Leprosy in the Bible: Quarantine or Ritual?

| Introduction | Defining Leprosy | Diagnosing Leprosy | Curing/Reinitiation Rituals |
| Biblical Interpretation | Conclusion | Works Cited |

Diagnosing Leprosy

After being examined by a priest, a leper is exiled from the community.  (Source)

The Unclean

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While the rituals associated with the identifications of infectious skin leprosy had some sort of quarantining effect, the procedures were apparently more religious than medical.  For instance, the biblical priesthood was explicitly in control of only two diseases, leprosy in Leviticus 13 and gonorrhea in Leviticus 15. (Zias, 28) Considering the limited documentation of disease in the Old Testament, the careful descriptions of diagnosis and quarantine of leprosy suggests its religious significance.  Coupled with the biblical belief that leprosy of the skin was considered an intractable disease, the religious significance of a leper returning to good health cannot be underestimated. 

As described in Leviticus 13, potential lepers were subjected to a thorough  examination by a priest:
"When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease,
    he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons  who is a priest.
The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white
    and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease.
When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.
If the spot on his skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white,
    the priest is to put the infected person in isolation for seven days.
On the seventh day the priest is to examine him, and if he sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin,
    he is to keep him in isolation another seven days.
On the seventh day the priest is to examine him again, and if the sore has faded and has not spread in the skin,
    the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only a rash.
The man must wash his clothes, and he will be clean.
But if the rash does spread in his skin after he has shown himself to the priest to be pronounced clean,
    he must appear before the priest again.
The priest is to examine him, and if the rash has spread in the skin, he shall pronounce him unclean; it is an infectious disease."

The condition marked lepers as polluters of the community, a source of corruption to be exiled:

“"The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' // As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.”
(Leviticus 13: 45-46)

While exiling a leper may have had the practical effect of quarantining, the requirement for lepers to lament their status was significantly more religious in purpose.  And while lepers are not explicitly condemned as sinners, the condition of leprosy marks its victims as both physically and spiritually unclean, and unable to take part in the community.

Vitiligo, also know as leukoderma, as been identified by biblical historians as a possible type equivalent of white leprosy. (Source)

White Lepers

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Even harmless types of leprosy were observed as marks made by a displeased deity.  The labeling of benign forms of leprosy such as white leprosy seem like exceptions to the general rule, as some people with leprous skin can still be considered clean.  For instance, one type of leprosy possibly being the tropical disease leukoderma was characterized by bright white spots where the hairs also became white. (Gordon, 463-464)  When the patches enlarged such that they covered the entire skin, the leper was considered clean, and otherwise harmless.  Yet while still under the social stigma of leprosy, the leper still needed to undergo the same quarantine and rituals prescribed by the priesthood.  The fact that the leper needed to be presented to the priesthood was more than a concern of a benign infection turning dangerous.  With the specific case of white leprosy, the condition may be likened to the skin tone of the dead.   (Lewis, 595)  For instance when Miriam and her brother Aaron spoke against Moses, God stuck Miriam with leprosy “as white as snow”. (Numbers 12: 9-15)  Aaron summarizes the fear of this form of leprosy, pleading: “’Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb’”.  Just like one of the dead considered unclean, the victim turned white was feared to be one of the soon deceased.  The pallor of the dead compared to the pallor of a leprosy victim was a terror especially to those with darker skin at the time.  It is through this similarity to the dead that the horror derived from benign forms of leprosy traces its religious roots.

Leprous Clothing/Homes

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While the mildewing of garments and of homes may seem inconsequential to human health, the cleanliness of one’s possessions also played a role of purity in God’s eyes.  One trend of Hebrew tradition was to link cleanliness of the body to the purity of soul. (Gordon, 463-464)    For instance, before Moses was able to bring the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, Moses was ordered: “Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments” (Genesis 35: 2-3)

Similar stories such as the changing of garments before visiting the altar reinforce the importance of cleanliness in Hebrew tradition.  Clothes that were judged spoiled, or leprous, in the eyes of the priesthood were burned. (Study Light)  

House walls were also given similar consideration as priests were called in to inspect houses suspected of mildewing. (Leviticus 14: 33-52) Initially, the house was closed off in order to determine if the mildew was spreading.  If so, rocks would be gutted from the wall and the mildew scraped off and disposed outside the villiage.  When all options were exhausted, the house was utterly destroyed and transported outside the villiage to be dumped.

Even though leprosy of clothes and other inanimate objects was often merely the mildewing of fabrics and house walls, the fact that the priesthood took great pains to diagnose and such infractions on hygiene lends more evidence to the religious significance of leprosy as a corrupting influence.

Mildewing of a wall, also considered leprosy.  (Source)