Social Distancing to Avoid Contagion
During this COVID-19 (a term meaning a new coronavirus) pandemic, I have been asked if we can find guidance regarding social distancing to avoid and contain contagion from principles involved in biblical quarantines required in Leviticus 13, Numbers 5:1 to 4, and Numbers 12:14 and 15.
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 skin disease (Leviticus 13 and 14), unhealthful genital flows (Lev. 15:2–15, 25–30), and impurity from corpses (Numbers 19). The stated purpose of the quarantines was to prevent the spread of physical ritual impurities, symptomatic of the human lifecycle of mortality resulting from the Fall (Genesis 3; Rom. 6:23), which would defile the camp in which God’s holy sanctuary was located (Num. 5:1–4). So, any application to the COVID-19 pandemic (including various modes of transmitting impurities in Leviticus 15) or similar health crises would be indirect.
However, some biblical principles that are relevant by analogy to present and future epidemics can be ascertained from these texts:
1. 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 (for example, examination by priests in Leviticus 13) and self-diagnosis (for example, cases of genital flows in Leviticus 15) were crucial for identifying and isolating those who were infected.
2. In Leviticus 13:45, the infected person voluntarily adopted a distinctive appearance (in this case of mourning) and notified others at a distance of his or her condition so that they would know not to approach. It is helpful if those who may be 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 required covering of the “mustache” (other translations say “upper lip” [ESV] or “lower part of their face” [NIV]). In modern times, a mask would serve the same purpose, to protect others from the breath of the infected individual. Interestingly, a pastor 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.”
3. All Israelites were to be informed (Lev. 15:2) of the potential for secondary contamination by physical contact with impure persons (vss. 7, 11) or their body fluids (vs. 8) or with objects that they had touched (vss. 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 contagious diseases can be transmitted, in order to prevent their spread.
4. 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)Polluted objects were to be discarded or washed (vs. 12). Today, hygienic practices, including washing of bodies (particularly hands) and objects, and discarding of contaminated items that cannot be washed are crucial for preventing the spread of disease.
5 God punished Miriam with skin disease (Num. 12:10–15), and later He similarly punished Gehazi (2 Kings 5:27) and King Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:19–21). However, there is no indication in Leviticus 13 and 14 that those who were infected with the disease had committed a sin for which they deserved punishment (John 9:1–3), and neither Naaman (2 Kings 5) nor the people with leprosy whom Jesus healed needed forgiveness along with their physical restoration (Matt. 8:2–4; Mark 1:40–44; Luke 5:12–14; 17:12–19). Accordingly, those who are infected by illnesses such as COVID-19 should not be additionally burdened with discrimination due to suspicion of wrongdoing, as if they deserve to suffer or belong to a people group that is blamed with causing the outbreak.
6. 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 she or he is a leader such as Miriam, King Uzziah—or Boris Johnson, the British prime minister hospitalized for COVID-19 in April 2020.
7. Perhaps (pending further scientific research) 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 (Ex. 23:19; 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 (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 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 that their health will not be compromised and they will not come into excessively close contact with humans and their sources of food.
A key overall Leviticus principle is to “‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Lev. 19:18). If we are infected or could be infected, let’s protect others as best we can.
* Unless otherwise indicated, Bible references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.