the Hebrew Bible Have Anything to Tell Us about HIV/AIDS?
The statistical figures on the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are often cited, well known and frightening.1 Botswana is very much at the centre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.2 Having lived there for more than one year now, I have read some of the numerous articles on this grim topic in the national newspapers and I am frequently alerted to red ribbons and to billboards and posters advising, “ABC: abstain, be faithful, condomize.” HIV/AIDS has also begun to acquire distinctly more personalized features: I have visited the hospital in Mochudi near Gaborone and seen there the desperate misery of the final stages of the virus and I have empathized with the pain in the faces of friends and colleagues who have lost loved ones.
The University of Botswana, the country’s largest tertiary institution, is also affected by the pandemic. There are regular death notices concerning both staff and students (though HIV-related illnesses are never cited as the cause of death); HIV/AIDS features prominently in the seminars of various university departments, as well as in public addresses by senior members of the administration and in student discussion forums. Recently, furthermore, a study by the World Health Organization, focused particularly on HIV/AIDS in the context of the University of Botswana, received a high profile. The situation in the University of Botswana, as in the country as a whole, is very serious – the signs are there.
Due to this very real and far-reaching threat, members of the university have been urged to do all they possibly can to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS through leading by example and behaving responsibly themselves, and through bringing this topic to the forefront wherever possible. In our department of theology and religious studies, too, the impetus to “do our bit” is strongly felt. Recently, the idea was proposed that the departmental seminar, which has been meeting regularly at fortnightly intervals, should aim to explore HIV/AIDS in terms of its impact on and implications for our subject. All members of the department were requested to give thought to the question of how HIV/AIDS can be incorporated into teaching the variety of courses we offer. Where ethical philosophy is concerned, accommodating and addressing the issue is not difficult. Likewise, courses on contemporary or pastoral theology lend themselves to addressing HIV/AIDS. However, I, as a linguist and scholar of the Hebrew Bible, felt at a loss as to how I could possibly incorporate the topic. I had no hesitation in agreeing that HIV/AIDS education at every level is imperative, that students learn best if they can see how course content applies to and has relevance for something that concerns them (and HIV/AIDS certainly concerns them), and also that a university should do its utmost to make a positive contribution to society (and what could be more positive than making a contribution to extending both life and the quality of life?). I remained sceptical, however, about incorporating the critical issue of HIV/AIDS successfully and legitimately.
My honest answer to the question posed in the title of this paper is, “The Hebrew Bible can tell us nothing about HIV/AIDS.” There is, of course, no biblical Hebrew word for HIV/AIDS. There is, in fact, mention of very few identifiable illnesses or diseases. So why have I decided to write this paper after all? The reasons are threefold. First of all, the Hebrew Bible, being the canon of Judaism and a significant part of the canon of Christianity, too, is believed by many to have authority. It continues to be read for guidance and for inspiration, for comfort and for obtaining wisdom. It is believed to have special significance and to be a store of knowledge and teachings that reach down to us through the ages. Because of its continuing relevance, believers looking for answers to their questions will still ask, “What does the Bible say about it?” Many of my students are Christians and when they ask me, they are earnestly seeking an answer from the biblical text.
Secondly, leading on from this, in Judaism in particular there exists a long-established tradition of finding answers to today’s questions in ancient canonical texts. There is among many Jews an inherent belief that the Torah is a complete revelation: if it is read closely, it contains guidance and instruction on a myriad of issues. To this day in a continuation of the Responsa literature rabbis receive questions from the community and attempt to provide an answer based on Torah, the Talmud and commentaries. As new questions arise in modern circumstances (“Is genetically modified food kosher?”, “Is cloning acceptable?”) biblical texts continue to be scrutinized for advice. Admittedly, the answers sometimes rely on extraordinary casuistry and very convoluted readings but there is none the less a precedent for my intention of turning to the Hebrew Bible for seeking guidance on HIV/AIDS.
