Pandemics in the Bible? What the Biblical Authors Might Think about Coronavirus

In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, where would we turn in Scripture for guidance? Should we seek teaching on pandemics in the Bible? Many have turned to the comforting psalms, “fear not,” “be still,” “God is our refuge,” and so on. Or, it might be tempting to think that the biblical authors would point us to leprosy laws as a source of guidance for stopping the spread of infection today (This is the direction took in their COVID-19 article.). Leviticus says to separate the infected and keep them at a distance, “He shall cover his lip (mouth) and cry out, ‘Social Distancing! Social Distancing!’” (Lev 13:45, my translation). 

However, cleanliness codes might be doing something different than giving the Hebrews a health code. After all, some of those skin problems called “leprosy” in Leviticus would not be contagious, so this doesn’t seem to be merely an ancient hygiene code that plainly guides us about infectious diseases today. 

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Instead of pointing to a single teaching about pandemics in the bible, or various skin dysfunctions, to figure out what the biblical authors would think about COVID-19, I would point to two recurring principles across Scripture. Both of these pervasive ideas make me think that the biblical authors would guide us to take social distancing, for instance, as a biblical ethic that reveals our self-control and restraint for the sake of others. The two omnipresent principles in Scripture are: respect for elders and general care for the vulnerable.

Respect for Elders

The biblical tradition of reverence for our oldest members runs deep, as was echoed by our friend Yoram Hazony, who pointed out on Twitter in this fiery thread.

In the biblical literature, this can be seen in simple turns of discretion such as:

  • Service as a priest was restricted to 30–50 years old. This might seem young to us, but in reference to an average life expectancy in the low 40s, it’s more like 50 to 70-year-olds for them.
  • Moses’ father-in-law offered wise counsel with the result that Moses “obeyed the voice of his father-in-law”. 
  • The fourth commandment’s demands of parent honoring with the promise of well-going for those who practice such honor. (Presumably, some parents would have been just as difficult to honor as some are today. Hence, honoring our parents shapes us as much as shows respect.). 

The book of Proverbs also contains a drumbeat of sayings about our elders, too many to cite here:

  • “Listen my son to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s torah.” (Prov 1:8)
  • “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.” (Prov 20:29)
  • “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” (Prov 23:22)

Our gray-haired comrades are the repository of our institutional memory. Our elders are not guaranteed to be wise (see Job 21:7), but even the foolish among our seniors do have perspective desperately needed by us.

Into the New Testament, the same wisdom of listening to our elders continues where 1 Timothy instructs: “do not rebuke an old man but encourage him as you would a father . . . older women as mothers” (1 Tim 5:1–2). Peter says the same, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders” (1 Pet 5:4). Why do these folks get such special treatment across the biblical corpus? 

If our older folks embody the perspective and wisdom we need, which seems to be a generally shared view of the biblical authors, then physical concern for such a vulnerable population (e.g., Psa 82:3) is an expected form of showing basic respect. 

General Care for the Vulnerable

The elderly are part of a vulnerable population with the coronavirus, but they are not the only susceptible persons. Scripture highlights the need to honor the elderly, but also to care for a wider swath of vulnerable people as well. These folks can be the “weak,” “poor,” “needy,” “orphans,” “widows,” or other able-bodied vulnerable people like the “foreigner.”

Curious about the laws in Deuteronomy? Check out this overview from The Bible Project.

  • “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exod 22:2).
  • “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deut 15:11).
  • “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the foreigners . . .” (Deut 24:14).
  • “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

The Gift of Self-Control

What about when something uniquely affects the weak disproportionate to the young and virile among us? Our ability to restrain ourselves for the good of the community is also a biblical ethic from Eden until the present. In the first story of humanity, a community collapsed into forced exile because of their failure to listen to the proper voice and restrain themselves. Proverbs puts it bluntly:

A man without self-control
     is like a city broken into and left without walls.

Proverbs 25:28

Likewise, Paul listed “self-control” as a fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling and working within us and our communities (Gal 5:23). And just before this list of Spirit-given fruit, Paul connects the freedom given by God to self-control for the sake of the community: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament—including Jesus!—excoriate those who won’t bend their habits for the sake of the weak and vulnerable (see Isa 26:6; Jer 20:13; Amos 4:1, Matt 25:39–49). Conversely, they celebrate the righteous who “open their hand to the poor,” “lend without interest,” and “clothe the needy.” Paul regularly encourages and celebrates the one who shows self-control generally “for the sake of” conscience, “for the sake of the gospel,” and especially “for the sake of” the weaker brother.” For-the-sake-of thinking might look like forgoing travel, non-essential events, or even modifying our church services. 

If the biblical logic on how to act in these times could be summed up, it’s not based on descriptions of pandemics in the Bible or on cleanliness laws of quarantine—if those laws even had anything to do with our ideas of germ theory and quarantine. Rather, it’s for the community to have a “for the sake of the other” mentality and act in accordance

Scripture doesn’t teach self-control in order to reach internal tranquility (like Stoics or some modern New Age religions). Self-control and restraint are for the sake of others, and particularly the vulnerable. Self-control is a community uniting exercise. It avoids divisiveness and the catastrophe of straight-out selfishness. Many Americans practice self-control for lots of other reasons—weight loss, saving money, and so on—but now we can see the common-sense biblical reasoning that asks us to restrain ourselves. In prudence, we might have to restrain our activities or even our desire to do things, such as eat at a restaurant or even gather for services, for the sake of the vulnerable. 

Conversely, the biblical prophets might be unkind to us who insist on our individual freedoms and rights in such a time as this. Just as some of us gave up some of our Constitutional rights when we joined the military for the sake of the nation, Christians can certainly afford to shelve some individual rights for the biblically valued and vulnerable populations among us. Across Christian Scripture, many things can be used to teach us to trust God and to not fear. But our collective for-the-sake-of actions today teach us to love God through our respect for our elderly and restraint for those who are in more delicate health situations.

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