The great dilemma facing the world’s leaders right now is a new disease (COVID-19) with the following features: 1) we have no preventive (vaccine) and no cure, 2) it appears to be highly contagious, 3) it can be spread by people who don’t even know they have it (no symptoms), and 4) it is substantially deadly. We don’t yet know how deadly. Based on today’s statistics, lethality ranges from one percent (Germany) to over ten percent (Italy). Given that so many who test positive are completely without symptoms, it is more likely that the actual range is something like .5% to 5%. Since the deadliness of the common flu is about .1%, these are serious numbers which merit a serious response. To date, the primary response of the world’s leaders (in addition to emergency-level health care for the sick and an all-out drive to find a vaccine and a cure) is social distancing; a substantial portion of the world’s people largely confined to their homes. But this remedy threatens to completely collapse the world’s economy, which would likely have consequences more lethal than the virus itself (suicide, starvation, and increased susceptibility to disease among other consequences).
In light of this situation, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what the Bible has to say about social distancing as a response to contagious disease. There are three main texts: Leviticus 13:45-46, Numbers 5:1-4, and Numbers 12:10-15. I will take them in the order they appear in the Bible. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Lev 13:45-46, ESV. Leprosy is today known to be a mildly contagious disease with extremely debilitating consequences. Back then, there was no treatment and no cure. When a person was identified as having the disease, they were to live alone and signal their condition by dress and voice whenever they were in public. In the previous verses of Leviticus 13 (verses 1-44) are elaborate procedures to diagnose the disease along with 7-14-day quarantines during the period when it was unclear if the symptoms were actually leprous or not.
Numbers 5:1-4, ESV: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. 3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ 4 And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.” This text is similar to the previous, without the elaborate procedures for diagnosis and adding a couple of other triggers for isolation (bodily discharge and contact with the dead). The remedy for leprosy was to distance those infected with the disease outside the camp of Israel.
In Numbers 12:10-15, Moses’ sister Miriam is found to have leprosy. Moses prays to God for her healing and Miriam is healed. Nevertheless, in line with the procedures outlined in Leviticus 13:1-44, Miriam is quarantined outside the camp for seven days to verify that the healing had, in fact, taken place. So social distancing is clearly a biblical remedy for contagious disease and those who follow the Bible should have no qualms about observing it under the current situation, even to the extent of avoiding gatherings for worship.
There are, however, two significant differences between the incidents recounted in the Bible and the situation today. First, in the Bible, it was the infected who were isolated socially, not the healthy. By identifying and isolating the diseased the contagion could be controlled. Second, the Israelites were dealing with a disease that had observable, physical symptoms. As we have already noted, with COVID-19 a person can be infected, and infectious, and yet have no symptoms. To some degree that makes social distancing in this case a fool’s errand. In the context of crowded cities, the disease can still be passed on within households and in the context of the search for food and other essential supplies. People who feel completely fine and have no symptoms can still unknowingly spread the disease to the people around them.
What guidance can we take from these texts for the current situation? The “biblical” solution to COVID-19 would seem to involve two things: 1) Find a vaccine and a cure, so the wider population need no longer fear infection from social interaction. But since those remedies are thought to be 12-18 months away at best, what can be done more immediately to stem the tide of the disease without collapsing the world economy? 2) Ramp up testing for COVID-19 to separate the asymptomatic from the healthy. With a contagious disease, diagnosis is critical (Lev 13:1-44). If no one knows who has the disease, social distancing in the biblical sense will not be possible.
There is still the hope that COVID-19 will somehow burn itself out like many similar flus have done in the past. But in the meantime, the “biblical” approach would seem to be, 1) Determine who in fact has the virus and who does not, and 2) Isolate those who are infected so that the rest of the population can go on with their lives and avoid the consequences of a long-lasting global shutdown.
This is a work in progress and there may be flaws in the above that I do not see. But I share this publically for what it is worth in dealing with the present crisis.