Leviticus 13-16: Lepers, atonement, and the god of the wilderness Azazel

Very complicated and arcane instructions for how a priest can determine whether someone has “tzara’at” (translated very inaccurately as “leprosy”).  For example, if someone has a scaly affection, the priest should check whether the skin has a white swelling that has turned some hair white with a patch of undiscolored flesh in the swelling.  If so, he has leprosy and is unclean.  Fabrics can also have leprosy–for example, if the article has streaky green or red marks, and the streaks spread after 7 days of isolation, the article has leprosy.  Once someone has been cured of leprosy, the impurity they created must be removed.  This is done by dipping a live bird, cedar wood, some crimson stuff, and hyssop, and dipping them in the blood of a bird slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel.  The live bird should then be set free.  After 7 days, the former leper must sacrifice 2 male lambs, 1 ewe lamb, 3/10 measure of flour, and some oil to God.  For houses with leprosy, affected bricks must be pulled out and disposed outside the camp; if the plague still spreads, the house shall be torn down.

Men with skin discharges are unclean; so are menstruating women.  Anyone who touches them, or touches objects that they touch, shall be unclean until evening and must wash themselves.  7 days after the discharge ends, he becomes clean, and should sacrifice 2 turtledoves or pigeons.  The LORD spoke to Moses about rituals on the Day of Atonement, which occurs every year on the tenth day of the seventh month.  On that day, Aaron is to purge the Tabernacle by sacrificing a bull as a purification offering and a ram for a burnt offering.  The community is to offer 2 he-goats: one of them must be sacrificed as a purification offering, and the other set free for Azazel.  Aaron is to purge the holy of holies, the holy place, and the altar of impurity by sprinkling goat and bull blood.


  • Tzara’at cannot be leprosy, because its symptoms do not match.  In fact, it cannot be any single real illness because it can affect humans as well as bricks and fabric.
  • Azazel means “fierce god”, a god believed to inhabit the wilderness.  One of the community’s goats, bearing Israel’s sins, is cast into the wilderness (and thus away from the Israelites) as a sacrifice to him.
  • It is unclear why former lepers must make a guilt offering (14:12), since there is nothing morally wrong about having leprosy.  Perhaps this reflects the view that only those condemned by God contract leprosy.
  • In these chapters, there is nothing wrong with touching a menstruating woman, or even having sex with her (15:24); the impurity thus contracted just has to be cleansed.  This directly contradicts 18:19, where sex with menstruating women is forbidden and offenders must be cut off from the people.
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2 Responses to Leviticus 13-16: Lepers, atonement, and the god of the wilderness Azazel

  1. It is very confusing, but also very clarifying at the same time why Moses’ Law has been abolished.


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