The Leprous House

And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, When you come into the land of Canaan which I give you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house in the land of your possession, and if he that owns the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, A plague is seen by me in the house; then the priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to see the plague, so that all that is in the house may not become unclean. And afterwards the priest shall go in to see the house. And he shall look on the plague. And behold, if the plague is in the walls of the house with hollow streaks, greenish or reddish, which in sight are lower than the wall, then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days. And the priest shall come again the seventh day and shall look.

And behold, if the plague has spread in the walls of the house, then the priest shall command that they take away the stones in which the plague is, and they shall throw them into an unclean place outside the city. And he shall cause the house to be scraped inside all around, and they shall pour out the dust that they scrape off outside the city in an unclean place. And they shall take other stones and put them in the place of those stones. And he shall take other mortar and shall plaster the house. And if the plague comes again and breaks out in the house after he has taken away the stones and after he has scraped the house, and after it is plastered, then the priest shall come and look. And behold, if the plague has spread in the house, it is a fretting leprosy in the house. It is unclean. And he shall break down the house, the stones of it, and the timber of it, and all the mortar of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city into an unclean place. Moreover he that goes into the house all the while that it is shut up shall be unclean until the evening (Leviticus 14: 33-46).

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?”! he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down”(Matthew 24:1-2).

Leprosy is “the outward and visible sign of the innermost spiritual corruption; a meet emblem in its small beginnings, its gradual spread, its internal disfigurement, its dissolution little by little of the whole body, of that which corrupts, degrades, and defiles man’s inner nature, and renders him unmeet to enter the presence of a pure and holy God” (Maclear’s Handbook on the Old Testament).

Just as human flesh could become leprous, a dwelling could be infected by the plague of צרעת (tsara’at). Leviticus 14 prescribes the steps to be taken when a house appeared to be infected:

  • First, the occupants and furnishings had to be evacuated to prevent contamination.
  • After this, a priest would inspect the dwelling. If the plague was of the type described in verse 37, a quarantine was imposed to see whether the rot subsided.
  • If the leprosy remained after the seven days, the contaminated stones had to be removed and the walls scraped. The breach in the wall would then be filled with new stones and fresh plaster would be applied.
  • After this, if the rot broke out again, nothing more could be done. The house was condemned with no prospect of any future restoration, and its stones, its mortar and its timbers broken apart and carried away to an unclean place.


The Jerusalem Temple (often referred to in Hebrew as the Beit Hamechdash – Holy House) was no ordinary dwelling. When Solomon completed its construction, he prayed: “… will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens cannot contain You. How much less this Temple I have built.” (1 Kings 8:27)

The Temple was known by the prophets as “the holy mountain … wherein the Lord dwells (Ps 74:2) … the house of the God of Jacob and the LORD’s house (Isa. 2:2-3, Jer. 23:11, Ezek 8:14, 16, Joel 1: 13-16, Micah 4: 1-2, Haggai 1:14, etc. ) … the place whereon God’s name is called (Jer. 7: 12, 30; 34: 15), “a glorious throne set on high from the beginning” (Jer 7:12), the habitation of the Divine Presence” (Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 15, pp. 954 – 955).

The Temple was the place where the righteous requirements of the Law could be satisfied, as all the prescribed feasts and sacrifices were centred on it. It was the point of contact, the meeting place between the Israel and its God. Through this contact, the Holy House could become defiled. The Law provides that inanimate objects are defiled by contact with unclean persons (Num. 19:22). Elaborate cleansing rituals were thus prescribed for priests and for the furnishings used in the Temple service (Exodus 29, etc.).

Josephus describes some of the precautions that were taken against defilement: “… those that had gonorrhoea and the leprosy were excluded from the city entirely; women also, when their courses were upon them, were shut out of the Temple … men also, that were not thoroughly pure, were prohibited to come into the inner court; nay the priests themselves that were not pure were prohibited to come into it also.” (War of the Jews, Whistler translation, book 5, ch. 5, par. 6)

While uncleanness of the body could be detected, the contaminated soul was less obvious and more difficult to prevent from entering the Temple. Yet it was this latter form of impurity that would bring about the real defilement.

Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe” – safe to do all these detestable things? (Jer. 7:9-10)

The spiritual deterioration of Israel and the corruption over time of its worship was manifested in the Temple (see 2 Chron. 24:7, t. Pesach 57a, etc.) Various spoliations occurred, starting from the time of Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:25), and we read in 2nd Chronicles of a cleansing ritual that resembles the measures prescribed for the leprous house:

And they assembled their brethren, and sanctified themselves, and came, according to the commandment of the king, by the words of the LORD, to cleanse the house of the LORD. And the priests went into the inner part of the house of the LORD, to cleanse it, and brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the LORD into the court of the house of the LORD. And the Levites took it, to carry it out abroad into the brook Kidron. Now they began on the first day of the first month to sanctify, and on the eighth day of the month they came to the porch of the LORD: so they sanctified the house of the LORD in eight days; and on the sixteenth day of the first month they made an end. (2 Chronicles 29:15-17)

The valley across from the Kidron brook was the site outside Jerusalem reserved for the disposal of unclean things (see also 2 Kings 23:6). Note that the cleansing was completed after eight days, but only ended on the sixteenth day. The difference could be explained by the seven day quarantine required in Leviticus 14.

The Talmud later ruled that houses in Jerusalem are not affected by the provisions of Leviticus 14, and cannot thus become unclean through an infestation of leprosy. (Babylonian Talmud, Tohoroth, tractate Nega’im.) 1 According to rabbinical tradition, the Holy House was thus protected against any prospect of demolition in terms of the Law of Moses. But the prophets took a different view:

“From the days of Micah (3:12, Jer. 26:18), the prophets had never ceased (cf., e.g., Jer. 7:14, 26:4-6, Ezek. 5:11) to warn the people that, in punishment for its religious and moral transgressions, the Temple would be destroyed, despite the belief, prevalent among the masses, that “the Temple of the Lord” could not but continue forever (Jer. 7:4)” (Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 15, p. 946).

The first punishment came at the time of the Babylonian conquest when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies set fire to the Temple: On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. (2 Kings 25:8-9)

This drastic measure came after the lesser remedies had failed. The LORD had allowed an extended period of grace to see whether the rot would subside, but His call to repentance had fallen on deaf ears (Jer. 26:5). God pronounced in dismay:

Why should you be stricken any more? You will revolt more and more; the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no soundness in it; only a wound and a stripe and a fresh blow; they have not been closed, nor bound up, nor soothed with oil (Isaiah 1:5 – 6).

For so says the LORD, Your breach cannot be cured, and your wound is grievous …(Jeremiah 30:12).

As the occupants of a house would vacate their dwelling at the onset of the leprous condition, Ezekiel records the departure of the LORD of Glory from His Holy House, as he sees the shechina (God’s visible presence) uplifted and removed from the Inner Sanctum of the Temple through the East Gate (Ezek. 10:19). Also in the analogy of the leprous house, many of the Temple furnishings were removed (2 Chron. 36: 7, 10, 18) so that they could be restored to use after the exile (Ezra 1:11).

The prophets did not see Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest as the terminal judgment. Instead, they were shown that Judah would be restored to the Mosaic covenant in anticipation of Messiah:

I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me … in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither men nor animals, there will be heard once more … the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD  … In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land (Jeremiah 33: 7-15).


Although the Temple was rebuilt by returning exiles, the manifest presence of the LORD did not return. The Talmud (Yoma, 21) endorses the claim that certain things were not restored to the post exilic Temple, namely the Ark of the Covenant, its covering of cherubim, the fire that came down from heaven to consume the sacrifices, the shechina, the Holy Spirit and the miraculous urim and thummim.

Since the plague which had previously contaminated the Temple (i.e. the corruption that had beset the worship of Israel) would soon reappear, the erstwhile Occupant would not return to that dwelling, but would prepare another dwelling for Himself. It would later be said of the one to be called Immanuel (God with us) – namely prince Messiah – that he was “the radiance of the Father’s glory” (Hebrews 1:3) and that all God’s fullness “dwelt in him bodily” (Colossians 2:9). When Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” he was speaking of his body in which that radiance and fullness dwelt (John 2:20-21). This body has become for Israel and all humanity its new meeting place with God (“… no one comes to the Father except through me” – John 14:6). 2 

After Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Divine Majesty in heavenly glory, those who remained to bear witness to his name were substituted for him as God’s physical presence in the mortal world. At the appointed time, God poured out His Spirit “on all flesh” (Joel 2:28) indwelling the hearts and minds of the faithful, so that we may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), being built together as living stones into a House in which God dwells by His Spirit (Ephesians 2:22; 1 Peter 2:5).

At the conclusion of his public ministry, after pronouncing his verdict on the religious institutions of Judaism (Mat 23), Jesus prophesied the destruction of Herod’s Temple:

Jesus left the Temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’ (Mat 24: 1-2).

Look, your house is left to you desolate (Mat 23:38).

