Lessons about the COVID-19 pandemic from biblical plagues

By Sarah Cotes, Senior Common Room (SCR) Member.

Photo by CDC

Pandemic is not a word you can find in the Bible – the biblical world was small. But plagues were plentiful, and this was the term used to cover a wide range of disasters which were described as divinely inflicted, though it was recognised that they might also occur by chance (1 Samuel 6:9). To the modern mind, the idea that God would deliberately inflict a plague of whatever sort on a whole population, children included, is concerning, but this was a religiously imbued culture. Plague would now be classed as a biological weapon or even a weapon of mass destruction, forbidden under international law. But the stories in Genesis and Exodus are generally regarded as legendary, though rich in meaning. 

In Genesis 20, God punishes Pharaoh for unknowingly taking Abraham’s wife and Pharaoh’s people were afflicted with infertility, probably regarded as a plague. They were later healed when Sarah was restored to Abraham. The idea that this was a punishment when Abraham had kept his marriage a secret seems unfair – perhaps it was about treating women as chattels. The ten ‘plagues’, which God inflicted on Egypt, in order to make a different Pharaoh liberate the Israelites, were seen then, and are still seen by Jews, as a demonstration of God’s power and his commitment to his covenant with the Israelites as they escaped from their bondage in Egypt. Others see this story as primarily about God acting against oppression to achieve justice for the poor. Later Old Testament accounts show God using plague or pestilence as a punishment when the Israelites broke their side of the covenant – to love God, obey his commandments and not to commit idolatry. 1 Samuel 5 – 6 tells the story of the Philistines when they took the Ark and were struck with an illness that included tumours and a plague of mice. The description suggests bubonic plague.  God’s supremacy was demonstrated to the Philistines and the Ark was urgently restored to its proper owners. At the same time the importance of the Ark of the Covenant was reinforced for the Israelites. 

A minimal understanding of disease now will lead to recognition that a sinful society, in which there is failure to care for the poor and injustice flourishes, is fertile ground for plague.

There are a number of later prophetic threats of pestilence and other dire calamities from the mouths of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, if the Israelites did not obey God’s command to be subject to the Assyrians for a period. There was no suggestion that the innocent – children and others – would be spared. On other occasions, when the Israelites were backsliding from their side of the covenant – to keep God’s law (Ezekiel 14.21, Jeremiah 21.6-9) – there would be sparing of the righteous. Plague is starting to retreat from mass destruction. God always commanded their sole allegiance, to be expressed by justice and care for the poor, the widowed and orphans (Micah 6: 6-8). Were these actually threats or were they a statement about the consequences of a sinful lifestyle?  A minimal understanding of disease now will lead to recognition that a sinful society, in which there is failure to care for the poor and injustice flourishes, is fertile ground for plague. Thus plague could have been a consequence which was foreseen rather than a punishment, though that is not the impression given. We could interpret it as just the way God’s world works. We do not know whether these plagues actually happened or whether the Israelites repented and averted them. 

In the New Testament plague or pestilence feature as part of the apocalyptic vision of what will happen at the end of time – the conflict between the evil world and God’s way, in which good will eventually triumph over evil (Revelation 6.8).

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, writing of the current pandemic, commented that we have not learned the lessons of history. The Black Death (bubonic plague) was associated with poverty and over-crowding. It has never gone away but emerges in pockets and is controlled by public health measures. The 1917-18 ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic was also made worse by over-crowding and the prioritising of war. The AIDS pandemic flourished in the USA as a result of lifestyle choices, but in addition by judgemental attitudes and the prioritisation of economics and politics above public health. Horton prophesies that we will come to regard disease as a ‘pathology of society’. In theological terms we would call that structural sin – living in a society in which we have allowed poverty, racism and injustice to flourish. Government statistics confirm that these are all factors strongly linked to the spread and the mortality of the current pandemic. Mark Carney (former Governor of the Bank of England), in the 2020 Reith Lectures, said that the pandemic has shown that there are things we value deeply in life above economic growth,  and that we must learn to incorporate these values into our economic system. We need to work towards the common good, a basis for good government put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. It has continued to be a very important and widely influential principle but has not been included in our political discourse for a long time. It has been replaced by free market capitalism and economic goals. The Islamic theologian, Mona Siddiqui, recently said on Radio 4 that we have made trade our god and capitalism our empire. We are therefore committing idolatry.

We all bear a responsibility to work for justice (as fairness) and the common good, and we must challenge our political representatives to do that. We should exercise our vote accordingly. People like to avoid linking their faith to party politics, but this is above party politics.  It is about humanity. We must choose which god to worship and obey. 

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