting these accounts to the prophecy of Isaiah 53, that the healings did not, and would not, occur without great cost to our Lord

One day, there will no longer be any deadly diseases, no Spanish Flu, no Black Plague, no Coronavirus, no sickness, no death, no sorrow, no mourning. Of course, that will be a day of great rejoicing for God’s people. But there is something that we will not forget then, and that we should not forget now. We will be saved in the entirety of our persons, both body and soul, because the plague that we deserved—the Son of God took to himself.

It is only by his stripes that we are healed.

April 9, Maundy Thursday, Lent 2020

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