Now, in the spring of 2022, the world is a very different place compared to where it was before the worldwide outbreak of a novel virus two years ago. For many individuals the way they think about public health, personal health, sickness and personal hygiene has radically changed. The question now becomes, is that change in thinking a good thing or a bad thing? Is that change in thinking closer in line with God’s truth or farther away from divine principles? In this article, the central point I will make is that good medicine follows God’s prescriptions. When people look for prescriptions to stay healthy, if said prescriptions violate biblical principles, then we can be assured that bad medicine is being practiced. And by “prescriptions to stay healthy,” what I am specifically referring to are health policies that guide how a community responds to sickness while maintaining proper order. Accordingly, good health policy must follow God’s prescriptions because He is the One who made our bodies, our minds and the world in which we live. He is also the One who designed how our bodies operate and has supplied His principles for our benefit. As is always the case, the Christian has confidence that God’s Word is sufficient for everything we need for life and godliness (II Peter 1:3).
So, where can we find basic biblical principles as it pertains to public health? And the answer is, we find it in the book that Christians likely read the least: Leviticus. The overall theme of Leviticus is holiness. That is, because God had separated the Hebrews for Himself out of Egyptian bondage, the Lord now calls His people to separate themselves unto Him and walk in purity. That separation is ultimately orchestrated by God and is played out in the everyday lives of His people: because they are the Lord’s, they live a certain way. Overall, Leviticus 13–15 address the issues of contagious diseases and quarantine. Specifically, these chapters offer instruction for dealing with leprosy. The one thing I must note is that in Leviticus, the primary concern is neither public health nor personal hygiene: it is ritual purity, or separating out those who are unfit and disallowing them from coming before the Lord. Still, in Leviticus, God speaks through the issue of leprosy to communicate eternal principles; as a result, ancient wisdom provides fitting instruction to guide us today.
Accordingly, our Scripture focus will be Leviticus 13:1-6 and 45-46. These verses communicate the test for leprosy and what the appropriate response would be. The text says in verses 1–6:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “When someone has on the skin of his body a swelling, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall look at the infected area on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the infection has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and it does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and the hair on it has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the person who has the infection for seven days. Then the priest shall look at him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the infection has not changed and the infection has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him for seven more days. The priest shall then look at him again on the seventh day, and if the infected area has faded and the infection has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only a rash. And he shall wash his clothes and be clean.”
And verses 45-46 say:
“As for the person who has the leprous infection, his clothes shall be torn and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; he shall live outside the camp.”
Good medicine follows God’s prescriptions. So, what are the three principles our text explains that help us to navigate our modern health crises?
Principle number one: Getting sick is a part of life. God’s prescription nudges us to recognize His good, providential care in directing human illness.
The first thing we notice about our text is that God knows that individuals will come down with leprosy from time to time: that’s why He provides instruction on how to test for it and subsequently deal with it when it’s discovered. Leviticus 13:2 says, “When someone has on the skin of his body a swelling, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body…” Notice that the text does not say if, but when. Accordingly, if you are a human being who lives in reality, then you will get sick. This is how life has worked since the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Consider as well the plethora of biblical examples of people with bodily illnesses: the woman with the issue of menstrual bleeding (Mark 5:25-34), the man born blind (John 9:1-12) or Timothy with his stomach problems and frequent ailments (I Timothy 5:23). The only people who don’t get bodily illnesses are those who are already dead.
Hence, it would be foolish to think that the world could ever be sickness-free or to strive to live in a “zero-illness” environment. And, if anyone does strive to make life sickness-free, they will only end up making life miserable. The human body is fallen (Romans 5:12-21), and as a result, we have an inherent disposition toward degeneration and decay. We inhabit ailing, hurting, disease-prone, dying bodies, and this perishing earthly reality ought to focus our attention on the eternal heavenly reality, where our bodies will never decay. Many are simply afraid of sickness because they are afraid of death and of the Lord they will meet when they are gone. This is one reason why some are so zealous about not getting sick. This fear also makes sense for them because in a worldview absent of God, death is not a comma, it’s a period. Death must therefore be avoided by any means necessary.
