When you be come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession…
(see also Leviticus 13:49): — Few subjects have proved more perplexing to the student of Scripture than this. That human dwellings and garments should exhibit a similar disease to that which infects the human body seems at first sight to be highly improbable. We are indebted to the recent discoveries of the microscope for the first intimation of the true nature of the leprosy of house and garments. A careful examination of the Levitical narrative in the light of modern science leaves no room to doubt that the conclusions of Sommer, Kmtz, and other recent authors, who attribute a vegetable origin to this plague, are correct. 'The characteristics mentioned are such as can belong only to plants. There are some species of fungi which could have produced all the effects described, and whose form and colour answer admirably to the appearances presented by the leprosy. We are therefore safe in believing that the phenomena in question were caused by fungi. The language of Moses is evidently popular, not scientific, and may therefore be supposed to include not only different species, but even different genera and orders of fungi as concerned in the production of the effects described. The leprosy of the house consisted of reddish and greenish patches. The reddish patches on the wall were in all likelihood caused by the presence of a fungus well known under the common name of dry-rot, and called by botanists Merulius lachrymans. Builders have often painful evidence of the virulent and destructive nature of this scourge. It is frequent all the year round, being in this respect different from other fungi, which are usually confined to the season of decay. If once established dry-rot spreads with amazing rapidity, destroying the best houses in a very short time. The law regarding it in Leviticus is founded upon this property; seven days only were allowed for its development, so that its true nature might be placed beyond doubt. The precautions here adopted are in entire accordance with the nature and habits of fungi. By emptying the house of its furniture, shutting the doors and windows, and excluding the air and light, the very conditions were provided in which the dry-rot would luxuriate and come to maturity. If the walls were completely impregnated with its seed and spawn, this short period of trial would amply suffice to show the fact, and the building might then safely be condemned to undergo a process of purification. There are no means of restoring rotten timber to a sound condition, and the dry-rot can only be eradicated by removing the decayed and affected parts, clearing away all the spawn and destroying the germs with which the plaster and the other materials of the walls may have been impregnated. For this purpose the process of kyanising and burnetising have been recommended — that is, washing the walls or the woodwork with a strong solution of corrosive sublimate or chloride of zinc. If the dry-rot is not fairly established in a house it may be removed with tolerable ease by these processes; should the disease, however, have become widespread and deep-seated, no means of dealing with the evil can be depended upon, except that of removing altogether the corrupted and contagious matter and admitting a free circulation of air. This was exactly what the Jewish priest was commanded to do (vers. 40-42). It often happens, however, that even this severe operation proves ineffectual; and after repeated repairs of the same nature, it is found that the building is so hopelessly ruined that it must be abandoned and dismantled (vers. 43-45). Dr. Thomson, in "The Land and the Book," mentions that the upper rooms of the houses in Palestine, if not constantly ventilated, become quickly covered with mould and are unfit to live in. In many cases the roofs of the houses are little better than earth rolled hard, and it is by no means uncommon to see grass springing into a short-lived existence upon them. Such habitations must be damp and peculiarly subject to the infection of fungi. During the months of November and December especially, fungi make their appearance in the wretched ephemeral abodes of the poorer classes; and in the walls of many a dwelling at the present day may be seen the same leprous appearances described by Moses three thousand years ago. When the Israelites entered Palestine they occupied the dwellings of the dispossessed aboriginal inhabitants instead of building new houses for themselves. And in these dwellings, as the Canaanites lived in the midst of moral and physical impurity, and were, moreover, ignorant of all sanitary conditions, the plague of leprosy would be very apt to manifest itself. The Bible speaks of it as sent expressly by God Himself: "When ye be come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession." It was so sent in mercy and not in judgment, to show to them, by a palpable proof appealing to the eye, what could not be so well revealed by other evidence. It was the visible manifestation of a hidden insidious unwholesomeness — the breaking out, as it were, of an internal and universal disease. It directed