Famous lepers of the Bible

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | October 7, 2016

Links between sin, disease and relationships with God and others

“Unclean! Unclean!”

We all know about lepers in the Bible. They had to live outside the regular community, call out “Unclean!” to passers-by, wear torn clothes and cover the lower part of their faces (Lv 14:35). Contact with a leper made one unclean and unable to attend any religious service.

In this Sunday’s (Oct. 9) first reading, we hear about Naaman, an army commander for the king of Aram (an area around present-day Syria). Naaman was a leper, who was healed by God working through the prophet Elisha.

Naaman is one of seven lepers named in the Bible. (The lepers Jesus cured in Mk 1:40-45 and Lk 11:17-19 were not named.)

Leprosy in the Bible is not the leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, we know today, with its deformity of limbs and decay of hands and face. Biblical leprosy is described in Leviticus 13 as a progressive disease that causes scabs and crusts on the skin, leaves white patches (similar to vitiligo) on the skin, turns hair white and causes bald spots.

The word “leprosy” comes from the Greek word, lepra, which refers to “scabs” or “peeling.” The Jewish word is tzaraat (or zara’at), which can mean “to have a skin disease.” However, tzaraat also comes from a verb meaning “to smite.” In Jewish tradition, a leper was considered smitten by God.

In the Bible, leprosy was a physical ailment, but it also had a spiritual dimension. This is explained in an article by five Jewish authors at the Jewishencyclopedia.com website, including Rabbi Emil Hirsch, professor of rabbinical literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago.

“There is much reason to believe that the segregation of lepers was regarded,” they explained, “… more in the light of a religious ceremonial than as a hygienic restriction. Tzara’at was looked upon as a disease inflicted by God upon those who transgressed his laws, a divine visitation for evil thoughts and evil deeds. Every leper mentioned in the Old Testament was afflicted because of some transgression.”

So let’s explore the six named lepers in the Old Testament:

MOSES:  Yes, Moses is considered to have had leprosy, at least briefly. We can see the instance referred to in Exodus’s fourth chapter: Moses objects when God tells him to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. God has Moses put his hand into his cloak and, when he pulls it out again, “his hand was covered with scales, like snowflakes.” When Moses again puts his hand in his cloak, it comes out clean (Ex 4: 6-7). (What exactly Moses did wrong has been debated by Jewish scholars.)

MIRIAM:  This idea of divine punishment is clear in another Exodus story. After Moses’ sister complains against him, God is definitely angry. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, causing God to descend in a column of cloud to confront them. “Now the cloud withdrew from the tent, and there was Miriam, stricken with a scaly infection, white as snow” (Nm 12:10).

When Moses and Aaron — who somehow escaped punishment — pleaded with God to heal Miriam, God instead banished her to a tent outside the community for seven days. Only then was Miriam healed.

NAAMAN: This army commander heard about the the God of Israel from his wife’s Hebrew servant girl (2 Kings 5). When Naaman approached Elisha in Samaria, asking to be healed of his leprosy, the prophet did not speak to him directly. This angered Naaman, who grew even more upset when told to “wash seven times in the Jordan.” However, at the urging of his servants, Naaman obeyed and “his flesh became again like the flesh of a little child.”

GEHAZI:  While Elisha refused the gifts that Naaman tried to give him, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, became greedy. In 2 Kings 5:20, we see Gehazi go after Naaman to get two silver talents and some “festal garments” for himself. However, God — and thus Elisha — saw Gehazi. Elisha tells his servant: “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever. And Gehazi went out, a leper with skin like snow.”

JOAB:  Even though no more is told about Gehazi or his family, another family was marked for leprosy because of the bad acts of one of its members. In the Second Book of Samuel, we find Joab, a nephew of King David and a commander in his army. By treachery, Joab murders Abner, who had commanded Saul’s army when it fought against David’s at Gibeon. Joab’s brother had been killed by Abner there, so Joab later took revenge. When David learns of Abner’s murder, he cursed Joab: “May Joab’s family never be without one suffering from a discharge, or one with a skin disease …” (2 Sam 3:29).

UZZIAH:  The last person cited by name in the Old Testament as bringing God’s anger upon himself in the form of leprosy is King Uzziah. He was one of David’s descendants and had a long and prosperous reign. However, he eventually grew too proud and one day decided to enter the Temple to offer the incense himself. This was an act which only a priest could do.

Uzziah was confronted by 81 Temple priests and grew angry about it. However, at that very moment, there was an earthquake and “leprosy broke out on (Uzziah’s) forehead.” Uzziah then repented and let the priests expel him “for the Lord had afflicted him.” Uzziah had to turn his kingdom over to his son, Jotham, and lived the rest of his life apart from his people (2Chr 26).

SIMON: One more named leper appears in the Bible, in the New Testament. Simon the Leper (Mt 26: 1-13 and Mk 14:3-9) lived in Bethany and invited Jesus to a dinner at his house. During the meal, an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and Simon, in his thoughts, judged her. Jesus did not let him get away with it and used it as a teaching moment.

Little else is known about Simon the Leper, but the fact that he gave a dinner at his house means he was not living apart from the community as lepers were required to do at the time and as other, anonymous, lepers Jesus healed did. Perhaps his leprosy was more internal than external — and offers a lesson to others.


Sources: Jewishencyclopedia.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Easton’s Bible Dictionary”; and the “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.”

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