Abstract: The meaning, cause, and remedy of the biblical צרעת have been the source of much debate. Traditional translations have rendered the word as leprosy, usually with the somewhat confusing caveat that despite the retention of leprosy, it does not mean leprosy. The root צרע yields our problematic צרעת, proper names, and three occurrences of a stinging insect capable of chasing out Hivites, Canaanites, Hittites, and two Amorite kings! Shapira’s MSS sensibly suggests a more dangerous fiend to the Canaanites than a hornet – the dreaded צרעת.

The Hebrew צרעת, Tzāra’at, presents several challenges. Its meaning, cause, and remedy have all been debated. While many English translations use leper, leprosy, and leprous, one generally encounters a note to inform that these have no connection to Hansen’s Disease.1[1] Instead, translators often seek other words to represent the Hebrew צרעת. Jacob Milgrom, for example, uses “scale disease.”2[2] He says, “Biblical scale disease is difficult to identify. But one thing is certain: it is ritual, not pathology. To begin with, the scale disease diagnosed here is not leprosy (Hansen’s Disease). Its positive identification, however, is uncertain.”[3]

But while Milgrom’s point is a laudable attempt to steer us away from one fault, his substitute retains the word disease to describe something that affects not only humans but clothing and houses. צרעת is not pathology but ritual, and besides, whatever term we use must go beyond human maladies. 

“This is the torah [instruction] for every mark [נגע] of the צרעת and the flaking [נתק], and a צרעת of the garment, and a house, and for a swelling/raising [נשא], and a leakage [ספח], and for a bright spot [בהר] – to show in a day of the impurity and a day of purity – this is the torah of the צרעת.” Leviticus 14:53-57

The biblical texts at times present the presence of צרעת as a result of Divine displeasure and at other times as a naturally occurring fact of human existence. Joel Baden and Candida Moss demonstrate the subtle variations presented in the biblical texts. They seek to show a distinction between the treatment of צרעת by priestly and non-priestly authors of the biblical texts. They effectively show that the priestly laws of Leviticus chapters thirteen and fourteen do not present צרעתas a punishment for human sin.[4]

“A final element of Leviticus 13 – 14 that points away from any connection between sāra’at and sin is the presence in these chapters of regulations regarding sāra’at on fabric (13:47-59) and houses (14:34-53). It is obvious that neither cloth nor house can sin; yet both can be affected with sāra’at; neither can cloth or a house repent, atone, repay, or offer sacrifice, yet they may be declared clean.”[5]

On the other hand, צרעת in non-priestly narrative material is either presented as the result of sin or misbehavior. Therefore in these texts, צרעת is at times presented as a punishment from God. See for example Numbers 12; 2 Samuel 3:29; 2 Kings 15:5; and 2 Chronicles 26:20.

Ultimately, and despite the distinctions present in the biblical texts, Baden and Moss point out that “we are misunderstanding Israelite religion anachronistically if we draw a sharp distinction between natural phenomena and the work of YHWH. Certainly for the priestly authors, nature, indeed the entire cosmos, is under the command of YHWH, and although not everything that comes from YHWH is necessarily a reward or punishment, everything does come from YHWH.”[6]

And so it is with צרעת. We read, for example, in Leviticus 14:32, “When you enter the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you as a possession, and I place a plague of צרעת on your house …”

Defining צרעת is difficult, mainly since it is used in such a broad way, describing symptoms that appear on human skin, fabric, and physical structures. A search for a definitive meaning from the root, ostensibly צרע, is of little help since, aside from the unknown sense of our צרעת, we find occurrences of a proper name and three occurrences that are generally translated as a type of stinging insect – the hornet [הצרעה]? (See Exodus 23:28; Deuteronomy 7:20; and Joshua 24:12.)

The meaning of the Hebrew word הצרעה translated as “hornet” is debated and uncertain. HALOT says of הצרעה, “etymology uncertain, primary noun?” and then offers the following proposed solutions – hornet, wasp, terror, fear, dejection, discouragement.[7]

The Jewish Publication Society Translation has “plague” for each occurrence of הצרעה, with the note, “Others’ hornet’; meaning uncertain.” 

Jeffrey H. Tigay remarks on the JPS translation “plague” in his note, “Hebrew tsir’ah. A more likely translation is ‘hornets’ or ‘wasps,’ as in Talmudic Hebrew, since that is the only actually attested meaning of the word.” His footnote to this comment says, “the translation’ plague’ follows the medieval Hebrew grammarians.”[8]

In each occurrence (Exodus 23:28; Deuteronomy 7:20; and Joshua 24:12), הצרעה is sent by God. In Exodus 23, “before you” to chase out the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites; in Deuteronomy 7, “among them” until those remaining and hiding are destroyed before you; and in Joshua 24, as an event in the past – הצרעה were sent before the Israelites to drive the two Amorite kings out. But are these accounts meant to be taken literally? Were stinging insects sent before Israel in such quantities to drive out Hivites, Canaanites, Hittites, and two Amorite kings? Or were Hebrew grammarians correct to associate the riddance of these through an affliction of sorts? 

