Troublesome Topic: The Treatment of Lepers Part One

There’s Good news about the segregation of lepers!

It was NOT Hansen’s disease, which was previously called leprosy;

And it was not contagious.

But the medical diagnosis is unknown despite many attempts by learned people to come up with a diagnosis.

Here is the bad news:

It was destructive to the body;

It was chosen by God for people guilty of a serious sin;

It could take various forms, which causes confusion.

What Did the Hebrew Words Actually Mean?

There are three Hebrew words used in Leviticus 13 which are important for this discussion.

One meant “struck or smitten” [by God]. Our word “scourge” also fits if we see the scourge coming from God. When used of humans it was applied specifically to a skin disorder. The emphasis of this word remained true to the root word, which means struck or smitten [by God]. The word cannot mean “leprosy or skin disorder” because the same word is used of garments and of walls of houses that have a problem which looks like mold. I choose to render this word as “struck by God with a visible abnormality.” That covers all the ways the word is used. In fact, when Leviticus chapter 14 introduces the topic of this condition on the wall of a house, God specifically says “when I assign/appoint/give/place this plague and scourge in a house…” It was not a naturally occurring condition, it was something sent specifically by God.

Another word meant struck or smitten with the mark of a plague; one commentator calls it a plague spot. Sometimes both this word and the one described above are used together. They mean almost the same thing, so putting them together was a form of emphasis.

A third term used in this passage meant to tear off (think scratch off – meaning it was probably itchy). This word was used only in reference to problems in the hair of the head or the hair of the chin (the beard).

Was this Condition Contagious?

I think it was NOT contagious.

Here are the reasons I think this skin condition was not contagious:

  1. It seems to have been given by God as a punishment. That seems to have been the opinion of ancient Jews, the number of people with it were very few, and those named with it in the Bible usually were guilty of serious sins.
  2. If it was an obvious case, the priest did not quarantine! See Lev 13:11.
  3. The people near them did not seem afraid of catching it.
  4. The Bible does not call it contagious. I think it is unfortunate that some translations render it as an infectious disease. This takes the emphasis in a direction the Bible never takes it (contagious), and it fails to include the emphasis that the Hebrew words do emphasize (struck or smitten). This is really a paraphrase rather than a translation because it does not tell us what the text says, but what the translator thinks it means.
  5. Five different sacrifices were required if the person wanted to get right with God (see Lev 14:1-32). This shows that the sin committed was serious.

This skin condition was an outward, physical expression of an inward, spiritual impurity.

            In the physical realm there are things that break out on the skin because of a build up of toxins in the body. But this condition is based on an accumulation of toxins in the mind and the soul.

Lessons We Can Learn from the Law’s Treatment of People Smitten in This Way

  1. God does not tolerate rebellion or open disobedience, and repentance is a must.

As an example of this principle, let’s take a quick look at the “lepers” mentioned in the Bible:

There were 6 people in the Bible mentioned by name who had this skin disorder. They were Miriam, Naaman, Gehazi, Joab’s family members, Uzziah, and in the New Testament, the one known as Simon “the leper.” For most of them, as we read their stories, we are given the impression that this outward physical condition was a visible expression of an inward spiritual condition, and was sent directly from God as a form of punishment that was visible to all. Of those 6 people, we know for sure that 4 of them (Miriam, Gehazi, Joab’s family members, and Uzziah) were smitten with this condition as a result of their own specific rebellion or disobedience. Nothing is said of rebellion in regard to Naaman, but neither was he a believer in YHVH (read Adonai), nor is he presented as a righteous person. Rather he appears to have been quite proud. So we can assume that his case would also fall into the same general category. He wanted relief but he did not want to do what the prophet prescribed, at least at first.

That leaves Simon “the leper,” with whom Jesus and his disciples ate a meal. This one is strange because Simon was not being forced to live apart from the community as the law prescribed and Jesus accepted an invitation to go eat at his house. In that culture you only ate with someone you were in perfect peace and harmony with. If this man were being punished for rebellious sin, Jesus would not have eaten at his house. The situation does not match other cases in the Bible, and we see no evidence of divine punishment, thus it seems the better part of wisdom to assume that something else is going on here. Either this man was dubbed with that nickname even though the type of skin condition he had was of a different type and was not divine punishment, or because his skin was rough. The Greek word used to describe him means “leper,” but it also means “rough or scaly.” Rather than thinking of him as a true leper, or as someone under punishment for rebellion, we should think of him as someone with rough hands or rough skin. But in those days, the palms of the hands were often rough, so it probably refers to rough skin where normally it is not rough, or it was abnormal in some other way. If my thinking is correct, Simon did not really have a skin condition that was sent by God as punishment for rebellious sin, rather his skin looked strange. The reason the story of Simon the leper appears in the Bible is to give us yet another example of the fact that Jesus loved the outcasts, people who were ridiculed, those who were looked down upon, and those who are simply different.

