This story is a fictional re-imagining of a heroic doctor who wrote the rules in the Biblical book of Leviticus. Public health, disease transmission, social distancing, and community health were questions they really did wrestled with in the Hebrew Bible.
“The person to be cleansed must wash their clothes, shave off all their hair and bathe with water, then they will be ceremonially clean. After this they may come into the camp, but they must stay outside their tent for seven days. On the seventh day they must shave off all their hair, they must shave their head, their beard, their eyebrows and the rest of their hair. They must wash their clothes and bathe themselves with water, and they will be clean.”
Dinah clicked her tongue and pulled on the reigns. Dinah’s sword sheath clanged against her dusty thigh armor as her camel came to a stop. Before her stood a wooden fence surrounding a complex web of gardens with a sign that read Welcome to Doctor Leviticus’ Office.
“Levi!” Dinah shouted from atop her camel. “Come say hi to your sister Dinah!”
A bald head popped up from behind the fence. Dinah gasped in surprise and instinctively reached for the handle of her sword. Then she noticed the bald head belonged to a woman with kind eyes, ruddy wrinkled cheeks, and no eyebrows. Dinah relaxed and moved her hand away from the sword.
“Doctor Leviticus?” the woman asked, correcting Dinah.
“Possibly. The person I’m looking for just goes by Levi,” Dinah said cautiously. She couldn’t help staring at the older woman’s sun-baked forehead where her eyebrows should have been. Then Dinah saw two more bald, eyebrowless women rise from behind a berry bush. Both held watering cans and looked at her suspiciously.
“I didn’t know Doctor Leviticus had a sister,” the older woman smiled, pointing at a two-story brick building with stairs that wound along the outer walls. On the second floor was a door flanked by large lattice windows and closed curtains.
A few chickens ran up and down the paths that cut across the maze of lush green gardens. Dinah had been on the road for a month and was impressed to see a garden this green in the middle of the drought.
Dinah dismounted her camel and her sword clanged against her armor. She made a move to push open the short wooden front gate.
The older woman pulled a linen face mask over her nose and mouth and blocked the gate with her body.
“You can’t come in like that!” the woman shouted, scandalized.
“Why not?” Dinah asked, her eyebrows narrowing on the woman on the other side of the wooden gate.
“Because you’re unclean!” the woman exclaimed through her linen face mask. She pointed at the small one-room mud hut on Dinah’s side of the fence. A sign above the door read Washroom.
“I’ve been on the road for a month,” Dinah said getting irritated. “Levi’s not going to care.”
“He most certainly will care,” the woman scolded Dinah. “You are unclean and you could contaminate everything in here.” The woman’s hands made a circular motion that encompassed the building and its gardens.
“So you want me to wash before I come in,” Dinah said, pointing at the washroom. The washroom it was empty save for three wooden buckets full of clear water and a series of strangely labeled bottles.
The bald woman smiled and nodded, “Please.”
“Can I just talk to my brother,” Dinah was getting impatient. Then she saw the second-floor curtains move and a moment later her brother’s bald head flashed through a gap in the fabric.
“LEVI!” Dinah shouted to him, pushing the gate and the woman out of her way.
And a moment later her brother hurried out of the door and scurried down the stairs, waving his arms frantically. “Dinah wait, WAIT!” he yelled as he ran. Dinah stood still, the gate half open.
Dinah barely recognized her brother Levi. He wore a bright white linen bathing robe tied around his thin and bony frame. A linen face mask covered his sallow face. His dark, long hair and eyebrows were gone. Dinah felt disoriented by the bony, pale shell of her oldest brother. Three years ago, Levi had left their father Jacob’s house a well-built man with a plump wife and a healthy baby. But no one in the family had heard from Levi since. Their father Jacob had finally sent her to check-in on Levi.
“It’s good to see you, Dinah,” he said, breathing heavily through the face mask. He pushed the front gate against her metal chest plate. The latch clinked shut.
“Good to see you too, Levi,” Dinah said concerned.
“Could you…” he caught his breath, “do me a favor and please wash off and change before you come in.”
“You want me to change before I come in,” she said flatly.
