COVID-19 and Biblical Hygiene
You might have seen the Google Doodle honouring Ignaz Semmelweis, who is credited with inventing the concept of handwashing as a way of preventing infection in 1847. But did you know that, thousands of years before Semmelweis was even born, the Bible had promoted the concept of washing hands in order to prevent contamination? And not just hands, but also dishes, clothes, and other contaminated items. The same routine we are advised to follow now to protect against COVID-19!
This is hardly surprising, if you think about it, since the same God who wrote the Bible also created this world, and knew all along how we work and how the natural world around us functions, too.
Sceptical? Have you been more than half convinced by the people who say that God doesn't exist?
Well, think about this:
How did a bunch of nomads in around 1450 BC know to add these concepts to their national law? There were no microscopes, no laboratories, no modern science discovering novel coronaviruses! That sort of knowledge hasn't been around all that long in real terms.
In fact, around the time when the law was written, the great nation of Egypt was relying on such "medicines" as cat's dung, mouse tails, rotten flesh, and "the film of dampness which is found upon the wood of ships."
Have a look at some of the requirements of the Law of Moses (contained in the first five books of the Bible):
Num 5:2 "Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead.
Num 5:3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell." (ESV)
(Note that "leprosy" in the Bible is not limited to and may not even include the disease now called by that name, but refers to a broad range of infectious skin diseases)
Isolation before the disease is confirmed
Have you seen how people who have symptoms that could be those of COVID-19 are shut away from others while they wait for the results of their tests? Well, this is what the Law of Moses was doing all those centuries ago! There's not room here to quote all of Leviticus chapter 13 verse 1-46, but the salient points are these:
- A person developed symptoms that might be those of an infectious disease.
- It was then their responsibility to present themselves to the priest (there were no doctors in those days; it was the priest who was required to be an expert both in recognising the symptoms and responding appropriately to the situation).
- The priest looked them thoroughly over and decided whether it was a possible case of "leprosy" or not. If it was, they were isolated for seven days. At the end of that time the priest checked them again, with equal thoroughness, and if there was still doubt, there was another seven days of isolation (fourteen days all up - sounding familiar?)
- At the end of that time, if the symptoms had cleared, the person returned to normal life; if they had not, the isolation became an inseparable part of that person's life as long as their symptoms remained:
Lev 13:46 "He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp." (ESV)
Isolation even if there are no symptoms
And of course you've seen how all sorts of people who have no symptoms at all, and have not tested positive for COVID-19, are still put in isolation, just in case - because they have been in contact with someone who had it, or have even just been in a situation where they might have been more likely to have picked it up - a cruise ship, an overseas trip, etc.
Well, surprise, surprise, the God who created us knew that one too.
Once again we're looking at a section that's too long to quote in its entirety (Leviticus 16 verse 2 -27), but here are some of the concepts:
- If you were suffering from a discharge of any kind, you and everyone around you were required to take special precautions.
- Bed and chair (or anything else you sat on) was unclean. Anyone who touched/ sat on them must wash both himself and his clothing, and then was still considered unclean until the evening.
- Anyone who touched the sick person became unclean, and must follow the same process - wash clothes, wash self, be unclean until evening.
- If the sick person spat on someone, they became unclean - & must follow the same process.
- If the sick person touched a dish, then if it was made of earthenware (which in those days would have been unglazed) was to be broken, while a wooden one was only washed.
Lev 15:11 "Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening." (ESV)
I can hear you thinking, rinsing your hands is not washing them properly for twenty seconds! But in fact "rinsed" is quite a poor translation (the Bible was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek; this section is in Hebrew). The word translated "rinsed" actually means "gush, inundate, cleanse" and has even been translated "drown" or "overwhelm"! (definition from Strong's Exhaustive Concordance). I think this equates to an exceptionally good scrub with soap and water, don't you?
Isolation after touching a dead body
Num 19:14 "This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.
Num 19:15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.
Num 19:16 And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days." (KJV)
This is less relevant to the current crisis, but I couldn't resist including it here. You have only to have a quick scan through any article on the famous Dr Semmelweis to see how resistant the "modern science" of his day was to the idea that contact with a dead body could spread contamination! Indeed he was treated as being more superstitious than scientific. But God knew, and He included it in the laws He gave his people, millennia before Semmelweis existed.
Safe toilet practices
Deut 23:12 "Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad:
Deut 23:13 And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee."
(According to the UN, 4.2 billion people even now live without safe toilet facilities & 673 million people still practice open defecation).
To conclude -
The Bible contains many other wise and protective hygiene laws that predate our modern understanding by millennia. They were not included in the law predominantly as hygiene laws but as rules to instill the quality of holiness in God's chosen people.
Even the quotation above continues:
Deut 23:14 "For the LORD thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee." (KJV)
It is only as a side effect that He promised Israel,
Ex 15:26 "If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee."
You will find no explanation of the principles of contagion in the Bible; it is moral cleanliness God seeks in those He calls to become His people, and it is moral cleanliness which He is willing and able to provide to anyone who comes to Him.
God no longer requires us to observe the complex web of rules contained in the law of Moses; it was, as the Bible calls it, "a schoolmaster," a necessary scaffolding to build a rabble of freed slaves into a nation, and ultimately, "to bring us unto Christ". But He does still require us to come to Him in the way He has laid down in the New Testament - a way which is utterly consistent with the principles that underpinned the Law. This is a requirement of etiquette and respect that we would not think to quibble over if we hoped to be granted audience before a human monarch.
If you would like to know more about how to come to God or how to find hope, joy and peace in this time of trouble, please get in contact with the TTG Bible Centre.
Semmelweis, 1847: see Wikipedia
Current CDC recommendations against COVID-19: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cleaning-disinfection.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fprepare%2Fcleaning-disinfection.html
Law, c. 1450 BC : this dating is well-substantiated, but even if you'd prefer to date from the earliest known translation of the law (mid-3rd century BC) or the earliest known Hebrew fragments of the law (7th or 6th Century BC), this is a very long time before the concept of germs and modern hygiene practices!
Egyptian "medicine" : English translations of selections from the reasonably contemporary (mid 1500s BC) Ebers Papyrus are available here https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924073200077&view=1up&seq=1
Pottery glazing not invented until about the 9thC BC: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ab98
Safe toilet practices:
Modern lack of facilities/hygiene https://www.un.org/en/events/toiletday/
Schoolmaster: Galatians chapter 3 verses 24 - 29