What Does the Bible Say Concerning Disease?

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The Black Death arrived in Europe in October 1347 and terrified Western society in an unprecedented manner. During the Middle Age, the Black Death resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20 million people over the next five years (approximately one-half of Europe’s population). The most famous literary treatment of the plague is the introduction to The Decameron. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) said the “deadly pestilence” began “either because of the influence of heavenly bodies or because of God’s just wrath as a punishment to mortals for our wicked deeds.”1

The plague arrived in Europe when 12 Genoese merchants docked their trading ships at the Sicilian port of Messina, subsequent to a long journey through the Black Sea. As people gathered on the docks, they were shocked to discover that most sailors aboard the ship were dead, and those still alive were seriously ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and puss. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the “death ships” to exit the harbor, but it was too late.

Even prior to the arrival of the “death ships” at Messina, many Europeans heard rumors that a “deadly pestilence” was spreading across the commercial trade routes of the Near and Far East. Nevertheless, Europeans were not prepared for the deadly pandemic. Boccaccio wrote how “it began in both men and women with certain swellings either in the groin or under the armpits, some of which grew to the size of a normal apple and others to the size of an egg (more of less).” The people referred to the boils as gavoccioli (bubboni in modern Italian and “buboes” in modern English, hence the source of the modern term, “bubonic plague”).2

Many believed the Black Death was an eschatological sign heralding the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Some believed that the Black Death indicated God’s displeasure with humanity and was divine retribution for their sins. Consequently, some resorted to extreme asceticism to cleanse themselves of sin and thereby merit God’s forgiveness. Flagellants, for instance, sought to avert God’s punishment by stripping to the waist and flogging themselves with whips as they wandered from town to town. Jews were said to have poisoned wells, and thus falsely accused of causing the plague; they were persecuted virulently as a result. Many Jewish communities in Europe were decimated in hopes of ending the plague.

Black rats infested with fleas spread the disease, because they were host to the deadly bacterium Yersinia pestis. Since rodents were regular passengers on ships (and very common in cities and towns), the disease spread through the Mediterranean and Europe. Black cats were hunted, since they were thought to be witches in animal form, who were casting their spells upon the people. Ironically, the cats would have lessened the spread of the plague, since they were the natural enemy of the disease-infested rats. At the time, no one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one person to another, and no one knew how to prevent or cure it.

How did the plague end? There are several factors thought to have ended the Black Death, such as better hygiene, yet the most important response was for people to quarantine themselves. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has made the word “quarantine” common speech. Quarantine intends to restrict the movement of people to prevent the spread of disease. The term “quarantine” is derived from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “40 days,” and is traced to the 14th century when the city of Dubrovnik (now in Croatia) was under Venetian rule. As the Black Plague was devastating Europe, the Venetians recognized the need to assert some form of protection, and thus declared all people and ships to be isolated for 40 days prior to entering Dubrovnik.3

The novel coronavirus began in China, and whether the virus escaped from a bioresearch lab or arose in a filthy street market that sold wild animals for cuisine is unknown. What is important to know is what the Bible reveals concerning disease. Since ancient times, societies have used strategies to isolate persons with disease from those unaffected. Some of the earliest references to these strategies are found in the books of the Old Testament. In regards to anyone contracting a skin disease, Leviticus 13:46 commands, “‘He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Concerning defilement, Numbers 5:2 prescribes the following: “‘Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person.”

God’s Remedy for Disease
Leprosy was the most horrendous disease in the Bible. In addition to the disfiguration and pain, those who contracted it were shunned and forbidden to live in community with their own people. Leprosy was one of the most contagious and debilitating diseases. Among the many defilements of the Mosaic Law, only a dead body was considered more serious.

All diseases are a continual reminder of how the world has changed since God pronounced a curse upon the earth. Initially, the Lord created everything “very good,” but Adam’s sin resulted in death and decay. To protect His people from disease, God revealed preventative measures against its spread. The Jewish priests were hardly physicians, yet in some aspects they did function as public health officials. The Levitical sacrificial system prescribed laws and commands that priests would institute with discretion, including testing for leprosy and quarantining those who contracted the intensely communicable disease.

