The Most Dreaded of All Biblical Diseases

You’ve seen it in the movies and it was terrifying. The most dreaded disease of Biblical times was Leprosy. We’ve all heard of the term “Leper Colony”. These were actual places where those with Leprosy were sent to live away from “normal” people. The Hebrew word for Leprosy and similar skin illnesses is tzara’at. Leprosy is rare today and is know by the name of the nineteenth-century doctor who isolated the microscopic cause of the ailment — Hansen’s Disease. The Bible takes a very dismal position on Leprosy and Lepers. It considers them both physical and spiritual outcasts from society. When the AIDS first became an epidemic there was hysteria and great overreaction towards those with HIV and with full-blown AIDS. They were considered by many to be virtually untouchable. This hysteria was akin to how Lepers were treated in Biblical times even though many types of Biblical Leprosy were curable skin diseases.

A significant difference between Leprosy and other ancient diseases is that Leprosy was treated by the Jewish priests of the day, know as the kohen. Why? the fear of the Leper was so great that he was unwelcome in any community, even the community where the healers of the time, the early physicians, lived. It was only the spiritual leader who was able to care for the Leper, keep him quarantined from the community and help him back to health. Also, Leprosy was seen, (as was most illnesses of the time) to be a punishment from God for some wrongdoing. It was the job of the priest to figure out what terrible sin had been committed to make God angry enough to send this terrible illness. Before medicine evolved to understand the microbial cause of many illnesses, it was thought that illness was a form of punishment for immoral behavior and it was a teachable moment in redemption for the sick person.

The ancient Hebrew writings of the Talmud speak to a number of moral crimes that are punished by Leprosy. These include slander or libel, bloodshed, lying, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy. The role of the priest was not that of a medical healer as it was a security guard of sorts, who made certain that the Leper was kept under strict quarantine. The process for determining if the infected individual indeed had the dreaded Leprosy was based on waiting. The priest would look at the symptoms and see if there were the telltale signs of Leprosy, which included a white discoloration of the body hair in the area of the skin infection. If the priest suspected Leprosy, the “patient” would be placed under quarantine for several days. If the infection healed or there was no further worsening of the affliction, he was kept under quarantine for one more week. After that time the patient was usually pronounced to be healed and he was free to return into the community. Of course, if the condition worsened and spread, the person was thought to have a serious case of Leprosy and was kept isolated for an indefinite period of time during which he was expected to fast and to pray in order to win back God’s favor and to become healed.

The book of Leviticus 14:2-8 detail the ritual that was used to purify the person inflicted with Leprosy who was thought to be cured. The ritual carried three distinct parts. The first part was used to cleanse the home of the Leper and was done by the priest while the Leper was still under quarantine. The priest would prepare a mixture of fresh water and blood from a bird. These two elements were thought to have purifying qualities during Biblical times. Into the mixture the priest would dip cedar wood, crimson cloth, and a second live bird. The Leper’s house was sprinkled with this preparation seven times. Then, the live bird was set free, symbolically carrying away the disease. The second phase of the purification ritual had the Leper washing his clothing, bathing and shaving. After seven days, the final phase of the ritual allowed the Leper to return to his home after once again bathing, shaving and laundering his clothes. On the eighth day the Leper would bring to the temple oil and a sheep for the sacrifice offering after which the Leper would be allowed to return to work and become a regular member back into the community.

Leprosy Today

Leprosy is caused by an infection of Mycobacterium bacteria, which is a similar strain to the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. About 250,000 new cases of Leprosy occur each year. About 60% of the cases of Leprosy now occur in India, mostly in the Northern part of India. Following India is Brazil, mostly in Northern Brazil, in areas of more extreme poverty. Brazil has about 11% of the Leprosy cases. The rest are scattered around the world in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mozambique, and Madagascar.

Leprosy is an airborne bacteria and the infection is contagious from the germs of an infected person being sent into the atmosphere by a cough or a sneeze. Leprosy is a very strong bacteria and can survive in an environment for up to a month, which is a very long time. Fortunately, most people have an immunity to this bacteria and will not contract the disease upon contact. The first signs of Leprosy is a loss of nerve function in the hands and feet. People will feel either a numbness in those areas of the body or feel a loss of functionality. One misconception about Leprosy is that your fingers and toes simply fall off from the disease. This is not true. What is more likely to happen is that these parts of the body become injured because of the loss of sensation and feeling.

Today, we have very strong antibiotics for treating leprosy. the primary antibiotic is Rifampicin, which is combined with other drugs for a long-term therapy which can list between 6 or 12 months. Rifampicin is only administered once a month and the additional medications, also antibiotics, are taken daily. The medication does provide a cure for Leprosy. However, the body provides its own response and inflammation can last beyond the treatment period and often has to be treated with steroid medications to bring down the inflammation.