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What does the Bible teach about quarantine?

Introduction, Part 1

The news says that today 3 billion out of 7.8 billion people are in quarantine lockdown around the globe. Many are practicing “self-quarantine” while others are disregarding the guidance from the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There are two fears: Getting sick and getting someone else sick (even though you may be displaying no symptoms). The governments of the world are quarantining healthy people. What should we think about this? When and why should we self-quarantine?

(Photo: Scott Brown)
(Photo: Scott Brown)

The Word of God is a wonderful guide even in these matters. It speaks clearly in general principles about quarantine. The medical community roughly follows them today. Some historians contend that procedures of cleanliness and quarantine first appeared in the Bible. Let’s survey the biblical principles of quarantine.

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Love your Neighbor

Loving our neighbors and the preservation of life is at the heart of the biblical quarantine laws. The applications are rooted in Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord,” and the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 69 explains,

Q: What is forbidden in the sixth commandment?
A: The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.”

Every law of God is a law of love, including the quarantine laws. There are a variety of plagues and mitigation procedures addressed in these laws. (See Lev.13-15; Num. 5:1-4, 19-20, 31:11-20; Deut. 23:10-14; 2 Kings 7:3-4; 2 Chron. 26:16-21; and 2 Kings 15:5). I interpret these laws using the threefold division of the law (there are three types of law in the Old Testament: moral, ceremonial and judicial) inferring that the judicial and ceremonial laws, while abrogated, are of use in their general equity. In other words, their moral content is applicable while the exact Old Testament situation may not be. There is a general principle of the righteousness of God in every law. This is the case of the quarantine laws. They contain general principles, but we are not obligated to follow every judicial or ceremonial detail of the laws of Israel. However, they are moral in nature, and their general equity, or principle is applicable today. 

Think Biblically about Quarantine

The laws of Moses for quarantine refer to situations in Israel that have changed. There are, however abiding principles for us to apply today. They are often called “case laws.” They examine different kinds of cases – real life situations. These cases are representative of the general types of situations you might encounter. The specific incidents reveal the wisdom of God. They help us to know how to respond to categories of real-life situations.

The laws specifically address touching the dead, and contact with different diseases. There are procedures for handling excrement, contaminated clothing, infected bodily secretions, sick houses, mold and epidemics. Remedies for visible infections on the body include rinsing, bathing and shaving. Cleansing remedies were also prescribed for clothing, fabrics, bedding, and saddles. God in His wisdom taught His people the best practices of quarantine.

The Black Plague also known as the Bubonic Plague killed from 75-200 million people. It peaked between 1346-1353. The Jews in Europe followed the biblical principles of quarantine and they did not experience the same suffering as the general population. They washed away the germs and practiced quarantine when necessary. They loved their neighbors. However, this did not improve their social credit with their neighbors. The Jews were blamed for the Plague and persecuted for it during the 14th century.

Here is the most basic principle of the quarantine laws according to the general equity of the Law of God: when you have symptoms, you ought to quarantine or be quarantined to protect others. If there are no symptoms, there is no reason for quarantine. However, there may be unusually dangerous circumstances where one must be more cautious than this in the short term. 

This protects us from both being irresponsible. It also minimizes a bent toward hypochondria, enochlophobia and irregular church attendance.

Scott T. Brown is the president of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches and elder at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He gives most of his time to local pastoral ministry, expository preaching, conferences on church and family reformation. Scott helps people think through the two greatest institutions God has provided — the church and the family.

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