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Leprosy (Word Study)

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To judge from biblical narrative, “leprosy” (tsara’at) was generally recognized in ancient Israel as a specific condition that humans might suffer from, sometimes as divine punishment (Num 12:9-10; 2Sam 3:29; 2Kgs 15:5). The vast majority of occurrences of tsara’at (and related terms), however, are found in the priestly discussion of this condition in Lev 13-14. The priests who wrote this discussion were concerned with maintaining ritual “purity”—see related link below—lest Israelite society, and the Jerusalem temple in particular, be polluted. They were less concerned with a specific identifiable bodily condition than with the defilement that condition might bring about. Only in this way can we explain how a “disease” could possibly afflict “clothing” (Lev 13:47-59) and “houses” (Lev 14:34-54), as well as human “skin.” Thus, even though we will never know what affliction the priests might have had in mind, the real concern of Lev 13-14 is that it defiled anything it came into contact with.

The question is, then, why leprosy—whether in clothing, houses, or skin—defiles. Let us focus on skin, the prototypical case. It has been suggested that leprosy pollutes insofar as the leprous body resembles a decaying corpse (Num 12:12), contact with death being a source of major pollution (Num 11:11, Num 11:14, Num 11:16). And yet, if the condition “spreads” completely so that the whole body succumbs to it—in which state the body presumably resembles death all the more—the leper is declared “clean” once again (Lev 13:12-13). What is really at stake is arguably the stability and integrity of the body. If the affliction is “deeper than the skin” (Lev 13:3-4, etc.), it compromises the distinction between inside and outside and thus “defiles” the body. Similarly, as long as the condition is “spreading” (Lev 13:7-8, Lev 13:22-23, etc.) it renders the body unstable and thus “defiles” it. In order to prevent or at least minimize pollution, the leper is expelled from the camp (Israel) until the leprosy subsides.

How then should tsara’at be translated?

Translating this semi-technical (priestly) term raises the problem of anachronism, the challenge of bridging the historical gap between us and the biblical world. “Leprosy” and “leprous” as popular translations of tsara’at (and related words) dates back to the 1611 King James Version of the Bible and its immediate predecessors. This translation survives in the RSV and in the original edition of the NRSV. In the nineteenth century, a condition then known as “leprosy” came to be identified with a disease that in the twentieth century came to be called “Hansen’s disease.” Thus, Hansen’s disease is not necessarily identical to KJV’s leprosy, and it is certainly not identical to tsara’at. Deciding how to translate such a term is largely a function of one’s approach to translation. Translators might, on the one hand, aim for a literal word-for-word translation. Or they might, on the other hand, seek to communicate the overall sense of the original. Tsara’at is arguably a type of proper noun, referring to a specific, recognized condition. A literal translation might reasonably translate it with a similarly pungent term: “leprosy,” for example. (Insofar as few English readers in the twenty-first century have any direct acquaintance with Hansen’s disease, the modern meaning of “leprosy” would not interfere with this translation.) Like most modern scholarly translations, the updated edition of the NRSV (NRSVue) generally tries to convey the sense of the original in idiomatic English. Therefore, the editorial committee opted for a more generic or descriptive translation, “defiling [skin] disease.” This translation conveys the sense of the condition without any anachronistic associations.

  • Kawashima-Robert

    Robert S. Kawashima is an associate professor at the University of Florida, where he teaches in the Department of Religion and the Center for Jewish Studies. Trained in the discipline of comparative literature, he has written on a variety of subjects including the Hebrew Bible, Homer, narrative theory, linguistics, and Proust. He is most notably the author of Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode (Indiana University Press, 2004) and The Archaeology of Ancient Israelite Knowledge (Indiana University Press, 2022).