What Can We Learn from God’s Quarantine Laws? Four Truths for Today from Leviticus 13–15

cdc-jRI67r_u-Jg-unsplashSo here we are, watching COVID-restrictions fall into place like dominoes, and many of us are wondering if these are the best protocols or not. Since around March of this year, they have become a “normal” part of life in our state and around the world. Yet, it is worth asking, are they effective? Are they just? Where did they come from? Will they work this time? And what if anything does Scripture say about quarantines?

Earlier this week, I pointed to an article by Brian Tabb on a biblical view of diseases. If you haven’t read that, you should. Today, I want to follow up with a summary of an article from Old Testament scholar, Roy Gane. Gane has written extensively on the Old Testament, but especially on Leviticus and its purification laws. More recently, in response to COVID-19, he has written up a short piece (“God’s Guidance for Controlling Contagions“) outlining things we can learn from the Law of Moses regarding quarantine laws today. And it’s this piece that I want to consider today.

Four Truths about Quarantine Laws from the Book of Leviticus

For those who have not read Leviticus lately, there are three chapters (Leviticus 13–15), which address issues of quarantine and treating contagious diseases. Written as a part of Leviticus’s holiness code, Moses gives instructions to Israel for walking in purity before the Holy One of Israel. In particular, these three chapters offer instruction (torah) for dealing with leprosy and other bodily emissions. And in his article, Gane nicely explicates how they might apply today.

Acknowledging the key distinctions between Israel then and modern Christians today, he draws eight analogies for applying quarantine laws. I’ve shared four of them below, with a few complementary thoughts included. If you want to know how Scripture might begin to address quarantines, you should read Leviticus 13–15 and consider what is outlined below. Gane’s words are in italicizes; mine are not.

1. Biblical quarantines rightly order the whole community, and do not turn a healthy community into a sick ward.

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.

As you can see, the instructions from Leviticus, summarized by Gane, are out of step with 2020’s COVID restrictions, which are more appropriately called “protective sequestrations” not quarantines. In our modern period,  identifying, separating, and quarantining the sick for a given amount of time, as Leviticus instructs, is not the norm. Rather, to prevent the spread of disease, every one is treated like a leper and forced in various ways to separate themselves (social distancing) and quarantine (sheltering at home).

As we know too well, this approach shuts down society and effectively turns society into a giant leper colony. Recalling the spatial imagery of Israel’s camp may help us appreciate what God intended in quarantine—and what we are missing today.

As long as Israel walked in the Wilderness, the twelve tribes camped around the tabernacle (see Numbers 1–3). In between the tabernacle and the tents stood the Levites and the priests. And thus, within the camp there were concentric circles of holiness and ritual purity that radiated from the center to the edges. When someone was pronounced a leper they were removed from the camp and put outside edges. This gave them time to recover, without infecting others in the camp. Leviticus 13–15 gives all the details for how this process would work.

It should be noted, the purpose of this system was ritual purity, not hygiene. Nevertheless, there is something to learn here. Namely, the camp was the place of life and liberty; outside the camp was the place where lepers and other unclean Israelites dwelt until their condition changed. Thus, in the name of caring for the whole community and keeping the community clean, those with the disease were given a place to stay outside the camp. This system, therefore, cared for the community and the afflicted individuals.

The principle to be applied, which Gane notes, is that the sickness of some did not shut down business as usual. Consider what would happen if the Israelites could not gather manna each day or worship on the Sabbath? It would have been a colossal disaster—spiritually, physically, and so on. Yet, this is exactly the posture taken in our modern world.

Taking their cues from a High School experiment—yes, a high school social networking experiment!—a White House-appointed task force under George W. Bush created protocols for “protective sequestration.” While initially receiving all manner of opposition, what has come to play out in 2020 was eventually adopted under the Obama Administration. You can read the whole story here: “The Untold Story of the Birth of Social Distancing.”

For our purposes, it is worth considering the origins and the intentions of quarantines. Ask yourself, where is wisdom and justice to be found? Is it in the convoluted history of social distancing which turns on human fears and traces their origins to a New Mexico high school? Or might we find a more just and loving approach to quarantines in Leviticus? Without suggesting that Leviticus 13–15 applies directly today, there is good reason to learn from its logic, because biblical quarantines rightly order the whole community, and do not turn a healthy community into a sick ward.

2. Biblical Quarantines Affirm God’s Goodness in the Symptomatic Transmission of Sickness and Call Us to Focused Protection.

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 24:1722). 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.”