My third and final reason for this paper is that I have been disturbed by the misinformation that has (allegedly) been derived from the Hebrew Bible. One young woman remains in my memory. We had both heard a paper entitled “In God We Believe, in Condoms We Trust”, by James N. Amanze, a colleague in the department. The paper explored whether it was proper for a Christian to use condoms in order to protect himself and/or a sexual partner from HIV/AIDS and it generated a lively debate. Afterwards the young woman, a first-year student, said to me, “My pastor says it is wrong to use condoms: it says so in the book of Judges in the story of Sodom.”3 I assured her fervently that there is no mention of condoms in Judges or anywhere else in the Bible but she remained sceptical. Of course the Hebrew Bible is a diverse collection of writings, which could be used to illustrate or prove many things. Still, if believers trust that their canon is a legitimate source for guidance in contemporary times then I am concerned that they know more precisely what it says.
The focus of this paper is narrow. It will explore how disease and illness are depicted in the Hebrew Bible. Following on from this (and, admittedly, using my own subjective and casuistic means), I will attempt to show how this depiction could provide some guidance for people who today are living in an environment such as contemporary Botswana where HIV/AIDS is endemic.
What does the Hebrew Bible say about illness and disease?
In conformity with the dominant assumption of the Hebrew Bible that the god YHWH is in control of every aspect of the universe, it is – unsurprisingly – very often he who is described as directly responsible for initiating illnesses or diseases. Sometimes the disease is depicted as divine punishment. In the Torah this is demonstrated, for instance, in Deuteronomy 7:12-15, where infringement of God’s commandments will precipitate “the dread diseases of Egypt”. In Deuteronomy 28:27-29, 35 and 61, too, sickness and disaster are among the curses for disobedience. Leviticus 26:16 also promises that failure to carry out God’s commands will culminate in wasting disease and fever. Furthermore, a skin disease strikes Miriam after God has rebuked her for rebelliousness towards Moses – again, the disease appears to be a consequence of transgression and, therefore, part of the punishment (Num. 12).
This pattern of cause and effect is reflected also in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. God’s inflicting of illness as a means of punishment is indeed a prominent theme. Jehoram’s lingering disease of the bowels (a prolapsed rectum, or dysentery?) is mentioned directly after the comment that he forsook God (2 Chron. 21:12-15) and “an evil spirit from the Lord” afflicts Saul (1 Sam. 16:14) after he fails to follow divine instruction (1 Sam. 15:24-26). Both Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Dan. 4:28) and Uzziah of Judah (2 Chron. 26:19), furthermore, are punished for pride: Nebuchadnezzar loses his sanity; Uzziah instantly develops a skin disease. Both men, it is implied, are afflicted by God: hence Nebuchadnezzar is cured immediately when he raises his eyes to heaven and praises God the Most High and Uzziah is struck when he ignores the advice of the priests of God and persists in offering incense on the altar. To cite yet further support, God sends a plague among the people to punish David’s action of taking a census (2 Sam. 24:15); he afflicts the Philistines, who have taken possession of the ark, with tumours (1 Sam. 5:6,9) and decrees the death of both Jeroboam’s son Abijah (1 Kings 14:1-13) and the infant born of David and Bathsheba’s adulterous union (2 Sam. 12:15-18). Plague (deber), alongside war and famine, is proclaimed as a punishment for wickedness (cf. Jer. 14:12; 16:4; Ezek. 6:11).5
Just as God can inflict illness, he can also remove it: he restores Jeroboam’s withered hand when a prophet intercedes on his behalf (1 Kings 13:4-6); adds fifteen years to the lifespan of Hezekiah who was suffering from a terminal condition (2 Kings 20; cf. Isa. 38) and, through the agency of Elisha, restores Naaman to health (2 Kings 5).6 Occasionally, even the dead are restored to life: Elijah revives the widow’s son (1 Kings 17) and Elisha the Shunnamite woman’s child, who appears to have suffered heat stroke (2 Kings 4). Those who do not turn to God for recovery are not healed: Asa does not seek divine help for his “disease of the feet” (2 Chron. 16:12)7 and Ahaziah, following an injury, sends messengers to consult Baal Zebub, god of Ekron, instead of YHWH (2 Kings 1:1-4): neither recovers.8
