463-283585Before we get into these chapters, we should spend a moment talking about leprosy and what does and does not qualify. Nowadays, we have a pretty specific definition for the disease – it’s a progressive bacterial infection that involves skin lesions, nerve damage, muscle weakness, and comes in both tuberculoid and lepromatous forms. It’s horrible, but not very infectious.

Biblical leprosy, however, seems to refer to a fairly wide variety of skin conditions. Given the description we see in these chapters, it seems that what we call leprosy today was probably a minority of what was considered leprosy then. In fact, the term “leprosy” was such a broad net that Leviticus 13 provides instructions for diagnosing leprosy in clothing, and Leviticus 14 talks about leprosy in houses (both being what we would today just call mold).

So, since leprosy covers such a huge range of ailments, the instructions for identifying it are rather convoluted and confusing. But amidst all the talk of swelling, quick raw flesh, eruptions of the skin, and other lovely symptoms, the authors take the time to reassure the readers that male pattern baldness is not unclean (Lev. 13:40).

Quarantine

According to Leviticus 13, lepers aren’t quarantined in the way that we would in a modern context, but would probably have been fairly effective (though rather cruel).

The leper is socially quarantined, having to appear as if dead or in deep mourning. The leper must wear torn clothing and let his hair fall loose, he must “cover his upper lip” (Lev. 13:45) and cry out “unclean, unclean” whenever in public. Lepers must live alone outside camp.

Cleaning a leper

The instructions of Leviticus 14 begin with: “if the leprous disease is healed in the leper” (Lev. 14:3). We can see from this that the physical disease of leprosy is related to, but separate from the social/spiritual identity of leper.

The cleansing ritual is pretty gross and involves using a live bird as a paintbrush to splatter the leper with the blood of another, dead, bird, which may well be how the guy got ringworm in the first place. Once the bird blood splattering is done, the leper must make a guilt offering and a sin offering, which implying that leprosy is a spiritual disease as well as a physical one.

To finish up, there’s an interesting little narrative nod in introducing the part about houses with leprosy. God calls Aaron and Moses and tells them: “When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession…” (Lev. 14:34). It’s a nice acknowledgement that the people are living in a camp and aren’t yet in houses. Of course, it also tells us that God is the one who creates these diseases. As we saw in Exodus, the primary concern here is with describing God’s power, not his goodness or morality or love.