If modern restrictions turn the whole camp into a leper colony, they have also treated everyone as a COVID-carrier—whether they show signs of sickness or not. This, the asymptomatic carrier line of argument, has been a large contributor to the fear many have felt and the legitimatization of masking everyone. Yet, it is worth remembering that even Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that asymptomatic persons are not the problem. As Daniel Horowitz has observed (“A Severely Symptomatic Lie about Asymptomatic Spread“),

Dr. Fauci himself, before this became political and a tool for control, stated very emphatically that “the driver of outbreaks is always a symptomatic person.” “Even if there is some asymptomatic transmission, in all the history of respiratory viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks,”said Fauci in a January 28 press conference.

In the same article, Horowitz cites new research that denies the transmission of COVID by way of asymptomatic carriers. He writes, “following the data and the scientific research after eight months of torture has landed us in the same position we started this year – quarantining the healthy is counterproductive and achieves nothing in stopping the spread of a respiratory virus.” And this wrongheaded approach to quarantines brings us back to Leviticus.

In his kindness, God has plagued the world with diseases that are observable and transmissible by those who demonstrate evidence of sickness. Imagine if people dropped dead of pneumonia or diabetes without any signs. Medicine—ancient and modern—has depended on bodies displaying signs of sickness, and treatment is best prescribed when the conditions are perceived early and not ignored. In Israel, this is why priests were called to examine the sick in Israel; they could perceive in the flesh of the sick signs of leprosy. And today, this is why doctors go to school for years, to learn how the body functions so that they can respond with appropriate medicine.

Then like now, sickness is diagnosed by signs in the body. And in such cases, the loving thing to do for the sick person to identify, and not deny, themselves as sick and to stay away from others. But what happens when we believe that the sickness is wholly invisible? The only workable option is to treat everyone as sick. Everyone must wear a mask and signify that proximity is dangerous.

This is what the social distancing experts, whose suggestions have changed every few weeks, have told us. But consider if we took the Levitical option, and only made the sick wear a mask when they went out in public. Clearly, Gane is writing his article when the world was a touch more sane. I can’t imagine anyone saying today, “If you have COVID, you can go out, just wear a mask.”

Yet, that approach would be far more workable, as it  would only focus the concern with those showing signs of sickness. Maybe going out with a mask is not the best option; but focused protection seems to match the biblical model more than some endless blanket protection.

Importantly, this is the kind of proposal offered in the Great Barrington Declaration. Though the medical professionals who drafted this proposal are not led by Leviticus, it’s call for focused protection better aligns with God’s standards for quarantine than anything else I’ve seen. Indeed, if we let the wisdom of God speak, we learn that biblical quarantines affirm God’s goodness in the symptomatic transmission of sickness, which allows us to focus our  protection with wisdom and care. 

3. Biblical Quarantines Require Accurate and Useful Information about Sickness to Be Brought to the Light.

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.

If there is anything that Scripture teaches, it is this: God is a God of truth whose ways and words are pure light and never contain a hint of darkness. Unfortunately, the world made to reflect his light continues to be shrouded in darkness—not to mention censorship. More on that below.

Unfortunately, from the beginning of the COVID crisis, the general population has been kept in the dark. From the information coming out of China, or not coming out of China, to the grossly exaggerated projected death rates, based upon statistical projections whose codes were filled with errors, to the ongoing changes in restrictions, to the way the media have covered COVID (compared to previous diseases), we are swimming in a world of COVID misinformation.

In such a context, the average citizen is not able to process all the change. So what happens instead? We throw our hands up, put our masks on, and do whatever the governors says for as long as he says.

The problem with this is that decisions for millions of people are given to a handful of people. And Thomas Sowell has wisely reported for years (in books like Intellectuals and Society, The Vision of the Anointed, A Conflict of Visions), such decision-making gives all the power to the elite. And takes all the liberty and responsibility from the people. Compare this to Leviticus.

In Leviticus, God calls priests to teach the people what to expect and what conditions to look for. Justice is found and wisdom is given when the priests teach the people the laws, such that the people can make good and wise decisions for themselves and their neighbors. Love of neighbor depends on individuals knowing the laws and acting accordingly.

Today, however, the ad hoc nature of regulations leads governors to overstep their bounds. Thankfully the Supreme Court overturned Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on religious services, but that such a judicial decision had to come indicates how governing authorities, in the name of emergency measures, are violating rights in order to promise protections. This is but one example of what is happening today.

Far better, God’s Word teaches us to let individuals make good decisions for themselves and their families based upon good information. In our COVID-19 world, this knowledge includes information about contagions. But it is not like infectious diseases were unleashed on the earth in 2020. In fact, as Douglas Axe, William Briggs, and Jay Richards present in their book, The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe, the best wisdom on COVID-19 is found in considering previous diseases, their transmission and effect. Looking to the past is far better than basing decisions on highly irregular statistical models that continue to change as we learn more about COVID.

