John Goldingay, The Book of Lamentations (NICOT)

Goldingay, John. The Book of Lamentations. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 228 pp. Hb; $40.00   Link to Eerdmans

John Goldingay’s 2021 Jeremiah commentary in the NICOT series replaced J. A. Thompson’s 1995 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Besides his major commentary, Goldingay also recently published a short The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed here). There never was a NICOT volume on Lamentations. This new volume by Goldingay fills this gap.

The thirty-three-page introduction to the book introduces the five poems which make up Lamentations. Goldingay begins by comparing Lamentations with other ancient Near Eastern city laments, although some are a millennium older than Lamentations and from an entirely different culture. It is impossible to know if the author of Lamentations knew this literary genre, but some scholars suggest the canonical book is a parody of these ancient city laments.

Goldingay, LamenationsThe five poems manifest a tight unity which is unparalleled in the rest of Scripture. Even though the book describes a radical disorientation in grief, the acrostic poems make it one of the most orderly books in the Hebrew Bible (5). The Hebrew varies between qatal and yiqatol forms, but Goldingay consistently translates using the English aorist. For the poet, the destruction of Jerusalem is in the past.

Goldingay suggests Lamentations 1:1-4 is a “Textbook embodiment of many of the features of first testament poetry” (7). He assumes worshipers originally chanted this poetic material. The lines have a rhythm (he compares the Hebrew poetry of Lamentations to modern rap music). This poetry has a regular rhythm, which means exceptionally short or long lines draw attention to themselves. Following Allsop-Dobbs, the poetry of Lamentations has a “limping beat” (9). Other features of the book’s poetry include repetition combined with variation, terseness, imagery, and various points of view.  All Hebrew poetry omits the small words that aid communication, so his translation often assumes prepositions or an article. Terseness also implies the use of ellipsis, which can produce a certain “jerkiness in the translation.”

With respect to authorship and date, Goldingay is clear. The book is anonymous even if the Septuagint ascribed the book to Jeremiah. He suggests this results from “later guesswork or creative reflection” based on 2 Chronicles 35:25 (13). But there are many “Jeremiah-like similarities.” Like Jeremiah, the poets of Lamentations are acquainted with the devastation of the city of Jerusalem. Even though Lamentations follows Jeremiah 52 in the English Bibles, the books are quite separate in the Hebrew Bible. Lamentations does not have any direct historical data to suggest a date other than after the fall of Jerusalem. Goldingay suggests it is “plausible to follow the direction that the poems point in inviting us to think of the situation after 587 rather than starting from an alternative subtlety. The poets lived between the years 587 and the 540s B.C., “the same period that the Jeremiah scroll came into existence” (15). He suggests the poems Judahite communities used the poems in worship based on references to mourning, and fasting at places like Bethel or Mizpah (Zechariah 8:18-19).

Regarding the occasion, place of origin, and destination, he simply observes that the book was not written from Jerusalem. Even though the city was completely destroyed, a Judahite community remained in the land. But there is no direct information in the book regarding why the poems were written. Goldingay suggests the books guide worshippers on how to think about the 587 catastrophe and to encourage to express their feelings about the disaster. The goals of the writer are therefore “theological, educational, pastoral, cathartic, and religious” (17). Sometimes the poems address Yahweh, other times the poets address one another, although not in a dialogue. Following Leslie Allen’s suggestion, Lamentations is a “liturgy of grief.” The poems facilitate people expressing to the Lord their continuing grief over the state of their city and the community after the catastrophe of 587 (17).

There can be no systemizing the theology of Lamentations, “the book is a whirlwind” (27). The writers are casting around for some meaning in the darkness. The poems are often an expression of suffering rather than the meaning behind it. He suggests two central theological themes in the book: Yahweh as the God of Israel, and Israel as the people of Yahweh. Yahweh is actively sovereign (Lam 3:32-38) but his anger toward his people is blazing (2:1-2). Many commentators on Lamentations assume the theology of Deuteronomy, 2 Kings, and Jeremiah: wrongdoing results in trouble. This is true, but Goldingay sees more in the book than poetry based on Deuteronomic theology. The theology of Lamentations can be compared to the Psalms. God’s people need to trust in Yahweh, and his faithfulness to his promises. But like the Psalms, Lamentations encourages protest in the light of trouble. Also, with the Psalms and the prophets, Yahweh continues to be committed to David and to Zion. Goldingay suggests that the “genius of Lamentations” is to hold all this together at the same time. It is not a “theology in shreds,” as some describe the book.

