Protection: Where science, ritual, and moral principles meet

To think that the Bible contains no sound scientific principles reflects an attitude that is poorly informed, as a little research and some critical reading shows.

Many human activities involve protection. We seek protection from danger, failure, disease, economic ruin, etc. The Bible talks about different types of protection: physical, mental, social, and spiritual.1 Perhaps we have not thought of it in these terms, but we should.

Hidden in a neglected part of the Old Testament (Leviticus 11-18) are thought linkages that are worth highlighting. They serve to strengthen social bonds, express loyalties, proclaim respect, facilitate acts of worship, protect the holy from the profane, and deepen commitment and appreciation of the object to which they point. The Bible is often thought of as a book of literature, lacking in factual scientific information.2 But scientific information is sometimes hidden among the ritual detail. I hope to convince readers that reliable science is found in the pages of the Bible. Naturally, I cannot deal with all of this evidence, but I will provide some examples.

None of these diseases

Some years ago, S.I. McMillen and D.E. Stern wrote a best-selling book3 highlighting the reality of the promise made by God that none of the Egyptian lifestyle diseases would affect the Israelites if they followed some simple rules (Exodus 15:26). To emphasize this, I will mention several transmissible and other diseases using current information.

The Bible mentions several diseases whose modern equivalents may be unclear. However, leprosy (Hansen’s disease), schistosomiasis, malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox were recognized in antiquity. Of these, leprosy, smallpox, and tuberculosis are transmissible person to person.4

The modern era was marked by some important developments. One occurred in 1876, when the German scientist Robert Koch demonstrated conclusively that diseases could be caused by specific microorganisms and that protection could be provided. However, in terms of priority he was too late – God had already spoken. The infectious nature of certain diseases was indicated early in the Bible (Leviticus 13:31-46), and the progressive nature of microbial growth on decomposable building material was highlighted in Moses’ time (Leviticus 14:35-45). The remedy for controlling infectious diseases was isolation, quarantine, and cleanliness. With buildings, microbial growth was halted by replacing the damaged material or demolishing the structure. Certain rituals were involved in the clearance of individuals and buildings.

Perhaps this information sounds inconsequential, but history indicates otherwise. First, infectious diseases caused frequent deaths in the 19th century among mothers after birthing. The Austrian physician Ignaz Semmelweis noted that washing hands in antiseptic after performing an autopsy substantially reduced deaths in such women. At that time, doctors generally did not bother with cleanliness before attending to patients.

Although Semmelweis’s work was generally ridiculed, in England Joseph Lister accepted his advances and those made by Louis Pasteur and pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery (published in 1867).5 The results were brilliant, and we cannot conceive of life today without the use of such procedures. If the biblical instruction about touching dead bodies and potentially infectious materials had been followed, much misery would have been avoided before Semmelweis’s time.

It is remarkable that the transmission of disease from one individual to another was recognized so long ago (Leviticus 13:45-46), as well as the potential role of bedding and other items contaminated with body fluids, flakes of skin, and the like (Leviticus 15:3-13). This was well before the modern era.

We notice that in order to minimize the chances of infection, certain rituals were performed by priests. These ensured that the general population of susceptible individuals was protected. In the instructions, both direct and indirect transmission of infection was addressed. Washing effectively minimized the risk of cross-infection occurring.

The advice is sound if we consider some food-poisoning organisms that are primarily transmitted via the fecal-oral route. The organisms are carried in waste material, contaminate the hands, lodge on food items, and then find their way back into the body. Modern science has shown that even the simple act of hand washing will reduce the possibility of effective transfer taking place.6 The biblical instruction given to those contaminated with soiled material from sick people involved washing and then exposure to air and possibly sunlight, as the individuals were considered unclean until nightfall. This combination of procedures was much more effective in neutralizing dangerous organisms than the simple act of washing.

