The other morning I was reading in Leviticus (chapter 13, on leprosy), and struggling to understand why this was a worthy inclusion in our scriptures. What spiritual merit is there in reading the half-understood (and mostly ineffective) diagnosis of a disease that has been largely eradicated from the modern world?
What came to me was a beautiful metaphor of the supremacy of Christ’s new covenant–a simple set of principles, to replace a vast and byzantine arrangement of rules.
Leprosy is not an especially infectious disease; it could have been easily prevented, even in Moses’ time, with basic hygiene. Essentially, a person who bathes regularly, drinks clean water, and properly cooks his food, has almost no risk of contracting leprosy.
Moses (or at least God) understood this–the very rules he prescribes betray an understanding of the basics of epidemiology. These principles would have been easy to obey and even easier to explain; but what Israel got was an encyclopedic laundry list of rules , which only poorly contained the plague and ruthlessly ostracized its victims.
Leviticus makes sharp distinctions between of clean and unclean–but was anybody in those days clean, in any meaningful sense? No, they were all filthy; that’s how societies get endemic leprosy. But the ritually “clean” got to live normally (even if, as in Lev. 13:13, they were literally leprous “from head to toe”), while the “unclean” were forced into a life of humiliation and desperate poverty on the fringe of Israelite society.
Worse, there was no concept of treatment–you were simply cut off from the congregation, for life, unless by a miracle your illness resolved itself naturally.
Why does this matter? Because the same dilemma can be found in the Mosaic law governing sin. Rather than an explanation of justice, mercy, faith, repentance, etc. (the principles of salvation, which a child can comprehend), Israel was given an endless list of commandments that took an army of lawyers and rabbis to interpret.
Every aspect of life was governed by a surprisingly specific and encyclopedic code of laws. You knew what you were to do, and what you were not to do, in almost any situation–but only occasionally did you understand why. As with leprosy, God did not teach Israel the principles underlying His commandments.
There was almost no room for repentance and rehabilitation–for most sins, the penalty was death. For the few exceptions, there were sacrifices prescribed–but the law did not purport to heal the sinner any more than it could claim to cleanse the leper. The law did not deal in healing–its purpose was to cut out social malignancy. The sinner was not a patient to be healed, but an infected limb to be amputated.
The saddest thing about this policy was that, for all its specificity and cruel rigidity, the law of leprosy was actually less effective in treating leprosy than even a rudimentary explanation of germ theory would have been. Likewise, the law of carnal commandments–a tedious, oppressive extrapolation of a few blessedly simple principles–could do nothing to fight the causes of sin. Sinners were destroyed, rather than healed, and many fell ill who would have remained healthy if they had known how to keep themselves clean. The most drastic and brutal treatment is not always the surest.
Instead of fearing and ostracizing lepers (and sinners), a more enlightened people could have rehabilitated the afflicted, with no risk at all to themselves. Why, then, did God give the law this way in the first place?
For the same reason that children aren’t told exactly why they can’t cross the street by themselves. Obviously there’s nothing intrinsically morally wrong about crossing the street; and if a child could truly comprehend the danger, and could be trusted to remember, to be aware, then such a rule would be unnecessary.
But children can’t really understand such rules, so we tell them “You are not allowed to cross the street by yourself, ever” until they’re mature enough to understand. Obviously it is not our intention that children live this way forever, and it was not God’s intention for Israel to remain under the law any longer than was necessary.
The problem is, Israel never learned that it was okay to cross the street. Instead, they wrote long treatises on what exactly constitutes “crossing the street”, and delivered impassioned sermons about the manifold immoralities to which crossing the street inevitably leads. In short, they completely missed the point.
The law of Moses has been called draconian, and certainly it was. But the mainstream Christian idea that God somehow “grew up” into a loving and compassionate Father is ridiculous. We raise small children with rules and penalties that would be ludicrous and tyrannical to impose on adults. Is it because we love adults more than children? Is it because we get nicer as our children get older? Of course not. It’s because they become capable of comprehending principles, and no longer need the rules.