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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






05 May 2006

The Pox


Q: What Biblical references mention the “pox” plague?

Hansen's DiseaseA: I searched a number of English, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bibles. Not one referred to “pox” even once. Some commentaries used it to attempt to explain certain afflictions named in the Scriptures. Smallpox may have been one of the diseases manifested in the skin which Leviticus 13 mentions. The word commonly translated as leprosy doesn’t necessarily mean the disease we commonly associate with this word (Hansen’s Disease) but could mean almost any severe skin ailment, including smallpox, chicken pox, eczema, psoriasis, fungal infection, or other conditions.

Pox generally refers to a disease which causes pockmarks in the skin. Its use became common during the Middle Ages, as smallpox spread with urbanization and increased trade traffic among areas of Europe. The disease was so serious that one of the most vicious curses one could call upon another was, “A pox on you!”

SmallpoxShakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet used a similar expression. Rather than “pox,” Mercutio possibly referred to the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”), cursing the Montague and Capulet families by saying, “A plague o’ both your houses.” Probably since smallpox remained a more serious threat through the years, the expression condemning the evil held in common by two warring parties changed; we now normally hear, “A pox on both your houses.”

In his History of England, Thomas Babington Macaulay said of the pox, “That disease ... was then the most terrible of all the ministers of death. The havoc of the Plague had ben far more rapid: but Plague had visited our shores only once or twice within living memory; and the small pox was always present, filling the churchyard with corpses, tormenting with constant fears all whom it had not yet stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power, turning the babe into a changeling at which the mother shuddered, and making the eyes and cheeks of a betrothed maiden objects of horror to the lover.”

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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