When a woman gave birth in Temple days, she had to bring a Sin Offering. Naturally enough one wonders what for. What did she do wrong? Some commentators try to suggest it is because of something she did. Maybe she cursed in her pain. Maybe the burden of pregnancy made her do things she otherwise would not have done. But this doesn’t seem very fair to the woman, who after all has made a really special contribution to life in general and Jewish life in particular.
The Sin Offering was not used solely in cases where people did something wrong. The word “sin” (chataat) itself has a double meaning. Actually it also means to purify, to clean out, and to prepare for a new phase. So the word is used to describe cleaning the alter from one holy sacrifice before the next one is offered up (Exodus 29). And it is used several times in Numbers (Chapters 19 and 31) to describe priests preparing themselves to serve. The Sin Offering is required of the Nazirite after he has completed a period of special withdrawal from ordinary levels of observance to a higher level. Something that one would expect to applauded rather than condemned by requiring a Sin Offering.
So, in effect, the woman is asked to bring an offering to celebrate and to acknowledge her transition from one phase to another and to prepare herself mentally for her return to “normal” life. There is a common assumption that talk about “purity” and “impurity” in the Bible means what it sounds like–impure being something bad or dirty. But it does not mean that at all. It means “ready” for a particular function or state, as opposed to not being ready. So an impure priest is simply not available for Temple service. In every other way he is a “normal” member of society. Likewise, in the case of a woman the state of “impurity” meant that she was protected from certain functions so that she could concentrate on other ones. It did not carry any of the negative connotations that post-Biblical societies attached to it.
We know leprosy as a disease associated with poverty and Third World countries. Is this what the Torah was talking about when it laid down a whole series of laws involving the priest coming to check discolourations and bubbles of decay on bodies, clothes, and buildings?
You could, indeed, say that the Torah was concerned with contagious diseases and wanted people to learn how to avoid them and use hygiene in a constructive way. After all, these are important principles that go towards creating a safe and clean society and a world in which we minimise the chances of catching diseases. So there is a moral and spiritual message in that.
But then many of the phenomena the Torah talks about do not bear any resemblance to the things we see nowadays. Some commentators have suggested that the Biblical word for leprosy meant something quite different than the disease we know today.
This is why the Biblical “disease” is taken to be associated with gossiping and spreading rumors. Rumors and gossip spread like a disease and can do terrible damage. So Miriam is stricken with leprosy when she speaks out against Moses, and Moses himself gets a dose at the burning bush when he is disparaging about the Jewish people. The involvement of the priests in examining the problem and prescribing solutions implied that there was a religious dimension and that religious penance might be one stage on the road to a cure.
But the chapters on leprosy also remind us that there are many different dimensions and elements at play in life that we often don’t understand and may even not be aware of. The message is that we should try to be sensitive to these other levels of existence and reality. Science is importance but it has its limitations and it isn’t the complete picture.