“I just…” Levi stood in front of her as if trying to find the right words. “Well, just to be safe.” He paused again. “…I’m trying to keep things in here clean.” His pale bon,y fingers motioned toward the brick building. Perhaps Levi sensed this wasn’t sitting well with his sister because he added, “The plague has already taken so much from these woman.”
Dinah had seen the effects of the plague. She had spent a month riding through village after village emptied of all but the stench of rotting bodies. Sometimes she rode for days seeing nothing but empty houses along the road, yards strewn with toys, farming tools, and dead bodies. Whole villages had died before anyone could bury the dead. When someone came down with a fever they could be gone the very next day.
“What do you want me to change into?” Dinah said, looking down at her dust coated armor.
Levi smiled and looked quite relieved. He clapped his bony, hairless hands together. “Excellent! There should be three buckets of fresh water and a clean bathing robe in the washroom,” he pointed at the small hut. “You can use the first bucket to wash your clothes and armor. The second bucket to wash your whole body. And the third bucket to shave off your hair and eyebrows.”
Dinah pulled off her dirt and sweat-stained headwrap.
“You want me to shave off all my hair?” She tried to shake out her long, brown, and very tangled hair.
Levi nodded at her, his eyes pleading.
“And my eyebrows,” he nodded again. “Just to keep your house clean? Where are Adina and Merari?” Dinah asked looking around, hoping that Levi’s wife would step in and save her hair.
“They’re gone,” Levi said, looking past her, his voice quiet and distant.
“Gone where?” Dinah said, a sense of dread landing like a rock in her stomach.
“They died forty-seven days after we got back from our father’s house,” he said.
“Levi, I’m—” Dinah felt tears welling in her eyes.
Levi’s shoulders fell, the wind knocked out of him. “Please, at least wash the fleas out of your hair.”
She stood in the washroom scrubbing her head with a liquid from a jar labeld “Fleas.” It smelled like citrus and herbs. As she ran her fingers through her hair she noticed a tiny black flea on her finger. She ran her fingers through her hair again. It was only the one flea. She stared at it. It was far too small for Levi to have seen.
Dinah stood in her brother’s office in a long bright-white bathing robe, her hair wrapped in a towel. She had met village healers before, but this was something different. The office walls were covered in shelf after shelf of scrolls. The floor was dotted with various sized clay jars with labels like “Milk thistle,” “Mountain plum,” “Flax,” and “Garlic oil.” She opened the lid of a tall jar on the floor with a label that read “Day Two.” Inside small pink flower petals floated on top of olive oil. The room filled with a sweet floral smell.
Each shelf was labeled with the name of a family with a dozen or more scrolls perfectly stacked on each shelf. She unrolled a scroll marked, Family of Gidioni. Inside it read:
Gidioni, husband of Yehudit, father of Abidan
Yehudit said her husband Gidioni was sick with the fever for two weeks. Possible causes: eating an ostrich egg, eating elderly camel meat, bearing a grudge against his neighbor for stealing his ax, sleeping with Ada during menstruation, green spots of mold on the walls of their house.
Shave off all body hair, wash all bodies three times each day, wash the entire house and lock it up for seven days and sleep in a tent. One for Gidioni and one for rest of the family. Reconcile with your neighbor. Begin clean diet. No sex during menstruation. Wash sheets after sex.
She re-read the scroll, trying to understand it. Why had her brother had become so fixated on washing? And what was a clean diet? She heard her brother coming and quickly put the scroll back on the shelf.
Leviticus walked up the circular stairs and offered her a plate of olives and flatbread. “What is all this?” Dinah asked, taking a handful of olives and a bite of flatbread.
“My research,” Levi said as he sat down on a tall leather chair behind the desk. “So how is our family?” he asked as he straightened the quills on his desk. “I was disappointed to have missed Joseph’s birth celebration. But I was so busy with patients. The sickness has hit our village hard.”
Dinah cautiously followed his redirection, “Everyone is well. Our brother’s spend sunup to sundown watering in the fields. Dad hardly leaves the house. He spends all day doting over baby Joseph. Mom keeps talking about moving to Egypt, but Dad isn’t having it. Says he wants all his kids raised in the country.”
Levi pulled the curtain open slightly with his fingers. The afternoon sun shone off his bald eyebrowless head.
