Coronavirus: What We Can Learn from the Bible and the ANE

An expert in ancient Near Eastern contagious diseases reflects on living through a modern one.


March 18, 2020

Dr.Yitzhaq Feder


Yitzhaq Feder


Coronavirus: What We Can Learn from the Bible and the ANE

Adapted from CDC/Alissa Eckert

[T]um’ah (uncleanness) is indeed religious, but this religion is not “out there” in the heavens. No, the thing is very close to you (Deut 30:14). Maybe too close.

This is how I ended my essay, Tum’ah: Ritual Impurity or Fear of Contagious Disease?,” which I wrote only last April (2019). Despite having spent almost a decade of reading and writing about infectious disease in the Bible and the ancient Near East, I was no more prepared than anyone else for the moment when “death has climbed through our windows” (עָלָה מָוֶת בְּחַלּוֹנֵינוּ; Jer 9:20)—both those of our dwellings and those of our television and computer screens.

Many aspects of the present Coronavirus crisis are unprecedented in the world’s history. Nevertheless, there are several ways in which it can connect us with the experience of contagion which has accompanied human history from its earliest records. The following brief remarks pertain to the efforts to control infection and to the attempts to make sense of it in three areas:

  • Quarantine
  • Diagnosis and isolation
  • Ambiguity of cause

1. Quarantine

The attempt to avoid and quarantine infected cities is not an invention of the modern world and is documented already in letters from ancient Syria in the 18th cent. BCE:

Furthermore, my lord should give orders that inhabitants of the towns, as soon as they have been touched, must not enter into untouched towns. (Otherwise,) it could well happen that they touch the whole country.[1]

With minor changes, these words could have been written today. Even the apparently strange idiom “touched” for infected cities is in fact the exact semantic parallel for the word “contagion,” from Latin com-tangere (“touched with”) as well as Hebrew נ.ג.ע (n-g-ʿ), which likely implies touched or struck by God. In the Bible, such a touched or afflicted person was considered unclean and sent into isolation, as we can see in the laws of the person afflicted with skin disease called tzara’at:

ויקרא יג:מה וְהַצָּרוּעַ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ הַנֶּגַע בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ וְעַל שָׂפָם יַעְטֶה וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא. יג:מו כָּל יְמֵי אֲשֶׁר הַנֶּגַע בּוֹ יִטְמָא טָמֵא הוּא בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ.
Lev 13:45 As for the skin-diseased (tzaru‘a) person, who has the affliction (negga‘), his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” 13:46 He shall be unclean as long as the affliction is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Although the idiom “touched (= infected) cities” (ערים נגועות) never appears in the Bible, it is heard frequently today in Israeli media in reference to the Coronavirus.

Quarantines Among Other Primates

None of this should surprise us; avoidance of infected individuals is even found in non-human primates. Amidst a polio outbreak in the Gombe reserve in the 1960s, Jane Goodall and her assistants observed how the chimpanzees fearfully quarantined their peers who showed signs of debilitation:

Pepe, for instance, shuffled up the slope to the feeding area, squatting on his haunches with his useless arm trailing behind him, the group of chimps already in camp stared for a moment, and then, with wide grins of fear, rushed for reassurance to embrace and pat each other while staring at the unfortunate cripple. Pepe, who obviously had no idea that he himself was the object of their fear, showed an even wider grin of fright as he repeatedly turned to look over his shoulder along the path behind him… Eventually the others calmed down; but, though they continued to stare at him from time to time, none of them went near him.[2]

In short, fear of the sick is a deeply entrenched response. One wonders how different our response to seeing our fellow humans wearing protective masks in the supermarket is to the (contagious) panic of the chimpanzees upon seeing Pepe. What is important to keep in mind is that this response to disease is to a large degree independent of language and cultural beliefs. Whether a given culture discusses the agent of infection as a virus, impurity or a curse, the experience of disease is quite similar.

2. Diagnosis and Isolation

While the naming of this Coronavirus as COVID-19 (as opposed to any other possible name) may not have great significance, the act of naming is itself significant, particularly since the existence of a name makes it possible to diagnose a patient. Here it is important to recognize the difference between the naming of diseases today, based on identification of microscopic causes, as compared to pre-modern medicine, when illnesses could be identified only in relation to their symptoms.

