Leprosy in the Bible

February 28, 2012

I’ve found myself thinking about leprosy in the Bible.  It is mentioned, various reference sources tell me, 55 times.  That’s about ten times more frequently than homosexuality.

 When He is trying to get Moses’ attention, calling him to leadership (Exodus 4:6-7), God makes Moses a leper, and just as quickly rids him of the condition.  As part of the same exhortation, God turns a stick into a snake and back again.  The snake is a often read as a clear symbol of sinfulness, of denial of God’s will, and so in parallel is leprosy depicted, we might say, as a condition of sinfulness.

 Later, when Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses, God shows his wrath by making Miriam a leper for seven days during which “she is shut out of the camp” (Numbers 12:9-15).  Aaron says to Moses, “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.” Leprosy is shown, we might infer, as a terrible condition visited on one because of sinful behavior.

 In Matthew 8: 1-4, Jesus encounters a leper: “1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy[a] came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Also see Mark 1:40 and Luke 5:12.)

 The New International Version translation of the Bible drops a footnote at Matthew 8:2, which says, “The Greek word traditionally translated leprosy was used for various diseases affecting the skin.”  That footnote (and similar ones that occur is a number of other contemporary translations) warns us to take care in reading the word “leprosy.”  “Leprosy” is a broader and looser term in the Bible. It was not until 1873 that Gerhard Hansen identified the bacillus responsible for leprosy, thus allowing it to be distinguished from a number of other maladies affecting the skin.

 Notice this, too, about the language: Jesus cleansed the leper, he did not heal him, even though Jesus often heals those who are sick.  Leprosy isn’t seen in the Bible as an illness so much as a lack of purity.  It is easy to see lack of purity as a condition of sinfulness.

 While there is disagreement among Bible scholars about whether the Bible is correctly read as viewing leprosy as a condition that arises from sinful behavior, it is an inference that many have made.  For example Alan Gillen (a Biology Professor [!] at Liberty University) says “Although we can’t know all the reasons that God allows disease into our lives, biblical leprosy is a powerful symbol reminding us of sin’s spread and its horrible consequences. Like leprosy, sin starts out small but can then spread, leading to other sins and causing great damage to our relationship with God and others.”

 It’s a very short step from seeing leprosy as a symbol of sinfulness (rather than simply a disease that can be caught and cured) to seeing those with leprosy as sinners who should be shunned and pitied or reviled or both.  And so lepers were commonly treated.

 I do not want to draw any close parallel between leprosy and homosexuality; I only want to note that sometimes there is good reason to see things differently today than they are portrayed in the Bible. Leprosy is a disease, mildly communicable, and (we now know) curable.  Homosexuality, on the other hand, is a sexual orientation, not communicable, a given (natural) attraction to those of the same biological sex rather than to those of the opposite biological sex.

 They are conditions of quite a different order, and neither is a manifestation of sinfulness.

 Those in the Bible as well as those who wrote the Bible misunderstood the nature of leprosy.**  I want us to open our hearts to the recognition that we have misunderstood homosexuality.  And by “we” I mean those in the Bible, those who wrote the Bible, and Indiana Yearly Meeting today in adhering to the 1982 Minute.  Or do we want to cling to the Biblical understanding of leprosy?

 Some of us are treating gays and lesbians the way many ancient peoples treated lepers: as ritually unclean, as people to be shunned.  It is time we embraced our sisters and brothers in love and friendship.

 **On a related note, James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis) notes that the Bible is wholly lacking in modern medical knowledge, and that we shouldn’t expect it to contain such understanding: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/01/why-doesnt-the-bible-contain-superior-medical-advice.html

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Bible, Homosexuality, Sin and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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