The two countries that I call home – Ethiopia and America – have something unusual in common: influential groups in both countries consider themselves to be God’s new Israel.
These groups tell epic narratives that describe themselves as God’s chosen people, and these stories fuel a powerful sense of national exceptionalism. Exceptionalism means a self-understanding of being different, favored, and specially protected by God.
In both countries, I often hear people proudly say things like, “This is Ethiopia!” or “This is America!” in response to problems affecting other societies. What they mean is that bad things can’t happen in such a chosen, God-favored land.
In the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s fascinating to revisit the original instructions that God gave to the original Israel concerning contagious disease.
How did chosenness and illness interact?
Leviticus is one of the more boring and bizarre books in the Bible. But it has a striking relevance for today’s COVID pandemic because it is the primary place where the Bible addresses this problem of infectious disease.
What interests me most is what Leviticus doesn’t say.
First, Leviticus doesn’t say, “Israel, don’t worry about contagious disease; you’re favored: you won’t get sick like the others.”
Second, Leviticus doesn’t say, “Israel, don’t worry about contagious disease; you’re favored: if you do get sick for some strange reason, God will miraculously heal you.”
Instead, God’s law required Israelites with contagious illnesses to physically distance themselves from public places to prevent the illness from spreading in the community.
The screening process worked like this (see Leviticus 13-15).
First, a person presenting relevant symptoms would go to a priest “outside the camp” for a physical exam to evaluate their condition (14:3). (Priests were the most educated elites in ancient society, so they were best equipped to serve as medical experts. This clearly no longer applies today.)
Second, the patient would receive their preliminary diagnosis from the priest.
Third, even if their diagnosis wasn’t very serious, the patient would still be “isolated” for seven days and then receive a second physical exam (13:2).
Fourth, if their condition had stabilized, they were cleared and returned to society. But if their condition had continued or intensified, they would be isolated for another seven days. The practice thereafter was regular exams and isolation until the person was considered no longer contagious.
Finally, if their illness was considered chronic and dangerous, the policy was severe. The person was to “live alone…outside the camp,” and if they had to visit the community, they must cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to protect others from coming too close and being infected (13:45-46).
The same process was applied to contaminated objects: they would be examined, isolated, and, if still dangerous, destroyed (13:52). Objects and persons that a contagious person had touched were to be strictly traced, monitored, and treated appropriately to prevent the spread of illness (15:4-12).
The moral principle for this medical protocol is given later in Leviticus: “Do not do anything to endanger your neighbor’s life… Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:16, 18).
It is striking to me that prayer plays no role in this process. The people go to the priest to have their bodies examined – not to request and receive prayer. Moreover, no other spiritual remedies are suggested. Instead, the priest does an exam, provides a diagnosis, and prescribes the appropriate course of action – starting with physical distancing and regular checkups.
It is only after the person is already healed that a spiritual ritual follows and they are allowed to bring an offering to the house of worship (14:3-7, 12-18).
Returning to today, I’m not suggesting that Americans and Ethiopians should follow ancient Israelite law. But I do think we can learn profound and practical lessons from Leviticus for our response to COVID-19.
First, God’s chosen people didn’t get a free pass from dangerous, infectious sickness. The Bible doesn’t teach Israel to be naive and arrogant; it teaches them to be vigilant and ready.
If Americans and Ethiopians consider themselves to be specially favored by God, they should remember this chosenness doesn’t include immunity from infectious disease and prepare accordingly.
Second, God’s law doesn’t spiritualize sickness. If you get sick, you don’t go to church; you get a medical exam by an expert and remain in quarantine for at least a week. Thereafter, you don’t come out until you’ve had another exam and are declared uncontagious. Only then do you have a right to go to church and do any communal religious practices.
If Americans and Ethiopians consider themselves specially favored by God, they shouldn’t spiritualize COVID-19. They should make sure their medical systems are in place and rigorously follow protocol. Returning to church is only an option after the danger of infection has been cleared.
Third, this practical medical policy has a profound moral principle: loving our neighbors – and therefore protecting them from danger – is more important to God than prayer, offerings, and spiritual gatherings.
If what we really want to do is worship God, we should get a medical exam, self-isolate, and make sure others are safe. Worship without neighbor-love is worthless to God and dangerous to the community.
The irony of this brief study of the biblical response to contagious disease is this: Christians living in the 21st century appear to be more hyper-religious than God’s people 3000+ years ago. In the face of contagious disease, the original Israel didn’t turn to prayer but to a medical professional. They didn’t go to church; they went into quarantine. They had zero sense of national exceptionalism when it came to health and sickness (with the exception of when they confessed to severely abandoning God). They had a practical protocol for loving and protecting their neighbors as an act of worshiping God.
For the skeptical, it’s worth noting that Leviticus wasn’t the policy of a backslidden, liberal Israel. Leviticus was the God-given instructions spoken by Moses directly after Israel’s miraculous exodus from Egyptian slavery.
Dear Ethiopia, dear America: do you consider yourselves chosen by God and celebrate an identity of national exceptionalism? Then follow the Bible and don’t be foolish: (1) put your neighbors first, (2) follow the best medical protocol available, and (3) return to your Christian community only after you are certain you pose no risk to others.
Without these three steps, we don’t prove our great faith in God. We show that our religion has become a man-made idol that has replaced God and God’s Word. Let’s choose what God has chosen for us.
“Do not do anything to endanger your neighbor’s life… Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:16, 18)