Quarantine Laws and the Bible

As the Westminster Confession puts it, the “general equity” of the Old Testament law does inform us as Christians living under the New Covenant

I do think that it is important to remember that these quarantine laws were simply the application of another law recorded in Leviticus 19:18 — that  every Israelite was to “love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”  The royal law of Christ was not new when he gave it.  Christ was drawing this law from the pervasive principle that regulated everything in the Old Testament.  What admirable love, when knowing that you are a potential carrier of a contagious disease that can spread and kill others, to submit yourself to the laws of quarantine.

 

Long before the existence of medical science and the field of microbiology, there existed rules in the Old Testament for good community hygiene, and also a meticulous protocol that was mandated to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.

Now, before I say more, I unreservedly deny that modern man is under the Old Testament law as a rule book.  I’m not proposing that we return to the laws of Israel that were peculiar to that nation under the Old Covenant.  However, as a good Presbyterian, I do believe as Westminster Confession 19.4 puts it, that the “general equity” of the Old Testament law does inform us as Christians living under the New Covenant.  My attempt here is simply to draw from the Old Testament some general principles and to apply them to the present debate arising from the Ebola predicament.

We may not realize it, but in the history of mankind, good hygiene (both personal and communal) is a rather recent phenomenon. It is important to note that history is full of examples of the spread of disease that could have been stopped with simple hygienic and quarantine rules.  I believe that the Black Plague that spread across Europe could have been mitigated if the principles found in the Bible had been followed.

Interestingly, the Jews of Europe did follow these principles and were the least affected by the Black Plague.  Some historians tell us that because the Jews were least afflicted from the predominant results of the plague, others assumed that the Jews controlled and caused the plague.  This resulted in the persecution of the Jews in the 14th century.  There is an artistic representation of a Jewish massacre in the year 1349 in the possession of the Royal Library of Belgium.

In the Old Testament, the law was quite forthright in regard to personal hygiene.  For example, excrement must be disposed with care (Deut. 23:12-13).

Also, relevant to this article, in Lev. 13:46 there was a strict code for mandatory quarantine of people infected with contagious diseases: “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.”  Restrictions of the contagious person were regulated by others.  A self-imposed quarantine was an oxymoron.

It is important to note that even when there was reasonable suspicion that a person had an infectious disease, there was a definite amount of days of quarantine required during the detection period (Lev. 13: 26, 33). If the infection was eventually identified as a communicable disease then his personal effects were to be destroyed with fire (Lev.13:55), and even his house was to be torn down and taken outside the camp (Lev. 14:45).  If the infection was not contagious, then there was a rather elaborate ritual in order to give thanks to God.

Now, we do live in a different age.  God has blessed our day with phenomenal medical advancement.  We enjoy the attendant blessings that come with the gospel.  Everything must be judged in terms of what we can do in the modern age that could not be done years ago.  However, I do think that it is important to remember that these quarantine laws were simply the application of another law recorded in Leviticus 19:18 — that  every Israelite was to “love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”  The royal law of Christ was not new when he gave it.  Christ was drawing this law from the pervasive principle that regulated everything in the Old Testament.  What admirable love, when knowing that you are a potential carrier of a contagious disease that can spread and kill others, to submit yourself to the laws of quarantine.  Ultimately, it is a religious issue, as all issues are.  In the end, it is a matter of loving your neighbor.

Larry E. Ball is a Honorably Retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.