Does Leviticus 13:45-46 Advise Wearing Masks to Stop the Spread of Disease?

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.

Are Works Necessary for Salvation?

Many religions teach that performing good works or following a set of rules is the only way to achieve salvation. They teach that their god will not show them any favor if they do not live up to a certain standard. They believe that salvation is something that people must earn. Some cultic groups teach something similar to these religions. They believe that we must work our way into heaven by performing good works:

WORKS = SALVATION

On the other extreme, some have thought that we can continue to live in sin without consequences since we are saved by faith alone. Works have nothing to do with salvation:

FAITH = SALVATION

Others teach that belief in Jesus’ atonement on the cross for our sins provides salvation after all that we do for ourselves:

FAITH + WORKS = SALVATION

Biblical Christianity has always taught that we cannot earn salvation by good works. None of us can live up to God’s standard because of our sinful nature. Paul explains this clearly in his letters (See Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:9, and Romans 3:10 as examples). Salvation is only possible by God’s grace through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28). What are we to believe about works, then, when other Bible passages say that faith without works is dead? James says:

What is the benefit, my brothers, if someone says that he has faith but does not have works? That faith is not able to save him, is it? If a brother or a sister is poorly clothed and lacking food for the day, and one of you should say to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but does not give them what is necessary for the body, what is the benefit? Thus also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. 

James 2:14-17; 24; 26, LEB

Is there a contradiction in the Bible here? Not at all. Although we are saved by faith in Christ, Paul does not suggest that we continue to sin so that grace may abound (Romans 6). Good works are a normal part of the Christian life, but good works alone do nothing to save. Salvation comes through faith without works. We can understand the relationship between faith and works in the following way:

SALVATION = FAITH – WORKS

Let’s rearrange this statement to discover what works are. We find that trusting in works to please God is really faith without salvation:

WORKS = FAITH – SALVATION

So, what does this mean regarding faith? Let’s rearrange the statement to find what faith is. We find that good works accompany salvation that comes through faith in Christ:

FAITH = SALVATION + WORKS

Christian faith is an action, biblically speaking. J. D. Greear explains: 

Often we equate faith with a mental assent to the facts. Faith, however, is synonymous with action: apart from action, there is no faith. . . . Faith is a conviction expressed in a choice. It starts with belief, but if this “belief” does not lead to obedience, it is not yet faith. Your “belief” does not become true faith until you act upon it in obedience. Faith is belief in action.” 

https://jdgreear.com/faith-is-action/, para. 2-3.

So indeed, as James says, faith without works is dead. Christians do not perform good works to try to gain God’s favor and earn salvation, and nor do they perform them to boast about what they can do (Ephesians 2:9). Good works come by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as He conforms us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Without good works, there is no evidence of genuine faith.