The 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 13 October 2019
Lectionary Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
Theme: A Good Word
The medical condition referred to as leprosy (tzaraʿat in Hebrew and lepra in Greek) provides a link between the first reading and today’s gospel. In addition to this, it also provides a connection to Parashat Tazriaʿ (Leviticus 12:1–13:59), not only through its subject matter (tzaraʿat), but also through its Haftarah (2 Kings 4:42-5:19), which tells the story of Naaman, a fraction of which we encounter in the first reading. This link is important, because understanding what the text of Leviticus 13 and 14 and later Rabbinic interpretation says about tzaraʿat can help us to better understand today’s gospel.
What then is tzaraʿat? Tzaraʿat was translated as lepra in the Septuagint and through the Vulgate became part of modern idiom. At some point in the Middle Ages, lepra became identified with leprosy, the medical condition that is today better known as Hansen’s disease (Plaut, 742). I am sure that popular images associated with this particular medical condition affect both the way we see the condition that Naaman and the ten lepers were living with, but this might not paint an accurate picture.
Everett Fox (557) notes that tzaraʿat may have been of concern to the writers of Leviticus because it resembled the decaying of the skin upon death due to the scaling or flaking of the skin. In addition to this, Michael Fishbane (124) notes that the term tzaraʿat is also used in Leviticus to refer to moulds and fungi that appear on clothes (13:47-59) and houses (14:33-57). Does anything strike you as odd about this? Even with my very limited medical and scientific knowledge, I am sure that clothing and houses cannot become infected with leprosy.
Jacob Milgrom (Kindle location 1946 ff.) suggests that what we are dealing with here has less to do with “pathology” than it does with ritual and purity and certain rules associated with this. For example, if you read the whole of the Naaman story (2 Kgs 5:1-19) you will find that although he is a leper (metzoraʿ), he has not been segregated from his community. Naaman is a commander in the Aramean army (2 Kgs 5:1), lives with his family (5:2) and worships in the temple of Rimmon leaning “on the arm of” his king (5:18). This is in contrast to the ten lepers who feature in the gospel of the day (Lk 17:11-19). Amy-Jill Levine (JANT, 151) notes the link with directives concerning tzaraʿat in Leviticus 13 as a reason for the distance that they are placing between themselves and Jesus. Those with the affliction must, among other things, remain outside the camp (Lev 13:46). What then has rendered these people separate from their community? One answer lies in the biblical text.
Because the Hebrew text originally comes to us without vowels, this allows for a variety of readings. Thus, the word metzora, “leper” might also be read as motzi ra, “slanderer” (lit. “causing evil”). This is possible because the consonants in each case are the same (mem, tzadi & resh). Tzaraʿat might therefore be seen as a physical manifestation of people’s misuse of speech. For example, Rabbinic interpretation claims that Miriam is afflicted with tzaraʿat (Num 12:10 ff.) because she spoke disparagingly about Moses’ wife (Plaut, 973).
Had the ten lepers been segregated from their community because they had engaged in motzi ra? Might we also ask if absence of good speech might also lead to separation? This might indeed be a possible interpretation, because nine of the afflicted neither praise God for their cure, nor thank Jesus for initiating it. Only one has a good word to say. It is the Samaritan, like Naaman in the first reading (2 Kgs 5:15), who praises God with a loud voice (Lk 17:15).
For Reflection and Discussion: How seriously do I take the act of speaking? Do I have a good word for others? Do I use speech to build others up, or do I alienate myself from my community through my negative use of speech? What do I remain silent about?
Bibliography: Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (JPS, 2002); Fox, The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995); Levine & Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (OUP, 2017); Milgrom, Leviticus (Fortress, 2004); Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (UPJ, 2006).