Cleansing of Lepers Under the Law of Moses As a Type (or Shadow) of the Atonement of Christ

You will recall the Apostle Paul’s statement that the Law of Moses was a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (see Galatians 3:24). That is a great description of the law. It was given to the children of Israel to help them understand the reality of Christ’s future coming and atonement and to prepare their hearts for those events.

Virtually every facet of the law pointed them to Christ. Jacob, the Book of Mormon prophet, stated the matter plainly when he said, “Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end has the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.”

One problem you and I face as we read the Old Testament is that we have trouble seeing past the words and the complicated procedures, which seem to have little relevance in the modern world, to the richly symbolic message of Christ that is contained therein. But, whether we see it or not, the message is there.

To illustrate this point, let’s discuss just one small facet of the law of Moses—that part which relates to the cleansing of lepers keeping in mind that the same vistas can also be opened up in other parts of the law—for, truly, “all things” do indeed testify of him.

The ritualistic instructions relating to the cleansing of lepers under the Law of Moses are found in Leviticus chapter 14. Jehovah explains to Moses in some detail how the leper, whose plague has been healed, must proceed to gain readmittance into the congregation of Israel. As you read the requirements of this procedure, think of the healing of this physical ailment as if it were the healing of a spiritual ailment (we call it sin) and the workings of the Atonement of Christ become apparent in that process.

My discussion of these points is based on two separate explanations of this process. One of these explanations is found in a chapter written by Gerald R. Lund (chapter 2, “Old Testament Types and Symbols”) in a book by Neal A. Lambert entitled Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft and BYU Religious Studies Center, 1979). The other is in a book entitled Gospel Symbolism by the late Joseph F. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Publishers, 1985).

Let’s look at the scriptures themselves, a few verses at a time, analyzing them as we go.

1. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying
2. This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought unto the priest.
3. And the priest shall go forth out of the camp; and the priest shall look, and, behold, if the plague of the leprosy be healed in the leper;

The leprosy itself, the loathsome disease in the infected person, represents sin and corruption. It causes the sinner to be separated from the fellowship of the rest of Israel. The healing process actually begins as the one who has sinned recognizes his sin and stops the plague. At this point, he recognizes that he is in need of the healing power available through priesthood authority, to do for him what he cannot do for himself. To begin the healing process, he seeks that priesthood authority so that he can be cleansed from his sin.

4. Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet [woolen thread], and hyssop:
5. And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running [or fresh] water:
6. As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet [woolen thread], and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running [or fresh] water.
7. And he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field.
8. And he that is cleansed shall wash his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean: and after that he shall come into the camp, and shall tarry abroad out of his tent seven days.

The birds both represent the leper (or the repentant sinner), and two birds are needed because of the two different truths that are to be taught. The first bird, the one that is killed by shedding his blood, represents the dying of the unclean leper (or the sinner); the second bird, the one set free, represents the newness of life that the cleansed leper (or the repentant sinner) achieves by being reunited in fellowship with Israel.

The cedar wood is noted for its ability to keep out corrupting influences. The scarlet is a thread of wool, dyed bright red by the juice of an insect. This scarlet thread denotes the blood that cleanses by atoning for sin or impurity, symbolic of the blood of Jesus Christ. The hyssop, an ancient herb about which we know very little, was used anciently in connection with cleansing rituals. It is interesting to note that the cedar wood, the scarlet woolen thread, and the hyssop were also used in connection with the sacrifice of the red heifer to make the waters of purification (see Numbers, chapter 19).

The blood of the bird that was killed falling into the water also has significance. The blood and the water are symbolic of birth—in this case spiritual (rather than physical) birth. The bird being killed over the fresh water represents the death of the natural man. The second bird, the one dipped into the bloody water and then brought forth and released, symbolizes that man’s rebirth, innocent and free from his former corruption, through the Atonement of Christ.

The sprinkling of the mixture of blood and water upon the cleansed leper (or the repentant sinner) was a token of his covenant. The washing of clothes, shaving of hair, and washing of the body were additional symbols of the cleansing that took place. Yet it appears that there is still something lacking for, though the leper was able to reenter Israel’s camp, he could not yet have all the blessing of dwelling in his tent.

9. But it shall be on the seventh day, that he shall shave all his hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows. Even all his hair he shall shave off: and he shall wash his clothes, also he shall wash his flesh in water, and he shall be clean.

The reshaving after seven days, this time to include the eyebrows and, apparently, all of the hair of the body seems to symbolize rebirth by becoming as a newborn infant. The rewashing was an obvious symbol of cleansing.

10. And on the eighth day he shall take two he lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, and three tenth deals of fine flour for a meat offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil.
11. And the priest that maketh him clean shall present the man that is to be made clean, and those things, before the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
12. And the priest shall take one he lamb, and offer him for a trespass offering, and the log of oil, and wave them for a wave offering before the Lord.
13. And he shall slay the lamb in the place where he shall kill the sin offering and the burn offering, in the holy place: for as the sin offering is the priest’s, so is the trespass offering: it is most holy:
14. And the priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot:
15. And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand:
16. And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord:
17. And the rest of the oil that is in his hand shall the priest put upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot, upon the blood of the trespass offering:
18. And the remnant of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall pour upon the head of him that is to be cleansed: and the priest shall make an atonement for him before the Lord.
19. And the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed from his uncleanness; and afterward he shall kill the burnt offering:
20. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meat offering upon the altar; and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and he shall be clean.

The following day, the priest presented the one to be cleansed at the door of the tabernacle. There three lambs were to be offered—two male lambs without blemish or spot and one female lamb of the first year without blemish or spot. There was also a meat (or, perhaps more properly, a meal offering) of fine flour mixed with oil. All offerings were to be made with oil. The first male lamb was then offered as a trespass offering, symbolic of the Son of God himself and of His coming Atonement. Both the oil and the lamb were waved before the Lord as a wave offering. The act of waving them symbolically transferred to God the life of the one who made the offering. This process was essential for his restoration to full fellowship with Israel.

When the priest smeared the blood of the lamb on the tip of the right ear, on the thumb of the right hand, and on the great toe of the right foot, this process suggested a sanctification of those parts of the body. There is significance in the three parts chosen. The ear suggests obedience (“he who has ears to hear, let him hear”). The hand suggests action (to labor in the work of God). And the foot suggests walking in paths of righteousness.

After this was accomplished, the priest offered the female lamb as a sin offering; then he offered the other male lamb as a burnt offering, along with the meat offering, to atone for the sins of the cleansed leper (or the repentant sinner).
….
26. And the priest shall pour the oil into the palm of his own left hand:
27. And the priest shall sprinkle with his right finger some of the oil that is in his left hand seven times before the Lord:
28. And the priest shall put of the oil that is in his hand upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot, upon the place of the blood of the trespass offering:
29. And the rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put upon the head of him that is to be cleansed, to make atonement for him before the Lord.

When the priest anointed with oil the same body parts that he had previously anointed with blood, he reconfirmed and added to what he had done before. The olive tree, from which the oil came, is an ancient symbol of peace. And, in our day, the Lord has said that olive oil is a symbol of the Holy Ghost (Doctrine and Covenants 45:55-57). Thus, those same body parts previously cleansed and sanctified symbolically by the blood of Christ were endowed with the Spirit or the Holy Ghost. The surplus oil poured on the head symbolized giving the cleansed leper (or the repentant sinner) an extra portion of the Spirit of God.