Research-The Meaning of "Leprosy" In the Bible

The word "leper" and its derivatives appear sixty-seven times in the Bible.

New Guinea Highlands Hansenide Colony, Mount Hagen, New Guinea

But he was a leper." Few words plumb the depth of human pathos as do those five words found in 2 Kings 5:1. The emotional impact of the word "leper" and its derivatives befuddles our thinking; therefore there is a need for a clearer understanding of the relationship between the Bible use of the word and our modern concept of the disease. Because of the oft-used analogy between leprosy and sin, it is doubly important for us to be intelligent on the Bible use of the word.

The word "leper" and its derivatives appear sixty-seven times in the Bible, but let us begin by analyzing the word as found so often in the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Leviticus. We do not need to go far before we are con fused as we endeavor to reconcile the use of the word here with our present understanding of its use.

Let us bear in mind that the book of Leviticus is primarily dealing with Jewish ordinances and that reference to any disease is made be cause of its likelihood to produce ceremonial uncleanness and not from a medical viewpoint. It will be noted that no reference is made to any remedial action.

To be specific, let us note several references to the condition in question that clash with the present medical idea of the disease. Leviticus 13:29-37 discusses a disease of the head or beard that under certain conditions was pronounced "a leprosy upon the head or beard" (verse 30). The Revised Standard Version gives us a clearer picture and presents a fairly accurate description of a fungus disease, quite common under tropical conditions particularly, as can be all too readily verified by those who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. The Revised Standard Version calls it "an itch" as well as "a leprosy." It is very improbable that this condition could be leprosy as we now understand the form of the disease. Verses 47-59 of the same chapter talk about "the plague of leprosy in a garment," which is entirely inconsistent with any present-day concept of leprosy. Again in Leviticus 14:33-47, where the "plague of leprosy in a house" is discussed, the same confusion exists. The summary of the laws of leprosy in Leviticus 14:54-57 makes it quite plain that several conditions are included under the title of leprosy diseases. To further amplify this point I would like to quote from the eminent leprologist Dr. R. G. Cochrane: "In Old Testament times the word 'Zaraath' [tsara'ath] in Hebrew, used as a generic name tor a group of diseases, was translated leprosy, and persons were declared ceremoniously unclean when they had any malformation or any disease which was likely to be dangerous, or produce a permanent blemish." Practical Textbook of Leprosy (Oxford Medical Publication), p. 235. No doubt the all-wise Leader of ancient Israel was thinking of their physical well-being as well as ceremonial cleanliness when these laws were imposed. On the other hand, it must not be deduced from the foregoing that the specific disease of leprosy was not meant sometimes in the Bible term. I think it was. The first use of the word in the Bible is in Exodus 4:6, when Moses' hand was turned leprous as snow, as a sign that he was chosen by God. The significance of the sign would be lost if it did not convey a strong abhorrence of a disease that was re volting in its ultimate termination. Modern Leprosy Leprosy today is divided into two maincate ories. One is the "tuberculoid" type that is benign and resistant, being characterized by light patches of skin and nerve involvement that results in the repulsive ulcers and maiming of the extremities. The other type is called "lepromatous," which is a malignant and nonresistant form characterized by disfiguring swellings and nodules of the face and body. It could well be that Leviticus 13:9 refers to the tuberculoid type, while verse two of the same chapter refers to the lepromatous type. Other than the use of the term in Leviticus, it would appear that most other uses of the word are referring to the specific disease. It may surprise some to learn that the words "library" and "leprosy" originated from the same word. As an authority, I quote Lt. Gen. Sir William MacArthur: "In English the word 'leper' originally signified the disease itself, and not as at present the diseased person. This word, in a variety of related forms, runs through the Aryan languages. The basic meaning is, something that peels off; and for this reason it was early applied to the inner bark of trees. The Latin form of the word was liber, and as this bark was used to write on, liber came to mean a book, so it is interesting to remember that the modern 'library' and 'leprosy' are in origin the same word." "Mediaeval 'Leprosy' in the British Isles," The Leprosy Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, p. 8.

To me it is of real significance that the Bible does not speak of healing or curing this disease except in three instances. The first is found in Leviticus 14:3, where it refers to several dis eases; another is in 2 Kings 5:11, where the wishful thinking of Naaman is expressed, the Revised Standard Version stating that he thought the prophet would "wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper." The other oc casion is in Luke 17:15, where the one grateful leper turned back to thank Jesus "when he saw that he was healed," although the preceding verse says only that he was "cleansed." Is it not meaningful that in Matthew 10:8 we are commissioned to "heal the sick" but only to "cleanse the lepers"? Here the import of the analogy between leprosy and sin is most striking. We are not commanded to cure leprosy but only to cleanse it, which leaves an inference that it will be prone to relapse if the cleansing process is not continuous.

