Leviticus, Leprosy, and Lent—in the Light of the Coronavirus Crisis (Part 3)

In this third installment in this series, the challenging question is:

Is the Coronavirus a Judgment from God?

Again, I will go ahead and answer this question right up front: Yes it is.

There is something very interesting about, not only the material in Leviticus 13-14, but also the larger context in chapters 12-15. Whether it be the woman who has given birth in chapter 12, the individuals who have contracted some kind of skin disease in chapters 13-14, or the persons who have some kind of bodily discharge in chapter 15, they have to present a sin offering at the Tabernacle to complete the process of purification and readmission to the ceremonies and rituals of Israelite worship.

Now, of course, you may be asking: Why do they have to bring a sin offering?  Has the woman who has just given birth sinned in that process? Do persons contract skin diseases because they have sinned? If a person has a bodily discharge, does that mean that he or she is a sinner?

In order to answer this question, there are four things that need to be considered.

First, there has been a proposal, by some scholars and commentators, that the term sin offering is really a misnomer. It is really not so much a sin offering as it is a purification offering. The great Hebrew Bible scholar, Jacob Milgrom, in various articles, as well as in his magisterial commentary on Leviticus, has argued that the sin offering is really not about sin, but about purification. A person can become impure in some way without having actually sinned. And since sin is not necessarily the cause of the person’s impurity, it would be better to replace the term “sin offering” with “purification offering.” His proposal in this regard has been highly influential and widely adopted.

Second, it has to be admitted that there is no explicit indication in these chapters that the person who has to present this offering has actually sinned in some way. In the history of the interpretation of these chapters, there have in fact been proposals as to how some of these persons may have sinned. For example, it has been suggested that the persons with bodily discharges, some of them genital discharges, may have been guilty of some kind of sexual sin. There have even been suggestions as to what the sin of the woman who gives birth might have been. But these suggestions have been widely, and rightly, rejected. The text makes no explicit statements that the individuals in these situations have sinned.

Third, however, as even Milgrom himself acknowledges, there was a widespread understanding throughout the ancient Near East, that for afflictions like the ones mentioned in chapters 13-15,  they were indeed the result of divine punishment. And though there is no explicit statement in these chapters to that effect, there are a number of other places in the Old Testament, even in the book of Leviticus, where a specific connection between sin and disease is indeed made explicit.

Fourth, given this widespread assumption of the connection between sin and disease, I believe that we should indeed understand that assumption to be operative here as well. It is not that the diseased person has necessarily sinned in some specific way and that God is now punishing them for that sin. Rather, it is that the very reason there is impurity in the world at all is because of humanity’s sin in general. In other words, the reason there are impurities in the world is because there was a fall, and all of creation has been affected. Impurity exists because sin exists. And that is why these afflicted individuals had to present a sin offering as part of their purification process. As my good friend and outstanding Old Testament scholar, Mark Boda, has well said:

This meant that, even when they were seeking to rectify something as mundane as a moldy house or bodily discharge, they were reminded of a theological-symbolic world that was threatened by sin. (A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament)

A sin offering has to be offered because the skin disease, or the bodily discharge, though it might not be tied to a specific sin that the afflicted person may have committed, nevertheless exists because the world in which we live is a sin-cursed world.

And this is why the woman who has given birth has to offer a sin offering. It is not by any means because she has herself sinned. But it is because even in the act of childbirth, an act by which a new life is brought into the world, the mother who has given life, paradoxically, has done so by coming into contact with the realm of death, as symbolized by the blood that she shed and the great pain she has gone through, which also go back to the fall. And this is one of the reasons why I, and others, have argued that the term “sin offering” ought to be retained as the name of this offering.

On account of sin, we do not live in paradise. Paradise itself has been marred. The world in which we live has been cursed, full of thorns and thistles. And the only reason it yields food for us to eat is on account of the hard labor and sweat that teases that food out of the ground. Every day we live is one less day that we will live. Every time we get sick, and then recover, we have only delayed the inevitable. All cures are temporary cures. Every day, even though over a hundred thousand new lives come into the world, over a hundred thousand people also leave this world. And those deaths, as the apostle Paul says, are the wages of sin. God is indeed, a god who “expresses his wrath every day” (Psalm 7:11)

Paul reminds us that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). All of earthly creation has been subjected to frustration on account of the fall and humanity’s sin, and has been in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).

And that is why we can say that, yes, the Coronavirus has come as part of God’s judgment on the world. It may not have come because of any one particular sin. Indeed, it may not have come because we are worse sinners than those who have come before us. At the same time, we also have to admit that this virus has been let loose in a sin-cursed world. And there is not a single person it touches, who is not also a sinful person. And even though we should not speculate as to why God has sent any particular calamity into the world, these calamities can still be occasions for us to reflect on the sinfulness of the world in which we live, and on our own sinfulness.

But this is not the whole story. There is much more to the plot. The creation does not groan in hopelessness, but in “eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed,” when it will be liberated and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19, 21). The God who punishes and expresses his wrath every day is also the God who delights in being merciful. The God who executes his judgments is also the God who loves. And he has demonstrated that love in one particularly crucial act, an act he performed at great cost to himself. Again, as indicated by the title of that book by Mark Boda that I cited from earlier, God is indeed a merciful God. But that mercy is a “severe” mercy. And the severity of that mercy is one that is properly examined at this time of year, in particular, next week—Passion Week. That will be the subject of the final article in this series.

April 4, Lent 2020

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