Noah, a priest and an outcast walk into the Bible

Among the many inspirational passages in the Bible there are some, quite a few in fact, that seem to be exceedingly dull. Chapter 14 of Leviticus appears to be about as uninspiring as any. It deals with the purification ritual for someone diagnosed with the disease we erroneously translate as leprosy. The previous chapter described how the sufferer was declared unclean and quarantined outside the camp; chapter 14 describes the ceremony they undergo, once cured, to allow them home.

But dull as it might sound, the chapter has hidden depths. It contains several motifs which, occurring elsewhere in the Torah, draw our attention to similarities between different passages. If we could only understand them properly, these similarities might lead us to identify a complex web of connections linking all the symbolism in the Torah into a literary whole.

As part of the purification ritual, the ‘leper’ has to bring two birds. One is sacrificed, the other flies away, set free. We can assume these birds are pigeons or doves, they are the only sacrificial birds in the Bible. When the free bird has flown, the ‘leper’ shaves, washes and returns to the camp. He waits a week before a final ceremony after which he may re-enter his home. These seven days are an essential period between his being ready to return home and his actual return.

The ‘leper’ is not the only biblical character to release a bird into the wild. Noah also does so. In fact, he does so three times, once with a raven and twice with a dove. The first time he sent the dove it returned to him. He waited seven days and sent it again. This time it brought back an olive leaf.

Noah and the ‘leper’ have more in common than just the sending of a bird. They have each been exiled from their community, alone and isolated, Noah in his ark, the ‘leper’ in quarantine. When a change in events allows them to end their isolation, they each release a dove into the wild. For each of them the release from isolation takes seven days to fully take effect.

The comparison is not exact. Noah’s bird flies over water. The Bible is at pains to specify that the ‘leper’s’ bird flies over the field.

Noah is not the only person with whom the ‘leper’ has something in common. There is also a similarity with the priest. As part of the purification ritual the ‘leper’ first brings a sacrifice and is then anointed on the tip of his ear, his thumb and his big toe. The priest at his dedication ceremony brings a sacrifice and is anointed in these three same places (Leviticus 8, 23-24). He waits seven days for his dedication as a priest to fully take effect. And like a ‘leper’ the life of a priest is separate from the rest of the community.

The comparison is not exact. The priest’s separation is spiritual, the ‘leper’s is physical. The priest’s is permanent, the ‘leper’s’ temporary.

The ‘leper’ also has something in common with the person who has become ritually unclean through contact with a corpse. Like the ‘leper’ they go through a purification ceremony (Numbers 19). Cedar wood, crimson and hyssop feature in the purification for each. After purification the ritually unclean person waits seven days, repeating the ceremony twice, after which they are pronounced ritually clean.

The comparison is not exact. The cedar wood, hyssop and crimson are used to sprinkle sacrificial blood on the ‘leper’. In the case of the person suffering from uncleanness, these objects are burnt.

There are many passages in the Torah that share details or motifs. The comparisons are never exact, there are always differences, opening up new avenues of enquiry. But there are enough similarities to suggest this is a characteristic feature of the text.

We can argue that the similarities are because Torah only invests a small number of resources and time frames with sanctity. Therefore, the same motifs crop up time and again. Or we can argue that these motifs are deliberately interwoven into the various passages, to create a web of literary connections, an alternative framework for reading the Torah so that on one level the text is linked through its narrative sequence, but on another it is linked through ideas and concepts.

The ancient methods of biblical interpretation favour the latter view. It allows us to read the Torah text on many levels. And it has the advantage of making even the uninteresting passages seem interesting.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books