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.