It is safe to say that when most people think of the biblical commands to love our neighbors and serve the poor, lepers are not prioritized on the agenda. However, there are still almost a quarter of a million people worldwide suffering from leprosy. The Atlantic recently put out a small and informative overview of the history and eradication of leprosy. Yet, in many parts of the world, there is significant hold up in the elimination of the disease.
[Leprosy’s] biblical and historic associations with sin and shunning die hard. Limited awareness of this sort can prevent full-fledged efforts to eradicate the disease from taking hold.
Central to the eradication of leprosy may lie not so much in drugs as a switch in the way we think about it. The social stigma it continues to carry keeps it from being perceived, as Reed puts it, as “a disease like any other.”
Dating back to biblical commands to remove the leper from the camp, a certain stigma has followed leprosy over the millennia. And the problem may be theological in nature. While Christians have been at the forefront of treating the disease and caring for the afflicted, the misunderstanding of the Old Covenant law to cast out lepers has no doubt led to many hardships in curing and studying the disease.
Since leper was a junk-drawer term for most of history, it makes sense that God would have those with potentially contagious diseases (before you could tell if a disease was contagious without wiping out your closest friends and family) leave town. These practical laws, much like the proper cleaning of mold (which we now know can cause terrible physical harm if not taken care of) were meant to protect God’s people from the dangers of life.
However, this has meant much modern denial of medical care to those suffering from the disease, when the commands were meant for a certain context. This shunning was essentially medical. Today, in western society, most of us have little problem treating leprosy, but in the third world this false view still prevails.
False conclusions are being drawn about how to handle leprosy because the Bible has been mishandled. Thankfully, there are people who are taking the issue seriously.