Snow in the Bible – Part One – Leprosy and Purity

snow-in-jerusalemI made one huge mistake in my last trip to Jerusalem, in January: I didn’t bring a heavy enough coat. As an American, I tend to think of Israel as a hot place– and indeed it is much of the time.  Tel Aviv rarely gets below freezing and even in the winter the overnight lows tend to be in the forties. Jerusalem is in the mountains and tends to be a bit colder than Tel Aviv– as I found out– and it snows there with accumulations every few years. This January, Jerusalem was blanketed by nearly eight inches of powder! In the far north of Israel, on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, it even snows enough for a ski resort.

With my eyes opened to snow in the land of Israel, my second though turned to snow in the bible. I couldn’t remember even a single bible story that involved snow. Seeing this as a challenge, I set about to research everywhere that snow appears in the bible. And it does appear: twenty-seven times in the Hebrew Bible– most often in the Book of Job– and three more in the New Testament. While it factors directly in only one bible side-story, the way that it is used as an image or metaphor in different parts of the bible display a beautiful complexity.

This first part covers the very first mentions of snow in the Torah and how the metaphor of snow started as one of impurity ultimately transitioned to one of purity. Additional posts will follow. It’s exciting! Read on for more.

Snow and Leprosy

The earliest mentions of snow in the bible occur in Exodus 4, as Moses is being instructed by God on the signs that he may use to convince Pharaoh of God’s power.

[…] But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee.

Exodus 4:1

The first sign that God taught Moses was how to cast his rod down to become a snake and then back again. But the second sign, was potentially more painful to the prophet:

And the Lord said furthermore unto him, Put now thine hand into thy bosom. And he put his hand into his bosom: and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous as snow. And he said, Put thine hand into thy bosom again. And he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it out of his bosom, and, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.

Exodus 4:6-7

The phrase “leprous as snow” really turns my stomach– comparing the white flakiness of the skin to snow is a visceral image. Biblical leprosy probably referred to many skin diseases and even to types of mold you could get in your house and not only to the modern disease. Some bibles don’t even translate the word as leprosy anymore, to reduce the confusion.

The next time it comes up, the metaphor is softened a bit. In Numbers 12, Miriam was inflicted with leprosy for her criticism of Moses’s new Ethiopian wife. Instead of saying “leprous as snow”, now it’s simply describing the leprosy as “white as snow”. This use still has the negative association, but it’s not quite as bad.

And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.

Numbers 12:10

The next use of the term comes in Second Kings when Gahazi, a servant of the prophet Elisha, was punished for seeking compensation for a miracle performed by God. In this story, Naaman, an important military figure from Syria, came to Israel to have his leprosy cured. This caused some concern from the King of Israel because if Naaman were to go away unhappy (or worse off), it could lead to war. Elisha suggested that he dip himself in the River Jordan seven times and he would be cured. Naaman did as he was told and was cured, but Gehazi asked for payment for the cure. For this infraction, he was severely punished:

And Elisha said unto him, Whence comest thou, Gehazi? And he said, Thy servant went no whither. And he said unto him, Went not mine heart with thee, when the man turned again from his chariot to meet thee? Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants? The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow.

2 Kings 25-27

Something to think about the next time a preacher on TV asks for money in exchange for divine favors!

Snow and Purity

What’s shocking to me is that somehow the later books took this image of snow as leprosy and changed it into something beautiful, white, and pure. Possibly, the early Israelites had discovered the wonders of snowmen and skiing, but more likely it reflects a change from the desert wanderers of the Torah to the Jerusalem city-dwellers which were accustomed to the occasional dusting of powder. The next appearance of snow comes in Isiah:

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Isiah 1:18

Here, “white as snow” is for the first time described as a good thing! Same simile, but the connection with disease is absent and will remain absent throughout the remainder of the Prophets and the Writings.Not to be missed here is the contrast not between white and black, as we might expect, but white and scarlet. (More on this when we get to snow in the proverbs as this white/scarlet duality comes up again.)

There’s more snow in the Book of Job than in any other book of the Bible, so I’ll cover that in a separate post. But after that, we see snow in Psalm 51:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:7

And it comes up again in Lamentations:

Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire:

Lamentations 4:7

And finally in Daniel:

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

Daniel 7:9

Snow is a funny thing. Now that we’re approaching spring here in Boston, I’m hoping to see a lot less of it. And yet I love the duality that is presented here and the way in which the Jewish/Israeli attitude toward snow shifted over time. While I never thought I’d be writing quite this much about snow, there are two more posts coming and yes, I will get to that bible story that has snow in it in the next post!

Up next: Snow in Job and Chronicles


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