Outing Tsara'at, the Torah's Queer Plague



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The word “leper” brings to mind stigmatized images of leprous human bodies rotting, oozing, and falling to pieces. English Bibles use the word “leprosy” as a mistranslation of the mysterious ancient Hebrew concept “tsara'at.” Tsara'at is a phenomenon lying somewhere between curse, omen, disability, and infectious disease. This project pursued the question, “Why does the Torah consider tsara'at to be tum'ah (polluting)? Hebrew scripture describes a system of ritual purity, social order, and philosophical worldview in which classification is key. Priests determined whether or not to diagnose someone's skin (or fabric belongings, or house) with tsara'at. Positive diagnosis would be grounds for someone's quarantine and banishment from the communal spaces of the Hebrew nation. I cross-referenced a few dozen works in rabbinic and contemporary biblical scholarship to identify five themes which illuminate tsara'at as a threat to the priestly system. I also examined older texts from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, which describe concepts and rituals the early Hebrew religion seems to have absorbed later on. The themes I drew out of my literature review include 1) contagion, 2) ambiguity/anomaly, 3) sexuality/body fluids, and ugliness/disability. Scholarly interpretations generally indicate that tsara'at brought up concerns with who and what could be said to belong in the Israelite community. Bodies which fell outside of an accepted epistemological framework signified danger, pollution, and divine disfavor. My senior honors thesis will look at tsara'at through a queer theological lens, to make meaning of all this for LGBTQI+ readers of the Hebrew Bible.