As of this writing, the COVID pandemic continues and variants threaten to render our vaccines ineffective. Discussions on whether or not to reinstate stricter lockdowns and mandates have reemerged. Leviticus 13:45-46 has trended online because a cursory reading of this verse seems to suggest that people should cover their faces when they have a disease.
“The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”Leviticus 13:45-46, ESV
Naturally, people want to know whether this verse suggests wearing masks to stop the spread of disease and whether quarantines are justified. I still believe that the responsible use of masks, quarantines, and vaccines is warranted during this pandemic. These measures are compatible with biblical ethics. However, I do not believe that God commands mask-wearing and quarantining per Leviticus 13 to stop the spread of disease.
Confusing a passage’s application with its interpretation is a common mistake that readers can commit. We have to resist the urge to jump to an application without first knowing the author’s intent and how the original recipients understood it.
Many things about life are perennial throughout time and cultures. However, we can’t assume that ancient people always understood things the way we do today. Nor can we always assume that they did things for the same reasons that we do now.
Germ theory states that microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses cause disease, and it is well accepted by scientists. Most people accept this theory and are familiar with ways to prevent diseases. However, we must realize that ancient people likely did not understand germ theory. Ancient people had no awareness of microorganisms.
Leviticus 13:45-46 is about keeping death from life. The notes in the ESV Reformation Study Bible explain:
13:1–14:57 These chapters contain God’s laws concerning unclean skin diseases referred to as “leprous disease” (13:2, 8). Modern physicians recognize here the symptoms of various modern complaints, but we should remember that the biblical classification is based primarily on spiritual rather than hygienic or medical considerations. The key principle in identifying a skin disease as “unclean” was whether the skin seemed to be rotting away, suggesting the spiritual principle of death. Patchy complaints amounted to uncleanness (vv. 9, 10), but a complaint affecting the whole body did not (vv. 12, 13). Stable conditions were clean, but deteriorating ones were unclean (vv. 5–8, 18–37). Similar principles applied to the diagnosis of uncleanness in clothing: progressive mildews were unclean (vv. 47–52), but stable ones were clean (vv. 53–58). The close association of uncleanness with death is shown in 13:45. The person afflicted with a serious skin disease behaved as a mourner (21:10). He was excluded from the camp, not to protect the health of Israel, but because God was in the camp and uncleanness (death) had to be separated from the presence of God (life).ESV Reformation Study Bible
Not all skin conditions were considered ceremonially unclean, as shown in chapter 13. However, leprosy was associated with death. In his commentary on Leviticus 13:45-46, Martin Noth explains that lepers made themselves unrecognizable by covering their mouths and looked like they were morning for the dead (p. 106). They called out “unclean” as a warning to others, who presumably came by to deliver food and drink, and isolated themselves until the disease ended.
Some of the laws in Leviticus coincidentally align with modern practices for healthy living and good hygiene. However, that is neither the book’s intent nor the passage’s. The rotting skin of leprosy is death. Death was brought about by sin, which came from Adam and Eve’s disobedience towards God (Genesis 3). Sin literally means to “miss the mark,” and that mark is God’s standard for righteousness. Sin is evil, and anything evil is contrary to God’s established order for the universe. Therefore, death caused by leprosy is evil and it cannot be in God’s presence.
Leviticus describes how God’s people were to approach Him before Jesus died on the cross for the world’s sin. It foreshadows what took place on the first Easter (Romans 3:25). Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law, so we do not uphold it today. Nevertheless, the principles found in Leviticus 13 and the Old Testament ceremony are still applicable.
We should also note that Jesus, who is God the Son, approached lepers to heal them because He has made clean what was once unclean (Mark 1:40-45). We might not necessarily experience skin diseases like leprosy today. Still, we remain spiritually dead to the things of God until He breathes life back into our souls. Unable to approach God or else face His wrath in our sinful state, He poured out His wrath on Jesus as our substitute. We now have the privilege to be in God’s presence, receive the Holy Spirit, and be transformed into His likeness. Jesus Christ died for our sins so that all who die in Him shall be resurrected to life in the end.