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“Unclean!”: the scourge of leprosy

The term “leprosy stigma” means a strong feeling of being shameful and unaccepted. The physical appearance of a person with leprosy can be so disturbing that the afflicted are shunned. Until the 20th century, lepers were consigned to a leprosarium because there were no effective ways to deal with the disease. It was contagious, and there was no cure.

Descriptions of leprosy and its medicaments have been found in early records from India, China and Egypt. In ancient treatments, physicians bathed the afflicted in sheep’s blood. They injected patients with arsenic, creosote and/or mercury. They tried cobra venom, scorpion venom and bee stings. And none of them worked. Early practitioners were “shooting in the dark” when it came to leprosy.

Difficult to define

The Hebrew word tsara’ath is translated leprosy.The precise meaning of the word leprosy in both the Old and New Testaments is still in dispute, but it possibly includes the modern Hansen’s disease (especially in the New Testament) and infectious skin diseases.

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Israel it was the responsibility of priests to distinguish between minor skin irritations and leprosy (Leviticus 13), and to determine when one was deemed cleansed of it. There is some discussion as to whether this was a contagious disease or essentially a matter of being ceremonially unclean. Whatever the case, it is quite clear that one had to live outside the camp of Israel until the priests were certain the disease was gone.

Herein lies the controversy

If leprosy of the scriptures was indeed Hansen’s disease, it initially manifested itself as superficial sores before spreading to other parts of the body. In the later stages of the disease, sufferers developed facial tumors, claw hands, twisted limbs, a loss of pain sensation and blindness. However, it is possible Hansen’s is not related at all to the “leprosy” the priests dealt with. That suggests a better picture for ancient Israel because no one would have to live outside the camp very long.

The following citation illustrates the emotion attached to the specter of Hansen’s disease and the term “leper”:

“Incurable by man, many believed God inflicted the curse of leprosy upon people for the sins they committed. In fact, those with leprosy were so despised and loathed that they were not allowed to live in any community with their own people (Numbers 5:2). Among the sixty-one defilements of ancient Jewish laws, leprosy was second only to a dead body in seriousness. A leper wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including his own family. The disease was considered so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. Lepers lived in a community with other lepers until they either got better or died. This was the only way the people knew to contain the spread of the contagious forms of leprosy.”[1]

The Jewish Encyclopedia, however, offers another observation:

“In the Biblical description, one is immediately impressed by the absence of all allusion to the hideous facial deformity, the loss of feeling, and the rotting of the members. If such conspicuous manifestations had existed they could not possibly have escaped observation. The Levitical code prescribed that the several examinations of the person suspected should be made at intervals of seven days, thus enabling the priest to note the progress of the disease. Leprosy is an exceedingly slow disease, particularly in the beginning, and a fortnight would show absolutely no change in the vast majority of cases. Moreover, the “lepra Hebræorum” was a curable disease. When the leper was cured the priest made an atonement before the Lord, and expiatory sacrifices in the form of a sin-offering and a trespass-offering were made also. Modern leprosy is, except in isolated instances, incurable.”

Scientific advances

English: Gerhard Amauer Hansen, Norwegian bact...

English: Gerhard Amauer Hansen, Norwegian bacteriologist who discovered the bacillum for leprosy. Since this photograph was likely taken before 1923 as Hansen died in 1912, it is public domain in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1873 Gerhard Hansen identified and described mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria that causes leprosy. Although it was thought of as a skin disease, the bacterium actually attacks the peripheral nervous system. It shows up initially on the skin and spreads by skin contact and droplets from the respiratory tract. It is still classified as contagious but no longer considered highly contagious. With the development of sulfur drugs and programs supported by the World Health Organization, the incidence of leprosy has dramatically decreased worldwide. It hasn’t been totally eradicated yet, and leper colonies exist in India, China, Romania, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam and Japan.[2] But it is no longer considered incurable.

Apart from Jesus’ work of compassion, it wasn’t until “the introduction of multidrug therapy (MDT) in the early 1980s that the disease could be diagnosed and treated successfully within the community”[3] For thousands of years it was handled outside the community because there was no other recourse.

An occasion to glorify

Not much is said about leprosy in the New Testament except for incidences of miraculous healing. It became an occasion to glorify God when Jesus healed lepers and enabled them to live as free beings.

That Jesus healed ten lepers and only one returned to thank Him is stunning. Jesus marveled at this oversight, this lack of living commensurately. He had released them from strict isolation into life in the community. They forgot to come back and thank Him. ♦ Mary Hendren

[1] “Why is leprosy talked about so much in the Bible?”

[2] “Leprosy,” Wikipedia

[3] “Leprosy,” Wikipedia

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