Lamentations is often considered a theodicy. The book is an attempt to explain the disaster of 587. For many Christian commentators, the explanation is that God was acting justly by punishing Judah for their sins. But as Goldingay observes, Lamentations “spreads the blame around.” Judah is to blame, but God himself is responsible for the disaster. Following Zachary Braiterman, Goldingay briefly discusses the term antitheodicy to describe Lamentation’s theology. Antitheodicy is a response to evil or disaster that is a protest rather than an explanation. But Goldingay thinks neither term is quite right. In Lamentations, it works both ways. There is traditional theodicy, but also bitter protest and expressions of genuine grief. In fact, he concludes “if there is a way of living with the unresolvable, it lies outside Lamentations.”

He begins his commentary on each poem by summarizing its content and offering something like an outline. Sometimes verses can be grouped together, but this is not always possible. He offers a series of observations on the structure of the poetry in each of the five poems. The commentary treats each verse of the poems as units.

Goldingay’s translation follows the Masoretic text. In the introduction, he draws attention to 4QLam and 5QLam which are not too different from the Masoretic Text.  In his translation, Goldingay uses of the Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, and the Peshitta in the footnotes of the commentary. These notes sometimes explain translation choices and occasionally amended the text. But in his view, amending the Masoretic Text does not always clear up ambiguities. His translation in the commentary is a beautiful rendering of the Hebrew Bible in English (see also Goldingay’s translation of the First Testament).

Following the commentary on each poem, he offers a brief “Readers Response.” What would someone worshiping in Bethel or Mizpah think about the poem? These are short imaginary responses are creative and moving. They are not the sort of thing one usually finds an academic commentary. This is not a basic pastoral application, nor is it an attempt to create canonical connections with the New Testament is is all the rage in some commentary series. Goldingay invites us into the post-exilic world and asks us to think and feel along with the original worshipers who used these poems to cope with the catastrophe in which they were currently living.

There are several other unique features of this commentary. First, Goldingay writes in a very personal, familiar style. He captures the reader’s imagination and makes for a stimulating commentary to read. The commentary is not bogged down with minor exegetical details; he remains focus on the meaning of the poems. Virtually every page challenges the reader to deal with the grief of the poet. Second, Goldingay often uses bullet point lists of literary features or other data to summarize material. Third, there is more direct citation of other commentaries than usually expected in an exegetical commentary. Goldingay appears to have read every significant commentary on Lamentations ever written and plucks the most salient, moving, perhaps even shocking lines. Anyone using this commentary to prepare for teaching Lamentations will appreciate the fruit of Goldingay’s labor. He does not cite many ancient commentaries, but there are a few references to Ibn Ezra and Rashi. Fourth, occasionally he makes important comparisons to other ancient near eastern literature. It is very difficult to understand Lamentations without this parallel literature. But he uses this material judiciously, to illustrate and not distract from the poems themselves.

Conclusion. As one expects when John Goldingay published a commentary, this new commentary on Lamentations is well worth reading. In fact, it is a rare commentary that should be read cover to cover as one might a monograph.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Kevin S. Chen, Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch

Chen, Kevin S. Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 338 pp. Pb. $35.00   Link to IVP Academic   

The thesis of Kevin S. Chen’s Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch is that Moses self-consciously wrote about the Messiah and that the Messiah is the primary focus of the Pentateuch. He argues a misguided equation of the Pentateuch with the Sinai/Deuteronomic law prevented Christian readers from seeing the messianic vision that was in the Pentateuch from the beginning.

