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30 JOURNAL OP BIBLICAL LITERATURE 



NOTE ON LEPEOSY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 

J. Dyneley Prince 

Columbia UisrivERsiTY 

In Lev. 13 and 14 the word ni^"lV is used a number of times 
to denote a skin disease, the sufferers from which were tahu^ 
according to the Hebrew Code. Common tradition has trans- 
lated this term as "leprosy" (meaning elephantiasis Grae- 
corum), and until comparatively recently this interpretation has 
not been questioned. The leprous character of D^*15f is now 
doubted by very high authority. Thus, Prof. Morris Jastrow, 
Jr., in his able treatise on the "So-called Leprous Laws of the 
Old Testament"^ makes the foUoming statement: "that ni^"lV 
was never intended as a designation of leprosy (or elephantiasis 
Graecorum) is now so generally admitted as to require no 
further discussion. Indeed, there is no proof that the disease 
was known in Palestine in early days more than in Egypt, or in 
other parts of the near Orient." Professor Jastrow adds: "If 
it (ni?"l^) had been known, it would certainly have been enu- 
merated among the diseases threatened as curses in Deut. 28 : 27, 
where it is not mentioned." It should be remarked in this con- 
nection, however, that there may really be an allusion to leprosy 
in this passage, as, if the athnah be omitted, the text reads: 
N£nn'? 'iy\n Vb IS^^K D~in3 which may be rendered "the 
scabies of which thou canst not be cured," an expression which 

"^ The stem y^'i probably means 'strike down, overcome' and is seen in 
Bab. gir'u snake, which biliteral root "'S appears also in gararu 'be hostile' 
(cirru 'foe'). The cognate stem appears in Ethiopic as >'7!f and Arabic 
sara' a 'strike to the ground.' Its use in the O.T. to denote maculation or 
pustulation refers to the striking or attack of the disease. 

* The victims of nj?i!f were driven outside' the settlement; 2 K. 7, 3, 8, 
or, as in the case of the leper kings TJzziah and Jeroboam, had to live in 
separate dwellings; 2 Chr. 26, 20-2; 2 K. 15, 5. Such a regulation really 
proves the knowledge possessed by the Hebrew priests of the dangerous 
character of the malady. 

* Cf . also G-. N. Miinoh, die Zaraath der Eehr. Bihel, p. 145; Bennett's, 
Diseases of the Bible, pp. 40 ff; Jay F. Sohamberg, "The Nature of the 
Leprosy of the Bible," Phila. Polyclinic, VII (1898), pp. 162-169, and 
Jastrow, op. cit., notes 2 and 144 for remarks on these and other citations. 



PRINCE: LEPROSY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 31 

might be synonymous with the unclean rii^li' of Lev. 13 and 14. 
On the other hand, Di^~l^ is actually included among the curses 
on the house of Joab in 2 S. 4 : 29, and it appears 2 K. 5, passim, 
as the curse of Naaman the Syrian, while in 2 K. 15 : 5 Jeroboam 
was smitten with nj7~lif as a curse, and in 2 Chr. 26 : 20-21, 
King Uzziah was similarly stricken. There is plenty of textual 
proof that D^")^ was regarded as one of the greatest of human 
ills, even if Deut. 28 : 27 be omitted. 

This entire subject, although of considerable interest, is 
beclouded by some uncertainty and in this brief discussion it is, 
therefore, only possible to follow the lines of greater probability. 
It is much too generally assumed that ancient peoples could not 
make a correct diagnosis and particularly of so complicated an 
ailment as leprosy, the characteristic bacillus of which has 
become definitely known only within recent years. It must be 
remembered that the ancients often made very correct clinical 
observations of disease, as may be seen from many conclusions 
arrived at by Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna. Bearing this 
principle in mind, and reading Lev. 13 : 2-46, which deals with 
Sl}?'\)S and its symptoms, one is tempted to think that this term, 
even if it did not denote exclusively what we now know as lep- 
rosy, at least included that dread disease. In other words, that 
while ny~!V could be and probably was used at a late date ( Jas- 
trow, p. 401) of other eruptive maladies, it was also used to 
denote leprosy itself. It would be unreasonable to expect an 
exact terminology, as even today psoriasis may be known medi- 
cally as lepra. 