The Mosaic Law revealed how to identify and treat skin diseases (Lev 13). When an abnormally noticeable blemish appeared on a person’s skin, he or she must “be brought to Aaron” or the officiating priest for examination (v. 2). The priest would then examine the person to determine if he or she was ceremonially unclean. An infectious disease was characterized by the hair in the infection turning white, and the infection being “deeper than the skin” of the body (v. 3). If the priest could not determine whether the infection required cleansing, the person was quarantined for a period of time until proper diagnosis could be made. If the infection “spread on the skin,” it was regarded as disease and the person declared “unclean” (vv. 4-8). An infected person would then wear torn clothes, refrain from normal grooming, cover his or her face, “and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’” so unsuspecting persons would avoid the contagious individual (v. 45).

Quarantine was the first response to an infected person (v. 4). All skin diseases could not be determined initially, so that additional seven-day periods were necessary to make a final decision (v. 5). Individuals who definitely contracted a skin disease were separated from the community; he or she was “unclean,” and would remain in that condition for the duration of the infection. “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (v. 46). Similar to the Genesis narrative, wherein Adam and Eve were banished “from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:23) and God “drove the man out” (v. 24), so also the unclean person had to live “outside the camp” (Lev 13:46). The horrendous nature of skin diseases is a depiction of human uncleanness before a holy God.

Material items, such as cloth or leather garments, were treated in the same manner as people (vv. 47-59). The priest quarantined clothes with a greenish or reddish spot for seven days (vv. 47-50), and was required to burn them “if the mark has spread in the garment” (vv. 51-52). If the spot did not spread, “then the priest shall order them to wash the thing in which the mark occurs and he shall quarantine it for seven more days” (vv. 53-54). If the color of the mark remained unchanged, even if it had not spread, the garment was declared unclean and burned (v. 55).

Responding to COVID-19
All people are urged to wash hands frequently with soap and water as one of the most effective measures to avert the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, people are asked to self-quarantine. Social distancing is also a wise response, since no one knows who has contracted the virus, and even asymptomatic persons can spread COVID-19. The Bible reveals the sensible nature of physical cleanness and quarantining in Leviticus 11—15. The need for washing and quarantine is emphasized in several contexts (11:32-40; 13:29-59; 15:1-15). Keeping oneself clean and not coming into contact with an infected person is precisely what the Bible commands.

Romans 5:12 reveals that sin entered the world through the disobedience of one person, “and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Scripture revealed laws of purity not only in response to the human condition (and a world controlled by death, with all its defilements and diseases), but also to emphasize the need for cleansing from one’s environment. Proper response to COVID-19 through cleanliness and quarantine is biblical and wise. Yet, whereas nearly all people are concerned regarding the novel coronavirus, there is a more lethal disease called sin, which begins at conception and thus affects everyone. Jesus criticized the scribes and Pharisees for being clean on the outside, yet being inwardly corrupt (Matt 23:25-28). Ultimately, all the sacrificial rituals anticipate the death of Jesus Christ, who fulfilled Isaiah 53 when He bore human griefs, sorrows, and iniquities “in His body on the cross,” so that all who trust in Him—by grace through faith—“die to sin and live to righteousness,” for by His wounds is the believer healed from the sickness of sin (1 Pet 2:24).

Jesus will return one day and transform creation, freeing it from all the effects and miseries of sin, thereby making it more glorious than ever (Rom 8:18-25). The promise of a new creation is one in which there is no death or decay, and certainly no diseases like COVID-19. The contamination of the present age is a perpetual reminder of sin’s effects in the world, and the encouragement that the world to come will not be like the present. Until that time of restoration, God’s people should anticipate the “hope” of the Lord’s promise and patiently endure present sufferings with perseverance. 

ENDNOTES
1 Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella (New York: Norton, 1977) 3.
2 Ibid. 4. See also, James Cornell, The Great International Disaster Book (New York: Pocket Books, 1976, 1979) 184.
3 Susan Mosher Stuard, A State of Deference: Ragusa/Dubrovnik in the Medieval Centuries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Midnight Call - 05/2020

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