COVID 19 and biblical grounds for social distancing

Nearly all of my posts are scheduled far in advance. None of them (including the recent post on the biblical book of Job) was precipitated by news of the coronavirus. But since the topic is on people’s minds, I offer here just a small possible contribution.

For those wondering whether quarantine or social distancing can be biblical: I have long taken biblical texts about isolation as potentially relevant precedent for certain conditions. (Admittedly, I have some bias: some have thought me OCD because even in regular times I wash my hands after being settings with much handshaking. But when I do, fairly rarely, catch colds, sometimes they develop into worse and protracted conditions.)

The relevant OT passages have more to do with ritual purity (and the ritual contagion of impurity) than with contagious diseases in our modern sense. Nevertheless, they also incidentally illustrate that the idea of isolation or distancing for perceived causes of a sort of contagion has some biblical warrant. (Because my PhD and my usual teaching area are NT, I should defer to my OT colleagues for correction on this, though I think all of us would agree that there is modern medical warrant for social distancing.)

Here I give the example of “leprosy” (a label used in our translations of the Bible for a range of skin conditions, but which were associated back then with ritual impurity):

“The priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body, and if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease; after the priest has examined him he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean. But if the spot is white in the skin of his body, and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall confine the diseased person for seven days. The priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if he sees that the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall confine him seven days more. The priest shall examine him again on the seventh day, and if the disease has abated and the disease has not spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only an eruption; and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. But if the eruption spreads in the skin after he has shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall appear again before the priest. The priest shall make an examination, and if the eruption has spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a leprous disease” (Lev 13:3-8, NRSV).

The NASB repeatedly employs the English term “isolate” in this chapter (Lev 13:4-5, 11, 21, 26, 31, 33). In Num 12:14, Miriam has to remain outside the camp for seven days after her outbreak of this condition.

In the NT, Jesus clearly transcends ritual impurity, touching the impure. He models for us compassion, trust in God’s power, and courage to cross barriers. Jesus made the impure pure. There are undoubtedly also various “spiritual” applications of the purity principles in Leviticus (such as avoiding what is spiritually impure).

Nevertheless, the application that I suggest here rests not on analogy with purity regulations per se but with recognizing the practical value of containing what was understood as contagious. We are not bound to follow levitical regulations, but we can still learn principles from them. Moreover, doing church is less about being spectators than about relationships, so we do not always need to meet 5000 strong to be the church (cf.;

It is not OCD to follow guidelines from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). If the CDC (in the U.S., or equivalent professional bodies in other nations) provides warnings how to prevent the spread of something that harms our neighbor, we should do our best to comply.

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