A Time of Leprosy: Contagion and healing in the Bible

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Pino Stancari, SJ

 Pino Stancari, SJ / Church Thought / 10 June 2020


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Falling into impurity

Leprosy, like all diseases, marks the partial fall of a sick person into the sphere of impurity. The “impure” is the most elementary form of what Israel perceives as abominable to the Lord, because it contradicts life. While it awaits with hope that God’s “holiness” will finally come to encompass all profane impurity in the glory of God’s presence, Israel fears the threatening pressure of a deep evil that invades the world and penetrates even the innermost corners of material creation.

Physical evil, sin and impurity are therefore terms that are often interchangeable, as they allude to the same power by which Israel feels crushed, unless the Lord himself comes to its aid. Worship is the instrument that serves to guarantee a healthy, although temporary, containment of the “impure,” for the benefit of the purity that life needs. All the theological strands of the Old Testament, but in particular priestly theology, may be seen in this perspective.

To tell the truth, it is not even known exactly which particular disease the Hebrew word normally translated as “leprosy” designated. Certainly, it did not mean – or did not only mean – the evil that doctors and scientists today are accustomed to characterize with the specific term of their clinical vocabulary. In the Bible “leprosy” is often a generic term that serves to identify various skin diseases, sometimes contagious, but mostly only repugnant and unpleasant, as can happen in such cases (cf. Lev 13:1-44). In any case, these are mostly diseases whose symptoms are considered curable within a certain period of time.

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What really characterizes leprosy as an illness is the fact that, above all, it constitutes the worst form of impurity. As one of Job’s friends says, leprosy is the “firstborn of death” (Job 18:13), in the sense that it involves the maximum amount of impurity for the living, that is, for those who have not yet fallen into that state of unbearable impurity which is death and contact with the dead (cf. Num 9:6; 19:11.16.18; Lev 21:1-4; Ps 88:11-13). It is therefore up to the “priest,” not as a doctor, but as an interpreter of the law – and therefore an expert in discerning between the pure and the impure – to decide whether the condition is a matter of leprosy and to judge whether it has healed. (The whole ceremonial is found in Lev 13-14; cf. Mark 1:44; Matt 8:4; Luke 17:14).

In this sense, the Bible speaks of “leprosy” not only in reference to people: mould on clothes, , moss stains on the walls of houses, are also a “leprosy” that requires purification; in these cases too it is up to the priest to decide what to do (cf. Lev 13:47-59; 14:33-53).

Social and community impact

If the element that serves to conceptually identify leprosy is its “impure” character, the more concrete objective expression of this impurity should not be sought so much at the medical-therapeutic level as at the social and community level. Leprosy interrupts vital relationships. It is indeed an anticipation of death, in the manner of a tear that makes it impossible to have meetings, friendly contacts, forms of cordiality and sharing of fatigue, as well as of human conversation. The leper is declared “impure” and so is removed from the community: “The leper struck by wounds will wear torn clothing and his head uncovered; veiled to his upper lip, he will cry out: ‘Impure! Impure!’ He will be impure as long as evil lasts in him; he is impure, he will be alone, he will live outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-46).

On the basis of an anthropological conception that polarizes human life, in all its aspects and manifestations, between good and evil, between pure and impure, between sacred and profane, between blessed and cursed, the same physical illness appears closely linked to sin; and leprosy, therefore, is nothing more than a bodily sign of the guilt punished by God (see the exemplary case of King Uzziah in 2 Chr 26:19-23; on the other hand, the Egyptians had already been punished with leprosy: cf. Exod 9:8-12; Deut 28:27.35; not to mention the case of Mary, sister of Moses, in Num 12:9-15). Indeed, leprosy consists precisely in the “plague” with which God strikes the body of the sinner.  More than a disease of the body, it becomes an ignominious mark that the Lord imposes on the guilty; it is “as if his father had spat in his face” (Num 12:14).

The official condemnation that comes from the community, and the sense of guilt that flows from the depths of conscience force the leper to isolate. Therefore, he must live outside the city. It is precisely in the context of being “outside the gate” that the Second Book of Kings brings us the four lepers squeezed between the besieging army and the gates of Samaria inexorably closed to them. They will play a luminous and beneficial role in that singular episode (cf. 2 Kings 7:3-11). A rabbinical sentence, more or less contemporary to the time of Jesus, prescribes: “The lepers who enter the ramparts of Jerusalem will receive the forty blows…” (Tosephta, Kelim I,8).

