Two Portraits in Leviticus 13–14

In the late middle ages a certain type of art form became very popular—it was called the diptych. A diptych is a painting on two different panels joined together by a hinge. Although the paintings on the panels are different they are joined together to invite reflection on how they are related. Since neither panel stands at the center, the diptych creates a dynamic juxtaposition in which the eye must travel back and forth between the two. “The diptych structure helps… preserve difference within a totality, avoiding the totalizing tendency to reduce multiplicity to one.”[1]

Two Portraits in Leviticus 13–14

Leviticus chapters 13-14 form a divine diptych, presenting two juxtaposed portraits of fallen sinners and the saving Christ. Sinners are portrayed as lepers—half-dead and unclean—while Christ is portrayed as two birds—living and clean. These two portraits are not only successive; they are connected. The connection of the two portraits is a perfect example of the scriptural dynamic between law and gospel, judgment and grace, God’s no and His “deep secret yes.” As dark and gloomy as the first portrait is, the second is luminous and hopeful. As seriously as we take the first panel, we must take the second panel even more seriously.

Witness Lee sets up the opposing portraits like this:

If in our study of Leviticus 13 we pay attention to all these expressions used to describe and diagnose leprosy, we shall be enlightened concerning the leprous condition of our own being, for in all these details we shall see a portrait of ourselves… This portrait exposes us to the uttermost, revealing what we are in ourselves. In Leviticus 14 we come to the all-inclusive salvation God has prepared and accomplished for us. Here we see a Christ who is all-inclusive. He has the blood, the Spirit, and everything we need to be cleansed. In Him we have the rich, complete, and extensive provision of God’s salvation.[2]

The Portrait of Us in Leviticus 13

Leprosy is a type of sin. This insight goes back at least to Origen (d. 253 AD), and many ancient and modern Bible teachers picked it up.

Origen said, “These things… refer to individual kinds of sins and in these we shall look toward the blemishes of the soul which happen to it from sins.”[3]

Andrew Bonar in 1852 said, “Jehovah opens up sin under the figure of leprosy—sin, as an evil seen, and disgusting when seen; sin, diffusive as well as penetrating.”[4]

In his 2008 commentary on Leviticus, Ephraim Radner says, “These details of the disease point to the details of sin.”[5]

Witness Lee goes a step further and makes the striking claim that, “Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus cover the matter of sin in more detail than any other chapters in the Bible.”[6] There are 20 vice lists in the New Testament and plenty of descriptions of sin, but none of them are so visceral and graphic as the typology in Leviticus 13. This chapter helps us understand that sin is more than a behavioral matter; it is a spiritual disease. I can’t think of any other place in the Bible where another disease is discussed in such detail. That fact alone seems to indicate that there is some sort of divine intentionality going on here, taking leprosy as a sinister figure and dark shadow that points to something much greater beyond itself.

Three characteristics about leprosy stand out here in connection to sin.

Leprosy leads to:

  1. Contamination
  2. Disintegration
  3. Separation

Contamination

First, leprosy makes a person spiritually unclean (Lev. 13:3). In these two chapters the word unclean appears 30 times. In Paul’s writings, the word “uncleanness” is used as a category of sin. To be a “slave of uncleanness” is equivalent to being a slave of sin (Rom. 6:19-20) and an “unclean person” (the allusion to a leper, I think, would be unmissable back then) has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ (Eph. 5:5).

Disintegration

Second, leprosy is a malignant, tissue degenerating disease, which represents a breakdown of the God-created humanity and “marks a turn toward the original chaos now lodged within creation itself, the crumbling of what God’s own will has wrought.”[7] Leviticus indicates this with the graphic words, “living raw flesh” (13:10) and “leprous decay” (13:55). When Miriam is struck with leprosy Aaron pleads with Moses, “Please do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb” (Numb. 12:12). Sin leads to disintegration. It is putrefying. The NT sums up our entire postlapsarian embodiment as “this corruptible” (1 Cor. 15:53), which in context is synonymous with mortality. Sin has subjected humanity and all creation to the “slavery of corruption” (Rom. 8:21). The leprous decay of the OT is reflected in Paul’s observation that “our outer man is decaying” (2 Cor. 4:16).

Separation

Finally, Leviticus 13 says that leprosy leads to separation. “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (13:46). Sin is not only personally destructive but it leads to removal from the community of the elect, separation from the “located God.” “Your iniquities have become a separation between you and your God” (Isa. 59:2). Uncleansed lepers face the horrible prospect of eternal separation from the holy city, New Jerusalem. “Outside are the dogs” (Rev. 22:15), which according to Leviticus are the unclean.

Leprosy points to the contaminated flesh of sinful creatures, the flesh in Adam, lurching towards disintegration and nothingness. This is the tragedy and horror of a creation turned away from God. Humanity was created “precariously yet gloriously poised” between the fullness of being and the nothingness from which it was created.[8] When we turn away from God, the source and fullness of being, the only option for us is a return to non-being and nothingness. Leprosy is the slow, inexorable march into the abyss.

This is our somber portrait. When we catch of sight of it we recoil like an aging man who has not looked in the mirror for a long time—the ideal image of ourself that our memory holds doesn’t correspond to the face that confronts us.

Augustine felt that same shock shortly before his conversion.

You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself, and You set me before my face so that I should see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers. And I looked and was appalled, but there was no way of escaping from myself. I tried to avert my gaze from myself… and You once again placed me in front of myself; You thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it. I had known it, but deceived myself, refused to admit it, and pushed it out of my mind.[9]

Reading Leviticus 13, we are like visitors to an art gallery and, stopping to gaze at a strange painting that we can’t quite identify, it suddenly dawns on us that someone we’ve never met has painted us.

