I’m nearing the end of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) as part of a one-year chronological reading plan through scripture. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, two themes in my reading have jumped off the pages: God’s law that required Israel to
- Be proactive in the wake of disease.
- Care for the vulnerable.
Proactivity in the wake of disease and care for the most vulnerable are clear principles in the Old Testament. For example, God gave instructions in Leviticus 13:1-46 for what the Israelites should do when a person contracted a skin disease, including a quarantine for seven days. He even commanded contaminated fabrics to be quarantined or burned in Leviticus 13:47-59. In Numbers 5:1-4, God commanded Moses to “send away anyone from the camp who is afflicted with a skin disease… so they will not defile their camps where I dwell among them.” Leviticus 13-14 also provides instructions for how a person should be restored to the camp after a temporary quarantine.
We might feel sadness or discomfort—and justifiably so—at the thought of a person’s isolation outside the Israelite camp. After all, we follow Jesus, who moved toward the sick and healed them during his earthly ministry. To our modern ears, placing the sick “outside the camp” can sound antithetical to the call of loving our neighbors—a call from Yahweh in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18) and emphasized by Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).
But a closer, longer look at scripture reveals Israel’s love for neighbor in doing so. Context is important when reading Jesus’ command in Matthew 22:37-40 to love one’s neighbor:
He said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.’
When we read the Old Testament Law and Prophets through the interpretive lens of loving God and neighbor, we begin to understand that perhaps a temporary quarantine was a practical way to live as God’s people—people who loved their neighbors as themselves—in the ancient Near East where disease spread quickly throughout the camp.
The second theme I have noticed in my daily Bible reading is God’s care for the vulnerable. Laws in the Old Testament often don’t make sense to us today until we read them against the backdrop of the ancient Near East with its most vulnerable in mind. Love for neighbor is especially emphasized in care for the most vulnerable among the Israelites. When people got diseases in the ancient Near East, keep in mind that there was no modern medicine: no vaccines for viruses, no emergency rooms and no sanitized medical facilities. The entire population was vulnerable in ways we can’t imagine.
Physical distancing, however, does not have to mean social distancing. Even as we physically step back from our neighbors, we can still move towards them in other ways.Click to tweet
Author Rebecca McLaughlin tweeted last Friday, “It is deeply sad that the loving thing we can do right now is step back. It’s in our Christian DNA to move toward others.” In a nation where people already feel lonely, we as Christians might feel conflicted—even hypocritical—for stepping back from our neighbors and local community of faith. However, reading God’s law more closely this year has shown me God’s people have been here before. His law required Israel to be proactive in the wake of disease and care for the most vulnerable by temporary social distancing. This gives me confidence to take seriously the recommendations of those more qualified than me who tell us to do the same as a means of loving neighbors.
Leviticus 19:16 says, “You shall not jeopardize the life of your neighbor.” As we follow the government’s recommendations to protect ourselves and neighbors from the coronavirus, there are two takeaways we can glean from these Old Testament principles of 1) being proactive when disease strikes and 2) caring for the most vulnerable among us.
Takeaway #1: We must apply these principles of God’s law today.
We might be far removed from the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern context, but we are still called to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” especially the vulnerable, in our context today (i.e. a coronavirus pandemic). Applying this principle requires knowing exactly who the vulnerable are so that we can protect them.
In a practical guide for Christian leaders, author Andy Crouch wrote,
COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is considerably more deadly than ordinary flu, especially for vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with existing medical conditions. They are generally dying of bilateral interstitial pneumonia, the signature worst-case outcome of COVID-19. Support of patients with this late-stage disease requires immense amounts of specialized equipment and medical expertise. At the same time, the disease can be mild in many people, even unnoticed. But this actually increases the risk to others, as ‘asymptomatic’ carriers can transmit the virus to the highly vulnerable without realizing they are infectious.
Therefore there is a serious risk beyond the virus’s simple fatality rate: its potential to overwhelm our health care system, leading to many more otherwise preventable deaths from COVID-19 and other causes.
The most vulnerable among us, according to Crouch, are the elderly; those with chronic illnesses; and those with other sicknesses that will be left untreated if our healthcare system is overwhelmed. You or I might not fall under one of these three categories, but a lot of our neighbors do. Therefore, we must practice physical distancing because, as Crouch wrote, the disease might be asymptomatic in some carriers.
Physical distancing, however, does not have to mean social distancing. Even as we physically step back from our neighbors, we can still move towards them in other ways.
Share a long phone call or send regular text messages to friends and family. Ask those choosing to self-quarantine if you can run errands for them, such as shopping for groceries or paying a bill (as you take necessary precautions, of course). Nursing and assisted living homes are temporarily suspending visitation hours; gather your family and make cards for those in homes near you. Take a walk outside with a friend who lives alone. Find out if you can donate money or food items for children whose schools are canceled but depend on school lunches for nutrition. Start a virtual Bible study group. Pray especially for your vulnerable neighbors by name.
There are many ways to love our neighbors while taking the necessary precautions to slow and stop the spread of the virus.
Mild inconveniences are a low price to pay as we walk not as a people of fear but vigilance.Click to tweet
Takeaway #2: We must personalize these principles of God’s law.
God’s command to love our neighbors “as ourselves” has been a curiosity to me, probably since I began reading the Bible more closely in high school. God could’ve said, “Love your neighbors,” and stopped there.
Or could he have stopped there?
Perhaps God meant to imply in this short prepositional phrase that sacrificial love for one’s neighbor is not natural for us. It competes with our sinful flesh that prioritize self over neighbor. But God calls us to love our neighbors as our own selves—as if we were on the receiving end of our love. In other words, we must make loving our neighbors personal.
We might not be counted among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but we must love as if we were one of the elderly or those with chronic illnesses or other diseases needing immediate medical treatment. In his essay, Crouch again communicates why caution is necessary, not for self in most cases but for those vulnerable to COVID-19:
We should say, ‘Love is the reason we are changing our behavior.’ The reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather… is not self-protection…. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the ‘strong’ must consider the ‘weak’ (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.
Consider making this even more personal. We all know and love people in these categories. We have grandmothers and grandfathers in their 70s or friends with illnesses like diabetes.
What if they contracted the virus, and you could trace it back to just one person who did not take the virus seriously, simply because he or she was not considered among the most vulnerable?
As Christian apologist Neil Shenvi tweeted last week, “No one is asking you to do anything extreme or foolish. At best, no one is asking you to do anything extreme or foolish. At best, they’re asking you to accept mild inconveniences.”
Mild inconveniences are a low price to pay as we walk not as a people of fear but vigilance to apply and personalize God’s law, loving our neighbors as ourselves during this time.
A version of this post originally published at Lanie’s blog.