Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Priest-Doctors: Leviticus 13-14

This post is part of a revolutionary BIble commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

According to Leviticus, the ancient priesthood basically did pretty much everything when it came to the Jewish services sector: in addition to being holy masters of the revels, they were heavily invested in sacrifice management, agriculture, and justice. And, according to these chapters, they were doctors. Leviticus 13-15 is the Merck Manual of the Old Testament. God teaches Moses and Aaron to diagnose all kinds of infectious and non-infectious skin diseases. The treatment is pretty standard: anyone with a discharge or an infectious disease is unclean and must live outside the camp for a period of time, usually a week, after which they shall bring an offering to the priests and be re-examined. All of these offerings are waved rather than burned, which I guess means you could stretch the text as a justification for the privatization of healthcare.

I've been referring to "infectious skin disease" so far, because occasionally the NIV betrays a disturbing sense of modernity and translates words in ways that make sense. If you prefer an older translation, all of these diseases are going to be pronounced "leprosy." This could easily lead you to believe that the Bible is obsessed with that particular disease; again and again, God describes a skin problem, and pronounces "it is leprosy." The repetitive solemnity gets kind of Monty Python-ish after a while.

On the one hand, not all of the rules here are necessarily bad. It's basically quarantine and isolation procedures dressed up in the form of divine laws about cleanliness and purity.

On the other, God's knowledge of medicine sometimes leaves something to be desired. Sure, he does take the effort to reassure people that baldness, including pattern baldness, aren't evidence of impurity (13:40-42). But some of the treatments don't seem entirely logical - the "cleansing" ritual for leprosy, for example, involves a strangely specific and unusual ritual in which the priest smears blood and anointing oil on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of the afflicted.

The mildew discussions are where it starts to get really weird. Not just human bodies but also clothing and even houses can get infections, too. Once again the priests are to inspect the afflicted item. God pronounces the priests public health inspectors, with the authority to shut down buildings for a week if they have unacceptable "mildew" contamination. The ultimate reaction is to demolish the house, but there are a few cautionary steps to move through first.

However, if the house's infection clears up on schedule, God says, another bizarre ritual must be performed, which you'd think would cause the house to be even more dangerous. The priest must take two birds and some wood and thread. He kills one of the birds over a pot of water, mixing the blood and the water together. Then he dips the live bird into the pot, along with the thread, and sprays the concotion around the house. Finally the live bird is released back into the wild.