Chen, Messianic Vision of the PentateuchWhat is distinctive about Chen’s approach is his insistence on authorial intent. Biblical theologies often treat these Messianic texts using typology, which would see messianic references as unintentional. Chen’s goal is to not to discover historical analogies (typology) but to exegete textual references to Messiah that were part of an author’s strategy (14). For example, “a typological approach allows for seeing the ‘seed of the woman’ as a type of Christ while at the same time remaining noncommittal regarding whether Genesis 3:15 is actually a direct Messianic prophecy” (15). Citing Johann Enersti (writing in 1809), some things are “true doctrinally, but not grammatically or exegetically.” Chen seeks messianic prophecies in the Pentateuch which are true grammatically and exegetically because the author intended them as messianic prophecies.

Some readers will disagree with Chen’s views on Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch (25) as well as his insistence the Pentateuch has a single compositional strategy. Here he is following his mentor John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1995) and The Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic 2009). More challenging is his argument for messianic prophecy as the main theological theme of the Pentateuch rather than Law.

Chen introduces his argument with a reflection on John 5:46. In a dialogue with Pharisees Jesus says, “if you believed in Moses, you would believe in me; for he wrote about me.” In the context of healing on the Sabbath, Jesus declares Moses wrote (primarily) about the Messiah, not the Sabbath law. In a similar context in John 9, the Pharisees find it impossible for a person to be a faithful follower of Moses and a follower of Jesus at the same time because they equated faithfulness to Moses and his writings with attention to keeping the Pentateuchal law (2). (It is possible to include John 12 here as well, a passage rich with messianic implications). This raises the question: “is the main point of the Pentateuch the giving of the Sinai law, with the messianic passages playing a secondary role question mark or is it the other way around?” (4). For Chen, a coherent portrait of the Messiah is the center of the theological message of the Pentateuch.

Chen argues the translation “Law of Moses” distracts readers from the meaning of torah. Rather than “law of Moses,” he suggests it is better to read the phrase as “instruction of Moses” despite the deeply entrenched English translation “Law.” In the book, he distinguishes between the “instruction of Moses” (the Torah) and the Sinai Law. Chen sees this distinction in Paul’s letters as well. In Romans 3:21, for example, “Pentateuch’s message of faith and the system of Sinai/Deuteronomic” stand in contrast. For Paul, Chen says, the Pentateuch teaches the new covenant of the Messiah (29).

There are several texts in the Pentateuch Chen considers direct prophecy concerning the Messiah (for example, Genesis 3:15; Numbers 24:9). Using the metaphor of light passing through a series of lenses, Chen these texts form a complex array of interrelated texts designed to project a coherent sweeping vision of the Messiah. Other texts contain authorially intended foreshadowing of the Messiah, such as Genesis 28:10-22 (Jacob’s Ladder).

The book discusses nine passages spanning the whole Penateuch Chen considers intentional prophecies concerning the Messiah:

  1. The Seed of the Woman (Genesis 3:15)
  2. The Seed of Abraham in the Patriarchal Narratives
  3. The Lion of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12)
  4. Passover and the Song of the Sea (Exodus)
  5. Shadows at Sinai (Wilderness period)
  6. The Bronze Snake and Balaam’s Oracles (Numbers 24)
  7. The Prophet Like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)
  8. The Blessing of Judah (Deuteronomy 32:43)
  9. The Repeated Breaking of the Sinai/Deuteronomic Law

Rather that survey the whole volume in detail, I offer a few comments on the first three chapters.

In chapter 1, Chen argues the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15) is a direct messianic prophecy which boldly sets forth the key parameters of the messianic vision of the Pentateuch. It predicts the coming of a man who will defeat the serpent at the cost of his own life, securing victory over humanity’s ancient enemy. Using the broader context of the Pentateuch, Chen sees this prophecy as implying kingly and priestly roles for the messiah that Adam failed to achieve. The seed will rule and subdue all of creation as both priest and king. Salvation will come through the seed of the woman rather than through the Sinai/Deuteronomic law.

The seed of the woman prophecy resonates through the rest of the patriarchal narrative (chapter 2). Moses links promised seed directly to Abraham. Grammatical and intertextual considerations strongly suggest Abraham’s seed refers to a specific individual (Gen 15:3-4; 22:17b-18, for example). Chen argues these passages refer to the same seed as Genesis 3:15. Covenant promises are from Abraham to Isaac and then to Jacob, who receives the same blessing from his father that the Messiah will fulfil.