One of the most spectacular examples of contaminated articles causing disease comes from considering the smallpox virus. It may have arisen in central Africa well before the time of the Exodus. Some read into ancient Egyptian documents (before 3000 BC) descriptions of a disease reminiscent of smallpox.7 According to the new chronology, the Exodus occurred in 1447 BC. We know that the Hittite armies attacked Egypt in the 14th century BC, but were decimated by an infectious disease contracted from Egyptian captives. The devastation lasted at least 20 years and claimed commoners and royalty alike. Some believe smallpox caused this epidemic.8

The history of the elimination and misuse of smallpox illustrates our point about the spread of disease. During natural infections, those afflicted commonly experienced close contact with victims. Hence, it is not surprising that during the eradication program, those who had interacted with infected individuals were first vaccinated and then isolated if they showed any signs of illness. This approach was effective in all communities affected around the world. In hospital situations, contaminated bedding was disinfected according to strict protocols.

These strategies led to the elimination of the dreaded disease. Unfortunately, an understanding of the infectious nature of this virus also allowed it to be used in a sinister manner: biological warfare. For example, during the French and Indian wars in North America – commencing in 1754 – the unscrupulous took blankets from smallpox sufferers and gave them to the Indians. The disease epidemics that followed were responsible for eliminating more than half of the tribal populations.9

Transmission of leprosy is still something of an enigma. In most countries, humans appear to be the main source of the disease, although soil and water may be involved in endemic areas. On balance, it is considered that the organism enters primarily through contaminated droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of sufferers, entering the body through the respiratory tract and by skin-to-skin contact.10 This gives credibility to the biblical cautions about isolating those affected.

The second historic point to highlight is the highly-publicized deaths of infants in Cleveland, Ohio. There, a dramatic health problem arose among infants who lived in substandard accommodations. The common feature associated with the outbreaks was a fungal growth on the wet interior wallboards of the buildings. These microbes produced powerful toxins in their airborne spores. Scientists have suggested that when these were inhaled, the toxins led to the development of dramatic respiratory malfunction, which sometimes resulted in death.11

Such episodes remind us of related observations in a previous century, when fungal growth on damp wallpaper released toxic arsenic gases. These gases adversely affected people inhaling them.12 Today, there is considerable public interest in sick-building syndrome and building-related illness. Some of the episodes may be associated with building dampness and the growth of microbes. The effects of such microbial activity can adversely influence human health, causing problems to the immune, neurological, and respiratory systems, and the skin.13

Does following biblical advice make a difference in practice?

The information given above indicates indirectly that biblical advice is sound. However, we have more dramatic and direct evidence.

In East London’s crowded quarters at the turn of the 19th century, observers were fascinated to note the lower rates of infant deaths among the Jewish population from infectious and respiratory diseases. This positive outcome has been explained by the close attention they gave to the biblical instructions on isolation and quarantine, as well as their interest in and attention to diet, the relative absence of alcohol usage, and personal hygiene. Personal hygiene requirements included hand washing before and after meals and keeping the surroundings clean. Utensils used in food preparation were also kept clean, and milk and meat were not mixed, nor were the implements/utensils used to handle these food items.14

Besides these explanations, escape from other diseases (cholera, for example) has been attributed to the kosher preparation requirements for meat (fewer risks of diseased food being eaten), the practice of boiling water and milk, and using clean cooking and eating utensils. The religious laws also improved personal hygiene over the general population, as they required nail trimming once a week and ritual bathing after menstruating. The immigrant Jews in London also bathed regularly, on account of their general attitude toward cleanliness.15

Now, I am not suggesting that women take ritual baths and the like, but I am saying that we should be aware of the basic principles behind the practices – they are still sound. Underlying the ideas highlighted, however, is the principal idea that impurity (signs of death, decay, or activities not promoting life) is opposed to holiness. The rituals were meant to direct the mind of the worshipers to the holy God.16

Plague in the heart

Biblical instructions regarding protection against sexually-transmitted diseases are not stated in scientific terms, but rather as moral guidelines. These guidelines, if followed, still provide much protection. We do not know when the first diseases in this category arose, but they were probably early in human history.17

If we go back to the beginning, God created males and females to populate the earth (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:18, 20-25). The Bible makes it clear that the fidelity of the human family could be maintained by adhering to some simple and logical undertakings. By the time of Moses, these included restriction of marriage to those not closely related, strict loyalty to the marriage arrangement, no unusual relationships involving the same sex, and no perversions involving animals (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:20, 22-25).