Even today, in spite of all modern drugs, there is no reputed cure for leprosy. After treatment, and after clinical and bacteriological evidences of the disease have disappeared and treatment has been continued for at least a further six months, cases are then discharged only as "arrested" cases. No leprologist can say that any case will not relapse. Such is the insidious nature of leprosy and of sin.

Parallels Between Leprosy and Sin

Space will not permit exhaustive treatment of the many parallels between leprosy and sin, but let us consider some of the more obvious ones. First, the analogy lends no support to the false thesis, "once saved, always saved." This is quite remarkable, as even when a miracle arrested the disease in Bible days, its permanent resolution was, by inference, conditional, and it still is today, regardless of modern science. Maybe this will always be so until the grand day when sin and sickness will be forever banished. Continual exposure to leprosy increases the risk of contracting it or predisposes to relapse, and the greater the filth, or "uncleanness," the greater the risk. And is it not so with sin? The development of the disease depends on the resistance or immunity of the body, which can prevent the disease from gaining a foot hold, because as rapidly as it gains entrance

through the barrier of the skin, it is defeated. It pays his to be on guard against the stealthy entrance of sin, to strengthen our defenses and fortify our minds with a "Thus saith the Lord." The deceitfulness of -sin is typified by the whiteness of the maculae, or depigmented patches of skin that are a paramount sign of leprosy. This, it will be recalled, was the condition of Moses' hand, which was to be used as a sign. Many lepers have only light patches of skin as an evidence that they have leprosy in an otherwise healthy body. It may be only one mark an inch in diameter that may remain quiescent for many years, sometimes to dis appear altogether, but in some cases it will re turn in a more drastic form from some hidden focus. "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). Does not the prayer of David, "Create in me a clean heart, O God" (Ps. 51:10), take on new significance in the light of this analogy? Leprosy is not congenital, strange as it may seem; neither are we born sinners. But children are many times more susceptible to this disease than adults, as their resistance is lower. In fact, it is believed that in nearly all cases leprosy is contracted in the early years of life even if it does not become manifest for fifteen to twenty years, as is sometimes the case. Should we not guard particularly the impressionable years of infancy and childhood, continually shielding those of tender years from harmful influences while persistently striving to strengthen their characters? We are told, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6).

Another interesting point is that this dis ease has never been successfully transmitted by artificial methods, and this is still a mystery in the medical world. Just so with sin we sin only if we will to do so, and we can never blame anyone else for our sins.

Lepers were formerly outcasts, and even to day, in spite of efforts to prevent it, they are thoroughly ostracized by society. Sinners will finally be cast out eternally, and "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8: 12). Although the disease still strikes fear, if it is detected early and prompt action is taken, with the aid of modern drugs, it can be brought under control in most, if not all, cases. Several years ago, when obtaining a smear from a leper for bacteriological examination, I punctured the lobe of his ear once with a needle, but the second time I missed and punctured my own finger that was holding the ear lobe. From time to time I scrutinize that part of the finger very closely. One of the hairs has turned white, and if there is any suggestion of whitening of the skin I will not hesitate to consult a surgeon to have the flesh excised. If caught early enough, this would almost certainly rid my body of this disease. "And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire" (Matt. 18:8, R.S.V.).

The modern term for leprosy is Hansen's disease, named after the discoverer of the causative organism. It is hoped that the change in name will remove the phobia and social stigma associated with leprosy. Likewise, this oversentimental, doting age would excuse most sins, explaining them away in both young and old, but in the eyes of God sin is unchanged and its heinous nature remains as revolting as leprosy. The terrifying aftermath of this dread dis ease, with its grotesque disfigurations of face and permanent maiming of limbs, is well known. It is a fit symbol of the utter abhorrence our heavenly Father has for sin, and typifies the final result of unchecked sin. Surely this somber picture should spur us on to endeavors to rescue ailing humanity before ir reparable damage is done and the effects of sin become permanent.

Paradoxically, although leprosy is the oldest known disease, much is still unknown about its baleful ways, and its permanent cure is still out of our reach. But, by the grace of God, we can fulfill Christ's commission and cleanse lepers both physically and spiritually.

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New Guinea Highlands Hansenide Colony, Mount Hagen, New Guinea

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