lep’-er, lep’-ro-si (tsara`ath; lepra): A slowly progressing and intractable disease characterized by subcutaneous nodules (Hebrew se’eth; Septuagint oule; the King James Version "rising"), scabs or cuticular crusts (Hebrew cappachath; Septuagint semasia) and white shining spots appearing to be deeper than the skin (Hebrew bahereth; Septuagint telaugema). Other signs are
(1) that the hairs of the affected part turn white and
(2) that later there is a growth of "quick raw flesh."
This disease in an especial manner rendered its victims unclean; even contact with a leper defiled whoever touched him, so while the cure of other diseases is called healing, that of leprosy is called cleansing (except in the case of Miriam (
1. Old Testament Instances:
The first Old Testament mention of this disease is as a sign given by God to Moses (
The case of Naaman (
The leprous stroke inflicted on Uzziah (
2. Leprosy in the New Testament:
In the New Testament, cleansing of the lepers is mentioned as a specific portion of our Lord’s work of healing, and was included in the commission given to the apostles. There are few individual cases specially described, only the ten of
3. Nature and Locality of the Disease:
The disease is a zymotic affection produced by a microbe discovered by Hansen in 1871. It is contagious, although not very readily communicated by casual contact; in one form it is attended with anesthesia of the parts affected, and this, which is the commonest variety now met with in the East, is slower in its course than those forms in which nodular growths are the most prominent features, in which parts of the limbs often drop off. At present there are many lepers to be seen at the gates of the cities in Palestine. It is likewise prevalent in other eastern lands, India, China, and Japan. Cases are also to be seen in most of the Mediterranean lands and in Norway, as well as in parts of Africa and the West Indies and in South America. In former times it was occasionally met with in Britain, and in most of the older English cities there were leper houses, often called "lazarets" from the mistaken notion that the eczematous or varicose ulcers of Lazarus were leprous (
The homiletic use of leprosy as a type of sin is not Biblical. The only Scriptural reference which might approach this is
(1) Leprosy in Garments.
The occurrence of certain greenish or reddish stains in the substance of woolen or linen fabrics or in articles made of leather is described in
(2) Leprosy in the House (
The occurrence of "hollow streaks, greenish or reddish," in the plaster of a house is regarded as evidence that the wall is affected with leprosy, and when such is observed the occupant first clears his house of furniture, for if the discoloration be pronounced leprous, all in the home would become unclean and must be destroyed. Then he asks the priest to inspect it. The test is first, that the stain is in the substance of the wall, and, second, that it is spreading. In case these conditions are fulfilled, it is pronounced to be leprosy and the affected part of the wall is taken down, its stones cast outside the city, its plaster scraped off and also cast outside the city; new stones are then built in and the house is newly plastered. Should the stain recur in the new wall, then the whole house is condemned and must be destroyed and its materials cast outside the city. The description is that of infection by some fungus attacking whatever organic material is in the mud plaster by which the wall is covered. If in woodwork, it might be the dry rot (Merulius lacrimans), but this is not likely to spread except where there is wood or other organic matter. It might be the efflorescence of mural salt (calcium nitrate), which forms fiocculent masses when decomposing nitrogenous material is in contact with lime; but that is generally white, not green or reddish. Considering the uncleanly condition of the houses of the ordinary fellah, it is little wonder that such fungus growths may develop in their walls, and in such cases destruction of the house and its materials is a sanitary necessity.
4. The Legal Attitude:
It should be observed here that the attitude of the Law toward the person, garment or house suspected of leprosy is that if the disease be really present they are to be declared unclean and there is no means provided for cure, and in the case of the garment or house, they are to be destroyed. If, on the other hand, the disease be proved to be absent, this freedom from the disease has to be declared by a ceremonial purification. This is in reality not the ritual for cleansing the leper, for the Torah provides none such, but the ritual for declaring him ceremonially free from the suspicion of having the disease. This gives a peculiar and added force to the words, "The lepers are cleansed," as a testimony to our Lord’s Divine mission.