Unfortunately, the image of God in the human race was marred by the entrance of sin, and it continued to fade with time. A particularly powerful force in this decline was the unhealthy sexual relationships a portion of the population entered into (Leviticus 18:22-24; Romans 1:2-29; 1 Corinthians 5:1; Ephesians 5:3). These are rather graphically recorded in history,17 so there is no guesswork as to what the texts are referring to.

Jesus mentioned the very high standards expected of the human race (Matthew 5:27-28; cf. 1:19-25), which included not only abstinence from sex before marriage but also purity of thought about the opposite sex. He promoted holiness. Hollywood and Bollywood fall far short in these areas and encourage people to enter this dangerous territory, and so do believers in evolutionary theory. In one country recently surveyed, believers in Darwinism were found to be more permissive about premarital sex and abortion than those holding Christian beliefs, although not by as wide a margin as we might hope to see.18

Honoring the moral advice given in Scripture would lead to substantial decreases in sexually-transmitted diseases. In order to illustrate, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection suddenly appeared among those experimenting with sexual experiences outside those designed by God.19 The arrival of the disease has led to untold tragedy, with the innocent suffering along with those groups primarily responsible for the disease’s spread, which are those who do not regard the creation-order, do not show marital fidelity, or who are intravenous drug users.20

Protection against this disease is offered by an ancient practice. To illustrate, some religious groups have a strong tradition of male circumcision, a practice mentioned favorably in Scripture, but not imposed on the Christian church (Acts 7:8; 15:5, 28-29). In societies accepting this tradition, there is an association with lower rates of cervical cancer and sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV. In a recent extensive analysis of trends in the developing world, the reduced incidence of HIV was strongly associated with the practice.

The situation with other sexually-transmitted organisms is not as clear. In seeking to find plausible reasons for the results, a number of biological phenomena have been identified: they all basically relate to the increased ease of entry of disease organisms in the uncircumcised male. There appeared to be no difference in the protection offered in Muslim and Christian countries.21

Now, readers must not imagine that I am recommending males should rush off and be circumcised. Other avenues are available today to prevent cervical cancer, such as the national immunization programs available in some countries. Avoiding HIV infection can involve other avenues of approach, too.22 However, we do notice that the Bible contains sound advice in this and other areas of sexual health. Religious practices also may positively influence the development of the fetus before it is born, such as in communities not given to the use of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or likely to carry sexually-transmitted diseases.23

In moral matters involving sex, God’s standards do not change (Malachi 3:6). Christ gave His life to reconcile mankind to God and to recreate the moral image of God in mankind (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:20-21). Moral departures in this category are no different from departures in other areas of human experience. Each individual has her/his own peculiar suite of temptations, but the remedy is the same and victory is assured (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Endemic dysfunction

This brings us to the issue of endemic dysfunction in the human race. The instruction given in Leviticus 16 may seem rather quaint and perhaps largely irrelevant to many readers, for it involves activities on the Day of Atonement (judgment) practiced by the ancient Israelites. However, if we look at this chapter in terms of protection and as part of the remedy for systemic dysfunction, it becomes full of meaning. Here again ritual is involved, which should not discourage us.

In the Garden of Eden, Satan promised Eve that she would gain the knowledge of evil. Undoubtedly, if he had told her she would experience evil and its dreadful train of consequences, she would not have been deceived. From our viewpoint, Genesis Chapter 3 tells us that all pain, suffering, and death ultimately arose from ill-advised moral decisions. It should be in the scope of every reader’s ability to learn enough history of the nations during the last century to come to the preliminary conclusion that the further nations depart from God’s moral guidelines, the more tragic the results – war, disease, genocide, torture, environmental destruction, poverty, etc.

This is where Leviticus 16 fits into the picture, for it represents a reminder of events transpiring on earth before the great controversy scenario comes to an end. The ceremonies in the Jewish religious calendar were as follows: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. These times of special meeting/remembrance took participants through the great controversy/atonement events each year so that they would not forget – all contained rituals.