Some years ago, being anxious to see leprosy at first hand under 
scientific auspices, the present writer visited the famous leper 
hospital at Bergen in Norway under the guidance of Dr. Krabbe, 
the local expert in the subject. After observing one hundred 
and eighty lepers, the writer under the supervision of Dr. 
Krabbe made notes of leprous phenomena with a view to an 
examination of the disease among ancient peoples. The main 
purpose of this investigation was merely to discover the recog- 
nized symptoms of leprosy, in order, if possible, to identify the 
disease in the Old Testament and the Cuneiform Inscriptions.* 

* It is impossible as yet to identify leprosy in the Cuneiform Inscriptions, 
as the symptoms of diseases are not so clearly described as in the O.T. The 
Sumerian ideogram a(ID)-sigr(PA), evidently to be read d-zag, or a-sag 



33 JOUENAL OP BIBLICAL LITERATURE 

The symptoms of leprosy have long been known ; in fact, long 
before the leprous bacillus was separated microscopically. 

In the very first stages of the malady, the indications are often 
so obscure as to cause leprosy to be mistaken for at least seven 
other non-related diseases.'* This confusion, however, is possible 
only in the very early stages of leprosy which quickly takes on 
its own well-defined form. Leprosy usually begins with a 
patch-like lumpy rash which does not fade under pressure. The 
important point in this connection is that this initial eruption 
may entirely disappear and reappear after a long interval, when 
the next and unmistakable form of the disease manifests itself, 
i. e., either tuberculation, or the appearance of the white skin 
(anaesthetic leprosy). It must be remembered in studying the 
Old Testament descriptions of n]7iy that there are two forms 
of leprosy; viz., the tuberculosis or pustulating phenomenon, 
peculiar mostly to men, and the anaesthetic or snow white skin- 
decay, to which chiefly women are subject. Of the cases 
observed by the writer at Bergen, only two exceptions to this rule 
were pointed out by the physician, which is about the average 
proportion at the present time, viz., 1.1^. Furthermore, a 
number of the Bergen cases were under medical surveillance, the 

(Semitized form asaJchu) which indicates a malady "destroying strength" 
may have included leprosy, but it is by no means certain. It has been 
suggested that d-sig was assimilated to the usual asag 'bright, shining' 
and meant 'shining sickness' and hence 'leprosy '(?). A-sig has also been 
identified with consumption (Ball, PSBA. 13, p. 103). It is probable that 
a-sig simply meant 'strong (disease'); ef. esig-=z DAN, Delitzsch, Sum. 
Glossar, p. 36. A-sig is associated with the ailment nam-Tcudi'TA'B,) 'the 
cutting sickness,' HT. No. 12, Col. 1, 45-47, where both ailments are called 
the malady "which never leaves a man" (cf. IV R. 16, 2 21-22 a). 
A-sig =z osakTcv, is usually used with margu 'sick,' i. e., the morbid disease. 
J. R. Proksch, Monatshefte fiir Praletische Dermatologie, 1891, p. 24, sug- 
gested that the incurable disease of the famous Gilgames was leprosy, but 
the allusion might equally well have been intended for some other malady, 
possibly syphilis. 

^ These are: lupus, syphilis, erythema multiforme, multiple sarcoma (can- 
cerous), Raynaud's disease, thrombo-phlebitis, to which Jews are said to 
be especially subject, and syringomyehia (Monographic Medicine, V (1916), 
M. Howard Fussell, pp. 84-85). Jastrow's contention that n;?1S was pso- 
riasis is not supported by the symptoms indicated in Lev. 13. Psoriasis 
(washerwoman's itch) shows a red rash with pearly peeling scales and is 
not readily mistaken for leprosy. 