From all of this it might appear that illness, disease and misfortune are punishments from God, consequences of transgression, indicative of moral shortcoming. (It is, indeed, this point which has been particularly emphasized in many theological discussions on the outbreak of HIV/AIDS.) For a number of reasons, however, such an interpretation is problematic; furthermore, there are other passages in the Hebrew Bible that offer alternative perspectives. First of all, the catalyst of divinely caused illness, disease or plague is by no means inevitably moral shortcoming, or disobedience. The reason for the plague of boils of Egypt (Ex. 9:9), for example, appears to be above all to make a theological point, to illustrate God’s power and control, rather than to rebuke the Egyptians for their unethical conduct (such is never specified).9 The skin disease of Naaman, too, does not appear to stem from misconduct. We read that YHWH gave him victory (2 Kings 5:1) suggesting divine favour. The healing of his skin disease by God, through the mediation of the prophet Elisha, again appears to have the primary purpose of making the theological point that it is God who controls and cures. In the Hebrew Bible, therefore, the depiction of illness or disease is sometimes aimed at demonstrating God’s mastery, so as to make a theological point about his supremacy, rather than at making a statement about punishment for misconduct.
Secondly, God’s role in inflicting suffering is, one might say, erratic. We see in the Hebrew Bible that suffering ill health is by no means confined to those who are deserving of punishment. Job, for example, is described as “blameless and upright; [he] feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1) and yet God permits the satan10 to afflict him with painful sores all over his body (Job 2:4-7). Again, we could say, the reason is to make a theological point: to illustrate through the example of Job that the faithful must worship God in spite of hardship and suffering. Elsewhere, God’s action of inflicting illness is, however, even harder to comprehend. He intends to kill Moses11 (Ex. 4:24) immediately after commissioning him to liberate the Hebrews from Egypt (Ex. 3:1-4:23); he strikes Miriam with a skin disease after she has spoken against Moses but neglects to strike Aaron who has committed the same offence (Num. 12)12 and he brings a plague upon Israel, killing 70,000 people, after David has obeyed his instruction.13 This story in 2 Samuel 24 is very peculiar. We read at the beginning of the chapter that YHWH’s anger burned against Israel and that he incited David to take a census.14 David does so but afterwards becomes conscience-stricken. Following this, God gives him three choices for punishment: three years of famine, three months of fleeing from the enemy, or three days of plague. It is clear from the re-telling of this incident in 2 Chronicles 21 that the ancient historians, too, struggled with God’s role in this story: here it is Satan15 who incites David!
God is implored to act justly. This is clear, for instance, in the prayer of Solomon:
If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands towards this house; then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know – according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart – so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors. (1 Kings 8:37-39; cf. 2 Chron. 6:28-30)
Further, there are some pietistic statements praising God’s goodness: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (Ps. 91:9-10) and, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Ps. 103:1-3). The truth of the matter, however, that disease does overtake those who are virtuous also, remains. The wisdom literature acknowledges that God’s role is not as simple as that of preserving the righteous and punishing the wicked. This is clear not only with the example of Job but also in Ecclesiastes, where we read, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything” (Eccl. 11:5).16
What we find in the Hebrew Bible, then, is that God is undeniably “in control”. It is he who inflicts illness and he who heals. His actions, however, are not always easy to comprehend: sometimes illness is indeed a punishment for disobedience or transgression but by no means inevitably. Sometimes the purpose of a disease appears to be to make a theological point and sometimes those who are righteous, or those for whom no transgression is specified, are struck by misfortune or disease.