Not only is getting sick part of life, but God—by His good, gracious providential ordering of the world—has also allowed sickness in the world. Realize what this means: God has plagued the world with diseases, and because He has done that, the fact that those diseases are here is good. If they were not good, then they would not be here. Nothing escapes God’s sovereign control, so to think that diseases are somehow a “mistake” or not in God’s plan would suggest that God isn’t really God. The ultimate reason why COVID exists is not because it left a lab after being designed; the ultimate, real reason why it (and anything else, for that matter) exists is because God allowed it to exist. The human agents who played roles are secondary causes.
Furthermore, in His goodness, what God has also done is allow illnesses to provide evidence of clinical disease, meaning that if you are sick, then you feel sick, look sick and exhibit objective, verifiable signs. If you have leprosy, you have a characteristic skin lesion, and if you have the flu, you have a fever, you’re coughing and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. God did not design the world so that people have an illness, feel fine and then just die. Hence, God did not leave us defenseless but provided a medical map of certain things to look for and specialists who are trained and equipped to diagnose a problem. In ancient times, those specialists were the priests. As it says in Leviticus 13:3, “The priest shall look at the infected area on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the infection has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean.” Just as it was back then, sickness is now diagnosed by signs in the body. Of course we don’t have Levitical priests, but we do have medical doctors who can examine you and make the appropriate diagnosis. Because a person who was suspected of having leprosy would be brought to a priest, this also tells us the wise thing to do is never to dismiss or minimize symptoms but to seek an expert opinion (and that expert opinion is not Google). Medical treatment is most effective for both the person and the community when a disease is recognized early and the appropriate protocols are followed and treatment is prescribed. And in the case of a sick person, just as those in the time of Leviticus readily went to a priest to get a diagnosis, the loving thing that a modern sick person ought to do is to identify themselves as sick and to stay away from others. They certainly ought not to deny their symptoms.
God not only allowed diseases, He also allowed diseases that can be spread to others. This too did not fall out of the Lord’s sovereign control. Consequently, when the Christian affirms God’s sovereignty and goodness in the symptomatic transmission of infection, it becomes clear that blame is not to be placed on those who are sick. Those who have leprosy were not burdened with discrimination because of a suspicion of wrongdoing, as if they deserved to suffer or belonged to a people group that was blamed for causing an outbreak of leprosy. In fact, there is no indication in Leviticus 13 and 14 that those who have a skin disease have committed a sin for which they deserve punishment.
I can still remember testing a husband and wife a few months ago. The husband was sick first, then her. They both tested positive for COVID. In the room, she was enraged and called her lawyer so that she could divorce her husband. Why? Because she blamed him for getting COVID and then blamed him again for giving it to her. I kept silent, yet what I thought in my mind was that although people are biased, COVID is not: it can infect anyone, anywhere, anytime, regardless of what it is you are or are not doing. COVID does not discriminate, so neither should we. God’s Word encoded the basic idea that sick patients need attention from priests, and these medical providers were called to treat sick people, regardless of who they were.
As I alluded to before, what sickness should do is remind all people to look upward, not inward. We don’t have ultimate control over our lives, but God does. This is a truth that nudges us back to our Maker. Natural sickness is never our greatest concern, but our standing with God is. Which means, if the world were ever to experience another pandemic—whether it be Ebola, smallpox, bubonic plague or something else—one of the worst things that could happen is for churches to shut down again and for us to hear less about God. Previously, many churches shut down or closed in the interest of “safety.” But, if the church is in this for safety, then the church isn’t really the Church. What Christ’s Church is called to do is to preach and teach the Word so that even if someone’s body is crushed, their spirit will be safe. Yes, Christians are called to love their neighbor, but if you love their physical health at the expense of their soul, then you are in fact hating them in disguise.
That was the first principle: Getting sick is a part of life, and we must recognize God’s good, providential care in directing human illness. Here now is the second principle.