Although the principal lines of his argument are clear, some details seem coincidental. For example, Chen connects the pleasing aroma of Noah’s sacrifice after the flood (Gen 8:20-22) and subsequent Noahic covenant with the Jacob’s “scent” in Genesis 27:27. Both passages use the noun רֵיחַ, the only two places where the word appears in Genesis. Chen thinks this is “highly suggestive.” The scent of Jacob and his clothes is the same scent of an acceptable animal sacrifice (this is the common phrase in Leviticus and Numbers to describe an acceptable). Chen then connects this acceptable sacrifice to the death of the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) and the near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). But not all uses of רֵיחַ in the Pentateuch are pleasant. Exodus 5:21 the word refers to Israel’s reputation in Egypt (“you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh”).

In chapter 3, Chen suggests Genesis 49:8-12 is a “goldmine of Messianic prophecy in the Pentateuch” (144). A powerful king will come from the line of Judah in the last days (Gen 49:1) and this lion will reign over Israel and the nations and bring a return of Eden’s abundance. For Chen, this passage in an intentional compositional strategy which recalls earlier messianic prophecies in Genesis 3:15 and 27:27-29. Chen focuses on 49:8, “your brothers shall praise you” as a way of reading the whole Joseph narrative. Certainly, Joseph’s brothers bow to him, and he is greatly praised, but is it possible the author of the Pentateuch used a descent/ascent theme to predict he death and resurrection of the Messiah? Chen says the theme of Genesis 37-50 “is not Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s second-in-command but its eschatological projection: the resurrection of the Messiah” (129). Further, he says “the eschatological rule of Judah over his brothers and the nations in Genesis 49: 8, 10 matches the messianic rule described in Genesis 27:29” (131).  Again, is it possible Moses had the resurrection of the Messiah in mind when he included the Joseph story as a part of the book of Genesis? Did he intend for the “lion of Judah” to refer to a future Messiah or to the fact king David will come from the tribe of Judah?

By way of constructive criticism, I find myself in agreement with the larger ideas, but I question the smaller details. I agree, for example, Genesis 3:15 is a messianic prophecy. But I am not as sure about the details suggesting the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I resist the suggestion Joseph looks forward to the resurrection of the Messiah. I am more open to a developing theology of the Messiah, where later writers in both the Old and New Testaments use these ideas from the Pentateuch and apply them to the Messiah after the idea of a messiah developed in early Judaism. Even though Chen disavows typology in his introduction, the argument of the book still strikes me as a form of typology. I am not sure this is a bad thing and typology is certainly popular among those doing biblical theology in an evangelical context.

Conclusion. Chen’s Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch is a compelling argument for Messiah as a theological theme of the Pentateuch. Although he does not offer any reasons for the texts he chose, the nine texts Chen focuses on are important messianic texts in both Jewish and early Christian exegesis. Although some readers will question his conclusions or accuse him of reading the New Testament into these passages, he is not out of step with the goals of evangelical biblical theology.

 

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant – Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus returns to Capernaum, Peter’s village, where is met by a centurion asking him to heal his servant who is suffering greatly (Matthew 8:5-6). Like the story of Jesus healing the leper in the previous paragraph, Jesus will cross cultural barriers by responding to this Gentile’s request.

Centurion's Servant Healed

Jesus left Nazareth and began to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), likely living in Peter’s home (8:14). He will return to the village in 11:23 and 17:24. The modern route from Nazareth to Capernaum is about 30 miles, but the way drops from 1138 feet at Nazareth to 680 feet below sea level at Capernaum (at current lake levels). In the first century Capernaum would not have been very large, perhaps no more that 1700 residents. The village is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and there is evidence of at least seven docks for fishermen. There is also evidence of a small synagogue under the impressive fifth century building modern tourists visit.

Having finished the Sermon on the Mount Jesus walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter and his family lived. From the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount to Capernaum is perhaps three and a half miles by the modern road, less if Jesus is able to take a more direct route.