This is panel one of the diptych. But thankfully, there’s another panel.

The Portrait of Christ in Leviticus 14

Leviticus 14 describes the healing of the leper. In this healing process we have a figurative portrait of the all-inclusive Christ in God’s economy. Just to get to the punch line right off the bat, in the midst of a long discussion of Leviticus 14 and 16, Karl Barth ultimately concludes, “How can we believe in Jesus Christ and not of necessity recognize Him in these passages?”[10]

So where do we see Christ in Leviticus 14? He is portrayed by the two birds used to cleanse the leper. I had never seen this picture of Christ until last year (for a full treatment of the picture, you gotta read Life-Study of Leviticus, chs. 42-43). Now it ranks right up there with the compound ointment in my mind!

“The two birds typify one Christ in two stages of His blessed work, namely, death and resurrection.”[11]

The Process

The first bird is slaughtered in an earthen jar over running water, so that its blood is collected with the water into the jar. The second bird, still alive, is tied to cedar wood and hyssop with scarlet thread, all of which is then dipped in the blood of the first bird. This blood-drenched bundle is then used to sprinkle the leper with the blood of the first bird seven times. Then the second bird, blood-stained, is untied and set free to fly away into the open field.

The Significance

As unbelievable as it is, this cleansing rite typifies the entire process Christ went through for our full salvation.

The first bird is the crucified Christ that is slaughtered on our behalf and in our place. He is living, clean, and heavenly and is killed not for any blemishes of his own but as our substitute, who perfectly remedies our situation of death, uncleanness, and earthiness. Two substances, blood and water, flow together and merge into one stream that becomes a repository of cleansing power. This matches John’s description of the blood and water that flowed from the Lord’s pierced side on the cross (John 19:34). The earthen vessel filled with “living” water (literally, in Hebrew) represents the humanity of Jesus filled with the eternal Spirit as the means and strength of His offering (Heb. 9:14).

The second bird that was kept alive is a type of the resurrected and ascended Christ. The cedar wood and the hyssop represent two extremes in the plant world of ancient Israel—the greatest tree and the smallest herb (1 Kings 4:33). These are the cedars of Lebanon, not your gnarly little central Texas cedars. They grew up to 130 feet tall with massive branches shooting outward. They represent the Lord’s uplifted, righteous humanity, high in status (Ezek. 31:3; Psa. 92:12). This was His qualification to be our redeemer. The hyssop signifies that He was willing to take on the lowest status and be counted as nothing on the cross for the purging of our sin (Psa. 51:7; Phil. 2:7-8; Mark 9:12). The scarlet thread that tied it all together represents the Lord’s kingship even in and through death (Matt. 27:28-29).

That this bundle was dipped in the blood of the first bird signifies that all the elements of Christ’s person and process, His death and resurrection, His perfect humanity and eternal divinity, His freedom and transcendence are imparted into the efficacy of His blood which is then applied to us sinners for our purification and restoration. His blood is infused with all these rich elements and then all its effective power is applied to us. The blood connects the two birds with the leper. Christ becomes one with the sinner and the sinner becomes one with Christ and in this union both parties are able to make use of the unique possessions of the other. Christ makes use of our leprosy and, dying, nullifies it; we make use of His virtue and live from it. This is the great exchange. Christ becomes the one leper on the cross. He becomes sin itself and is subjected to the corruption, shame, and abandonment of our condition. We become the righteousness of God in Him and share in His life and incorruptibility. He bore our diseases (Matt. 8:17)—and certainly this includes leprosy (Matt. 8 begins with Jesus cleansing a leper)—that we may bear His image (1 Cor. 15:49).

Which Portrait Will We Believe More?

As you can tell, there is a flurry of spiritual imagery here, an exuberance of deeper meanings packed into a small amount of words. Augustine captured this characteristic of OT typology when he said, “A spring confined in a small space rises with more power.”[12] This is the power and beauty of the gospel rising up within the most unlikely of places in the OT. Christ is the reality of the two birds in Leviticus 14. This is His vibrant-hued portrait. And the incredible thing is that our sad portrait is taken up and refashioned and made composite with His by the most astounding use of superimposition. This is the second panel in this diptych and it is all grace.

After comparing these two portraits which one will we believe more? Yes we are lepers, but as much as we must come to know that, we must know more assuredly that we are the cleansed lepers, restored and renewed and set free in Christ—”and his flesh was restored to be like the flesh of a little boy and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14).

I for sure have known my own bouts of leprosy, but when I saw myself in these two portraits, a quote from Karl Barth came to me that I had read a few years back. I think it’s a great way to conclude.

If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness.[13]

 


 

1. Nancy Fredricks, Melville’s Art of Democracy, 71
2. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Leviticus, 363, 365
3. Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 8.5(2)
4. Andrew Bonar, Leviticus, 232
5. Ephraim Radner, Leviticus: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, 138
6. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Leviticus, 362
7. Ephraim Radner, Leviticus: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, 143
8. David Vincent Meconi, The One Christ: St Augustine’s Theology of Deification, 48
9. Augustine, Confessions 8.7.16
10. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, 364
11. C.H. Mackintosh, Notes on the Pentateuch, 368
12. Augustine, Confessions 12.27.37
13. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 123

One thought on “Two Portraits in Leviticus 13–14

  1. “A spring confined in a small space rises with more power.” This couldn’t be more true for Leviticus 14! The abundance of typology jam-packed into verses 4-7 absolutely blows me away. I can only imagine how the Israelites felt being told this was the procedure for the cleansing of lepors (and even more when they had to literally execute it!). Thank the Lord for the clarity found in the New Testament to bring out the spiritual significances of the Old. And thanks for the post. This was super helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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