I’m currently reading through the Old Testament, following 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 of my Bible: God’s law that required Israel to 1) be proactive in the wake of disease and 2) care for the most vulnerable among them.
The world of the Ancient Near East—particularly the moral, civil, and purity laws of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible)—sometimes seems strange and distant to us as we come to the biblical text with our 21st-century lens through which we perceive our world today. Understanding the Old Testament in its Ancient Near Eastern context; gleaning principles from it about God and his desires and commands for his people; and then applying those principles today is hardly an easy task and often requires humility and patience in study.
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! Numbers 5:1-4 says,
The Lord instructed Moses: “Command the Israelites to send away anyone from the camp who is afflicted with a skin disease, anyone who has a discharge, or anyone who is defiled because of a corpse. Send away both male and female; send them outside the camp, so that they will not defile their camps where I dwell among them.”Numbers 5:1-4 (ESV)
Leviticus 13-14 provides instructions, too, for how a person should be restored to the camp after a temporary quarantine. At first glance, we as Christians might feel sadness or discomfort (and justifiably so) at the thought of a person’s isolation outside the Israelite camp away from his or her community. After all, we follow Jesus, who moved toward the sick and healed them during his earthly ministry. Placing the sick “outside the camp” might sound antithetical to the call of loving our neighbors as ourselves—a call from Yahweh in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) and emphasized by Jesus in the New Testament (Matt. 22:39, Mk. 12:31, Lk. 10:27).
However, a closer, longer look at scripture reveals God’s love and, by extension, the Israelites’ love for people in doing so. Context is important when reading Jesus’ command in Matt. 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.‘”Matthew 22:37-40 (ESV)
When we try to understand the Old Testament law and prophets through the interpretive lens of loving God and neighbor, we begin to see that 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. There are many laws that don’t make sense to modern ears until reading them against the backdrop of the Ancient Near East with its most vulnerable in mind. This theme appears over and over again in God’s law, and love for neighbor is especially emphasized in care for the 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 room, and no sanitized medical facilities. The entire population was vulnerable in ways we can’t imagine.
Christian author Rebecca McLaughlin tweeted yesterday,
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. We’re called to be one body, reaching out to embrace a hurting world.
But now, for one moment in an eternity of others, we must step back.Rebecca McLaughlin on Twitter
This resonated with me because, in a nation where people already feel lonely (perhaps more than ever before), there’s a tendency toward feelings of deep sadness and even hypocrisy for Christians who know they must heed public health recommendations but desire to love their neighbors and gather with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, reading God’s law more closely than I ever have has shown me this isn’t “one moment in eternity” that God’s people have been called to step back. I’m confident God’s people have been here before because his law required Israel to be proactive in the wake of disease and care for the most vulnerable among them precisely 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 stand up against the life of your neighbor.” Another translation of the verse says, “You shall not jeopardize the life of your neighbor.” Although we are far removed from the Ancient Near Eastern context of our predecessors in the faith and understand God’s law in light of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross, I believe there are two takeaways we can glean from these 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.
There is often a long bridge to cross between understanding God’s law in its Ancient Near Eastern context and applying its timeless principles today. But we are commanded to do so by thinking about what it means to obey God and “love our neighbors as ourselves” in our context (i.e. a Coronavirus pandemic). Applying this principle requires knowing who the vulnerable are so that we can protect them.
Christian author Andy Crouch has gone great lengths to write a thorough course of action for Christians, especially Christian leaders, in the wake of COVID-19. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety here.) Crouch writes the following about the seriousness with which we must take the virus’s threat to the most vulnerable among us, namely the elderly; those with chronic illnesses; and those with other sicknesses left untreated if our healthcare system is overwhelmed:
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.Andy Crouch from “Love in the Time of the Coronavirus”
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.
You or I might not fall under one of these three categories, but a lot of our neighbors certainly do. It is paramount to follow the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations. You are probably familiar with them by now, so I will not belabor this point. We must practice social distancing because, as Crouch wrote, the disease might be asymptomatic in some carriers.
Even as we physically step back from our neighbors, we can still move towards them in other ways. As I mentioned earlier, people in the United States are lonely, and events that bring people together are being canceled left and right, compounding the problem. Think about how you can love your neighbors who are sick or quarantined or choosing to choosing to quarantine themselves for a period of time.
Send friends and family members a text, or call them on the phone. Ask those staying at home if you can run errands for them, such as shopping for their groceries or paying a bill (as you take necessary precautions when in contact with them, of course). Nursing and assisted living homes are temporarily suspending visitation hours. Get some friends together and make cards for those in homes near you. Students who rely on school lunches for nutrition will be affected by school closures. Find out if there is a way to donate money or food items for children in need. Pray especially for your vulnerable and sick neighbors by name.
There are so many ways to love our neighbors while taking the necessary precautions to distance ourselves from them in order to slow and stop the spread of the virus.
Takeaway #2: We must personalize these principles of God’s law.
Jesus’s command in the New Testament and God’s in the Old Testament to love our neighbors “as ourselves” has been a curiosity to me, probably since my days in my church’s youth group when I began reading the Bible more closely. God could’ve said, “Love your neighbors,” and stopped there.
Or could he?
Perhaps there’s an implication in this command that God knows sacrificial love for one’s neighbor does not come natural. It competes with our sinful nature to prioritize the self. So he adds this prepositional phrase: “Love your neighbor as your own self – as if you were on the receiving end of your own love.” (Of course, our conception of “love” should never be divorced from how God determines what love is and is not; in other words, our understanding of love is rooted in God’s meaning as revealed in scripture.)
To fight our flesh’s desire for self-preservation, this short prepositional phrase reminds us to make loving our neighbor personal. We might not be counted among those in vulnerable categories to contract the Coronavirus, but we must love as if we were one of the elderly or those with chronic illnesses or those with other diseases needing more immediate treatment should our hospitals be overrun. In his essay, Crouch again communicates with such clarity 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. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. 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.Andy Crouch from “Love in the Time of the Coronavirus”
If you still aren’t convinced, consider making this even more personal. We all know and love people in these categories. We have grandmothers and grandfathers in their seventies or friends with illnesses like diabetes.
What if they contracted the virus, and you could trace it back to 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 wrote on Twitter, “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.
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