The COVID-19 virus has been too lethal to ignore. This pandemic makes us realize that there are many viruses out there, and the current one is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible. As early as AD 165 to 180, pandemics killed massive numbers of people. Smallpox killed 5 million, and bubonic plague killed 25 million on four different occasions starting in 541. Researchers today are attempting to catalog links between animal viruses and human illness. They estimate that there are probably 1.6 million animal viruses yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations and that 827,000 of them could cause disease in humans.
Viruses are part of the natural world in which we live. They serve useful purposes in aiding animal digestion, reproduction, and elimination of wastes. The problem is that each animal has its own set of viruses suited for that animal’s diet and living conditions. If an animal’s virus jumps into another species with a different diet and living conditions, the results can be destructive. That is the connection between animal viruses and human illness. Most of the viruses we know about came into the human population from rodents, including rats, bats, birds, chimps, and mosquitos. Some have jumped through several animals such as bats giving the virus to cattle and camels, which gave it to humans.
The Old Testament laws had health restrictions, which made virus transmission less of a problem. People were also not in such proximity to one another or to animals that had destructive viruses. Living in very arid conditions reduced disease transmission, and the dietary laws worked against most virus transmission. When you read through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, you see elaborate precautions that we now understand had hygienic benefits to minimize viral transmission.
In the New Testament, many of these rules were continued. There was a prohibition against drinking blood, and the increased use of baking and boiling foods contributed to a low virus transmission rate. Moral rules that reduced the spread of disease included the elimination of polygamy and polyandry and the strong condemnation of prostitution. In time, the keeping of exotic pets and the acceptance of foods previously forbidden to Israel tended to thwart human attempts to fight disease.
God has given us the capacity to understand viruses and the connection between animal viruses and human illness. God has also given us the tools to control these virus issues. He has also given us hope for something better. Will we use the tools and techniques God gave us to stop the pandemics, or will we open our culture to more viral events in the future? Time will tell.
— John N. Clayton © 2020
Data from “The Virus Hunters,” Smithsonian magazine, July/August 2020, and THIS STORY on virus hunters from 2018.