PRINCE: LEPROSY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 33 

physician being in doubt as to the leprous nature of the initial 
rash, a circumstance which strongly reminds one of the surveil- 
lance prescribed in Lev. 13 : 4-6, where a probation of fourteen 
days" was ordered in the case of a suspicious nj/"llf- 

Applying our modern knowledge of leprous symptoms to those 
indicated in Lev. 13, the following facts seem clear. First, that 
in Lev. 13 : 12-13, the priest was authorized to pronounce 
"clean" a patient over whose entire body the rash had spread, 
seems to show clearly that the ancient Hebrews were quite aware 
that this phenomenon was not characteristic of an "unclean" 
nj?1^ i. e., of a real leprosy.' It must be supposed that the 
patients who were brought to the priest for inspection were all 
in the initial stage of some skin disease and the object of bring- 
ing them forward for observation was to ascertain whether the 
rii?~\)£ was of the tahu variety ; viz., leprosy. Secondly, one is 
struck by the statement in Lev. 14 : 3 that if the HJ/llf j/JJ 
(AV. plague of leprosy) was healed in the ^)1)i, the patient, 
evidently after due observation, was to be pronounced "clean." 
This fading of the rash, while it might be peculiar to some other 
skin disease of a lighter variety, might equally well be a charac- 
teristic of genuine leprosy as indicated above under the symp- 
toms of real leprosy.' Thirdly, the swelling (HKii'). the growth 

(nrtfip). and especially the bright spot (n"|ri3) which, to be 

tabu, must be subcutaneous, indicated Lev. 13 : 2 as the symp- 
toms of a genuine nj7"llf, readily agree with the leprous initial 
rash just mentioned, both as to color and consistency. Fourthly, 
the test indicated Lev. 13:4, as to the appearance of a white 
swelling (p*?; also Lev. 13:38-39) coincides with genuine lep- 
rous appearance. Fifthly, raw living (= Tl) flesh. Lev. 13 :14-17, 
and baldness (rT"|p). Lev. 13:40-44, eruption on the head or 

° This probation of the O.T. may be negative evidence. The rule of 
segregation and observation may have been adopted to eliminate other skin 
maladies, whose eruptions might appear in the experience of the Hebrew 
priests during the indicated period (cf. below note 7). 

' The eruption in the initial stages of leprosy does not appear all over the 
body. It is very significant that this fact was known to the Hebrews. 

* All authorities are now agreed that the initial leprous rash may dis- 
appear; MonograpUo Medicine, V (1916), M. Howard Fuasell, p. 92; 
Blakiston, Diseases of the Slcin, 1893, p. 598, et al. 

3 



34 JOURNAL OP BIBLICAL LITERATURE 

beard (^JJ). Lev. 13 : 29-37, are all present in this disease. All 
the symptoms just noted seem to be those of the tuberculous or 
pustulating leprosy, but if we examine 2 K. 5 : 27, where Naaman 
becomes j'7t2'D y^)!t2 'struck with ni^~llf like snow,' and Ex. 
4 : 6, where the hand of Moses was stricken with a ni/")^, also 
'like snow' (j'^tJ'.D nj^1!i?0)> these allusions appear to refer to the 
anaesthetic form of leprosy, rare in males. In this connection 
should be noted also, that in Nu. 12 : 10, a female (Miriam) 
becomes j'^tJ'D r)i?"15fO 'leprous as snow.' 

To sum up, it seems probable then, in spite of the necessary 
absence of proof by modern medical methods, that the ni^"1!if 
described in Lev. 13, 14, and in the other passages just cited, was 
the curse" of real leprosy, as this jl^")^ was evidently an ailment 
which strikingly corresponded in its symptoms to modern leprosy. 

Finally, the fact that the term nj^1!i? was also used to indicate 
maculation, due no doubt to mould, in houses (Salpeterfrass) , 
or in garments, does not militate against the use of the word to 
denote the genuine chronic leprous state in human beings, but 
rather confirms the theory that P\i?'y!£ was the appropriate 
expression to indicate leprous conditions. 

' Some authorities now claim that leprosy is curable by the use of chaul- 
mugra oil, a vegetable oil expressed from the seeds of gynocardia odorata, 
an East Indian herb used also in the treatment of psoriasis and scaly