The skin condition which is poorly translated as leprosy in English versions of the Bible is no ordinary disease. Sufferers from the disease are not only quarantined, as we might expect; they are also declared spiritually unclean – tamei in biblical Hebrew.
Spiritual uncleanness can occur in many ways, for example contact with a corpse or a bodily emission. But there are no other examples of spiritual uncleanness in the bible where physical isolation is also required.
Spiritual uncleanness can be remedied once the source of uncleanness has been removed. The remedy requires a purification ritual. The type of ritual varies depending on what the source of the uncleanness was, but it always has both a physical and spiritual dimension: typically washing, sacrifice and a period of waiting. The ‘leper’s’ purification ritual however does not take place when the source of uncleanness is removed, that is to say when the disease is healed. It takes place once the disease has spread as far as it can and the infection has become inactive. Only then can purification take place and the quarantine come to an end.
All this suggests that the ‘leper’ is isolated because they are contagious, and they remain isolated until the disease enters a non-contagious state. The declaration of uncleanness is an additional precaution to prevent contact with others; like infection, uncleanness can be transmitted through contact.
However, if both quarantine and uncleanness in the case of a ‘leper’ are preventive, to avoid the infection spreading through contact, we would expect the same to apply to a sufferer from gonorrhoea. They too are also declared unclean once the symptom is visible. But although the disease is sexually transmitted they are not quarantined.
It is possible that the Bible does not consider gonorrhoea to be as infectious as ‘leprosy’, so that quarantine is not necessary. But in the case of ‘leprosy’ both the diagnosis and the declaration of uncleanness are in the hands of the priest. If a priest is not summoned then the sufferer is not quarantined or declared unclean. This is not the case with someone suffering from gonorrhoea, who is required to self-diagnose and to declare themselves unclean. In the case of the ‘leper’, the involvement of the priest suggests that the disease has a spiritual dimension to it over and above its physical manifestation.
The early bible commentators assumed that the spiritual dimension was connected with sin. They noted that Miriam slandered Moses and was struck with ‘leprosy’. They deduced from this that the disease was a punishment for slander. However, this is a deduction, the Bible does not implicitly connect the disease with slander or indeed any other sin. Nor does sin generally lead to uncleanness.
When Moses asked, at the Burning Bush, how he should prove to the Israelites that he had been sent to redeem them, he was told to put his hand on his chest. His hand became temporarily ‘leprous’. Although intended as a sign to the Israelites, his ‘leprosy’ was an indication of his lack of faith in the divine nature of his mission. Perhaps the spiritual dimension of ‘leprosy’ is connected to a defect in our personality or spirituality.
Anthropologists indicate that the biblical idea of uncleanness is linked to disorder, decay and imperfection, Mary Douglas suggests that the uncleanness of the ‘leper’ is due to physical imperfection, they have to be separated until cured, after which they can be ritually cleansed and rejoin society. Hyam Maccoby suggests that the ‘leper’s’ impurity results from their corpse-like appearance. It seems to be the leper’s appearance, rather than any mortal danger arising from the illness that results in impurity. Bodily perfection is a theme which recurs in the bible- blemished animals could not be sacrificed, disabled priests could not officiate. The Bible sees no distinction between spirituality and physicality. It is not necessarily a position we would agree with today.
Harry Freedman’s latest book , Kabbalah, Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available in bookshops, on Amazon or through www.harryfreedmanbooks.com