Levi flicked the curtain shut.Then he stood up and washed his hands. He opened the tall jar of olive oil and placed a drop on his right earlobe and right big toe. He did it without thought. As if it was perfectly normal. Dinah watched the strange ritual in silence.
“Levi, are you sure you’re alright?” she asked.
He looked out through the curtains. “Yes. I’m just fine,” he said, forcing a smile. “My next patient is waiting for me. You should get some rest in the guest house. We can talk more tonight over dinner.” He opened the door and motioned for her to leave the office.
Outside, Dinah saw a bald woman waddling through the front gate, her head was still red from being freshly shaved. She had a wet chicken in her hands. “What is going on?” Dinah said to herself.
While the bald patient was in the office with Levi, Dinah decided to complete her training for the day. “Neck, side, gut…” she repeated to herself as she dogged, blocked, and thrust her sword straight ahead into an imaginary soldier. She occasionally caught the three bald woman staring at her, but they quickly returned to pulling weeds when she glanced in their direction.
She stopped training when her brother walked out of his office. He made his way down the stairs with a piece of linen covering his mouth. He was trailed by the plump woman with the squawking chicken and a small jar marked “Fever oil” in her hands.
Levi walked across the yard to a small fire that had been burning since Dinah arrived. He took the chicken and plunged it into a bucket of water three times. Then he slit the throat with a small knife.The chicken flopped and jerked as he held it upside down until all the blood had drained into a small fire. Then he cut it open the chicken and began pulling out each organ.
Levi turned each small wet organ in his hands. Checking every part of the stomach, lungs, and heart before washing them in a separate bucket and casually tossing them into the small fire.
It was the strangest butchering process Dinah had ever seen. She planted her sword in the dirt and walked over to the fire. “Why are you washing the organs if you’re just gonna toss them in the fire?” Dinah asked, entranced with her brother’s meticulous care.
“You have to check the organs,” he said, and the bald woman nodded knowingly.
“Check them for what?” Dinah asked.
“Irregularities,” Levi said, rolling a handful of small intestines through his fingers before throwing it into the fire. Then he began lancing each piece of pink chicken meat to a spit and laying them over the fire.
It was late in the afternoon when the woman left his house with the jar of fever oil and most of the roasted chicken. “Don’t go back into your house before the seventh day!” Levi reminded her as she waddled out the front gate.
“Okay, let’s wash up and eat,” Levi said to Dinah and called the three women still weeding in the garden.
“What was all that about?” Dinah asked, taking a bite of blackened chicken.
“Her husband has the sickness and she’s trying to take care of him.” Levi shook his head, “It’s a shame. She’s such a sweet woman.”
“Do you think he’ll be alright?” Dinah asked.
“No. It’s too late for him. But she might survive if she washes and leaves him alone,” he took a bite of chicken. “But they never do.”
After dinner Dinah sat on her bed writing a letter to her father by candle light. She wrote that she had made it safely. That Adina and Merari had died and that Levi was—she paused searching for the right word—grieving. That she needed to stay and look after him for a while. “Levi and I send our love to you and the family.”
Later that night Dinah sat around the crackling fire, polishing her armor and laughing. “Wait, so you think people’s hair is making them sick?” she teased her brother.
“Well your hair had fleas, so…” he smirked and took a long drink of water.
“One flea. I had one flea,” Dinah laughed. “I can’t believe you saw that.”
Levi shrugged, “I didn’t see it. I just figured since you had been on the road a long time. But generally, bald people do live longer.”
“You mean people who live longer are bald,” she smiled.
“Both,” Levi pointed up to his office. “I have a hundred examples on those scrolls.”
It felt good to laugh with him. Despite all his physical changes his light hiccuping laugh was exactly how she remembered it.
“So why not eat pigs?” Dinah asked.
“Have you seen what a hungry pig will eat? I once watched a pig eat an entire human carcass in one sitting.” Levi shivered with disgust.
“Okay, fine. But camel meat? I mean, I’ve been eating it my entire life. And look at me.” Dinah made a show of flexing her arms.
“So my theory is this. Camels are fairly valuable around here. So people don’t tend to eat them until the camel is old or sick.”
“Why not tell people not to eat old, sick camels?” Dinah asked, leaning in and pointing at her brother.
“Fair point, but I’m beginning to suspect that there is something about animals that chew their cud that makes them safer for eating.”
“What?” Dinah rolled her head back and let loose a belly laugh. And the more she thought about it the harder she laughed. “Okay, okay,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Whew.”
Then she saw her brother was sitting upright in his chair, his arms crossed and his face hardened. She had gone too far.
“Alright, I’m sorry, Levi,” she said and took a few deep breaths. “I want to understand, but it’s just so strange.”
His face softened, changing from Doctor Leviticus back to her brother, Levi. He leaned forward with four fingers up. “Okay from what I can tell, it comes down to four things that I suspect make people sick. Blood, Dirt, Death, and Anger. People get sick when they eat blood—”
“And menstruate,” Dinah added with a wry smile.
“Yes, that too,” Levi nodded.
“I’ve also started noticing that the people who die have had contact with someone or something who died. You always see vultures when people are sick.”
“And washing seems to help. Keeping the dirt away is important.” He brushed off his hands. “It’s also why circumcision—”
“Yeah, I don’t need to hear the details on that,” Dinah shook her head.
“And lastly, I found that sickness often hits homes where there is some kind of anger or unresolved conflict.”
“Because maybe they get murdered by the person who’s mad at them?” Dinah started giggling again. She tried to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”
“Laugh all you want,” Levi said, dismissing his sister’s laughter. The was a hint of defiance in his voice. “But I’m keeping people alive. The women that live here, their families are all dead from the sickness. They came to stay here with me. And we have not lost one person.” His index finger was raised.
Dinah remembered Adina and Merari and her stomach suddenly twisted with embarrassment. She stared into the fire, feeling her face blush. She remembered seeing Levi holding hands with Adina as they left her house. Levi had looked so happy.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh,” she said.
“When Adina and Merari got sick I didn’t have any rules,” he sighed. “It was actually their sickness that started my research. I started writing everything down. Everything they ate and drank, every herb I gave them, when they went to the bathroom, what they threw up, what it looked like.”
“Then I started interviewing people in town to see what treatments were working. By the time Adina died I had a scroll for everyone in town.”
Dinah stared into the fire. “Why didn’t you tell us they died?”
Levi didn’t answer for a long time. “Enough about all that. Tell me about how you became a soldier,” he nodding toward her armor.
Dinah looked at her half-polished armor, dully reflecting the flames. “I guess I just like it,” she shrugged. “The boys were always working out in the field and Father would tell me to stay home and watch over the house. Then I figured I should be able to do something more than just watch our house get ransacked by robbers.”
“From what I can see you’re pretty good with a sword.” Levi smiled at her. “The office could use a security guard.” His face was pale and gaunt, but his smile was the same.
“I missed you, Levi,” Dinah smiled back at him.
“I missed you too, Dinah.” He poked the flames with a long stick, sending amber sparks up into the dark night sky.
Dinah quickly fell into a routine with her brother. As long as she was there to greet and collect water for the patients, Levi mostly left her to her own devices. She used her new freedom to train. She got up before dawn. Her armor clanged and woke the roosters as she ran up and down the hills surrounding Levi’s office.
She spent her afternoons attacking a wooden scarecrow she attached to the fence behind her bedroom. As she trained, Levi met with patients or worked alongside the women in the garden. Kneeling on a blanket as he clipped the leaves from herbs or weeded around his flowers. He never interrupted her training except to let her know that they could use more water from the river, “When she had a moment.”
But as the drought wore on more and more villagers came down with the sickness. And eventually the nearby homesteads were mostly empty. Nearly everyone in town had died or relocated to Egypt. The few people who were left spent most of their days lined up along the fence, waiting to see Doctor Leviticus.
Eventually there was no one healthy enough to actually go into Levi’s office. Dinah and the three women spent their mornings carrying buckets of water back and forth from the river. Watering the vegetables and handing out cups of water to the dying men and women who camped in the ditch along the fence.
Levi, on the other hand, never left his office. He was frail and tired. He washed his hands over and over again. He hardly slept. He spent day and night filling scroll after scroll with the genealogies, diets, and living habits of his dying patients. He stopped leaving his office. Day after day he asked Dinah if there were any patients healthy enough for him to see.
