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Leviticus 13-14: Skin Diseases & Leprosy

Original Publication Date
January 30, 2016
Updated
Jan 10, 2023 1:24 AM
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Bible References
Leviticus 13-14
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This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on January 30, 2016 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.

Introduction

The Bible mentions leprosy often, and it was probably the worst thing you could have in Biblical times. Lepers were considered unclean and cast out from society. I always assumed leprosy in the Bible and leprosy today were the same thing, however the Hebrew word tsaraa'ath (translated to leprosy) refers to changes in the surface of human skin.[1] Apparently leprosy in the Bible is unlikely to be the leprosy we know today. During the postexilic period, rabbis went on to identify 72 types of skin disease.[1] In this post I'll look at the "types" of leprosy described in the Bible and their medical definitions today.

Biblical Leprosy

The Bible uses the word leprosy to define several types of skin ailments, all of which are called leprosy. Instructions are given to deal with anyone who has a rising, a scab, or bright spot on their skin. Generally, if the hair in the skin had turned white and it looks deeper than the skin of the flesh, it is deemed leprosy and the person is instantly pronounced unclean. Otherwise, the person was set apart for seven days. If on the seventh day the priest found that the plague had not spread, the person was set apart for another 7 days. If the irregularity had spread, the person was declared unclean and it was ruled "leprosy." However, if the spot did not spread and became dark, the person was required to wash his clothes and pronounced clean. Further, there was differentiation between the skin turning white all over and the presence of raw flesh.

Vitiligo?

In Leviticus 13:9-17, it seems possible that vitiligo, the condition in which a person's skin loses pigmentation in blotches, is the skin ailment pronounced clean—the skin turns white and this discoloration can spread from head to toe, but there is no raw skin or sores. Vitiligo is not contagious, nor is it life threatening, which would be expected of any skin ailment God deemed clean (or safe).[4][5][6]

Boils

God details the treatment of a boil, as well. He says that if the hair turns white it is leprosy, but if it is simply dark and not deeper than the skin, the person is to be set apart for 7 days. If it spread, the person was unclean. Boils do in fact turn white—due to pus—roughly 4 to 7 days after the infection occurs. Once the boil has healed the skin would darken or return to its usual color, just as God instructs. Even today, the "when to seek medical attention" symptoms include the spreading or appearance of more boils.[7][8]

Psoriasis or Eczema?

Described as an inflammation of the burning, the skin condition listed in Leviticus 13:24-28 is often compared to psoriasis.[1][9]

Here, God says if the skin turns somewhat dark, it is clean and simply inflammation. However, if the condition spreads across the skin or appears deeper than the skin, it is considered leprosy. Psoriasis, which generally causes the skin to turn red or white, can occur anywhere on the body. Based on my research, I do not think the condition spreads so much as appears in particular locations. However, there is no timeline on psoriasis; the skin could be inflamed for much more than 7 days. I am not sure that the skin will be "somewhat" dark to warrant the person being marked clean (psoriasis is not contagious and thus I would expect it to be "clean", of course I could be wrong, God could still consider it unclean for a reason I am not privy to). There is also the possibility that this passage is speaking of eczema, which is similar to to psoriasis, but definitely will leave a dark patch as it heals (I know this from experience). Eczema can also last indefinitely, so if these passages refer to either of these ailments, it is likely those of us with sensitive skin would have been considered lepers. Not much is known about what causes either of these skin ailments, though allergens seem to be the trigger.[8][11]

Discussion on why this might be considered unclean can be found at the end of the post.

Hair Trouble

When the Israelites had an ailment with their head (not just balding), God instructs them to examine if the hair has turned yellow. Though I have not seen confirmation of this, it seems to me that this may be a sign of pus. Thus was considered unclean. The absence of a black hair meant the person was set apart for 7 days then re-examined. If a yellow hair does not appear and the rash appears only skin deep, the person was to shave their head (but not the area in question) and wait 7 more days. If a black hair grows out the area, the person is pronounced clean. Since this passage specifically declares "man or woman" we can assume that women were also expected to shave their heads in this case. I wonder if lice was an issue during Moses' era and if it were part of this description; while the hair would not turn yellow, a yellowish egg would be on the hair and it would spread, rendering the person unclean.

Some men go bald; I have classmates who at 27 years old have already started to bald. The occurrence of balding is not just for men, it can happen in rare cases to women as well. Alopecia, or male patten baldness, causes the hair follicles on the head to stop producing new hair.[12][13] Balding has been a concern for people for quite some time, evidently even in Moses' day they were concerned about losing hair. God pronounces baldness as clean.

