There is virtually no teaching in the Bible directly concerning sanitation except that found in Deuteronomy 23:12-13. These verses in the NIV Bible read:
‘Designate a place outside the camp where you can go and relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with and when you relieve yourself dig a hole and cover up your excrement.’
The next verse talks about how this command was given to keep the camp holy, but the practice would also have kept the camp healthy.
Burial of excrement is the simplest of all sanitary measures, but finding a convenient place which had not been used before when there were so many Israelites camping in the same area, sometimes for long periods, would have been very difficult. Just think of refugee camps today! Privacy, something which Saul looked for when he went into a cave to relieve himself (2 Samuel 24:3), would also have been hard to find.
Although the links between excrement and disease were probably unknown to the Israelites, their feelings about ‘uncleanness’ probably made them very careful to avoid contact with faeces. Ezekiel resisted the Lord’s suggestions to use human excrement to cook some bread he was to eat as a symbolic parable about the siege of Jerusalem. He was allowed to use cow manure instead (Ezekiel 4:9-15).
The desire amongst the Jews for ceremonial cleanliness was still very much alive in the time of Jesus, as explained by Mark 6:3-4. Although this washing of hands before eating was done for ceremonial reasons, it would also have helped prevent the spread of diseases.
To think about and discuss…
- Paul teaches us that the body of each Christian is a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). He assumes in Ephesians 5:29 that we care for our bodies. Do our sanitation practices and personal hygiene show that we care for our bodies – or might our way of life be making us (or our communities) sick?
- Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). Are we causing others to suffer illness because of poor sanitation and hygiene in and around our homes?
- Luke, a doctor (Colossians 4:14), records in his gospel how Jesus sent out disciples to, amongst other things, heal the sick (Luke 9:2 and 10:9). Can we therefore consider that any work we do to prevent other people becoming ill is pleasing to God?
Brian Skinner has worked in Uganda for a number of years with Water Aid.