A Book ahead of its Time

DO YOU REALISE how many modern pandemics have originated with animals?

The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002–2003 was found to have originated in cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in the Yunnan province of China, and made the leap from animal to human infection somewhere in the Guangdong Province in late 2002. During the period of infection, there were 8,098 reported cases of SARS and 774 deaths. The pandemic was eventually brought under control in July 2003, following a policy of isolating people suspected of having the condition and screening all passengers travelling by air from affected countries. Scientists identified the culprit as a strain of coronavirus and found genetically similar viruses in masked palm civets sold in Guangdong’s animal markets, suggesting that the deadly strain probably originated in the bats, and later passed through civets before reaching humans.

The MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2012 also appears to have originated in bats. The evidence available to date suggests that the viruses have been present in bats for some time and had spread to camels by the mid 1990s. The viruses appear to have spread from camels to humans in the early 2010s.

Both SARS and MERS were diseases caused by viruses in the family known as coronaviruses. In December 2019 a new coronavirus disease was identified in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. It came to be known as Covid-19 (COronaVIrus Disease 2019). Covid-19 has close genetic similarity to bat coronaviruses, suggesting it emerged from a bat-borne virus. An intermediate animal reservoir such as a pangolin is also thought to be involved in its introduction to humans. Pangolins are protected under Chinese law, but their poaching and trading for use in traditional Chinese medicine remains common.

The AIDS pandemic began in the early 1980s. AIDS is caused by a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which originated in non-human primates in Central and West Africa. While various sub-groups of the virus acquired human infectivity at different times, the global pandemic had its origins in the 1920s in the emergence of one specific strain in what is now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Law of Moses

About 3,500 years ago guidance was given which, if it had been followed, could have prevented all these pandemics.

The Law of Moses was given by God to His people Israel. The account is in the Bible book of Exodus. The Law defined two distinct classes of animal—clean and unclean. Clean mammals were those which chewed the cud and had cloven hooves—cattle, sheep, goats, deer; the rest were unclean, and to be avoided completely as food, and treated with caution if domesticated as working beasts —horses, asses, camels. The preferred work animals in peacetime were oxen. Only fish with scales and fins were clean. Only herbivorous birds were clean, such as doves. These food and contact restrictions, if followed closely, would minimise the risk of sickness arising from animal-borne diseases. All recent pandemics have involved animals which the Law of Moses classed as unclean, which a faithful Israelite would have avoided completely (Leviticus 11:1–23).

Another feature of the Law of Moses was the insistence on washing—of clothes, persons and vessels for food and drink, according to context. This minimised the risks of food poisoning and disease spreading (for instance

Leviticus 11:24–40).

A topical and relevant feature of the Law of Moses was isolation. An individual with suspected or diagnosed disease had to remain outside the camp, alone, for a period which would at the end indicate the severity of the problem and determine the action to be taken (for example

Leviticus 13:1–6).

God said to Israel: “If you diligently heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26).

God’s people are no longer obliged to keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:22–29); but it was a law which was given for both spiritual and practical reasons by the Almighty God to His chosen people, and it was obviously many centuries ahead of its time.

That Word of God can do more than help keep us healthy in this present life: it can lead us to everlasting life, unhindered by mortal ailments, if we follow its instruction.

Peter Banyard