The day of judgment was a reminder to all Israel that God is both merciful and just (Psalm 85:10; 89:14) and that today is the time to make choices that will result in everlasting life (Hebrews 4:7-11). His mercy will come to an end after all have received God’s invitation of grace (Matthew 24:14); those who do not respect this or respond will reap the consequences of not taking God seriously (Matthew 22:12-14). He has promised to establish a new heaven and earth, where His moral principles are respected and kept. In this new world, sin will not arise again (Nahum 1:9).

In ancient times, all were invited to take part in the rituals, leading up to and including those on judgment day (Leviticus 23:23–30), for it was recognised that each person had areas of dysfunction in their lives. Recognition of shortcomings, confession, repentance, and commitment to living a faith-dominated life were the steps called for leading up to this day.24 Commitment of the life to God qualified participants to join the celebrations on the day of thanksgiving five days later (Leviticus 23:34-43), which in its ultimate fulfilment represents the time of joy and rejoicing following the return of Christ, bringing the reign of sin to an end. Today, the same call comes to all to prepare for Christ’s soon coming.

In God’s schedule of events, reconciling the books of record foreshadowed by the prophet Daniel (7:9-10) commenced in 1844. The process continues, and one day soon it will end, meaning that Christ will come the second time. Christ’s instruction in Matthew 24 provides further details, as do various chapters in the book of Revelation (e.g., 13, 14, and 20). In the meantime, we are urged to be faithful and invite others to discover the remedy for moral dysfunction.

The two individuals highlighted in our account – Moses and Daniel – experienced forgiveness and assurance. They were profoundly convinced that when they confessed their sins, they were in God’s care. As they continued to walk daily with God, they were mindful that irrespective of when life should end, God’s promises were theirs. They were not disappointed. Moses was taken to heaven and assisted Christ in His earthly ministry (Mark 9:4). On the other hand, Daniel was promised a place in heaven (Daniel 12:13). Such a strong assurance can be our experience too as we follow the ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary.


In the Old Testament, rituals were often associated with protection of a physical, social, emotional, or spiritual nature. Rituals are a part of life in all societies, and they change with time. Failure to fulfil these rituals has various consequences. When Israel was no longer given special status, the rituals spoken about in the Old Testament were no longer relevant for the Christian church. However, the principles intertwined with these rituals should continue to be valued; our aim still is to reverence God’s holy character and seek holiness. Other principles also are highlighted.

The practices of isolation, quarantine, and cleanliness, so well established by Moses to control diseases, were rediscovered by modern medicine and are continued today. Awareness of the environment in which we live and the health consequences of poor living conditions are also issues of current concern. Strategies for avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases were based in ancient times on adopting wise moral principles. This is still God’s fundamental recipe (Acts 15:29; Ephesians 5:3), although the remedies given us by modern medicine should be made available to those taken in these tragedies.

Finally, moral dysfunction in the human race is endemic, as it has been from the Fall. The solution established through Christ’s sacrifice is for us to claim by faith: “His perfect obedience to God’s law has given Him all power in heaven and in earth, and He claims from His Father mercy and reconciliation for guilty man. … All who have put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness will stand before Him as chosen and faithful and true.”25

We do not lack reminders of the past or encouragement to remain faithful in the future. Jesus instituted the communion service to remind us of His great sacrifice for us and His promise to keep it again with His friends (Mark 14:25). As we pay close attention to the prophetic way-marks, we are assured that Christ is actively working in heaven to bring the reign of Satan to an end (Hebrews 9:23-28; 2 Peter 1:19). In this we can rejoice abundantly.

Warren A. Shipton (Ph.D., M.Ed.) received his doctorate from the University of Sydney. He is a former dean of science, James Cook University, Australia, and former president of Asia-Pacific International University, Thailand. He has authored books on Daniel and Revelation, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, worldviews in education, and health. E-mail:


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  2. J.A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 112.
  3. S.I. McMillen and D. E. Stern, None of These Diseases (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 2000).
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