In Sacred Scripture, then, the leper embodies in himself the strongest and most tangible experience of human marginalization. This means that in the Gospel accounts in which the healing of lepers is narrated, the qualifying element of these events, much more than the mere empirical fact of the prodigious event, consists in the encounter in which Jesus makes himself available. In this opening of relationships, which overcomes the marginalization and isolation of the excluded, Jesus announces the realization of one of the messianic signs: “Go and tell what you hear and see […] the lepers are cleansed” (Matt 11:4-5). Here lies the principle and the foundation of every therapeutic intervention.

Questions of anguish, embarrassment of prayer

In Sacred Scripture, lepers are not only characters who are looked at from afar, usually with suspicion and only sometimes with compassion, but they are characters who speak in the first person, characters to whom the biblical text often offers the opportunity to speak so that they may communicate to us the torment of their pain, the reality of their anguish, the embarrassment of their prayer. Their voices have become the word of God.

A certain number of “Psalms of Lamentation” probably report the invocations of sick people whose illnesses may, given certain symptoms, fall within the unifying framework of leprosy (cf. Ps 6; 22; 38; 102). Obviously these are not texts that serve to illustrate the phenomenon of the illness as such.  They are in fact living prayers, full of weeping and humiliation, whose inner strength is the convinced trust with which the sick person opens himself to God.

If lepers are outcasts, who every day find enemies and oppressors along their path, they are in no way alienated or rejected by God: “But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” (Ps 38:15). Despite the loneliness of a marginalized existence, the slow and bitter rumination of prayer slowly penetrates into the leper’s awareness the sweet certainty that the Lord is preparing a time of mercy for the entire community of God’s people: “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations. You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come” (Ps 102:11-13).

The anonymous faces of many lepers in prayer will finally find a name on the day when Israel’s sapiential reflection will make Job the representative of a humanity that God leaves sorrowful and sick, and which questions itself relentlessly about the meaning of the great condemnation that seems to weigh down on the family of the living.

Job himself is depicted with the features of the leper. The world needs lepers like him, who know how to remain – despite all the struggles, upheavals, hesitations and rebellions that this entails – in the hands of God: “So Satan (a character who appears in the final drafting of the text, removing the scandal of having to attribute certain things directly to the designs of God) […] inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’” (Job 2:7-10).

Salvation and healing

From the core of the religious experience of Israel emerges the awareness that God alone is able to heal; the same experience of salvation is re-lived in terms of a “healing.” It is the same Lord who says: “For I am the Lord who heals you!” (Exod 15:26). In the same way, Israel’s official confession of faith proclaims: “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 26:8). Similar statements appear throughout the course of the Old Testament such as the account of  the gesture of the midwife who intervenes to extract a creature from the womb (cf. Ps 136:10-12). One can therefore speak of the Lord as the “doctor” and the “liberator.” To him even lepers, among other sick people, cry out: “Heal me!” (Ps 6:3; Jer 17:14). Only God can heal lepers, as Elisha well knows (cf. 2 Kings 5:7-8). Every sick person healed, then, in the songs of thanksgiving, remembers: “You have healed me!” (Ps 30:3; 103:3).

The figures of lepers emerge from the pages of Sacred Scripture as exemplary images of the salvation discourse that God addresses to humanity. The healing of the world also passes through the life, illness and death of lepers. They are those, almost the living dead, who experience to the extreme the vagaries of life, the novelty of the encounter and the fullness of the Word that reconciles.

One should not be surprised, therefore, if that mysterious character which Deutero-Isaiah identifies as the Servant of God, from whose suffering life flows for all, is depicted with some of the typical features of the leper: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering  and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised, and we held him of no account” (Isa 53:3; the whole fourth Song of the Servant deserves to be read: Isa 52:13-53:12).

Reading and meditating for a long time on this prophetic text, Jesus will discover that his messianic vocation was depicted in this Servant. His vocation will fully correspond to it. In him, Jesus our Messiah, who became a leper for us, the human community found blessing and life again: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:4-5). If we cover our faces, it is because we know we can be reflected in his face. It is the face of God made man who bent down to look at the plight of the lepers who had prayed to him, took pity on them and purified them (cf. Matt 8:2-4; Mark 1:40-44; Luke 5:12-14; 17:11-19).

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In the dramatic health situation that is upsetting our current historical situation, reflections on the theme of leprosy in Sacred Scripture can perhaps help us to deal with the threatening contagion of Covid-19 from the always therapeutic perspective of salvation history.


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DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 06 art. 13, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0620.13