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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 (Nu 12:13) and that of the Samaritan (Lu 17:15) where the word "heal" is used in reference to leprosy). The disease is described in the Papyrus Ebers as ukhedu (the Coptic name for leprosy is tseht). It is also mentioned in ancient Indian and Japanese history. Hippocrates calls it "the Phoenician disease," and Galen names it "elephantiasis." In Europe it was little known until imported by the returning soldiers of Pompey’s army after his Syrian campaign in 61 BC; but after that date it is described by Soranus, Aretaeus and other classic authors.

1. Old Testament Instances:

The first Old Testament mention of this disease is as a sign given by God to Moses (Ex 4:6 (Jahwist)), which may be the basis of the story in Josephus’ Apion, I, 31, that Moses was expelled from Heliopolis on account of his being a leper (see also I, 26 and Ant, III, xi, 4). The second case is that of Miriam (Nu 12:10), where the disease is graphically described (EP2). In De 24:8 there is a reference to the oral tradition concerning the treatment of lepers, without any details, but in Le 13; 14 (Priestly Code) the rules for the recognition of the disease, the preliminary quarantine periods and the ceremonial methods of cleansing are given at length. It is worthy of note that neither here nor elsewhere is there any mention of treatment or remedy; and Jehoram’s ejaculation implies the belief that its cure could be accomplished only by miracle (2Ki 5:7).

The case of Naaman (2Ki 5:1) shows that lepers were not isolated and excluded from society among the Syrians. The leprosy of Gehazi (2Ki 5:27) is said to have been the transference of that of Naaman, but, as the incubation period is long, it must have been miraculously inflicted on him. The four lepers of Samaria of 2Ki 7:3 had been excluded from the city and were outside the gate.

The leprous stroke inflicted on Uzziah (2Ki 15:5; 2Ch 26:23) for his unwarrantable assumption of the priestly office began in his forehead, a form of the disease peculiarly unclean (Le 13:43-46) and requiring the banishment and isolation of the leper. It is remarkable that there is no reference to this disease in the prophetical writings, or in the Hagiographa.

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 Lu 17:12, and the leper whom our Lord touched (Mt 8:2; Mr 1:40; Lu 5:12), but it is probable that these are only a few out of many such incidents. Simon the leper (Mt 26:6; Mr 14:3) may have been one of those cured by the Lord.

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 (Lu 16:20). Between 1096 and 1472, 112 such leper houses were founded in England. Of this disease King Robert Bruce of Scotland died. There was special medieval legislation excluding lepers from churches and forbidding them to wander from district to district. Leprosy has been sometimes confounded with other diseases; indeed the Greek physicians used the name lepra for the scaly skin disease now called psoriasis. In the priestly legislation there was one form of disease (Le 13:13) in which the whiteness covers all the body, and in this condition the patient was pronounced to be clean. This was probably psoriasis, for leprosy does not, until a very late stage, cover all the body, and when it does so, it is not white. It has been surmised that Naaman’s disease was of this kind. Freckled spots (Hebrew bohaq), which were to be distinguished from true leprosy (Le 13:39), were either spots of herpes or of some other non-contagious skin disease. The modern Arabic word of the same sound is the name of a form of eczema. the Revised Version (British and American) reads for freckled spot "tetter," an old English word from a root implying itchiness (see Hamlet, I, v, 71).

The homiletic use of leprosy as a type of sin is not Biblical. The only Scriptural reference which might approach this is Ps 51:7, but this refers to Nu 19:18 rather than to the cleansing of the leper. The Fathers regarded leprosy as typical of heresy rather than of moral offenses. (See Rabanus Maurus, Allegoria, under the word "Lepra.")

(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 Le 13:47 ff, and when these stains spread, or, after washing, do not change their color, they are pronounced to be due to a fretting leprosy (tsara`ath mam’ereth), and such garments are to be burnt. As among the fellahin articles of clothing are worn for years and are often hereditary, it is little wonder that they become affected by vegetable as well as animal parasites, and that which is here referred to is probably some form of mildew, such as Penicillium or mold-fungus. The destruction of such garments is a useful sanitary precaution. Possibly this sort of decaying garment was in Job’s mind when he compares himself to a "rotten thing that consumeth, like a garment that is moth-eaten" (Job 13:28); see also Jude 1:23, "the garment spotted (espilomenon) by the flesh."

(2) Leprosy in the House (Le 14:34 ).

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.