In fact, if you are looking for information on COVID-19, I would highly recommend their book. Because, as we have come to learn, the Internet elite, in the name of eliminating fake news, have taken it upon themselves to censor competing views regarding COVID. Just listen to what Amazon did to Doug Wilson and his podcast on the Coronavirus.

Indeed, it is not even hidden that Facebook, Twitter, and others are editing content and pushing it towards the official narrative, rather than letting the free of ideas eliminate bad arguments. Whatever the reason for this censorship, this public knowledge that COVID censorship is happening should give us pause as to what we are being told. For again, Scripture leads us to be governed by truth and facts. And in the case of quarantines this means that biblical quarantines require accurate and information about sickness to be brought to the light.

4. Biblical Quarantines Do Not Condemn Individuals, But Do Remind Us of Our Fallen Condition.

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.

Gane is absolutely right: we should not treat those with COVID as lepers, nor everyone as lepers either. We should especially not connect sickness to individual sins. This was a point that Brian Tabb made well. However, COVID, like every form of sickness, should call us back to the fact that we live in a fallen world. We inhabit ailing, hurting, disease-prone, dying bodies! Such fallenness is not natural to humanity; it is attributable to Adam’s sin and our original sin in Adam (see Romans 5:12–21).

In our day and age, however, the secular impulse to squeeze the marrow out of life before it is gone leads many people to do anything and spend everything in order to be safe and healthy. Because, after all, death in a secular worldview is the end! Take your final breath and then you are no more.

Sicknesses like COVID remind all of us—secular and Christian alike—that we are not in control of our lives. The Christian takes that truth and presses back into God and preaches the resurrection to herself. The non-Christian takes that truth and denies it, despairs over it, or curses God because it.

The world hates to hear they will die, because it hates the fact that God is in control and that every image bearer will give an account for their lives. As Scripture teaches, God is the author of life and the giver of breath. And COVID placards before our eyes this immortal truth—we are mortals and worse we by nature are objects of wrath, unless God saves us—not from COVID, but from eternal condemnation.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many pastors and ministries focus on safety, well-being, and protection from COVID, instead of staying the course, preaching the realities of heaven and hell, and pressing those fearful of COVID to fear God, so that they would have nothing to fear.

Yes, love of neighbor drives us to consider how we can care for physical needs. But love of neighbor also and more eternally drives us to consider the spiritual and eternal condition of others. This is a major reason why COVID exists. Like all diseases, it exists to awaken sinners from their drunken love affair with this world and to see their need for God and his eternal life.

So, yes, we should not heap condemnation on anyone who gets COVID or who spreads it to someone else. Taken to collectively however, we should see in this disease our need for eternal healing, for life beyond death, and for the only way to eternal life, found in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

How Quarantine Laws Conform Us into the Image Their Maker

Ultimately, this focus on Christ is why getting quarantine laws right matters. Biblical quarantine laws teach us that we are sick and dying creatures. By ourselves we cannot clean or heal ourselves enough. We need God himself to do that. In Israel, the priests could only judge the leprosy of another. They couldn’t heal. In Christ, our Lord came and touched the leper and made him whole (see Matt. 8:1–4). Thus, he proved to be a greater high priest.

Today, we need the wisdom offered to us by modern priests (doctors and medical professionals), but more than that, we need the wisdom of God found in Christ. And when we listen to Leviticus 13–15 about quarantine laws, we are hearing the voice of Wisdom itself. And with his Word, the Spirit of Christ teaches us a bit more of how we can live in his light, and be aware of the voices who are lighting up our world with darkness.

To be clear, no one was eternally saved by quarantine in Israel. And no one will be eternally condemned by quarantine today. Christ is what matters. But don’t think that quarantine is something that God doesn’t care about or talk about. Clearly, what is going on today lacks any connection—directly or indirectly—to the biblical wisdom that God offers on sickness quarantine.

And that perhaps is where you and I come in. Though we may not be in a position to redraft policies or oppose the overreach of governors, we can interpret those policies through a biblical lens. And with that biblical perspective, we can both see more clearly how to think like Christ and how to not think like the world.

In these days, where church gatherings are restricted and the Internet has become the greatest tutor of so many, we desperately need to think biblically about all aspects of life, including quarantine laws. That is what this article has sought to do. And as I sign off, let me urge you to go read Leviticus 13–15 and consider if your practices of quarantine are something that resonates with God’s Word or not. And if not, what would God have you to do?

May the Lord of all grace and truth, continue to conform us into his image by the teaching of his Word and the power of his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from God’s Quarantine Laws? Four Truths for Today from Leviticus 13–15

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