Leviticus, Leprosy, and Lent—in the Light of the Coronavirus Crisis (Part 1)

Well, it’s really Marcel Mitchell’s fault, my former student, and good friend and brother. He wrote me, calling my attention to the fact that I had not written a blog post in quite a while, and that he would love for me to do something regarding the connections between Leviticus 13-14 and the current Coronavirus crisis. So, I succumbed to the temptation, even though I knew that practically everybody and their brother or sister has written an article about the current pandemic. I don’t really want to give any advice about what to do during this crisis other than this: Obey the authorities!

What I do want to do, however, is call attention to what are, indeed, some very interesting connections between Leviticus 13-14 and the current situation with the Coronavirus. I have far more to say about this than I can put in a single post, and I don’t want what I write to be consigned to the all too unfortunate fate of so many blog posts—TL:DR. So, I have decided to actually write a series of blog posts on this. Before I get into the first article, here are just a few quick notes about the title of this series. (1) Leviticus. Of course, this is about Leviticus, in particular, chapters 13-14. (2) Leprosy. Let me head off all scholarly criticism that may come my way for using the word “Leprosy” in the title. I am fully aware that the skin disease described in these chapters is probably not leprosy. This is merely my cutesy and shameless attempt to arrive at an alliterative title! (3) Lent. This was not an attempt to arrive at a cutesy alliteration. The chapters really do point us toward the one who died to heal us from our sins and our diseases.

With all that being said, here’s the first article. (I suggest you read Leviticus 13-14 before you read the article).

Perhaps, in the Light of the Coronavirus Crisis, Leviticus Should Not Seem All That Strange and Boring and Irrelevant Now

Disease, contamination, fear, quarantine, social distancing, examinations, tests, symptomatic, asymptomatic. These words, some of which are certainly part of our regular vocabulary, have become exponentially so in the last while. We not only think about these things more than we usually do, but we are also strongly advised to do so by those in authority. We have become, and rightly so, obsessive about these things. Indeed, a lack of obsession, a cavalier attitude to the concerns associated with these words, a casual reaction to the current crisis, could have serious repercussions, dangerous ones, indeed, fatal, deadly ones, not only for ourselves, but also for our loved ones and for those with who we come in contact.

All of a sudden, we are not so far removed from the world of Leviticus 13-14. For the most part our attitude toward these chapters in Leviticus (indeed, the book of Leviticus as a whole!) is quite dismissive. Either we regard them as being way too obsessive with the matters they address, or, perhaps worse, we are simply bored out of our skulls as we read them. We start to read these chapters, and we begin to think that maybe that lunch we had with a computer geek at the table (bits, bytes, milliseconds, ram, rom, macro) wasn’t really as mind-numbing as we thought it was. Perhaps the conversation we had with the insurance sales person who droned on about actuarial tables could actually, in hindsight, be seen as infinitely more interesting than the content of these two chapters in Leviticus. (My apologies to computer geeks and insurance sales persons; but I had to use someone as a foil).

But what we should understand, as we read Leviticus 13-14, is that, no less for them than for us, the content of these chapters was about a life and death situation. The difference, however, is that even though the chapters are concerned with skin diseases and house molds, the problem was not really hygienic and health related. Rather it was ritual and religious in nature. It had to do, not so much with their relationship to other people, though this was indeed a concern. Rather, it had to do with a person’s relationship to God, and the community’s relationship to God.

Here’s the problem. A person contracts some kind of skin infection. In some way this makes them ritually unclean (I’ll talk about why this is the case in another post in this series). In this unclean state, they are not allowed to participate in the rituals that take place in the Tabernacle or Temple. If they did try to do so, they could die. So they really shouldn’t go to the Tabernacle or Temple and try to participate in the ceremonies and worship there. However, this precaution is not enough. They should isolate themselves as well. If they fail to do so, they might come in contact with another Israelite, and now that Israelite is also ritually unclean. Now, this other person, even though they are now ritually unclean, might not know it. They might not be aware that they have just come into contact with someone who is ritually unclean. They don’t actually have a skin disease themselves. In fact, they might never develop a skin disease. Nevertheless, they are ritually unclean. In other words, not only are they ritually unclean, but they are also “asymptomatic”! In turn, they might be the source of ritual contamination for another person, and both of them might be in a very precarious situation if they try to participate in the Tabernacle or Temple rituals in this state. It could be a matter of life and death for the individual Israelite. And if the whole community became ritually infected and tried to participate in the Tabernacle or Temple ceremonies, it might cause God to withdraw from the sanctuary, and no longer dwell among his people. And that would, in essence, result in the spiritual and perhaps even physical death of the community.

Even as I finished writing that paragraph, I realized how obsessive that sounds. But perhaps it only sounds obsessive because we fail to put things into perspective. We don’t think the two things really compare. After all, we are in the midst of a health crisis, a pandemic. People are dying, and the death rate promises only to continually increase for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s not going away any time real soon. For the Israelites, well, that was just something ritual, ceremonial, religious.  It wasn’t really a crisis.

Or perhaps we have failed to consider how important the ritual, the ceremonial, the religious, really was to the ancient Israelites. Perhaps if I use another word instead, that might serve to heighten our concern for our own time. So, let me put it this way: Perhaps we fail to consider how important the “spiritual” really is. If I can paraphrase one of Jesus’s sayings, this might provide the perspective I’m trying to reach here: “Do not fear the disease which can only kill the body, rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

In posts to come, I intend to demonstrate that there is a current crisis in the lives of individual Christians, and in the church of Christ as a whole, that is just as serious as was the case with the ancient Israelites, and that is just as serious, indeed more so, than the current crisis we are facing with the Coronavirus. And I also intend to show just how severe is the remedy that God has prescribed to deal with this crisis.

For now, stay safe, stay healthy, take all precautions, and in the midst of this crisis, do not neglect the state of your soul.

Lent, March 22, 2020