attention to the unhealthy character of the house, and stimulated inquiry as to how it could be remedied. Whereas if no such abnormal appearance presented itself, the inhabitants might remain unconsciously in the midst of conditions which would slowly but. surely undermine their health, and in the end prove fatal. In the Levitical narrative we read that in the walls of the affected houses there were greenish as well as reddish streaks. These greenish streaks were caused by a much humbler kind of fungus than the tile Merulius lachrymans, or dry-rot, concerned in the production of tim reddish streaks. Every one is familiar with the common green mould, or Penicillium glaucum, of botanists. This fungus is extremely abundant everywhere, and seems to have been no less general in the ancient world, for we find traces of it pretty frequently in amber, mixed with fragments of lichens and mosses. It grows on all kinds of decaying substances, and is very protean in its appearance, assuming different forms according to the nature of the body or situation which it affects. Common mould grows on every substance, whether animal or vegetable, in a state of decay. It grows even upon the human body when it is in an enfeebled or disordered condition; and many diseases of the skin are owing to its efforts to develop and spread itself. The thrush in children, the muscardine so destructive to silkworms, the fungoid growth which so often causes the death of the common house-fly in autumn, are all different forms of the common mould. Its germs or spores are constantly floating in the air or swimming in the water in incalculable myriads, so that it is difficult to conceive how any place can be free from their presence. The atmosphere of our houses is loaded with them; and were we endowed with microscopic vision, we should see them dancing about in the draughts and currents of our rooms, or shining among the motes in the pencilled rays of sunshine. The ubiquity of mould has given rise to the theory of spontaneous generation, still held by a certain class of naturalists; but the immense profusion of its seeds, and their wonderful powers of adaptability under varying circumstances, and of entering through the finest conceivable apertures, will easily account for its presence in every situation, without being under the necessity of admitting what has never yet been proved — that substances in a particular state of decay can, without seeds or germs of any kind, generate low forms of life. Many medical men are of opinion that various zymotic diseases, if not originated, are increased by the presence of these minute cellules in the blood, and by their deleterious action in developing themselves. The injuries inflicted by fungi are indeed incalculable. But we have nevertheless a grand compensation in the benefits which they confer in accelerating, by their unparalleled rapidity of growth, the process of decay, and removing frown the atmosphere into their own tissues, where they arc innocuous, the putrescent effluvia of dead substances. They also economise the stock of organised material which has been slowly and tediously gained from the earth, air, and water, by preventing it from going back through decomposition to the mineral state, and preserving it in an organic form to be at once made available for the purposes of higher animal and plant life. Mould, for these reasons, is not so much an evil in itself as an indication of evil conditions in the World, and by minimising these it renders an all-important service in the economy of nature. Its great purpose is purely benevolent; but, like the storm intended to purify the atmosphere, it sometimes oversteps its limits, and proves injurious in particular cases. The minute regulations for inspecting and cleansing those houses where symptoms of leprosy appeared, indicate how complete was the sanitary system under which the ancient Israelites lived. God considered no part of their domestic and social economy, however humble, beneath His notice. Cleanliness in person, in dress, in dwellings, and in all outward appointments, was enforced by statutes of a peculiarly solemn character. All these ceremonial enactments were in the first instance intended for sanitary purposes. God had respect to the physical health and well-being of His people. He wished them to be patterns of purity, models of beauty, their bodies to be perfectly developed in the midst of the most favourable circumstances; and therefore the most admirable arrangements were made for securing cleanly, orderly, and healthy habitations. But not for purely physical purposes alone were the Levitical laws regarding the leprosy of the house enforced. They had also a spiritual significance. All experience tells us of the mysterious connection, founded upon the constitution of our twofold nature, between physical and moral evil — between external and internal impurity. The proverb, "Cleanliness is next to godliness," is truer even than it is admitted to be. Physical filth has in innumerable instances been the means of turning away the Lord from the homes of those who endure it. For want of a little more room and a little more purity in their dwellings, the sublimest truths fall dead upon the ears of thousands. The salvation of the poor, though to them the gospel is preached, is in very many cases rendered impossible, humanly speaking, on account of the degrading conditions amid which they live, and the deadening, hardening influence which familiarity with noxious sights and smells produces. How often are the spiritual instructions of the district visitor thrown away on account of the unhallowed effects of filthy surroundings! Sad it is to think of the leprosy of the house being the type of the leprosy of sin which infects the earthly tabernacle of this body. We bear about with us this plague in all our members. From the crown of the head to the sole of the foot there is no soundness in us. Be it ours to put our natures entirely under the purifying power of God's Spirit, so that they may be cleansed from all impure desires, &c. So much for the leprosy of the house. The leprosy of garments may have been caused by the same fungi. Precisely the same appearances manifested themselves in the one case as in the other. I am disposed to attribute the greenish streaks on the garments to the common green mould; for, as I have observed, it is ubiquitous, and grows as readily on clothes as on house walls, when left in damp, ill-ventilated, ill-lighted places. The reddish patches, however, seem to me to have been produced by the growth of the Sporendonema, or red mould, very common on cheese; or of the Palmella prodigiosa. This last-mentioned plant is occasionally found on damp walls in shady places, and on various articles of dress and food, sometimes extending itself over a considerable area. It is usually a gelatinous mass of the colour and general appearance of coagulated blood, whence it has received the famous name of Gory-dew. Though formerly ranked with the algae, or seaweed family, it is now ascertained by more accurate physiological researches to be a species of mould; so that, under whatever names we may class them, the plants which occasioned the strange appearances on houses and garments belong to the same tribe. Instances of reddish patches suddenly investing linen and woollen clothes are by no means confined to the Levitical narrative. A whole volume might be filled with similar examples. Along with other marvellous prodigies they abound in the mediaeval chronicles; and were they not authenticated by the most trustworthy evidence, we should hesitate — from their very extraordinary character — to accept them as true. It was by no means rare to find, in the Middle Ages, consecrated wafers and priestly vestments sprinkled with a minute red substance like blood. Such abnormal appearances were called Signacula, as tokens of the Saviour's living body; and pilgrimages were not unfrequently made to witness them. In several cases the Jews were suspected, on account of their abhorrence of Christianity, of having caused sacramental hosts to bleed, and were, therefore, ruthlessly tormented and put to death in large numbers. Upwards of ten thousand were slaughtered at Rotil, near Frankfort, in 1296, for this reason. The bleeding of the host, produced in consequence of the scepticism of the officiating priest, gave rise to the miracle of Bolsena in 1264; the priest's garment stained with this bloody-looking substance being preserved until recent times as a relic. This gave rise to the festival of the Corpus Christi founded by Urban
IV. Before the potato-blight broke out in 1846, red mould spots appeared on wet linen surfaces exposed to the air in bleaching-greens, as well as on household linen kept in damp places, in Ireland. In September, 1848, Dr. Eckard, of Berlin, while attending a cholera patient, observed the same production on a plate of potatoes which had been placed in a cupboard in the patient's house. All these instances-and hundreds more might be enumerated — though somewhat exaggerated by the dilated eye of fear, were found by microscopic investigation to be caused by the extraordinary development in abnormal circumstances of the red mould. Occurring, as most of them did, before the outbreak of epidemics, which they were supposed to herald, they obviously point to the conclusion that they were developed by unhealthy conditions of the atmosphere. In ordinary times but few of the fungi which caused these alarming appearances are produced, and then only in obscure and isolated localities; but their seeds lie around us in immense profusion, waiting but the recurrence of similar atmospheric conditions as existed in former times, to exhibit as extraordinary a development. "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works; in wisdom hast Thou made them all!" is the thought that arises in the devout soul at the contemplation of the wonderful structure and history of these minute existences, which live and die unknown to the great majority of mankind. Even a mould, requiring the highest powers of the microscope for its examination, can become in His hands a mighty scourge or a transcendent benefit.
(H. Macmillan, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: When ye be come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession;