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  • The Origin and Interpretation of ṣāraʿat in Leviticus 13-14
  • Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss

Of all the eccentricities and diversities of human embodiment, no physical abnormality seems to have captured the imagination of biblical authors so much as ṣāraʿat (תערצ), "skin disease," which is accorded detailed treatment in both Priestly legislation and non-Priestly narratives. Scholarly treatments of the condition have tended to view the diverse scriptural portraits as descriptions of the same condition: an essentially homogeneous medical condition with, importantly, a single cause. This approach rides roughshod over the diverse views of the various biblical authors. In this article we will first examine the Priestly notion of the origin of ṣāraʿat, with the specific intent of demonstrating that, unlike the non-Priestly narratives, the Priestly laws of Leviticus 13-14 do not present ṣāraʿat as a divine punishment for human sin. The second part of the essay provides a brief overview of how three distinct hermeneutical groups—precritical interpreters, historical-critical scholars, and scholars of disability studies—understand (or fail to understand) the distinctive claims of the Priestly legislation regarding ṣāraʿat.

I. The Priestly Presentation of ṣāraʿat

In the Hebrew Bible, the non-Priestly narratives involving ṣāraʿat are generally in agreement that the affliction is the direct result of sinful behavior of some sort. In these texts the disease is inflicted by YHWH on the sufferer, and it is from YHWH alone—frequently through prophetic intermediation—that healing can be [End Page 643] sought. Thus, in the story of Numbers 12, Miriam's ṣāraʿat is inflicted on her directly by YHWH as a punishment for her speaking ill of Moses. Moses, acting in his prophetic intercessory role, attempts to persuade YHWH to heal her, and it is only when YHWH allows her punishment to end, after seven days, that she is healed and readmitted into the camp. In 2 Sam 3:29, among the divine punishments David calls down upon the house of Joab is that of ṣāraʿat. In 2 Kings 5, the disease of the Aramean general Naaman is not explicitly from YHWH, but he is healed through the prophetic action of Elisha. It is further demonstrated that Elisha has the power to cause ṣāraʿat, as he does with Gehazi at the end of the chapter, in this case as a clear punishment for sin. In 2 Chr 26:19-21 the king is said to commit a blatant cultic sin, namely, the illegitimate offering of incense in the sanctuary (26:16-19), and YHWH strikes him with ṣāraʿat before the priests (26:19-20).1 These four passages, potentially from four different sources,2 exhibit a common conceptualization of the origin of ṣāraʿat and, given the divine origin, the necessary measures by which it may be removed.3

If the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible are united in the claim that ṣāraʿat is the result of sin, the Priestly regulations concerning the disease in Leviticus [End Page 644] 13-14 are equally clear that this is not the case: ṣāraʿat, in the Priestly presentation, carries no religious or moral guilt, is not associated with any kind of sin, but is rather a simple fact of human existence, one that, like many others, has cultic and ritual implications.4 This is evident both from the placement of the ṣāraʿat laws in the Priestly corpus and from the details of the evaluation and treatment of the disease in these chapters. Though this unique Priestly view of the etiology of ṣāraʿat has been recognized by some scholars, it has not received a full argumentation; the following intends to rectify this situation.

As most scholars have noted, ṣāraʿat is not categorized with sinful actions in the Priestly laws; it is, rather, aligned both textually and conceptually with the ritual impurities resulting from genital discharge (Leviticus 15), childbirth (Leviticus 12), and corpse contact (Lev 11:24-28, 39-40); especially relevant is the combination of these elements in Num 5:2.5 In the Priestly worldview, none of these events is attributed to sin—indeed...


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