Are the laws of uncleanliness, found in Leviticus and other books of the Bible, health laws?
This question has been debated among scholars, and most of them would answer your question in the negative. Adventists would probably be more cautious in answering it because we don’t separate spiritual from physical aspects of human life. Besides, quite a bit of biblical evidence indicates a clear concern for health within the laws of impurity. Let’s examine some of this evidence.
1. Holiness and Impurity: These two terms are important in Leviticus, and point to two opposite spheres of human existence. The impure belongs to the sphere of death and was not to come into contact with God. People became unclean by, among other things, touching a corpse (Num. 19:11), the carcass of an animal (Lev. 5:2), or blood (Lev. 15:19, 20). Such persons were separated from the sanctuary and from others. Holiness designated the sphere of God as the very source of life. Contact with the Holy One was a gift of grace and provided opportunities for the Israelites to enjoy spiritual, social, and physical life. The biblical, wholistic understanding of human life does not allow us to separate spiritual health from physical health.
2. Dietary Laws: The laws regarding clean or unclean animals legislate what God’s people should and should not eat. In a sense it is a case of preventive medicine, like any good diet. While the unclean pull people to the sphere of death, the consumption of clean animals would help them enjoy life as much as possible in a world of uncleanliness. Strictly speaking, these are not ritual laws, because the impurity of the animals is permanent and is transferred only by eating their flesh and not through contact. However, the explicit biblical motivation for obedience provided by the text is God’s holiness (Lev. 11:44). God is holy, and He wants His people to be holy. In a world characterized by impurity/death God remains holy/the source of life. He calls His people to distance themselves from the unclean/death. This is not only about spiritual life, but about enjoying life now by practicing proper health principles.
3. Principles of Hygiene: We also find, embedded in the ritual laws, principles of hygiene. A few examples may suffice. We already mentioned the prohibition of touching a corpse or the carcass of an animal (cf. Lev. 17:15). Water played an important role after a person came into contact with the unclean, even in cases in which a sick person spat on someone else (Lev. 15:7, 8). Water removed the contagion. Isolation or quarantine was also practiced to prevent the spread of the unclean (e.g., Num. 31:21-24), which in some cases included particular diseases (e.g., Lev. 15:26, 27). The proper disposition of human excrement was legislated to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and probably to eliminate odors (Deut. 23:12-14).
4. Mental Health: God is interested not only in our spiritual and physical health but also in our mental health. Very few actions upset our internal peace more than actions that damage our relationship with God and with others. We are left with a deep sense of guilt, and perhaps shame, that rob us of our inner well-being, or shalom. The Lord provided for the restoration of mental peace through the sacrificial system. Israelites who committed a sin against God or other Israelites were expected to bring a guilt or sin offering to the Lord in order for the priest to make atonement for them (Lev. 4:1-12; 6:14-16). Even in cases where individuals lacked inner peace and suspected that they may have committed a sin they could not recall or identify, the Lord invited them to bring a sacrifice to restore their inner peace (Lev. 6:17-19). Divine forgiveness is the best medicine for a sense of unworthiness, regret, and guilt. Provision has already been made for us through Christ.
We still live in a world of sin, sickness, and death, making it impossible for us now to totally escape them. We look forward to when God will restore full and permanent health to the human race. For now we follow His instructions and hope for His coming.