“Well, what am I supposed to tell them, Levi?” Dinah shouted at him, pacing back and forth in his office. Her eyes were tired and her bald and eyebrowless head was browned from months under the unrelenting sun. “Levi, these people are sick and desperate.” She dabbed olive oil on her right earlobe. The action had become second nature during her time at Levi’s.
“Help us!” a woman shouted. Levi winced in pain at the sound of the woman’s cries.
Dinah looked through the office curtains. The woman’s eyes were purple and blue from exhaustion, she was sweating. Dinah knew the woman’s family had died the week before.
“I’m sorry, I am trying to help, but—” Levi’s voice faltered. He drummed his skeletal fingers on his desk, his right eye twitching.
“Why won’t you won’t even try to help us?” the woman shouted up at them.
“If I let them in here—” he said to Dinah, and then stopped and straightened all the quills on his desk “Then… then…”
“I’m going home,” Dinah said with finality.
“What?” Levi looked up at her shocked.
Dinah saw the fear in his eyes. He was barely a shadow of the brother she had known as a child. She remembered riding on his broad, strong shoulders as they ran around the yard outside their house. She remembered his hiccuping laughter dancing above the laughter of her eleven older brothers.
Her voice softened slightly. “Levi, I love you. And I’m not going to tell you what to do. But I can’t stay here. I won’t spend my days keeping sick people out of a doctor’s office.”
Levi sat at his desk, thinking for a long time. Then his face hardened as if he had landed on a decision. “You’re right,” He said, trying to keep his voice from cracking.
Leviticus swallowed hard. “Just give me a moment to write a letter to mom and dad.”
He took out a fresh scroll and began writing. He wrote about how Adina and Merari had died and how grateful he was that they had sent Dinah to visit him. Then he paused. He thought of his brothers and his baby brother Joseph, whom he had never met.
Levi pulled out a second scroll and began to write down all his rules. The words poured out one after another. All his treatments. How everything was to be washed. Which herbs were effective and which were worthless folk remedies. It was late in the afternoon by the time he had compiled them all. He smiled, looking down at the long scroll. He had repeated himself more than he meant to, but it was good enough.
“I want you to deliver this for me.” he said, handing her the two scrolls. The first one was marked for Jacob and Leah; the second was labeled the Scroll of Leviticus.
“You are quite good with a sword and you know how to keep yourself healthy,” Leviticus said, forcing each word out of his mouth with a detached calm. “On your journey home I would ask that you stop in each village and speak with their elders. Explain to them how we treat people here. Then find someone who can read and make a copy of this scroll to remain with that village.”
Levi said forcefully, “And make sure you wash before you leave each village so you don’t bring the sickness with you to the next village. And when you finally get home to mom and dad I want you to give them a hug from me. After you’ve washed,” Levi smiled.
“Come home with me,” Dinah asked. Dinah looked her brother’s tired eyes draped with purple and green, his skin pale and his hands red and cracked from washing. “Come home,” she pleaded.
Leviticus shook his head. “My place is here.” He smiled and tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. “And I’ll see you when you come back.” He added.
Dinah took the scrolls and left. Leviticus watched her from his office window as she quickly packed a bag of clean clothes and mounted her camel. “Make sure you always check the animals’ organs and drain the blood—” he shouted down at her.
“And cook the meat myself, I remember,” Dinah said, lifting up the scrolls before putting them in a leather satchel. She mounted her camel and clicked her tongue, and the camel trotted down the road past the villagers lining the fence. Levi thought she looked quite like a soldier riding into battle.
Levi sat at his desk and took out a quill and a fresh scroll.
When you find me, I will likely be dead. I’m sorry to have sent you away but you were right. I’m a doctor and I can’t just sit by watching my patients dying outside my door. I am so proud of you and I know you will have done your best to save as many lives as possible.
And if you are not my sister Dinah and you find this letter, I want to make it perfectly clear that I chose to break my own rules in order to help my patients.
As per the scrolls on the wall, they are a history of our village and the basis for my rules. You are free to read them. You may make copies of them, I believe they will be of value in helping to keep your community healthy.
Leviticus put down his quill, took a deep breath, opened the office door, and for the first time in weeks he stepped outside. “I will see the first patient now!” he shouted.
This story is from a collection of reimagined short stories from Nathan Roberts called Deserted: Retelling Bible Stories Without An Angry God available now in ebook, audible, and paperback.