Props of Mercy
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the Torah of the leper in the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look, and if the disease of leprosy has been healed in the leper, then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds, and cedar wood, and red yarn, and hyssop.
The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered in a clay bowl over running water (lit., living waters). As for the live bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the red yarn, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the running water.
Then he shall sprinkle upon him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall release the live bird into the open field.
Two rituals from Leviticus have fascinated me for a long time, at least since the 1980’s when, as a Christian, I first studied them in any detail. The first ritual is the cleansing of the leper with props that appear to work some sort of magic, except that: (a) the disease is not really leprosy, (b) the person has already been healed of the disease before the priest performs the ritual, so (c) no magic actually occurs. The cleansing is merely a formal recognition by the priest that the person is healed and ready to return to the community. The props—a cedar stick, red yarn, hyssop, a clay bowl, “living” water, and two clean birds—may have once boasted magical power to heal disease. However, here their symbolic meaning is largely lost. And rather than props of magic, here they are simply props of mercy. Beyond this, nothing can be said for certain about their significance. Interpretations abound, but often our interpretations only reflect what we want the ritual and its symbols to mean. I note in passing that the live bird released into the open surely carries as much significance as the bird that is slaughtered for its blood.
The second ritual is found in Leviticus chapter 16. On the Day of Atonement, two goats are brought to the priest. One is slaughtered as a purification offering* to purge the sanctuary which has been defiled by the sins of the community. The other goat carries all the sins, transgressions and iniquities of the community into the wilderness, where it is released.
There is an obvious similarity between the two birds and the two goats in their respective rituals. In each ritual the final step is release of a live animal: the bird signifies cleansing of disease, the goat signifies forgiveness of sins. Together they represent the unmatched mercy of the God of Israel.
Sin and impurity
The relationship between sin and impurity is not reciprocal. Impurity does not necessarily imply sin, but sin causes impurity. Sin causes impurity both to the sanctuary of our outward forms of worship and to the sanctuary of our soul. In figurative language, there is the stain of sin and the stench of sin. To atone for sin is to purify the person who sinned (Lev. 16:30). The writer of Psalm 51 draws on the ritual imagery of cleansing physical impurity when he asks for forgiveness of his sin:
Psalm 51:4, 9 MT
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
He writes in the context of the ritual detailed in Lev. 14. He does not seek another way of atonement, but exemplifies the teaching of Lev. 16: “humble your souls” and “you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (vv. 29, 30)
Psalm 51:19 MT
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and crushed heart, O God, you will not despise.
A broken spirit, a crushed heart: these too are props of mercy.
*Purification offering: Usually translated sin offering, but this is misleading, especially since the offering is brought in situations where no sin is involved. For the technical argument, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible.