July 7, 2020

God’s Guidance for Controlling Contagion*

During this COVID-19 (from a novel coronavirus) pandemic, I was asked if we could find guidance regarding social distancing to avoid and contain contagion from principles involved in biblical quarantines required in Leviticus 13, Numbers 5:1-4, and Numbers 12:14, 15.1

The goal of the quarantines in the Pentateuch was not to prevent the spread of disease per se, although that could have been a beneficial side effect in cases of impure skin disease (Lev. 13, 14), unhealthy genital flows (Lev. 15:2-15, 25-30), and impurity from corpses (Num. 19). The stated purpose of the quarantines was to prevent the spread of physical ritual impurities, symptomatic of the human life cycle of mortality resulting from the Fall into sin (cf. Gen. 3; Rom. 6:23) that would defile the camp in which God’s holy sanctuary was located (Num. 5:1-4). So, any application to the COVID-19 pandemic or similar health crises would be indirect.

Some biblical principles that are relevant by analogy, however, to present and future epidemics are as follows:

First, ancient Israelites who were infected by severe physical ritual impurities were separated from other people, who could go on with life and business as usual. Testing by experts (cf. examination by priests in Lev. 13) and self-diagnosis (cf. cases of genital flows in Lev. 15) are crucial for identifying and isolating those who are actually infected with impure conditions.

Second, in Leviticus 13:45, an Israelite who is isolated because of skin disease voluntarily adopts a distinctive appearance (in this case, of mourning) and notifies others at a distance of their condition so they will know not to approach. It is helpful if those infected by diseases such as COVID-19 take analogous precautions by identifying themselves in some recognizable way and telling others to stay away if they (the infected) must go out and about. One aspect of the appearance of an isolated Israelite with skin disease was the covering of the “mustache” (or upper lip/mouth area) to show mourning (Lev. 13:45; cf. Ezek 24:17, 22). For modern people, such a covering would function like a “mask” to protect others from the breath of the diseased individual. Interestingly, a pastor in Australia has told me that presenting such biblical strategies to his church members and guests has “made people feel easier about following government restrictions by seeing them in line with God’s instructions rather than a scheme of Satan and his cronies.”2  

Third, all Israelites were to be informed (Lev. 15:2) of the potential for secondary contamination by physical contact with impure persons (verses 7, 11) or their body fluids (verse 8) or with objects that they had touched (verses 4-6, 9, 10, 12, 26, 27). Such awareness would have motivated avoidance of such contamination. Today, everyone needs accurate information regarding ways in which infections with contagious diseases can be transmitted so their spread can be prevented.

Fourth, cleansing of Israelites from primary impurity after cessation of symptoms or from secondarily contracted impurity (through contact with the primary source of impurity) included washing one’s clothes and bathing in water (e.g., Lev. 15:5-8, 10, 11, 13), and polluted objects were to be discarded or washed (verse 12). Today, hygienic practices, including the washing of bodies and objects and the discarding of contaminated items that are unwashable are crucial for preventing the spread of disease.

Fifth, there is no indication in Leviticus 13, 14 that those who are afflicted with skin disease have committed a sin for which they deserve punishment (see above). Accordingly, those who are infected by illnesses such as COVID-19 should not be additionally burdened with discrimination because of a suspicion of wrongdoing, as if they deserve to suffer or belong to a people group that is blamed with causing the outbreak.

Sixth, physical infections are not respecters of persons, so neither is the need for social distancing to contain physical contagions affected by social status. Anyone who has a contagious disease should be isolated, even if the person is a leader such as Miriam, King Uzziah, or Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, who was hospitalized for COVID-19 in April 2020.

Seventh (pending further scientific research), perhaps some animal-to-human transmission of viruses could be prevented by respect for animal life, a topic of legislation in Leviticus and other pentateuchal books (Exod. 23:19b; Lev. 17:10-12; 22:27, 28; Deut. 22:6, 7), and restriction of human diet to “clean/pure” creatures that the Lord has identified as fit to eat (Lev. 11; Deut. 14). In modern times, respect for the lives of animals could include avoidance of inhumane marketing of exotic creatures, including in or near food markets, and preservation of animal habitats so their health will not be compromised and they will not come into excessively close contact with humans and their sources of food.

Eighth, a key overall Leviticus principle is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, NKJV).3 If we are infected or could be infected, pending up-to-date testing, let’s protect others as best we can.     

Roy Gane, Ph.D., is professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

* This publication is substantially a restatement of my previous article, “Social Distancing to Avoid Contagion,” appearing in perspective Digest 25:3 (2020).

1 I am grateful to Jon Paulien for suggesting that I address this topic during the COVID-19 pandemic and for posting an earlier version of this section on his blog at that time: https://revelation-armageddon.com/2020/04/leviticus-and-social-distancing/ (April 8, 2020).

2 E-mail from Emanuel Millen, June 4, 2020.

3 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.