What COVID Can Teach Us About Leviticus

Many well-intentioned Bible readers and Bible reading plans have shipwrecked on the sharp and unfamiliar rocks of Leviticus. The third book of the Bible lacks the momentous events and vivid story-telling found in Genesis and Exodus. Instead, Leviticus is marked by strange commands, long lists, and ancient rituals, all of which are foreign to our modern ears.

This is especially true when we turn to the long list of laws relating to cleanness and uncleanness in chapters 11 to 15. These chapters give commands about such matters as childbirth (12:1-8), skin diseases (13:1–14:32), mouldy houses (14:33-57), and even bodily discharges (15:1-33). If you’ve ever read these chapters, I’m sure, like me, you’ve wondered: Why are these strange laws in the Bible? What purpose do they serve? Surely they are no longer relevant? Surely they belong to a time and place in the distant past?

It’s certainly true that these laws are no longer binding on us as Christians (e.g., Galatians 3:23-25). Through his sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus has fulfilled the law on our behalf; satisfying its requirements and fulfilling its ceremonies (Hebrews 10:1-18). All that we need to be made right with God is found in Christ, received by grace through faith. This is why Romans 10 verse 4 says, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

However, Jesus was also very clear that his mission to fulfill the law was not a mission to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-18). The Old Testament law, while no longer binding on us, still retains a prophetic purpose (Romans 3:20) and serves as a helpful guide (Matthew 22:35-40). We can discover important principles and relevant truths from the seemingly strange Old Testament laws.

So, getting back to Leviticus and its strange cleanliness laws, what on earth can we possibly learn? This is where I think COVID actually helps us. COVID served as a reminder (at least for me) that diseases are easily transmitted and we’re all at risk. Worse, we can all be carriers of disease without even knowing it. This is why, during the heights (or depths) of the COVID pandemic, we were asked to do similar things to what we find in Leviticus: social distancing, isolation, washing hands, wearing masks.

But if I’m being honest, there were times when I chafed at these requirements. I didn’t always want to wear a mask or check-in to every place I went. My pride didn’t like the idea of being marked as unclean; a potential source of danger or disease. The laws in Leviticus serve a similar purpose and bring us to a similar place. These detailed and specific cleanliness laws humble us. They remind us of our uncleanness. None of us are immune and all of us are carriers.

Sam Chan, who wrote an article on his blog which inspired this one, says: “The Old Testament laws are God’s ways of saying that it’s not just our skin, houses, and discharges that are unclean. Our hearts are desperately unclean. And even if we can clean up our skin, houses, and discharges, our hearts can never be clean. And that was the whole point of sending Jesus. To perform a deep, deep cleansing of our hearts. During COVID, we had to wear masks, socially distance and isolate ourselves. But because of Jesus, we can stand unmasked before God. Never distanced. And never isolated.”

This is the incredible truth of the gospel, which is bathed in bright light against the strange and confronting backdrop of Leviticus 11–15: Jesus has made us clean, is making us clean, and will one day cure us for good and forever.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)