One of the most boring parts of the book of Leviticus (to the average modern reader) is the section dealing with ‘leprosy’ (Leviticus 13 & 14). The visibility of disorders and blemishes of the skin makes them a cause of shame and embarrassment in all societies, but why should this condition be singled out and dealt with in such a draconian manner?
Modern Bible translations do not use the word ‘leprosy’ in these chapters, because the symptoms described here do not correlate with the disease that we now know as leprosy. Biblical leprosy was a spiritual disorder, rather than a medical one; in many cases it was clearly inflicted by God as a form of judgement on the individual concerned (e.g. Numbers 12:9,10; II Kings 5:27; II Chronicles 26:19). So we should probably not be horrified at the extreme measures inflicted on them, as if their condition were no fault of their own. Since this unique disease had been sent by God, it was naturally assumed that the person had somehow brought it upon himself.
No treatment was available, and all the priest could do was confirm the sufferer’s suspicions and place them in quarantine – which meant, in effect, complete social exclusion – in order to prevent them from defiling the whole community. This situation (a kind of ‘living death’) might last for many months or years, or a whole lifetime. There was nothing they could do to escape their fate, except pray that God might be merciful to them. If they ever had reason to believe that they were cured, they could go back to the priests and, after offering certain sacrifices, be allowed to return to normal life.
Since we are told that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,” (Romans 15:4), what can we learn from the leprosy regulations? They demonstrate just what the Law could and could not do with regard to sin. The priests could diagnose leprosy, and enforce the regulations for its containment; but they could not cure it. Rare indeed must have been the occasion when they were able to perform the ritual for cleansing! How then did they react when a steady stream of healed lepers started coming to the Temple during the ministry of Jesus (e.g. Luke 5:14,17:14)? Did any of them pause to reflect that Someone greater than the Law must be among them?
We should not overlook the strong association between Biblical leprosy and sin. Sin defiles us in God’s eyes (Mark 7:21-23). It makes us ‘unclean’ and unfit to approach Him – and there is nothing that we ourselves can do about it, because we are sinful by our very nature. The Law tells us that we are sinners (Romans 3:20) and pronounces us unclean, but offers us no way out of our predicament (Galatians 3:23). Only Christ can actually deal with our sin: He alone can take it away, cleanse us, and make us fit to enter God’s holy presence.