Why were lepers treated so harshly by the law of Moses?

Q. What was the meaning of leprosy in the Bible? Why were lepers treated so harshly by the law of Moses?

In the Bible, the term “leprosy” applies to a broader range of skin diseases than the one known by that name today (which is Hansen’s disease, a long-term bacterial infection). As a note to Leviticus 13:2 in the NIV explains, for example, the Hebrew term traditionally translated “leprosy” was actually used for a variety of diseases affecting the skin. These included conditions such as whitening or splotchy bleaching, raised scales, boils, scabs, and so forth.

The law of Moses does seem to impose some harsh requirements on people who have such skin diseases. It says, for example, “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

We should understand, however, that these regulations served to prevent the spread of such diseases. While we can appreciate how difficult it was for those who had the diseases themselves to be identified and isolated in this way, these measures protected the community as a whole. It has been noted that during outbreaks of leprosy in Europe in the Middle Ages, Jewish communities had a much lower incidence of the disease than others because they followed these regulations in the law of Moses.

We should also note that the term “unclean” is not moral a term. Rather, it refers to the absence of a state of ceremonial cleanness. In Leviticus, that state is closely connected with the boundaries of the human body. When those boundaries are not intact or when they are broken by something going in or out, there is a temporary loss of ceremonial cleanness. That is why, for example, people become unclean by eating the wrong kinds of food (because they bring them inside the boundaries of their bodies) and why a woman becomes temporarily unclean after giving birth (her child has gone from inside to outside the boundaries of her body). Similarly, when the skin is broken by a disease, the outer boundary of the body is no longer intact.

So we should not see the isolation required of people with skin diseases as reflecting any kind of moral stigma. The hope was that they would recover from the disease as soon as possible and be restored to the community. Leviticus has just as much to say about the cleansing and restoration of a person who recovers from a skin disease as it has to say about the necessary isolation of such a person while they have the disease.

And as is the case generally for issues that trouble us in the Bible, we see the heart of God regarding the issue reflected ultimately in the character and actions of Jesus Christ, who is the culmination of God’s revelation to us. Jesus did not stigmatize or condemn people who had skin diseases. Instead, this is how he responded, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” So in the process of restoring the man to health and ceremonial cleanness, Jesus reached across the isolation and touched the man, showing that God’s desire for anyone in such a situation is healing and restoration to community.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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