Can Clothing or a House Contract Leprosy (Lev. 13:47-59; 14:33-53)?1
While we might be attempted to explain this away as old myths in this age of scientific knowledge, we need to look closer at the passage. It is understood that many infectious diseases can be latently transferred through clothing or even the walls, doorknobs, etc. of a house – take the common cold and why we are encouraged to wash our hands so often during that time of the year. These passages however, clearly indicate that this disease is something the clothes and house were subject to. The laws and examinations of these items are as rigorous as that for a leprous person, and for obvious reasons.2 The only way to prevent the spread of the disease (either to other clothes and buildings, or to the occupants of those clothes and buildings) was to isolate and expunge the disease. Even today we still have some diseases that the only effective way to contain some infectious outbreaks is by destroying clothing, and even habitations in some cases, by fire.
In the case of the clothing, the disease might be that of microscopic insects. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown record the following:
…as the Hebrews were living in the desert where they had not the convenience of frequent changes and washing, the clothes they wore and the skin mats on which they lay, would be apt to breed infectious vermin, which, being settled in the stuff, would imperceptibly gnaw it and leave stains similar to those described by Moses. It is well known that the wool of sheep dying of disease, if it had not been shorn from the animal while living, and also skins, if not thoroughly prepared by scouring, are liable to the effects described in this passage.3
It also fits the descriptions as offered here:
The whole account, however, as Dr. A. Clarke observes, seems to intimate that the garment was fretted by the contagion of the real leprosy; which it is probable was occasioned by a species of animacula, or vermin, burrowing in the skin, which we know to be the cause of the itch; these, by breeding in the garments, must necessarily multiply their kind, and fret the garments, i.e., corrode a portion of the finer parts, after the manner of moths, for their nourishment.4
There therefore is no question that is some disease, fitting the name leprosy that can clearly inhabit and affect the clothing. It should be well and abundantly clear also that the only true way to prevent its spread was by burning. Adam Clarke offers a clear reason for God’s injunction to man on this issue:
There being scarcely any means of radically curing the infection. It is well known that the garments infected by the psora, or itch animal, have been known to communicate the disease even six or seven years after the first infection. This has been also experienced by the sorters of rags at some paper mills.5
The case of the house follows the same process. The houses of that day were more mortar and stone than the wood construction to which we are accustomed. As such, the Scriptures indicate that the owner should “…break down the house, the stones of it, and the timber thereof, and all the morter of the house; and he shall carry them forth out of the city into an unclean place” (Lev. 14:45). We can understand this need. Think of the precautions we take. We know that while dirt and rock may be inanimate, they are still organic. We again take note that the disease was said to affect the house (just as the clothing was affected) and as such it was treated much as it was for humans. If the house could not be cleaned, then it like man was cut off from the “camp” for the sake of others and its occupants. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment:
Some have supposed that the name of leprosy was analogically applied to it by the Hebrews, as we speak of cancer in trees when they exhibit corrosive effects similar to what the disease so named produces on the human body; while others have pronounced it a mural efflorescence or species of mildew on the wall apt to be produced in very damp situations, and which was followed by effects so injurious to health as well as to the stability of a house, particularly in warm countries, as to demand the attention of a legislator. Moses enjoined the priests to follow the same course and during the same period of time for ascertaining the true character of this disease as in human leprosy. If found leprous, the infected parts were to be removed. If afterwards there appeared a risk of the contagion spreading, the house was to be destroyed altogether and the materials removed to a distance.6
The benefits to us of studying these hard passages are worth the effort and time it takes to complete the study. Applying sound reasoning and proper study techniques allows us to fulfill the commands we find within the Scriptures: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). We should be as the Bereans were, receiving “…the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). May we all find the time and willingness to study God’s Word more and more – we should have the attitude of the Israelites from Nehemiah:
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading (Neh 8:5-8).
All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
2 Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset and David Brown, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Taken from e-Sword computer program.
4 R.A. Torrey, Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge, Taken from e-Sword computer program.
5 Adam Clarke, Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, Taken from e-Sword computer program.
6 Jamieson, Fausset and Brown.