Fear over the current global pandemic has sent many Bible-believers to seek answers in Scripture. While consulting biblical verses is not a bad thing, sometimes these verses are misunderstood or manipulated to suit various presuppositions. More, a contemporary reliance on translations (rather than the original Hebrew text) and ignorance of ancient views on sickness can lead to serious confusion. Ancient Israelites did not have the same type of faith in medicine as most modern people. In their worldview, the sickness was not something people could manipulate, control, cure, or even prevent. Thus, it is a mistake to read the Hebrew Scriptures solely through a modern scientific lens. We must allow the original biblical language to impart meaning to us, not the other way around.

In light of our current context, we might be drawn to verses that mention infection or medical treatment. For instance, Leviticus states, “When the infection of leprosy is on a man, then he shall be brought to the priest” (13:9 NASB). The NASB translation mentions the “infection of leprosy,” but ancient people did not have designated terms for infectious disease–nor did they know about bacteria or viruses. That, of course, does not mean that the terrible effects of lingering diseases (what we call “pandemics”) were absent in antiquity. But it will be hard to find the language of “infection” or “outbreak” in ancient Hebrew.

The biblical term for “infection” or “ailment” is usually נֶגַע (nega), which literally means a “strike” or “blow.” In the term’s verbal form, נָגַע (naga), it means “to touch.” The mysterious affliction in Leviticus 13 that is most often rendered “leprosy” (צָרַעַת; tzara’at) is, in fact, a “blow” in Hebrew (נֶגַע צָרַעַת), and “infection” is a modernized English translation. Furthermore, translating the condition as “leprosy” makes it a common bacterial disease that can be treated with a course of antibiotics. Such translation is misleading because tzara’at is not a pathogen with its own biological agenda, but rather a condition brought on by God and under divine control. In other words, God is the one who does the striking, not the disease. Another English translation that may be misleading is that of “disease.” For instance, Genesis 12:17 reads, “But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai” (NIV). The “diseases” (נְגָעִים; negaim) in the NIV translation is the plural form of נֶגַע (nega) – a “blow.” The modern temptation is to associate “disease” with something contagious, like a virus, but the above verse begins, “The LORD struck” (וַיְנַגַּע יהוה). A נֶגַע is not a naturally-occurring contagion, but a purposeful act of God.

The use of the term “plague” in English translations makes things even worse. In light of past outbreaks in human history (such as Bubonic plague), the word carries ominous associations for most people. The English insertion of “plague” appears in the ESV rendering of Exodus: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt’” (Exod 11:1 ESV). Here is the surprise, the same exact noun (נֶגַע; nega) in this verse of ESV is translated as “plague” and not “disease or “infection”. Most modern people would associate a plague with some sort of pandemic, but that is not what the Bible communicates.

Now we have seen the same simple term translated quite differently into English from one verse to another. I deliberately used three different translations (no translation is perfect) and they can all be misleading. To ancient people, a “strike” or a “blow” from the LORD is not a disease, nor an infection, nor a pandemic. A biblical “strike” may make one sick, and there may be ways to alleviate the symptoms, but God is both the source and the cure in ancient Israelite thinking. The Bible presents spiritual realities from a perspective that embraces the supernatural as a norm, so as long as we allow our scientific thinking to influence our interpretations, the actual meaning of biblical texts will continue to evade us.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe the more pertinent question is WHY WOULD GOD ‘strike’ modern mankind ? Possibly because recognition of , as well as worship of, God continues to decline worldwide. Mankind needs God and has to be reminded of such periodically. God is in control ; not man.

    • That is a deep question, and I wish we knew the real answer. The mind of God, his will, his purposes are not so simple to comprehend.

    • ‘Possibly because recognition of , as well as worship of, God continues to decline worldwide.’

      This is not true. You have to do your research on Christianity, Islam, & Judaism. According to Pew Reseach Group, there are more than 2 billion Christians on 🌍. This number continues to grow. However,…….

      • Thank you for sharing your opinions and views everyone. The word count is deliberately limited and offtopic conversations are discouraged. Sorry for not including your entire point, but it is not really related to the article.

  2. Excellent! I still believe God is the source and the cure. To take God out of the equation means that “another” God is more powerful than He is. “To everything there is a purpose under Heaven”. We just have to recognize and accept the purpose for this striking… repentance.

  3. i CERTAINLY APPRECIATE THE INCITES ON THE SUBJECT AND IS CONVINCE IT IS SO. TOO MANY PEOPLE TRYING TO INTERPRET THE SCRIPTURES FROM THEIR PRESENT CULTURAL/RELIGIOUS VIEW

  4. It is amazing how people jump to such conclusions. They read one little piece of Scripture and immediately believe we are being “punished” by God.
    This pandemic we are going through is now either a smite or something Nostradamus predicted.
    Getting superstitious will not help us through this.

  5. as i read these short lessons daily i am truly amazed at my ignorance of the real meaning of scripture. thank you

    • Come and study with us, Dennis! You will not regret it and you will continue to grow alongside of many others like you. Together we can help others grow too.

  6. A very timely article! I was just last week reading through Exodus and was actually contemplating what the word plague meant, because almost all of the ‘plagues’ are not plagues in the modern sense of the word e.g. locusts, hail and frogs! A blow/strike really clarifies the text!

    • I am glad that was timely. I receive many questions these days about these issues, mainly because of translations and hype, so I thought I would share some facts to help people sort things out.

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    • Why don’t you take the time to look up what original word is used for “diseases” and what it means? You may answer your own question unless it is purely rhetorical…

    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: Biblical Hebrew I: First Steps or . We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.

    • English Bibles translate Hebrew terms in all sorts of ways. Pestilence is a nice English word, only does it reflect what the original texts say? Judge for yourself.

  7. Interesting chain.
    I understand the word consistently translated ‘pestilence’ is the heb ‘dehber’ – from root ‘dabar’ – (transliterated do not have a heb keyboard) offerings for this translation are e.g. Plaque, animal disease . My main point of reference is that of the AV (1611) and associated trasnlations. From the context of the passages which are many in the OT, it does seem to fit the possibility of a virus or desease of sorts.

    Assuming that virus and deseases came in at the fall in Bereshit, it may be possible to argue that there can be points of reference to modern day pandemic causes at the natural science level…Have the nature of virus changed that significantly allowing for mutations?

    Is it not possible that the language of the past though different is making reference to classes of deseases or virus or bacteria as known today even if they may not have had microscopes to empirically assess, classify define and document as we currently do and even so we are still partial in our understanding of the entire picture.

    I get that all causes must refer back to the original source of causes i.e. YHWH but the principles could still be applied across different ages and cultures namely that the Scriptures may be speaking about pandemics, viruses, etc. albeit using different expressions.

    What do you think?

    • Principles are always foundational and we can draw on them for application. That’s just good sense. As long as we remember that we are leaning on derived truths and principles and that these principles is not in itself the rules. This is where we (people) often go off course. We get legalistic to no end. Ancients did not have such concepts (as I tried to demonstrate) and they described what they knew in very simple terms. Now I think for us to take those turns and twist them to fit our world would be wrong. We should let them be. Apply God’s words in principle – yes, but let’s not deceive ourselves.

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Stories of Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 and The First Commandment: Deuteronomy in the Gospels. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  8. perhaps : ISAIAH 53
    4 Surely He has borne our [g]griefs
    And carried our [h]sorrows;
    Yet we [i]esteemed Him stricken,
    [j]Smitten by God, and afflicted.
    5 But He was wounded[k] for our transgressions,
    He was [l]bruised for our iniquities;
    The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
    And by His stripes[m] we are healed.
    6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
    We have turned, every one, to his own way;
    And the Lord [n]has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

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