Principle number two: Adhere to narrow intervention: this means you don’t intervene in the lives of everyone, just those who are contagious. God’s prescription says that you isolate sick people based on concrete symptoms—you don’t isolate healthy people.
In order to test someone for leprosy, that person had to have some type of skin abnormality. The priests were not performing leprosy tests on people whose skin was spotless. Subsequently, after a thorough exam, if the person had the characteristic lesions of leprosy, they would be declared unclean and separated from the rest of the people. And what principle undergirds all of this? Narrow intervention: the priests would only intervene when someone demonstrated evidence of clinical disease. Hence, they treated sick people like they are sick and treated healthy people like they are healthy. And what the priests would never do is isolate someone who didn’t have leprous skin lesions, nor would they let free someone who failed the leprosy test. Let us not forget that the concept of quarantine is found in the Bible, and the Word of God teaches us plainly that we are to intervene in a narrow segment of the population when it comes to contagious diseases. God’s prescription says that you isolate sick people based on concrete symptoms—you don’t isolate healthy people.
In the last two years, we have seen a medicalization of everyday life. People seek out testing for a clinical disease when they have no symptoms of a clinical disease. The healthy and asymptomatic are like people who have spotless skin yet present to the priest for a leprosy exam. You can’t imagine how many thousands of people I’ve tested in the past two years who are not sick, are not traveling, have had no exposure but came in “just to know.” Such a way of conduct defies not only biblical principles but logic as well.
Narrow intervention also places a degree of responsibility on the shoulders of the leper. Remember, in Leviticus 13:45, the text says:
“As for the person who has the leprous infection, his clothes shall be torn and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”
Here, God commands the leper to uncover his head and to have his clothes torn. He also covers his mustache (a sign of mourning, cf. Ezekiel 24:17, 22) and broadcasts his condition to those around him. This means the leper had a characteristic appearance that would alert those around him of his condition in order to protect others. The modern corollary is that isolation, distancing and personal protective equipment make perfect logical sense for the one who has been established to be sick, but no sense for those without clinical disease.
The other side of narrow intervention also requires the community at large to have accurate information about disease spread so common people can use common sense in their everyday lives. For example, the people understood to stay away from lepers because prolonged, sustained contact is how the disease spreads. Furthermore, in Leviticus 15:1-27, the people were also warned about physical contact with impure persons, their body fluids and objects they had touched. Why? Because if a person came into contact with such things, they ran the risk of becoming impure. This awareness would have motivated avoidance of such contamination. The point is that accurate information about contagious diseases ought to be brought to light so that everyone can make sober health decisions. Said decisions emanate from the idea of risk stratification: different people fall into different risk categories, so you can’t treat everyone the same. For example, it would be foolish to presume that a child with COVID bears the same risk as an 80-year-old with COVID. They are in completely different risk categories and should be treated differently.
Now, in 2022, what we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that COVID is an illness spread by respiratory droplets. Meaning what? It’s spread when someone who has it coughs or sneezes near you, but it’s not predominantly spread by contact: this means you don’t get COVID by touching a surface, shaking hands or handling a doorknob. Thus, in the pursuit of accurate information about contagious diseases, it is now evident that for the general public, all the hand sanitizing and surface cleaning are a complete waste of time. Even more, what we now know is that COVID is not spread by casual contacts but intimate ones. There’s a reason why the number one place where COVID spreads outside of healthcare facilities is the home: that is, it’s not the casual stranger we pass in a crowd that is the biggest threat to us; it’s the person in our house that we’re in close contact with for hours upon hours. Certainly, the average person may read that and say, “But I’ve heard something radically different all along.” And sadly, what you’ve heard all along from the health powers that be is likely to have misinformation, not accurate information.
So, principle number two is to adhere to narrow intervention. The last principle is closely related to the second.
Principle number three: God’s prescription says that good public health is consistent with the interests of private individuals.
