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Insight #302 – Social Distancing in the Bible

April 3, 2020.

How old is social distancing? Many would trace it back to the Black Plague in the fourteenth century. Venice caused ships to wait some time in their harbor before people could disembark – or people who had disembarked were placed in isolation for forty days. In fact, our word quarantine comes from Italian meaning “space of forty days.” But social distancing is much older than that.

In the Bible

“Unclean! Unclean!” You look with pity and revulsion upon the poor soul warning you to keep your distance. Who told him to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!”? God.

The law that we find in the OT, called the law of Moses and the law of the Lord, was often quite detailed and complicated. It touched many facets of daily life. It went far beyond purely moral and religious aspects. While it is difficult for us to figure out any purpose for some of the laws, there are some laws which seem clearly to deal with sanitation, hygiene, and public health. Some of those laws were way ahead of their time. Well, why not? They came from God, not Moses.

Laws regarding leprosy fall into this category. Leviticus 13 and 14 are filled with details, but the most interesting verses to me at this time are 13:45-46: “The leper in whom the plague is shall wear torn clothes, and the hair of his head shall hang loose. He shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ All the days in which the plague is in him he shall be unclean. He is unclean. He shall dwell alone. Outside of the camp shall be his dwelling.”

That is social distancing three thousand, five hundred years ago. What did the people at that time know about contagion? But God knew and so put it in His Law as a protection for His people. A big difference between that and what is happening today is that leprosy could be seen while viruses cannot. God gave laws to help arrest the spread of contagion that the priest could see and evaluate.

Have you visualized the scene when ten lepers approached Jesus? “As he entered into a certain village, ten men who were lepers met him, who stood at a distance” (Lk. 17:12). I picture them as much more than six feet away from Jesus. 

The Bottom Line

Nothing said above is to suggest that the OT law is binding upon Christians today, yet it does illustrate the community responsibility – even in OT times – to protect others from your disease. “Love your neighbor” is binding today. If you have a contagious disease, you don’t want to put others at risk. There is some evidence that a person can be contagious with the coronavirus even before they have any symptoms. It is not for me to offer specifics of what to do or not to do. That is the responsibility of our civil authorities. The restrictions they are putting in place these days are to help stop the spread of the virus – in other words, to think of others, even if you decide to be careless for yourself.

The reverse of this principle (love your neighbor) is in play with those who buy up and hoard toilet paper and paper towels for months in advance – without thinking of the person coming down the aisle who needs some this week. 

It is a difficult time for everyone. Yes, it is a time to take personal precautions. But it is equally a time to think of others. The social distancing of the lepers in the law of Moses had nothing to do with protecting the lepers. It was all about lepers protecting others. The social distancing was about the impact that one’s actions can have upon those nearby. It was all about loving one’s neighbor.