Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Biblical Law and Quarantine

As our civil authorities call for restrictive measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I have seen some resistance to the idea that they have the authority to enact such measures. Some people have questioned the civil government's authority to enact quarantines and other policies that hinder contact between people to slow the spread of contagious disease. Biblically, though, there is a case to be made for the magistrate having such authority.  

We have a case law on the matter with respect to "leprosy" in Leviticus 13-14. Biblically, the term "leprosy" was not restricted to Hanson's disease, but referred to a variety of contagious diseases which showed up on a person's skin and even included infections in garments and houses. In those chapters, the priests were given careful instructions on how to examine and diagnose the symptoms, in some cases shutting up the person in isolation for a time to see how it progressed. If the leprosy was unhealed and contagious, and the person was determined to be unclean, he was required to live in isolation from the rest of the community while he remained unclean. This even applied to prominent figures who got leprosy, like Miriam (Num. 12) and King Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:19-21). 

Now this law operated on two levels, the natural and the ceremonial. This disease was a natural threat to the physical well-being of the Israelites. But it was also a threat to the ritual purity of the Israelites (Num. 5:1-3). For a leper to come back into the community and its corporate worship, not only was healing required, but also an elaborate purification ceremony which involved the shedding of blood (Lev. 14). The natural defilement was used in the ceremonial system of the Old Testament to symbolize spiritual defilement and to teach God's people the importance of holiness. This is why the priests were given this responsibility - they were guardians of the sanctuary, overseers of Israel's corporate purity, authoritatively distinguishing between the clean and unclean.

This law as a ceremonial law was abrogated by the coming of Christ. They were part of what the Bible calls "regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:10). Physical defilement no longer makes on ritually unclean. It does not require a purification ceremony. What makes a person unclean? As Jesus said on another occasion, sin is what defiles a person (Mark 7:14-23). Those who confess their sins and turn to Christ are cleansed by his blood (Heb. 9:13-14, 1 John 1:7-9). 

Yet the natural basis for the leprosy law still exists. Diseases which are serious and contagious are still a threat to the community. The sixth commandment ("thou shalt not kill") still requires that we preserve our lives and the lives of our neighbors, and to the extent that this law applied the sixth commandment to society it remains relevant today. Testing, observation, and mandatory isolation to hinder the spread of the disease may still be needed for some diseases. Because this is no longer a matter of ritual impurity, this responsibility no longer belongs to priests, but to medical doctors and civil authorities (especially since disease is common to the whole society, not only the church). Certainly, this power should not be used lightly. This power must be exercised with knowledge and wisdom, applying the principle to a variety of circumstances. This power could be abused, which is why checks and balances in government are important. More could be said on the exercise of this power (some helpful legal and historical context can be found here), but that there is such a power given to the civil authorities seems to have biblical warrant. 

For more on leprosy in the Bible, you can listen to my recent sermon on Jesus' cleansing of a leper at this link

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