We can conclude that all the other 5 who were mentioned by name as having this type of skin condition were “smitten” by God with this visible form of punishment until they repented. There were also at least 10 lepers that Jesus healed, but I will come back to that at the end of this lesson.

Notice however, that this condition seems to be contingent upon repentance. In the cases of Miriam, and Naaman the condition was reversed because they repented. In the case of Uzziah we are told he was in this condition until he died (he never repented), and in the cases of Joab’s family and Gehazi the word “forever” is used.

You will see from Lev 13:45-46 that there is more about repentance here that we realized (including myself).

Leviticus 13:45


Now the one who has been struck with a skin disorder

Go to footnote number

and in whom the recognizable mark of the plague exists, his clothes shall be torn, his head shall be loosened of its restraints, and he shall cover his mustache. He must cry “Unclean!” “Unclean!”


Now the one who has been struck with a skin disorder and in whom the plague spot is found, must show proper signs of grief and repentance – he must tear his clothes; he must let his hair become unkempt, wild and disheveled, and he must cover his upper lip. When in public he must also shout, “Watch out!” “Be careful! [Don’t act like I did!]”

Torn clothes, disheveled hair, and covering the upper lip (mustache) were signs of mourning, shame and repentance. Crying out “Unclean, Unclean!” was part of this person’s punishment in order to force them to recognize their spiritual condition, having fallen out of God’s favor because of their actions. If they refused to show these signs of repentance, they would never be forgiven and never return to their normal life.

Leviticus 13:46


All the days he has the mark of being stricken he shall be regarded as unclean for he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.


For as long as he has the outward indications on his skin that he has been struck by God, he must be regarded as being in isolation due to an unacceptable condition before God for indeed he is isolated from God and unacceptable to God while in this condition; he must live alone; he must live where he cannot influence his fellow Israelites with his rebellious attitudes.

The words “all the days he has the mark of being stricken” clearly indicate that this condition, this punishment, was intended to be temporary, not permanent. But healing usually required time – it commonly involved two weeks of quarantine, during which they would learn to seek God and prove that their attitudes had changed.

In this case God’s punishment was actually a warning rather than true punishment. In it we see God’s grace because it contained a call and an opportunity to repent and be restored to complete fellowship once again.

Notice that the Law anticipated that some would repent and be healed; it gave the priests instruction on how to know this was real and what to do. The description is very detailed because Leviticus was the instruction manual for the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came.

The Bible is complex because life is complex. God wants us to work at finding the truth. He wants us to dig and search and strive for it.

What was the primary involvement of the priests related to this skin disorder? To determine if the skin disorder was a punishment from God. Quarantining was used as a test, as an experiment to see if the condition worsened or got better.

Back to the 10 lepers Jesus healed. They still had the visible signs of the condition (Lk 17:14). But they were obviously repentant, for a rebellious person would not seek Jesus. If they had repented, why did Jesus heal them miraculously? They were going to be healed anyway.

It was a miracle of timing, based on genuine repentance, which Jesus could see because He can see the heart. He did this in part, to return them to work and family quickly. The priest would see no sign of the skin condition and therefore no need for two weeks of quarantine.

But the primary reason Jesus healed these 10 men who were already going to be healed was this. If it can only be sent by God, it can only be healed by God! This was proof that Jesus was God wearing human skin! People who heard about this would say, “He did what? No human can undo what only God can do. This must mean that ordinary-looking fellow called Jesus is actually God!” This was big stuff. This was huge.

The next lesson for the full version of this study is: The Treatment of Lepers Part two

The next lesson for Why Is That in the Bible? is: The Treatment of Lepers Part two



I have rendered this word “struck with a skin disorder” because it has two major emphases, one has to do with having a visible skin disorder and the other is the idea of being struck, the implication is, by God. This points to the fact that this happened as a direct punishment for sin and as a warning pointing to the need for repentance.