The centurion is a Gentile, but it is at least possible he is a God-fearing gentile. Was there a Roman garrison in Capernaum in the first third of first century? This is often stated, but rarely proven. Mike Wilkins, for example, states “recent excavations reveal a military garrison at Capernaum had its headquarters to the east of the Jewish village” although he does not offer a footnote for this recent excavation (Wilkins, Matthew, 341).

There is little evidence for Roman military presence in Galilee prior to AD 44 (Wahlde, “Archaeology and John’s Gospel”). In the 1980s a Roman bathhouse was found near the eastern border of the village, right on the property line between the Franciscan and Orthodox properties. At present, the bathhouse is dated to the second or third century (it is similar to small bathhouses in Gaul and Britain from the period), but the excavators suspect an earlier bathhouse was present when the later was built.

Why would a typical Roman soldier think a Jewish healer would have this kind of authority? If he is simply a pagan Roman centurion, he may have tried all other methods, both medical and divine, to heal his servant. If he was a God-fearing Gentile, then he may have had faith in the God of Israel to heal. In either case, he had heard Jesus was known for healing all kind of illness and approaches on behalf of the servant. The point of the passage is that a Gentile expressed more faith than the Jews in the region, especially the Pharisees.

The centurion approaches Jesus and shows unusual respect for him. The verb translated “asking for help” (NIV) or “appealing to him” (ESV, NRSV) is προσκυνέω, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). It can mean anything from “greet with affection” or “welcome respectfully” to “worship (like a god).” Although it is unlikely the man is worshiping Jesus like a god, it is significant Matthew has chosen this word to express the centurion’s attitude toward Jesus. This Gentile considers Jesus worthy of respect and honor.

His request is simple: heal my servant. It is possible to translate the noun παῖς as “servant” or “son.” In fact, John has son (υἱός), but Luke has “servant” (δοῦλος). It may be the case that the ambiguity of παῖς led to the different terms in Luke and John, and it is also possible the servant was so beloved by the centurion he considered him as a son. (See this post from Ian Paul for the suggestion the servant was the centurion’s gay lover. Dwight Gingrich points out the noun “παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever.”)

In either case, he is paralyzed and suffering greatly. The verb translated “suffer” (βασανίζω) refers to extreme distress and is used for torture in some contexts. Matthew adds the adverb “greatly (δεινῶς), “an extreme negative point on a scale relating to values” (BDAG). When your doctor asks you how bad your pain is on a scale of one to ten, the servant’s pain goes all the way to eleven.

Jesus is willing to go to the servant and heal him, but the centurion knows a Jewish person would not enter the home of a Gentile.For example, in Acts, Peter initially refused to enter the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was so godly that the Lord sent an angel to personally answer his prayers. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”In the Mishnah, m Ohol. 18:7, “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean.”

The centurion says he is not worthy (οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανός) of a visit from Jesus in his home. Instead, the centurion recognizes Jesus is authority and knows Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith, telling his followers that he has met no one in Israel who has a similar faith.  “No one in Israel” as opposed to the gentile centurion has expressed a belief in Jesus’s authority over illness. Why is this surprising? There are several texts in Isaiah which suggest the messiah would have a healing ministry, Isaiah 35:5-7. 61:1-4. If Jesus was known for “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and healing every disease and sickness (Matt 4:24), then the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees should have made the connection to these prophecies about the coming eschatological age. In the next few pages of Matthew, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees will question Jesus’s authority and cast doubt on the origins of his power.

Skipping over 8:10-12 for now, the story concludes in verse 13, the servant is immediately healed. In the leper story, Jesus says he is willing to heal, and in this story, Jesus once again expresses his authority by healing the servant by his word, crossing over social and cultural boundaries to care for someone at the lowest rungs of society.

 

 

Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy – Matthew 8:1-4

In the first three stories in Matthew 8, Jesus heals three people of the fringes of Jewish society, demonstrating his authority of physical illness and fulfilling Isaiah 53:4. In Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals a man with leprosy by touching him.