That the Temple would at this instance be demolished right down to its last stone is an apparent allusion to the terminal measure prescribed in verses 43-45 of Leviticus 14:

And if the plague shall return, and break out in the house, after that he hath taken away the stones, and after he hath scraped the house, and after it is plastered; Then the priest shall come and look; and behold, if the plague is spread in the house, it is a fretting leprosy in the house: it is unclean. And he shall break down the house, its stones, and its timber, and all the mortar of the house: and he shall carry them forth out of the city to an unclean place.

The precise fulfilment of Jesus prophecy is recorded by Josephus (War of the Jews, op. cit., book 7, ch. 1. par. 1): “Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury, Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple …”

The second destruction differed from the first in that the first destruction left for Ezra foundations and stone by which the Temple could later be rebuilt. This can be inferred from Ezra 3:7 which speaks of the wood that was procured for the reconstruction, while there is no mention of any stone or quarry. Solomon had employed great effort to hew exceptionally large blocks which were transported to Jerusalem with the help of 150 000 men (1 Kings 5:15-17) – an impossible task for the returning Jews to emulate in their sparse numbers and within the modest means at their disposal at the time.

While this may seem a trivial detail, the significance of the latter destruction in accordance with Jesus’ prophecy is found in this very fact, that no substance was left from which a later Temple could be reassembled. The finality of the judgment of AD 70 is further supported by a prophecy of Zechariah, in which he saw a flying Torah scroll enter into the house of every sinner in Israel, cutting off those who had transgressed the Law and consuming their houses.

This is the curse that goes forth over the face of the whole land; for from now on everyone who steals shall be cut off according to it; and everyone who swears from now on shall be cut off according to it. I will bring it forth, says the LORD of Hosts; it shall enter into the house of the thief, and into the house of him who swears falsely by My name. And it shall remain in the midst of his house, and shall consume it(calah / כּלה), and its timber and its stones (Zech 5:1- 4).

Of all the houses consumed by the curse referred to in Zechariah’s prophesy, the most significant was the Holy House itself. By Jesus’ angry rebuke of the temple merchants – “you have made [the Holy House] a den of thieves” (Mat 21:12-13), and the record of the priests seeking false witnesses against him (Mat 26:59 60), we have the testimony of Scripture itself that both of the laws by which Zechariah’s prophetic curse would be invoked – were at that time being flagrantly transgressed within the Temple itself.

The curse referred to in the prophecy was simply what the Law stipulated as God’s just recompense against Israel for breaking the Sinai Covenant (see Lev. 26 & Deut. 28). God was long-suffering, over many centuries. As was the case with the Amorites, God would not pour out His punishment on the sons of Jacob until their iniquity had “reached its fullness” (Genesis 15:16). Jesus said: had I not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: `They hated me without reason’” (John 15:22-25).

According to Keil and Delitzshe, “The scroll therefore symbolizes the curse that will fall upon sinners throughout the whole Land, consuming them with their houses, and thus sweeping them out of the nation of God” (Bible Commentary, The Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 2. Eerdmans, Michigan, 1954).

As harsh as this may sound, let us remember that it is for this very reason that“Messiah has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘cursed is he that is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). The ultimate punishment of the Law was withheld until Israel could re-establish its relationship with God in terms of the New Covenant. Salvation came for those who received atonement in the blood of Jesus and forgiveness of sins through faith in him. There is no further hope of righteousness through the Law, which was “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb 10:1). The very means by which forgiveness and mercy were administered under the Sinai Covenant, namely the Temple, the priesthood and the sacrificial system were done away with (Heb. 8:13) and will not be re-established. It was rather the Temple of Jesus’ body that God chose to restore – by resurrecting it from the dead. “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11)

The New Covenant has revealed a new and living way by which we may approach God: ‘The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the LORD. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then He adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.’

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Heb. 10: 15-22).

For, as the prophets also testified: “in truth, he has carried our diseases and our pains, he has taken them upon himself: yet we considered him afflicted, smitten of God, and humiliated. Whereas he was pierced for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities: the punishment was laid on him for our peace; and by his stripes we were healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).


1. It deduces this from the words “When you enter the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as your possession” in Leviticus 14:34, arguing that Jerusalem was not allotted to any particular tribe as a possession.]

2. Although rabbinical Judaism would strongly oppose this claim in relation to Jesus of Nazareth, the Chasidic movement makes an almost identical claim in relation to its own rebbe. “The Baal Shem brought about a radical shift in the religious outlook of Jewry. In ancient times the sanctuary in Jerusalem had been the holy centre from which expiation and blessing radiated out to the world. But the sanctuary was in ruins, the soul of Israel in mourning. Then the Baal Shem established a new centre: the tzaddik, the rebbe – he was to be the sanctuary. For the Baal Shem believed that a man could be the true dwelling place of the Divine.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, Secker & Warburg, London, 1973.