It is crucial to understand that in Leviticus 13:1-6, there are only two individuals involved: the priest who acts as the medical provider and the patient who is suspected of having leprosy. The priest then advises and treats one person; he follows the principle of narrow intervention and does not treat the community at large. The text deals with the problem of a contagious disease on the level of the individual because, after all, the public is merely a collection of individuals. Accordingly, what is good for the person will also be good for the whole, and good public health starts with good private health. Good public health seeks to rightly order the whole community: it does not seek to turn the entire community into a leper colony.
The modern applications are readily obvious. Individual doctors treat their individual patients without outside interference. Doctors don’t treat the public at large or people they are not directly responsible for. And let us not miss that it was the responsibility of the priests to manage the issue of leprosy; it wasn’t the job of a tribal leader, prophet or judge. What we’ve unfortunately seen in the past two years is an explosion of people who act as if they were medical doctors but who are not: examples include non-clinical physicians on TV, politicians, employers and school administrators.
Since good public health rightly orders the whole community, we don’t transform all of life into a hospital. We don’t assume asymptomatic people are sick and are potential COVID carriers. We don’t enact lockdowns, mandatory public masking, school closures or any other disruption of everyday life for healthy people. To repeat: quarantine is a biblical idea in that Levitical law advocated isolation and behavior modification exclusively for the sick. What happened to those who had no evidence of clinical disease? They went about life as usual without restriction. It would be a perversion of biblical principles to wrongly disorder the whole community and recklessly disrupt private lives for a disease they do not have.
Unfortunately, when bad public health policies are enforced, it’s not the nebulous “public” that suffers: it’s always individuals. Consider, for example, what would have happened to the Israelites if they were all treated like lepers. They would have physically starved to death because they could not gather manna each day. Even worse, they would have spiritually starved to death because they could not participate in worship at the Tabernacle. And this is exactly what happened in the spring of 2020 when secular authorities enforced bad public health policies and did treacherous things like force churches to close down. What was the result? A disordering of the spiritual community with little or no health impact. Where is wisdom and justice to be found there? Whatever we do the most for, that is our god. Many in the Christian church demonstrated that they did the most for the government’s health edicts while ignoring God’s. This trauma has graciously nudged many believers to tangibly learn a penetrating lesson: that secular authority and its edicts are not inherently virtuous; they are in fact neutral and ought first to be compared with God’s truth. Therefore, blindly appealing to authority without first considering the quality and morality of that authority will get you into trouble.
So that’s our third principle: God’s prescription says that good public health is consistent with the interests or private individuals.
As is always the case, the earthly is designed to draw our attention to the heavenly, and the deficiencies of the Old Testament Law are designed to point us to Christ. First, we are fallen creatures, and as a result, our bodies are prone to disease and decay. Second, the lepers in the Old Testament had no means to heal themselves. They had to present themselves to a priest who could judge but not treat. The only thing a Levitical priest could offer is identification and isolation, and no one was saved or condemned by quarantine. Third, what the priests could not do, Christ can do. Recall what happened in the Gospel of Luke: Jesus cured a man of leprosy and made him whole again.
While [Jesus] was in one of the cities, behold, there was a man covered with leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” And He reached out with His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-16)
Jesus proved Himself to be the greater high priest. Therefore, as we mine God’s Word for wisdom4our ultimate focus is on Wisdom Himself (Christ), who demonstrates not only what Christians should know but also how we ought to live in His light despite the foolish darkness of the world. This focus is necessary because it is so painfully obvious that the world has ignored and is ignoring God’s wisdom when it comes to public health.
So, I will leave you with this: let us all reflect on what has happened in the past two years, and let us not waste the crisis. If for nothing else, we must all think biblically about life, even in matters as minute as contagious skin conditions and the ailments of one person versus the rest of the community. In the end, what the whole canon of Scripture teaches us is that we are all spiritual lepers who have a condition (sin) that separates us from God and separates us from others. No one can heal themselves, which is why we need Christ.
And [Jesus] reached out with His hand and touched [the leper], saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately the leprosy left him.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal