Picking on Pathogens

Why doesn't the Bible say more about germs?

By Jeff Laird

Critics sometimes claim the Bible "should have" given us more specific scientific details. The absence of some specific fact is then held up as evidence of the Bible's merely human, primitive origins. In reality, this is less indicative of a Biblical problem than a critic who isn't thinking the issue through. Even atheists know every book is written for a reason, and good authors tend to stick to the topic at hand. In the simplest possible terms, that's why the Bible has little to say about specific scientific details: they're literally beside the point.

In short, the Bible is meant to explain our relationship with God. Information irrelevant to that relationship, even if it's useful, is simply not what the scriptures are meant for. Further, bogging people down in details they can't understand or could never verify only makes the scriptures less accessible. And, no matter what facts the Bible tells us, there are those who will always want more.

A common example given for this supposed lack of information is germ theory. Why, the critic asks, didn't the Bible tell people about bacteria and viruses, instead of letting us figure them out for ourselves? Wouldn't that have saved lives? As noted above, the most important reason the Bible doesn't mention germs is that it's not a science book, it's a description of our relationship to God. There's only one kind of "truth", so what the Bible says doesn't contradict the natural world. But details on some subjects would only make the Bible harder to understand, harder to believe, or overly long. People were accepting and rejecting God, sinning and serving, both before and after we understood germs. That kind of knowledge literally means nothing for our moral or spiritual lives.

If the Bible had described bacteria and viruses, to Moses for instance, what would ancient peoples have done with that information? They lacked the social or technological structures to do anything sophisticated with that knowledge. Instead, what God gave the Israelites were procedures effective in germ control, without laying out all of the deeper details. Biblical instructions for basic sanitation (Leviticus 2:13, 7:17, 7:19, 13:2-6, 13:46, 15:2-13; Deuteronomy 23:12-13, etc.) are more than just compatible with modern germ theory, they're frequently on par with modern best practices for hygiene and sanitation.

One example is Numbers chapter 19, which describes those who touch a dead body as unclean, and imposes a ritual washing process. Believe it or not, until the mid-1800s, physicians not only ignored this concept, but they frequently went from autopsying dead bodies to operating on the living without washing their hands! Once this changed, of course, hospital mortality rates dropped considerably. Further, the materials described in Numbers 19 include ingredients like hyssop, which is a natural anti-bacterial, wool ash, which is gritty, and cedar, an irritant that would encourage repetitive rinsing. Go into hospitals today, and you'll see doctors washing with gritty, antibacterial soap and lots of water.

The point is, while the Bible didn't explicitly explain viruses and bacteria, it gave people practical, understandable rules reflecting what we — today — would consider a scientifically sound understanding of germs. Those same hospitals are full of posters which don't explain germs, but do explain the right way to wash your hands. It's clear whoever wrote the poster understands the details, even though they didn't lay them out in that particular message.

The Bible is meant to be accessible to people across history, culture, and experience. Adding something nobody could understand until thousands of years later would have been counterproductive. Worse, people have a natural tendency to use anything they don't understand as an excuse to reject the Bible. At one point in history, archaeology was a favorite topic of skeptics who pointed to numerous stories in the Bible which had not been contradicted, but had also not been confirmed. Of course, as discovery after discovery confirmed the scriptures as accurate, that tactic faded away. How much more ammunition would there have been for non-belief if something as technical as germ theory had to wait several millennia to be confirmed through human science!

For the same reasons, even if the Bible did describe bacteria and viruses, humanity would still complain that we ought to have been told more. That's a bottomless resource for protest. After all, at one time, biplanes and phonographs were considered cutting-edge, "modern" science. But today we see those as outdated and obsolete. If God had told Moses about viruses, we'd just have moved the goalposts and complained that germs were "old news", and God should have told Moses about DNA, or particle physics, and so on and so forth.

Even more challenging, for the critic who claims that earlier knowledge of germ theory would have saved lives, is an objective sense of history. Critics of the Bible have a bad habit of assuming that all good things come from our knowledge, and all bad things come from God being stingy or wicked. In truth, most of the suffering we see in the world is directly caused by other human beings. The same germ theory that saved lives has also contributed to the development of biological weapons. The ancient world, no more or less than the modern world, was just as likely to turn that knowledge into evil.

Ultimately, that's the real point of both the Bible and how we approach it. Whether God explains something or not is frequently for reasons only He understands — for now — but experience shows His reasons are good reasons. The Bible is primarily concerned with what we absolutely need to know, in the most important area of our life: our relationship with Him. Interesting or not, useful or not, important or not, everything else is beside the point.

Image Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia; "untitled"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | History-Apologetics

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Published 1-6-15