Another point of interest is that overwhelmingly in the Hebrew Bible disease, or illness, is discussed in terms of purity and pollution, which are fundamental concepts of the Hebrew Bible.17 Disease imagery is used in prophetic literature to refer metaphorically to moral shortcoming.18 Generally, however, where disease is discussed in literal terms, it is treated as a matter of cultic impurity rather than as a moral issue. Impurity, moreover, does not imply any moral onus, or guilt. To illustrate this claim we can point to the many passages of the Torah where diseases are discussed in tremendous detail. Large portions of the book of Leviticus discuss the procedures for treating diseases: chapters 13-14 describe regulations for potentially contagious skin diseases; chapter 15 various polluting discharges. (To the modern reader the descriptions of secretions and of spots and boils sporting hairs of this or that colour are gorily detailed and somewhat revolting.) We read here that the priest must examine the afflicted person and decide whether a particular condition is polluting or not. Sometimes a period of seclusion or a purifying ritual is prescribed.
While it is deemed important that the instructions of the Torah are followed carefully,19 and while discharges, boils and itching rashes may render a person unclean,20 there is no implication that diseases are attended by any moral taint. This is probably also why concern for the afflicted (such as the deaf and blind) is divinely commanded (Lev. 19:14).21 A further command of the Torah is that those who know they are carrying a contagious disease must alert others to their condition. Presumably, the reason is to prevent the spread of the disease. We read in Leviticus 13:45,
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
We gather from this that persons carrying a disease that is catching must do all in their power not to pass it on. In the particular case described in Leviticus 13, they must live in isolation,22 and prevent others from entering their contagious sphere.23 It seems, therefore, that a carrier of a contagious disease is not reprehensible or responsible for having it in the first place but is responsible for keeping it to himself or herself.
How can the Hebrew Bible be made relevant to the situation of
Outside of the purity laws, too, references to disease and illness are not invariably a matter of simple causality: of constituting a punishment for disobedience or moral shortcoming. There is no logic or pattern to their distribution: “the good” are afflicted along with “the wicked”.25 Sometimes the reason is to make a theological point, sometimes there appears to be no discernible reason at all. Consequently, it is not possible on the basis of the Hebrew Bible to regard an illness such as HIV/AIDS as a divine punishment for wrongdoing. Instead, it must be acknowledged that the situation is considerably more complex and perplexing. Casting aspersions about the moral character of any person infected with HIV/AIDS is therefore unjust and unacceptable.
According to the Torah, the ill and the vulnerable are to be treated with kindness and compassion (Lev. 19:14). Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible is clear about the fact that the spread of disease must be contained. Those afflicted with potentially contagious skin diseases must, therefore, be segregated from the remainder of the community and must warn everyone approaching of their status. HIV/AIDS is different to the condition referred to in the Hebrew Bible as “leprosy”26 in that it can be transmitted only through the exchange of bodily fluids: breast-milk, blood, semen and vaginal secretions. HIV/AIDS is not airborne and cannot be caught by simply being in the proximity of someone who is HIV-positive. This means that the isolation of persons who have HIV is not necessary. In the case of HIV/AIDS, prevention of transmission is ensured in a number of ways: by not sharing needles, avoiding contact with infected blood, by not breast-feeding, by abstaining from sexual intercourse, or consistently practising safe sex – depending on the particular circumstances. In accordance with the Levitical law (interpreted here analogously), it is the responsibility of all who know (or suspect)27 themselves to be HIV-positive to prevent spreading the virus. There is no shame in being HIV-positive; there is in deliberately exposing another person to contracting HIV.
So, on the basis of the Hebrew Bible, can HIV/AIDS be interpreted as an example of divine retribution, as a severe punishment for serious wrongdoing on a grand scale? (This, indeed, is a perspective familiar from the pulpit and letters to the editor.) I think not. The reason for the HIV/AIDS pandemic is elusive. It is not just; it does not “make sense”. If it is intended to make a wider theological point, the point has not been revealed to us. To cite the wisdom writer, we are immersed once more in a baffling situation, beyond justice and beyond comprehension:
Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. (Eccl. 9:12)
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