The Shapira MSS and a Variant Reading – הצרעה, or הצרעת?

The Shapira MSS contain an interesting variant reading relevant to the present study. In Fragment G, the text reads:

גם את ה[צר]עת ישלח אלהם בם עד אבד יאבד הנסתרם הנשארם מלפנך:

Moreover, Elohim will send ה[צר]עת among them until those hiding and those remaining utterly perish from before you.

Shapira’s text reads like the reading found in Deuteronomy 7:20, the differences noticeable – see below.

וגם את הצרעה ישלח יהוה אלהיך בם עד אבד הנשארים והנסתרים מפניך: Deuteronomy 7:20 

גם את ה[צר]עת ישלח אלהם בם עד אבד יאבד הנסתרם הנשארם מלפנך: Shapira G, A:6 

Of particular note is הצרעה in Deuteronomy and ה[צר]עת in Shapira. Ginsburg transcribed ה..צרעת, and Eduard Meyer transcribed  ה**עת. See note [9]. Guthe remarked on this variant reading. He said, “Here I still want to mention the peculiar difference to Deutr. 7:20. The word הַצִּרְעָה used there corresponds, in the manuscript, to the consonant group ה**עת, which, arguably, doubtlessly is to be understood as הַצָּרַעַת “leprosy.” The sickness of leprosy likely makes the person completely incapable of military resistance; here shall, however, be said, that Yahweh also will have exterminated “the remaining and the hidden” (the manuscript not amiss: “the remaining hidden”), who thus evaded open conflict against Israel, thus that He would let them be pursued by an evil, nestling in crevices, insect, up to into their hideouts, namely the caves of the land. The figure of speech is indeed hyperbolic but has in the circumstances of the land a completely understandable reason. The writer of the manuscript now obviously meant to have to put in place of the odd “wasp,” a more dangerous fiend of the Canaanites, and gained, by slight change of the traditional word, “leprosy.” But he did not consider, that by this, the well understandable thought of the knowledge of the conditions of the land are destroyed, and the original of it is completely obfuscated.[10] C. Furrer made the same recommendation in Schenkel’s Bibellexikon III, 141, and already S. Bochart gave mention to it in the Hierozoicon (London 1663) II, 533 ff. Is this coincidence? Or does the forger betray therewith a definite dependence?”[11]

In non-priestly texts of the Hebrew Bible where הצרעת is used, the affliction is often the result of Divine displeasure and a punishment from God. Idan Dershowitz has effectively shown that the Shapira MSS does not reflect later priestly tendencies.[12] Further, the text resembles Deuteronomy 7:20, which follows a clear statement that God will inflict maladies on the enemies of Israel (see Deut. 7:15).

It is worth considering that the text preserved in the Shapira MSS reflects an earlier, non-priestly text than the MT and that this text has, instead of what Guthe called the “odd” reading of “wasp,” a “more dangerous fiend of the Canaanites … the traditional word ‘leprosy.’”

The non-sensibility of hornets destroying the occupants of Canaan or chasing them all out – even the ones hiding, combined with the prevalent view of צרעת as a danger to inhabitants and their houses, makes the reading preserved in Shapira’s MSS a more likely original reading.

[1] See for instance, Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane, eds. The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 234. “This [tzara`at] has sometimes been translated as ‘leprosy’ (or ‘leprous affection’) but the disease today called leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) was not known in biblical times and the description given in the Bible is not consistent with it.”

[2] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus A Book of Ritual and Ethics: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 127.

[3] Ibid, 127.

[4] “The Origin and Interpretation of sāra`at in Leviticus 13 – 14,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2011, Vol. 130, No. 4, 643-662.

[5] Ibid, 650.

[6] Ibid, 652.

[7] See entry הצרעה in Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, Johann Jakob Stamm, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: Volume 3 ש – פ (Leiden, New York, Köln: E.J. Brill, 1996), 1056-7.

[8] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 5756/1996), 90, 360.

[9] For Ginsburg’s transcription of this text, see, Christian D. Ginsburg, “The Shapira MS. of Deuteronomy,” The Athenæum, no. 2913, 25 Aug. 1883, 242-245, at 242. For Meyer’s transcription of this text, see, Hermann Guthe, Fragmente einer Lederhandschrift enthaltend Mose’s letzte Rede an die Kinder Israel (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von Breitkopf & Härtel, 1883), 40.

[10] [A translation of Guthe’s note here] Cf. Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible (1877), p. 321 ff.

[11] The English translation is available as, Fragments of a Leather Manuscript Containing Moses’ Last Words to the Children of Israel (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2021), 40. The translation is soon to be published, but is currently available as an advanced copy for scholars – https://www.academia.edu/49529050/Fragments_of_a_Leather_Manuscript_Containing_Moses_Last_Words_to_the_Children_of_Israel.

[12] Idan Dershowitz, The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021), see examples on 53-54, 57, 59, 60-64, 66-70, 75, 89, 94.