In other words, we should not impose our understanding of disease, defined by precise criteria contingent on laboratory instruments, upon the vaguer experience of pre-modern cultures.[3] Nevertheless, there is much commonality in the process of diagnosis, as can be seen, for example, in the following report of inspecting a patient suspected of bearing “leprosy” (lepra) from France in 1411:

We, Thomas de Saint-Pierre, Jean Le Lievre, and Robert deSaint-Germain, masters-regent in the faculty of medicine in Paris, have seen Jean de Bierville, master of arts from the diocese of Reims, who was suspected and reported by certain persons as having the disease that is named and called lepra. We have inspected and palpated him carefully and methodically. Upon examining him thoroughly in accordance with the principles, signs, and conclusions of the Art of medicine, we find the aforesaid Jean de Bierville completely free of, untouched by, and not subject to the said disease known by the name of lepra. In fact, we were unable to find on him any true sign of the disease called lepra. In view of this, the said Jean ought not to be disturbed, bothered or disquieted by anyone; nor should his company be feared on account of contagious disease.[4]

Here we find the suspicion of leprosy needed to be vindicated or refuted by such an inspection, which would determine that the disease in question was in fact “the said disease known by the name of lepra.” Against the background of such inspections, whether for COVID-19 or lepra, we can appreciate Leviticus 13, which describes the need to have priests look at discolored skin to determine if it was an official case of the skin disease called tzara’at:

ויקרא יג:ג וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ לָבָן וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ נֶגַע צָרַעַת הוּא וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ.
Lev 13:3 The priest shall examine the affliction on the skin of his body: if hair in the afflicted patch has turned white and the affliction appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is tzaraʿat; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean.

The text continues with a scenario in which the priest determines the person is not infected, but only after a period of quarantine.

ויקרא יג:ד וְאִם בַּהֶרֶת לְבָנָה הִוא בְּעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ וְעָמֹק אֵין מַרְאֶהָ מִן הָעוֹר וּשְׂעָרָה לֹא הָפַךְ לָבָן וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.... יג:ו וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֹתוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שֵׁנִית וְהִנֵּה כֵּהָה הַנֶּגַע וְלֹא פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר וְטִהֲרוֹ הַכֹּהֵן מִסְפַּחַת הִיא וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו וְטָהֵר.
Lev 13:4 But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days… 13:6 On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affliction has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean.

In all these cases, if the priest discerns signs that the disease has spread (paśśah), the person is banished from the community until such time as the priest decides that the infection is gone and the quarantine can be ended.

3. Ambiguity of Cause

The difficulty of coming to terms—intellectually, emotionally, and theologically—with the wave of carnage left by epidemics finds expression in the ambiguities and self-contradictory discourse on their causes. Even a medical doctor may feel the need, when addressing the US Congress, to leave aside the impersonal language of science and describe the Coronavirus as an “Angel of Death” for the elderly. This is reminiscent of the description of the plague of the first-born:

שמות יב:יג וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 12:13 And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will protect you,[5] so that you will not have a plague as a destroyer (mašḥit) when I strike the land of Egypt.
שמות יב:כג וְעָבַר יְ־הוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְ־הוָה עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף.
Exod 12:23 For when YHWH goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and YHWH will protect the entrance and not let the destroyer (mašḥit) enter and smite your home.

Numerous scholars have discerned a tension in these verses between viewing God as the agent of the plague in v. 13, while in v. 23b that the “destroyer” (mašḥit) seems to have that role.

A Destroyer?

The term mašḥit is often interpreted as a personalized, demonic entity, and the term is even capitalized “Destroyer” in the NJPS translation. Verse 23 seems to suggest that once the destroyer is let loose, unless God protects someone directly, the destroyer has free reign to kill whom he pleases. Thus, the Rabbis deduced from this verse that (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, “Bo,” 11):

משנתנה רשות למשחית לחבל אינו מבחין בין צדיק לרשע
Once leave has been given to the Destroyer (mašḥît), he no longer discriminates between the righteous and the wicked.[6]

This supposed reference to a demonic entity often serves as a criterion for distinguishing different sources, assuming that the demonic account (attributed to the J-source) was the more original, which was later modified for theological reasons.[7] Yet, it is worth noting that the formulation in v. 13, “so that you will not have a plague as a destroyer” (negep lemašḥit; my translation), has the participle mašḥit modifying the term “plague,” such that it is the plague (negep) itself that is the destroyer, not a demonic entity. In fact, in light of this verse, it is even possible to interpret “destroyer” (mašḥit) in v. 23 as referring to the plague from v. 13, such that the whole demonic reading is called into question.[8]

Plague is the Destroyer

Even if the demonic reading is maintained, the fact that this formulation parallels that of v. 13 where the plague is the agent reveals a fluidity of terminology that reflects first-hand knowledge with the way epidemics sweep indiscriminately through a vicinity. Accordingly, the equivocation in the depiction of the agent of destruction (God/plague/destroyer) need not reflect a contradiction between discrete authors but the inherent tension in trying to make sense out of disease, mediating between the experience of infection as a “natural” event and the belief in God as the ultimate causal agent, or even that a malevolent being has been given permission by God to ravage the people.

I hope that by the time of the upcoming Passover festival, the tide will have already turned on the present destroyer. In the meantime, we must follow the natural precautions suggested in Exodus, especially staying at home: וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ, “None of you shall go outside the door of his house…” (Exod 12:22), and at the same time, appealing to the One who is above the natural order.

Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His most recent book, Purity and Pollution in the Hebrew Bible: From Embodied Experience to Moral Metaphor (Cambridge University Press, 2021), examines the psychological foundations of impurity in ancient Israel.


View Footnotes