Jesus healing the leprous man is an example of the triple tradition (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16). Matthew omits Jesus’s response in Mark 1:41. There Jesus either has compassion on the man (the majority of manuscripts) or he is indignant (D and some old Italian versions). Matthew also drops out the man’s disobedience to the command to stay silent (Mark 1:45, “instead he went out and began to talk freely). Matthew tells the story as simply as possible in order to emphasize Jesus’s authority over illness.

A person with rotting skin like leprosy was considered as good as dead. Their disease was often associated with God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chr 26:20). As ceremonially unclean and as contagious persons, they were required to keep themselves separate from society and to announce their approach with the words “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 14:45–46; cf. Luke 17:12). In Numbers 5:2 the leprous are to be “put out of the camp.” When Miriam is punished with leprosy Moses pleads with God to heal her saying “Let her not be as one dead.” Leviticus 13-14 has a wide range of rules for people with skin conditions and in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 Israel is to be very careful with lepers, “remember Miriam!” There are several stories which describe leprosy as a punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 7:3-10; 15:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21).

Leprosy is a concern in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Temple Scroll, lepers and menstruating women should have a place to live outside a city to live so they do not defile people in the city. The section just prior to this quote instructs the readers to “not be like the Gentiles” who bury their dead everywhere, but rather build cemeteries outside the city to avoid corpse uncleanliness. No one with leprosy or a skin disease was allowed to enter the Temple (11Q20 Col. xii:3).

11Q19 Col. xlviii:14 And in every city you shall make places for those contaminated 15 with leprosy, and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also for those who have a flux 16 and for women when they are in their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they do not defile in their midst 17 with their menstrual impurity. And the leper who has chronic leprosy or scabies and the priest has declared him unclean. (trans. Garcı́a Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

This is similar to the Mishnah which lists lepers along with several other “fathers of uncleanliness.” These things render a person unclean by contact. If a leper touched a plate or a bowl, then that vessel was unclean and any food eaten from that vessel would be rendered unclean.

m. Kelim 1:1 The Fathers of Uncleannesses [are] (1) the creeping thing, and (2) semen [of an adult Israelite], and (3) one who has contracted corpse uncleanness, and (4) the leper in the days of his counting, and (5) sin offering water of insufficient quantity to be sprinkled. Lo, these render man and vessels unclean by contact, and earthenware vessels by [presence within the vessels’ contained] airspace (trans. Neusner).

In addition to this, the tractate m. Nega’im concerns various skin diseases and how they affect the cleanliness of clothing, homes, etc. as well as methods for purifying a leper.

m. Nega’im 13:11 A leper who entered the house—all the utensils which are there are unclean—even up to the beams.

m. Nega’im 14:1 A  How do they purify the leper? (B 1) He would bring a new flask of clay, and (2) put in it a quarter-log of living water, and (3) bring two undomesticated birds. C He slaughtered one of them over the clay utensil and over the living water. D He dug [a hole] and buried it before him [the leper]. E He took cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the strip [of wool] and brought near to them the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second [bird]. F He dipped [them in the blood of the slaughtered bird] and sprinkled [the blood] seven times on the back of the hand of the leper. G There are some who say, “On his forehead.” H And thus did he sprinkle on the lintel of the house on the outside.

The man kneels before Jesus, a sign of respect, probably not worship. When the leper asks to be made clean, he is asking Jesus not just to remove his painful disease, but to be allowed back into Jewish life, including living again with his family and worship at the Temple.

Jesus responds by touching the man and he is immediately made clean. No one touches a leper since touching make the person unclean and they may contract the disease themselves. Touching the untouchable violates the law (cf. Lev 5:3).

