Thursday, April 2, 2015

Leprosy: The Ebola of Bible Times?

Blogger: Amber Schamel Bringing HIStory to Life

Incurable disease. Those two words have terrified people for thousands of years. The recent Ebola epidemic caused panic across the globe. In Bible times, leprosy was the disease that was perhaps the most feared of them all, because like Ebola, it was contagious, miserable, with no known cure. 

What is leprosy?

Leprosy is mentioned 68 times in the Bible, however the modern definition of leprosy, and what was considered leprosy during Bible days differs. In the Old Testament, leprosy was defined as any infectious skin disease, which would include Hansen's Disease, which is what we typically think of today as leprosy. The term "Hansen's disease" was not established—giving a proper definition to the disease—until 1873. 
The 10 Lepers Come to Jesus

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases in the world, dating possibly as far back as 4000 B.C. The first records of the disease date 600 B.C. in India, China and Egypt.  It is typically thought of as a skin disease, but really it's more accurately defined as a disease of the nervous system. The bacteria attacks the nerves, which in turn leads to the loss of feeling in affected areas and also causes skin lesions. A patient can come in contact with the leprosy bacteria, but they may not show symptoms for 5-20 years. This is what made it difficult to control in Ancient times. 

Leprosy is spread by multiple skin contacts, as well as by droplets from respiratory tracts, such as saliva or nasal discharge that are transmitted from person to person. A member of a household could be infected with the disease, and unknowingly transmit it to others before the symptoms start to occur. 

A 24 yr. old man infected with leprosy
Once the symptoms become apparent, leprosy is a frightening disease because of the lepromas, which are tumor-like growths that mar the patient's skin. In actuality, most of the deformities experienced by lepers are not from the disease in itself, but the result of injuries they cannot feel. For example, they may burn or cut themselves and never even notice. 

Leprosy in Bible Times

In Bible days, leprosy was viewed as a curse from God. This view was probably gleaned from Scriptural references. 

Miriam, Moses' sister was smitten with leprosy after she publicly criticized him for marrying an Ethiopian woman. Moses prayed for his sister, and after being shut out of the camp for seven days, God healed her, and she was made clean. (Numbers 12)

Naaman, the Captain of the hosts of Syria was a leper, who was healed after he followed the instructions of Elisha. Elisha's servant, Gehazi was afterwards smitten with the disease as a curse from God, because he took money for a miracle that God had performed.

Lepers were forced to live outside the city, in what is known as a leper colony. In ancient Israel, lepers were not allowed to come into the cities. If a leper should pass someone on the road, they were to call out "unclean" so that the passerby would know to keep their distance.

The Levitical Laws regarding the disease of leprosy is found in Leviticus 13-14. These laws aided in the prevention and containment of the disease.

The Sacrifice

If somehow the leper was healed of their disease, there was a special sacrifice that had to be made at the Temple in order to cleanse them and allow them back into society. The person to be cleansed would bring two turtle doves before the priest. One turtle dove would be killed inside an earthen vessel, and its blood sprinkled upon the living bird. The living bird would then be set free.

This sacrifice makes a beautiful type. Leprosy represents sin, but we are cleansed from the sin because an innocent dove (Jesus Christ) is killed in an earthen vessel (God in flesh, buried in a tomb) and His blood sprinkled upon us as an atonement for our sin. We are then set free, just like the second bird of the sacrifice.

This research played an important role for me as I wrote the Days of Messiah series. The Jews in Jesus time would not yet have the insight to understand the shadows of this sacrifice, so they were left guessing. It adds an interesting element to the scenario. :)

To learn more about Leprosy (Hansen's Disease) today, and what modern medicine can do for it, see Jillian Kent's post from March 29th.

Amber Schamel writes stories that bring HIStory to life. She is the author of the Days of Messiah Series, and The Swaddling Clothes.  Visit and connect with Amber at


  1. Amber,
    I love this Biblical perspective on leprosy. The Levitacal Laws were all they had in those days to protect themselves. It still amazes me that when Jesus healed some of the lepers that only one came back to thank him.

    1. It amazes me too, Jillian! Your post was most interesting as well. I think it's wonderful that your daughter can help those suffering people.