Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him… “Be healed (Mark 1:41)!”
Although the whole concept of clean vs. unclean is foreign to most of us, during the First Century A.D., most Jews were affected by it because for them the world was divided up between things that were okay to eat and things that were not okay to eat. The world was divided up between what one could touch and what one should avoid. And it was divided up between people and groups that were clean and those that were unclean.
WHAT WAS UNCLEAN?
Unclean had nothing to do with dirt and cleanliness as is thought in our world. According to the Law of Moses, there were certain foods that were unclean, as there were bodily functions (such as the flow of blood each woman has regularly or sperm spilled), diseases (such as leprosy), or transference of unclean from some item that was unclean because someone unclean touched it.
WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF CLEAN VS. UNCLEAN?
This is the question that has not been answered by others very well, and I guarantee you that I will do no better. One of the more popular modern explanations is that God was protecting the Hebrews from germs and disease they had no idea existed (but God knew) by making sure they kept hygienically clean. I find this is an unreasonable assumption on our part because it is no more than our modern world scientific thinking reading into their world which had little to do with thinking about the science of things the way we do. It also neglects any focus on the many laws that have nothing to do with bacteria or things we would consider to be good for one’s health. In other words, this explanation at best only explains some of the laws.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN UNCLEAN AND SIN?
Some sins were thought to bring about certain diseases that would make one unclean; but being unclean did not make one a sinner. If you lived in those days and if you touched the dead body of someone you loved in order to bury him/her, you did not sin, but you would be defiled and considered unclean until the proscribed time and appropriate bath was finished.
But if you notice one day that you have a blotch on your arm and you go to a priest to check it out and he tells you that you have leprosy, you and everyone around you would believe that your sins had somehow caught up to you and come to roost. God was giving you leprosy or else God was allowing a demon to come into you and cause leprosy because of some sin or sins you committed. In your case, becoming unclean was not a sin, rather it was the result of sin – it was a punishment for sin.
In the Old Testament, every time someone came down with leprosy in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), sin was involved, so in all likelihood, leprosy was deemed a punishment for sin in Jesus’ day. Here are examples from the Hebrew Bible quoted from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“Miriam uttered disrespectful words against God’s chosen servant Moses, and, therefore, was she smitten with leprosy. Joab, with his family and descendants, was cursed by David for having treacherously murdered his great rival Abner. Gehazi provoked the anger of Elisha by his mean covetousness, calculated to bring the name of Israel into disrepute among the heathen. King . . . Uzziah was smitten with incurable leprosy for his alleged usurpation of priestly privileges in burning incense on the golden altar of the Temple” (Kalisch). It would have been quite natural for the people by a posteriori reasoning to have regarded persons afflicted with ẓara’at as transgressors; they had violated the laws of God and their transgressions had been great, else they would not have been so afflicted (jewishencyclopedia.com from Leprosy by: Emil G Hirsch, J.F. Chamber, Joseph Jacobs, A.S. Waldstein, and Maurice Fisthberg).
The Law of Moses addressed the subject of Leprosy more than most any other subject The Law established who should determine whether one has leprosy, how the determination is made, and the Law gave directions for the community to send lepers away from their families and villages to live their lives outside of society. According to several historians, lepers were the living dead.
Despite the general consensus that the religious painstakingly tried to follow every detail of Moses’ Law, the practice of the Law of Moses probably evolved over the centuries. When Ruth was sold to her nearest of kin, the rituals that took place for her hand in marriage were generally similar to the Laws of Moses, but there were enough differences to see that the Laws of Moses were not strictly followed; instead the general ideas were followed in many practices that differed from Moses commands. I suspect the same would be true in Jesus’ day when it came to the laws dealing with lepers.
The religious leaders of Jesus day were very concerned about about the details of the Law when it came to the Sabbath, foods, and tithes; but it is very likely that other areas were neglected or changes to the details of Moses’ Law were accepted. We see that today in Christian groups who focus on certain issues that were not central to the Bible’s message, and skim over issues that were huge in the early years of Christianity. This is not to say that modern issues are not important. It just means that as generations come and go, new challenges face us that must be faced, discussed, and worked through.
Generations in the ancient world did not change as quickly as they do in our day, but the Jews in Jesus’ day had to deal with Western domination (Rome – not the United States) and Western values for the first time. They had to take on those challenges with the scripture, traditions, stories, and identity they had which contained a lot of writings with no universal acceptance as to which writing or oral tradition was authoritative and which writing was not.
There may have been some changes that took place from the Law of Moses to Jesus’ day, especially since there were oral/unwritten laws to augment the written laws that were considered by many to be just as authoritative as the written laws.
The unwritten laws were eventually written down into what we call the Talmud (A.D. 200-500); so even though there may have been even more changes from Jesus’ day until the writing of the Talmud, a lot of what was in the oral tradition in Jesus day is known to us (we just don’t know how much they changed or what changed in those laws). We learn from the Talmud that the rules to assess whether one was leprous or not relaxed from Moses’ Law until Jesus’ day. I can only guess that the rules pertaining to seclusion may have relaxed somewhat as well.
Despite any changes that existed between the laws of Moses and practice in Jesus’ day, I assume that a lot of the substance of what was written in Leviticus 13:45-46 remained: “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
It is interesting to note that even though the Law of Moses said that lepers had to live “outside the camp,” lepers were in the crowds following Jesus.
THE POWER OF UNCLEAN
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: If a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’ ”
The priests answered, “No.”
Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?”
“Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled (Haggai 2:11-13).”
Malachi was stating a rule of unclean that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day believed very strongly, namely that unclean has power over clean. If someone who is clean comes into contact with unclean, that person will automatically be unclean. It cannot work the other way. Clean cannot make something else unclean. Clean will always be defiled by unclean.
“Who can bring a clean thing out of the unclean? (Job 14:4)!”
Job seconded the words of Malachi. Actually, I should say Malachi seconded Job being that he came after Job; but then, which one came first doesn’t matter for this study.
WHEN JESUS TOUCHED THE UNCLEAN
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
Beginning with Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 4, Jesus touched or was touched by many unclean people.
1. Jesus touched a leper.
2. Jesus was going to to to a Centurion’s house (possibly a Gentile and therefore unclean), but the man asked Jesus to speak a word instead.
3. A woman with an issue of blood, who was unclean, touched Jesus.
4. Jesus took a dead girl by the hand, and in so doing raised her up from the dead.
5. Jesus touched the eyes of two blind men who were considered unclean because they were blind.
In all these cases, when Jesus touched unclean people, he was not defiled by the unclean, as the case was for everybody else in this world; rather, Jesus cleansed those people. The cleansing was demonstrated by the unclean visibly changing and becoming clean in plain sight.
Healing the unclean leper showed that Jesus had authority over the power of defilement, over the “clean and unclean” world. Everyone else was subject to the rules of the unclean, so when Jesus touched the unclean leper and healing came as a result, people who heard the leper’s story and readers who read the Gospels understood that Jesus had power over the world of clean and unclean.
THE LITERARY PUZZLE WITHIN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
By touching a leper and cleansing him, Jesus physically demonstrated that he had power over the world of clean and unclean. This demonstration of his authority over the world of clean and unclean separated himself from any other person and this demonstration of Jesus’ authority was the second of eight powers that Jesus was able to command found in the books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.