Jesus then tells the man to say nothing but rather go to a priest to offer a gift. Why does Jesus command silence? Although it is more clear in Mark, there is a “messianic secret” theme in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16:20 he tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and in 17:9 he tells the three witnesses of the transfiguration to tell no one about their experience until after the resurrection. The usual explanation is that healing a leper would have confirmed Jesus is the messiah and drawn even larger crowds, crowds of people who would misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s messianic activity.

m. Nega’im 14:7 A On the eighth day [Lev. 14:10] one brings three beasts: a sin offering, and a guilt offering, and a whole offering. B The poor person would bring sin offering of fowl and a whole offering of fowl [Lev. 14:21]. 14:8 A He came to the guilt offering and put his two hands on it and slaughtered it. B And two priests received its blood, one in a utensil and one by hand. C This one who received [the blood] in the utensil came and sprinkled it on the wall of the altar. D And this one who received it by hand came to the leper. E And the leper immersed in the court of the lepers. F He came and stood in the gate of Nicanor. G  R. Judah says, “He did not require immersion [on the eighth day, having done so on the seventh].”

Why would Jesus require a proof of healing? A gift after a skin disease is cleared was Moses commanded so that he can once again be part of Jewish society. “Jesus is thus shown to be faithful to the stipulations of the Torah in spite of an infraction of the command not to touch” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 199). People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

When Jesus touches the leper he crosses a boundary most of his contemporaries would not even approach. He showed compassion for the leper even though there was fear and loathing for the leprous man. How does Jesus’s action of touching the leper provide a model for contemporary ministry?

 

Were Lepers Considered Unclean in the Bible? Matthew 8:1-2

In Matthew 8:1-2, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks to be made clean. It is important to understand leprosy in the context of the first century. In modern usage, leprosy refers to a specific medical condition known as Hansen’s disease. The Greek λεπρός covers a side range of skin conditions, so it is perhaps better to call this a “bad skin condition” (although this runs the risk of making the reader think the man just had a really bad case of acne). In classical Greek, the word λεπρός referred to skin that was scaly, rough, or harsh or things that were “mangy” (BrillDAG).

Jesus heals a leper

People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

However, in a recent JBL article, Myrick Shinall has challenged the consensus view that people with leprosy were shunned in Jewish society. He argues the text usually cited in the commentaries are inconsistent and fragmentary and is more interested in diagnosing leprosy rather than excluding the leper from society (924). There is considerable variation of exclusion because of leprosy. Although Miriam is sent outside the camp, Naaman is permitted to go anywhere (2 Kings 5) and Uzziah was forced to live in a separate house, but the text does not describe the king as in isolation (2 Chron 26).

Shinall then argues there is no social isolation in the various leper stories in the Gospels (932). There is nothing in Matthew 8, for example, that indicates this leprous many was living a life of social isolation, and later Jesus will enter the home of Simon the Leper and eat with him (Matt 26:6). Shinall understands Simon’s name as indicating he was currently suffering from leprosy; he is not “Simon, the former Leper.”

The problem Shinall addresses is the common, an inaccurate portrayal of Second Temple Judaism as overly concerned with purity in contrast to the loving Jesus who reached out to lepers. He sees this as a clear bias against Jews in early church writers and implicit in modern commentators. If the motivation for overplaying social exclusion is slandering the Jews, then it should be dropped (934).

I am in agreement with his final conclusion: do not slander the Jews in your teaching and preaching on this passage (seriously, don’t). However, social isolation because of one’s status is exactly the point of the three stories in Matthew 8:1-17. Jesus touches the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law, as I will show later, she is suffering from a fever which is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness. The middle story in this section has Jesus talking with a Gentile, risking a violation of purity laws.

The contrast is not between a kind and living Jesus and the whole of Second Temple Judaism, but with the way Pharisees practiced purity. Contact with a leper, a Gentile and a feverish woman were all grave risks for rendering someone unclean and would require a person to make appropriate washings in order to return to a state of cleanliness.

This needs to be unpacked more, but for now, I will state here that the Pharisees were the sub-group within Judaism who attempted to live in a state of ritual purity at all times. They are also the group who will come into direct conflict with Jesus over these kinds of purity issues.

Bibliography: Myrick C. Shinall Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 915-34.

See also: J. K. Elliott, “The Healing of the Leper in the Synoptic Parallels.” TZ 34 (1978) 175–76;  Ituma, Ezichi, Enobong I. Solomon, and Favour C. Uroko. “The Cleansing of the Leper in Mark 1:40–45 and the Secrecy Motif: An African Ecclesial Context.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75.4 (October 2019): 1–11.