There are reports of leprosy in countries like Egypt, China, and India since 600 B.C. It was also prevalent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The belief is that the Israelites inherited the disease from Egypt while they were slaves there for four hundred years. Researchers found leprosy bacteria among some mummies in Egypt. The leprosy causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness and would worsen slowly. The public misunderstood leprosy and feared throughout history as incurable and contagious. Its cause was unknown.
The first successful development of multi-drug treatment (MDT) for leprosy happened only in the 1970s on the island of Malta. The present understanding of the cause of leprosy is bacteria that are not usually contagious and treatable by antibiotics. It is more a disease of the nervous system that affects skin, limbs, and other parts of the body by the working of leprosy bacterium. It’s spread is only through constant contacts with the lepers.
The Biblical understanding of leprosy is wider than what we understand today as Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy). During the Biblical times, leprosy included a variety of infectious skin diseases, cancer, and elephantiasis. People considered leprosy as a contagious and dreadful disease in the Biblical times. Besides, the popular belief was that it was a curse or punishment from God for the sins of the affected people. Moses said: “The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured” (Deut 28:27).
The community viewed lepers as sinners and spiritually dead. So, the priests inspected them and declared them unclean. The community expelled the lepers as outcasts from their family and society. Leviticus chapter 13 and 14 give details on the symptoms of leprosy and the procedures associated with managing the lepers. The major symptoms of a leper, according to Leviticus 13:1-3, are: a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot on the skin that becomes like a leprous sore. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the leper and “if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore.” The priest will then pronounce such a person as unclean.
After the confirmation of leprosy, the person could not come to the Tabernacle, and he had to live outside the community. “The garments of one afflicted with a scaly infection shall be rent and the hair disheveled, and the mustache covered. The individual shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’” (Lev 13:45). Contact with a leper made one unclean and unable to attend any religious service. So, the public avoided contact with lepers, and the lepers kept distance from others (Lev 13:45-46). The people considered the places where lepers entered as defiled. Though they could enter the synagogue for worship, they had an isolated place there. They had to enter together before the congregation entered and leave only after they left. If the lepers go beyond their allowed boundary anywhere, their punishment was forty whip stripes. Hence, the lepers had spiritual, emotional, social, and economic misery.
LEPERS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The first mention of leprosy in the Bible was one among the three signs God gave to Moses to convince the people of Israel that God sent Moses as their liberator. The power of Moses to heal leprosy was a miraculous authority God gave to Moses (Ex 4:4-8). So also, Jesus, the liberator of humanity from sin, could heal the lepers using his miraculous power.
The Old Testament records two instances of healing of lepers. One was Miriam who, along with her brother Aaron, spoke against their brother, Moses. Because of this sin, Miriam became a leper. She got healing after seven days by the intervention of Moses to God to heal her (Num 12:1-15). The other instance was the cure of Naaman, a pagan and army commander of the king of Aram, by Prophet Elisha (2 Kgs 1:14). The other lepers mentioned in the Old Testament by name are Joab (2 Sam 3:29), Gehazi (2 Kgs 5:20-27), and King Uzziah (2 Chr 26:16-21). They got leprosy as punishment from God for their sins and did not get the healing. Thus, leprosy was associated with sin during the Old Testament times.
LEPERS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The Gospels record healing of eleven lepers by Jesus. He healed a leper who approached him at Capernaum for cure (Mt 8:1-4, Mk 1:40-45, Lk 5:12-15). He also healed a team of ten lepers (Lk 17:11-19). Jesus might have healed more lepers that the evangelists have not recorded. Jesus had given authority to his twelve apostles to heal the lepers. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons” (Mt 10:8). These were signs of the apostles sharing the Messianic authority of Jesus, like Moses received from God at the Burning Bush.
Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) give the name of another leper who invited Jesus for dinner in his house. This leper lived in his own house in Bethany and while Jesus was dining at his house, a woman anointed the feet of Jesus. This leper was living in the community because his leprosy might have been a light one or he get healing and still known as Simon the Leper. There is no mention of Jesus healing him in the gospels. However, Jesus might have healed him before. Though some types of leprosy would cure, an instant cure of leprosy was a miracle, as Jesus did.
While others kept away from the lepers as unclean, Jesus “stretched out his hand, touched” the leper who approached him and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean” (Mt 8:2-3). Healing and holiness flowed from Jesus to the leper instead of uncleanliness flowing from the leper to Jesus. Our contact with the sinners should make them holy rather than them make us sinners.