Freckles

Bright spots were also a concern for the Israelites. Darkened spots were considered freckles and pronounced clean. Thus the first time an Israelite produced a baby with freckles (or in the New Testament met a Gentile with freckles), they would know nothing was with wrong the child (or Gentile). Most people are born with freckles, however some may appear due to exposure to the sun. Freckles are harmless and God knew that He would create many people with freckles across the globe, likely He wanted to ensure they were not cast out for their uniqueness.[14]

Leprosy Today

If you look up leprosy today, you will see that it is a disease which causes skin lesions, muscle weakness, and numbness. The skin lesions are lighter than one's natural skin complexion and do not heal over time. The disease is contagious, though sources suggest it is not highly contagious. While it is not recommended by the medical community to isolate lepers today, prolonged contact with someone infected with the disease is not advised. Today there are treatments for leprosy, though during Biblical times, there was likely nothing to ease the pain.[2]

Cleansing Lepers

Once the skin disease had healed, the person could be cleansed and rejoin the Israelite society. For this, they were to perform an offering that required two clean birds, hyssop, scarlet and cedar wood. The first bird was to be killed in an earthen vessel over running water. The second bird, scarlet, hyssop, and cedar wood were to be dipped in the the blood of the first bird. The blood was to be sprinkled upon the person and then the priest would pronounce him clean. The living bird was to be set free in a field, possibly symbolizing the uncleanness leaving the body. Once the ritual was complete, the person was to wash himself and his clothes. On the seventh day, the person was to wash again and shave all hair from his head, including eyebrows and beard (I wonder if this rule applied to women as well?). On the eighth day, another offering was to be given. This offering required 2 male lambs and 1 female lamb, all in their first year and without blemish, as well as, flour mingled with oil (for a meat offering), and a log of oil. One male lamb was given as a trespass offering. The log of oil was given as a wave offering. The blood of the offering was to be placed on the right ear, toe and thumb of the person—note that the right side is always considered the "good" side. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and people blessed their eldest son with the right hand. By placing the blood on the right side of the body, they are interacting with the "best" side of the person. The priest was to sprinkle the oil, with his right finger, 7 times before God and upon the blood of the trespass offering (including the ear, nose, toe, and thumb). The last of the oil was to be poured over the man's head. Next the priest was to use the two lambs to give a sin offering and a burnt offering. Finally, he gave the meat offering. If the person was too poor to offer 3 lambs, he could offer 1 lamb for the trespass offering, with two pigeons or turtledoves (two for a sin offering and 1 for the burnt offering).

Unclean Garments

Clothes, being porous and in close contact with the skin, were recognized to be carriers of the plague. As such, they would be deemed unclean as well. Clothing could be quarantined if the infection was something that would go away, or destroyed. If the clothing had reddish or greenish spot, it was to be taken to the priest who would quarantine the clothing items. If the spot did not spread and darkened after a wash, that spot was to be torn out of the clothing. If the spot was still there, it was deemed unclean and was to be destroyed with fire. If the spot disappeared, the garment was to be washed once more, then declared clean.

Why Are Skin Diseases Unclean?

In a post by Pastor Deffinbaugh, the question of why a person should be declared unclean for something they have no control over comes up. His post and question discuss both skin diseases and other matters of ritual uncleanness such as child birth.

The first thought that came to mind was the fact that these were both reminders and byproducts of sin. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked around naked all the time, but as soon as they ate the forbidden fruit, they were ashamed of their nakedness. Seeing each other in that manner was not only a reminder of the sin they had committed, but a catalyst for fleshly sins. In a perfect world, there would be no lust only love, and there would be no skin ailments. These changes remind us of the price of sin, something to be reflected upon during the time a person is considered unclean. Overall, my initial thought was that we had fallen, and while one particular sin may not have caused me to contract a skin disease, the fact that I have sinned and those around me have sinned, make me susceptible to such a disease. Again, in a perfect world, these things would not even exist.

Pastor Deffinbaugh's explanation is similar. He suggests these outward physical maladies remind God and us of our sinful nature. He adds that the uncleanness reaped from sex, even with one's spouse, was to safeguard Israel from incorporating sex rituals with worship. I think this makes perfect sense, even in today's covenant. As the bride of Christ, He wants our full attention—mind, body, and soul—when we come to worship Him. It stands to reason that He would not want to be intimate with His church right after each member had been intimate with their spouse. You cannot worship God at the same time you are seeking pleasure for yourself; thus, declaring the artifacts of the act unclean ensured that no one would be having sex while they were supposed to be worshipping God.[10]

References and Footnotes

  1. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 197. 2014
  2. Vyas, Jatin. "Leprosy". Medicine Plus. US National Library of Medicine. September 2013
  3. "Leprosy Overview". WebMD. 2015
  4. "Leprosy Overview". WebMD. 2015
  5. "Vitiligo". American Academy of Dermatology. 2015
  6. "Fast Facts About Vitiligo". National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. 2016
  7. "Boils". WebMD. 2016
  8. "About Psoriasis". National Psoriasis Foundation. 2016
  9. "Jesus Heals a Leper and Creates Much Excitement". Bible Study Tools. 2014
  10. Deffinbaugh, Robert L. "9. Offending God: The Clean and the Unclean—Part II (Leviticus 12-15)". Bible.org. May 2004
  11. "Eczema". National Eczema Association. 2016
  12. "Alopecia Areata". WebMD. 2016
  13. "Male pattern baldness". Medicine Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2016
  14. The Nemours Foundation. "What Are Freckles?". Kid's Health. 2016

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