Skin diseases in the ancient world (Leviticus 13)

Illustration: leprocy photo

The Bible describes various categories of skin-related problems:

  • Festering or running sores (Leviticus 21:20, 22:22)
  • Itches (Deuteronomy 28:27), including those caused by fungal infestations (e.g. ringwork), eczema and parasitic diseases (e.g. scabies)
  • Boils and /or inflamed swellings and rashes (Exodus 9:9-10, Leviticus 13:2, Job 2:7, Isaiah 38:21)
  • Warts (Leviticus 22:22)
  • A disease traditionally rendered as “leprocy” (Numbers 12:10, 2 Chronicles 26:19).

Although some researchers do identify this last condition with modern day leprocy (Hansen’s disease), this diagnosis is almost certainly incorrect for several reasons:

  • The hair in the affected spots is sometimes described as turning white (Leviticus 13:13, 25), an effects rarely seen in Hansen’s disease.
  • Hansen’s disease causes increasing numbness as it spreads, but the Bible never mentions this characteristic.
  • Biblical “leprocy” could clear up without treatment (14:3), while Hansen’s disease cannot (barring a miraculous cure).

It is more likely then, that Biblical “leprocy” refers to a group of infectious conditions under the category of “scaly” skin dieases (cf. Leviticus 14:54-57).

Affliction with a skin disease meant that an individual was ritually unclean, but the illness was not necessarily an indication of direct punishment from God or the uncleanness a manifestation of a moral or character flaw. In certain instances, however, God did choose to inflict such diseases as consequeces for specific sins (e.g. the pharaoh in Exodus 9:8-12, Miriam in Numbers 12:10, Uzziah in 2 Kings 15:5).

NOTE: Leprocy is called Hansen’s disease after the Norwegian doctor Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen who first identified the lepra germ in 1873 so that treatment could be developed. In my home town of Bergen, you can visit the “lepra museum”, Norway’s oldest foundation. Here you can see how the treatment of leprocy has developed through the years…

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