The biblical disorder called “leprosy” is different from the disease known as “leprosy” in the twentieth century. The latter, called Hansen's disease (bacillus mycobacterium leprae), is a serious skin disease that develops over a long period of time and until 1968 was believed to be uncontrollable and incurable. Many victims of the biblical affliction (Hebr. ⊡āraʿat; LXX lepra, probably vitiligo), on the other hand, were reportedly healed. Not only human beings, but objects, such as houses and garments (Lev. 13.47; 14.34), were judged “leprous.” A leprous house or garment was probably covered with mildew or mold, whereas the human leper had some kind of skin disorder. Although mildew and mold are not like a skin infection, both conditions are characterized by a change in color, and both were under the jurisdiction of the priest. After the priest determined that the person or object was healed, he offered sacrifices following a similar liturgy for both (Lev. 14.3–32, 48–53). Some kinds of leprosy occurred when there were white spots on dark skin, and the hair in the spots was also white (Lev. 13.2–3). Swelling was another symptom. Some types of leprosy involved scales or infection, like boils or pimples.

Those who had been diagnosed as lepers by the priest were required to separate themselves from the community. This was not for medical but religious reasons. Biblical lepers were treated not as ill but as ritually unclean. The priest had no technique for healing lepers; he only determined whether or not they had been healed (“cleansed”). When he considered the affliction healed, he then offered the correct sin and guilt offerings so that the former leper might be atoned for this impurity.

Lepers had two colors of skin, which was taboo, as was plowing with two kinds of beasts, raising two kinds of grain in one field, weaving two kinds of thread into one piece of cloth, or cross‐breeding two kinds of cattle (Lev. 19.19; Deut. 22.10). Those covered completely with the disease, so that they had only one color of skin, were allowed to return to the community, because they were no longer lepers (Lev. 13.12–13). Once they began to heal, however, they were classified as lepers and were isolated again.

Biblical characters, such as Moses (Exod. 4.6–7), Miriam (Num. 12.9–15), and Naaman (2 Kings 5.14) were all healed of leprosy. Jesus reportedly healed lepers (Matt. 8.1–4; Luke 17.17–19), and he commissioned the twelve to do the same (Matt. 10.8).

See also Purity, Ritual


George Wesley Buchanan