The Hebrew Bible is peerless in its literary sophistication. It attracts me mostly for its artistry, but I also think of the Bible as a record of trauma, of how ancient people processed crisis. Famine and flood, oppression and massacre—it’s all there. Indeed, without catastrophe, would theology even be necessary? Because, for millennia, humans have turned to the divine to explain otherwise inexplicable disaster.
So it’s not surprising that a recent Pew poll found that more than half of all American adults have prayed for the coronavirus to go away. But praying for the pandemic to end is a misunderstanding. Theologically speaking, the God of the Bible would be the cause of the coronavirus, not its cure.
To be clear, I’m not saying God caused the coronavirus—as far as scientists know, the virus likely transferred from a bat to a human at a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, and spread from there. A virus has no intention other than to survive and multiply. It’s not punishment for immoral behavior. Yet that’s exactly how it would have been interpreted during biblical times. Within that ideological context, everything that happens has a cause, and that cause is God.
And so, since COVID-19 became news, I’ve found myself thinking about the parts of the Bible where God gets angry and wreaks destruction. I particularly think of the Flood, when God sees the great wickedness of man, regrets His creation, and brings the waters to destroy everything on Earth. I try to imagine how traumatizing a flood would have been thousands of years ago. People must have wondered, Why the hell does it keep raining? Why is everything being destroyed? The only answer: because God is enraged.
The same goes for a devastating earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a fierce storm. And indeed, God is depicted in the Bible as taking the form of a whirlwind, a pillar of smoke, an erupting volcano. The earth trembles and shakes when He arrives. When there is drought, blight, and plague, it is because these are God’s weapons, the arrows in his quiver.
This theological narrative is of course retroactive. That is, it reframes the situation, so that disaster has an explanation. Foreign invasion is also explained afterward as the result of God’s work. Rather than use the forces of nature, God sends the armies of Assyria and Babylon to ravage his chosen people. Even the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the most traumatic event in the Bible, is God’s own doing.
What we have in the Bible, then, is a series of traumas—God repeatedly causing unfathomable devastation. And as I write this essay, more than a thousand Americans are dying of COVID-19 every day. The economy has imploded, with an unemployment rate not seen since the Great Depression. Schools have closed, and our most cherished festivals and sports events have been canceled. We can’t go to a movie, a museum, or a bookstore. We can’t meet friends for coffee or a drink at a bar. We can’t take a date to dinner or our kids to the park.
While there have been far worse plagues in the past, all of humankind has never before fought the same viral enemy at the same time. We’ve never been able to receive hourly updates on death and infection rates from around the globe. During past pandemics, it took weeks or months to receive news of an outbreak, and, similarly, without the existence of international air travel, the spread took much longer.
In his introduction to The Decameron, for instance, Giovanni Boccaccio writes that the plague that decimated Europe in 1348 “had begun some years earlier in the East and, after causing numberless deaths in that part of the world, had moved relentlessly from one region to another westwards, growing more distressingly powerful all the time.” In terms chillingly familiar to us today, he continues:
No expertise or human measures had any effect. Specially appointed officials made sure the city was cleansed of all refuse, anyone sick was refused entry, and advice was given in plenty about how to stay healthy. Humble supplications to God to show mercy were repeatedly made by the pious, who organized processions and so on. But it was all fruitless: in the early spring of the year mentioned, the ravages of the plague began to be horribly evident in a monstrous way.
As the coronavirus spread and we entered lockdown, I came across this startlingly appropriate line in the Book of Isaiah: “Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while, until the indignation is past.” And so I started to think less about Genesis and more about the books of the prophets. Because the prophets’ role was to explain what was happening and why. That the wrath of God has a purpose. A lesson.
In that theological explanation, people were not doing what they were supposed to be doing, and their sin angered God, because it revealed His failure. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in The Prophets, “The life of sin is more than a failure of man; it is a frustration to God.” And when God gets frustrated, God destroys.
At times this sinful behavior was the worship of idols and other gods, yet much worse was when, as God tells Ezekiel, men “fill the land with violence.” In a lecture about Ezekiel, Elie Wiesel says that “as long as people offended heaven, God, in spite of his anger, was willing to wait. But when they ceased to be human toward one another, he had to intervene—and punish them.”
God was just as often angered by social injustice. “The exploitation of the poor,” Heschel explains, “is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster.” God hated that a few lived in luxury while the many suffered in squalor. That people took advantage of one another. That leaders did not act with integrity. Seeing this behavior, God became incensed. As He says through Isaiah: “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their inequity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and humble the haughtiness of tyrants.”
Disgusted by unfairness and arrogance, God told his prophets that without social justice, worship was worthless. He didn’t care if you sacrificed sheep or burned incense, and he didn’t want your prayers. He cared about how people treated each other. “And what does the Lord require of you,” the prophet Micah asked, “but to do Justice and to love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” Conversely, what really angers God is when, as He says through Jeremiah, “Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks truth.”
Above all, God despised deceit. And although the coronavirus pandemic has nothing to do with God, its destruction was exacerbated by deception. One thing we’ve learned from this disaster is that lies have consequences. That facts matter. That misinformation causes catastrophe.
In Greek, the word katastrophe means “an overturning,” as in the overturning of normal life during war—or a pandemic. The narration of catastrophe is how we make sense of the world. There is no history without it. And it can also bring something good. In Greek tragedy, for instance, the catastrophe of the denouement allows for katharsis, which means not relief but “purification.”
It’s also significant that the Greek word krisis means “decision,” and that in Latin decider means “to cut off,” as in, by deciding to do one thing you are cutting off all others. So, in this crisis, I wonder what we will decide to do. What possibilities do we want to cut off?
Then again, maybe we don’t really have a choice. In The Prophets, Heschel points out that God’s wrath is “an instrument rather than a force.” That is, rather than serve as mere punishment, the destruction itself compels a change in behavior. Instrumentally, its purpose is to bring about repentance. “Let the people modify their line of conduct,” Heschel explains, “and anger will disappear.”
In the Bible, God’s rage wakes people up, reminds them of what’s important, and forces them to stop causing harm. Through its destruction, it creates a humbler, more just society. Let’s hope the coronavirus can do the same.
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