Viral Theology #1 – Social Distancing and the Scabs of Leviticus

Not long ago I read Ellen Davis’s book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. It’s a book of serious scholarship, not something you pick up for light evening reading. One of the things her book convinced me of is the enduring value of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) for everyday sorts of things—things like how we should treat animals, how we should care for land, how we should care for the vulnerable, how we should approach work and entrepreneurship—those kinds of things. I’ve had her book in the back of my mind as we’ve moved into this strange new reality of living through a global pandemic.

At the end of last week here in Ottawa we were just beginning to get a sense of what social distancing might mean. It meant lots of people working from home, half-filled public transit, few cars on the road, school closures, program cancellations, new protocols at grocery stores and libraries. Our church has cancelled worship services for an indefinite period of time.  Holy Week may be a home-based affair. For many of our churches the very idea of social distancing runs against the core of our identity. We want to be places of connection. We want to be places where problematic social barriers are overcome. Nevertheless, this is a time to listen to our public health experts. It’s a time for prudence and data-driven decision-making, even when it might feel like being overly-cautious.

In light of all this, it’s interesting to reflect on a passage of Scripture we generally only go to as a source of jokes, Leviticus 13. I admit my own guilt in referring to this chapter as a source of easy “Bible humor.” There’s a lot in this chapter about how the priest is to distinguish dangerous skin diseases from others: it seems to come down to the color of the spots, whether or not they migrate, whether or not there is “raw flesh,” and the type of hair that might be growing through a person’s scabs. There’s also a couple of paragraphs on distinguishing normal balding from that which might suggest a dangerous disease: it seems to come down to location and whether or not it’s accompanied by scabs. This is one of those things that makes be glad pastors don’t have the full responsibilities of Hebrew priests. I’m happy to leave the probing of scabs and skin lesions to the medical pros.

What I am happy to point out, though, is that the way these ancient communities mitigated the effects of these diseases was through social distancing. Leviticus tells us that if a person had a questionable disease they were to be “confined” for seven days. In some situations this period of isolation was doubled. Certain diseases warranted a more permanent distancing, confining the person to dwell “outside the camp.” Obviously we’ve made a lot of important progress around not needlessly relegating people to isolation or dwelling “outside the camp.” There have been hideous uses of this ancient public health strategy, especially as it was employed to protect the powerful and further marginalize the vulnerable. Even so, I hope the existence of such a passage might make some of us a little more willing to listen to our current public health directives.

We should not think directives toward social distancing represent some kind of novel bureaucratic overreach. It’s a sensible thing, with ancient precedence. And there is no reason to think that faith communities can’t be faith communities in such a situation. It’s different from our norm, but not antithetical to the practice of biblical faith. Ancient faith communities navigated this terrain regularly. We can too.

Here are a few good sources of info on COVID – 19

For the data-inclined, a tracker of the global situation from Johns Hopkins University:

For info on how to respond in Ontario, the landing page for Public Health Ontario:


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