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Is the Virus a Punishment from God?

David Neuhaus, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Jun 18th 2020

“’When evening had come’ (Mk 4:35). The Gospel passage we have just heard begins like this. For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm.”[1] The empty square and Basilica of Saint Peter provided the backdrop for Pope Francis’ rousing homily, a prophetic gesture to edify, encourage and console a world in shock at the spread of a virus claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.

Prophets of doom who manipulate the Bible

For a lover of the Bible it can be shocking to discover how some are reveling in Biblical verses that seem to speak to a crisis like the COVID-19 crisis. These verses are regularly ripped out of context and violently plastered onto the reality at hand. Prophets of doom proclaim the COVID-19 pandemic is God’s wrathful punishment on a sinful world. They cite verses against whatever in the world irritates their own sensitivities and they use the Scriptures to pummel a wounded and bleeding humanity. One can almost feel a shivering sense of glee as they quote the verses that describe plagues and catastrophes, hurled by a livid God on a world that is begging for punishment.

Alongside the drama of prophets seemingly provoked to call down divine anger, stand the “I-told-you-so” moralists, who also sift their Bibles for texts that they think allow them to preach with authority to a world that must at least now be convinced that their own sense of what is right is indeed the recipe for a better tomorrow. Both prophets of doom and I-told-you-so moralists seem to be shockingly reassured that the COVID-19 crisis fits a Biblical model of divine punishment or reproach.

The case of King David and the plague

There are some particularly disturbing Biblical texts these prophets of doom seem to think are apt for this time of pandemic, a new word, it would seem, for plague. One of the more brutal texts might be found in 2 Samuel 24, an annex to the story of King David. The chapter opens with the ominous words, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Sam 24:1).[2] Why? Because David had ordered a census despite the resistance of his chief of staff, Joab. The astute Joab seemed to have been aware that this action contradicted what the Law commanded: a census should be irrevocably tied to a collection of funds for the Temple. “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered” (Exod 30:12).

The counting of the people, which had become very numerous, needed to be linked to a gesture of thanksgiving, recognizing that God had fulfilled the promises made to the Patriarchs: “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous” (Gen 17:2). David commanded the census but ignored the Law and thus once again demonstrated that he seemed to think that he was in a sense the equivalent of God, that he was the source of the people’s strength, a tendency he had already demonstrated in desiring to build a Temple that God did not want (cf. 2 Sam 7) and taking Bathsheba and murdering her husband (cf. 2 Sam 12). 

Even though David expressed regret after the completion of the census[3], according to the narrative, God exacted a terrible price. God allowed David to choose between three years of famine, three months of pursuit by his enemies or three days of pestilence. The king chose not to fall into the hands of his enemies. Therefore, “the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time, and seventy-thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer Sheba” (2 Sam 24:15). Only when the destroying angel reached Jerusalem did God relent and command the angel, “it is enough; now stay your hand” (2 Sam 24:16). God’s change of heart seems to have been provoked by David taking responsibility for his sin; “I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Sam 24:17).

From false reading to correct interpretation

So here we seem to have it. The convergence of sin and wrath, offense and horrific consequence. If one takes the event described out of context, the prophets of doom might indeed infer that the present crisis (and before it floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, AIDS and any number of natural and human disasters) are signs of sin and wrath, just like what is described in the Bible. However, it is important to point out that this is a very problematic reading of the text, ignoring context (both historical and narrative), the intention of the author and the underlying theological message of the text.

The narrative of the census falls within a long history that begins with the entry of the people into the land in the Book of Joshua and moves relentlessly toward the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This long saga is the literary fruit of an author or a school of authors whom scholarly interpreters call “the Deuteronomist,” writing in the middle of the 6th century B.C. The burning issue of the time was how to interpret the catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple Solomon had built, that of the city of Jerusalem and the consequent exile in Babylon. How was it possible that God had given the gift of the land to Joshua and that it had been lost with the Babylonian conquest?

The entire Deuteronomist narrative was written in a context of devastation; everything had been lost. The people had its history reinterpreted in order to take responsibility for the wrong done and ask God’s forgiveness.[4]

Certainly, according to the understanding of God in the Bible, which is always unfolding, there is still a religious mentality that tends to refer everything to God as the first cause and connect every adversity with a prior sin committed by an individual or group. After the successive “correction” of the prophetic texts (for example, Ezekiel), where everyone suffers the consequences of their own sin, Jesus in time counteracts this affirmation of close dependency between guilt and punishment (as in the episodes of the Tower of Siloam and the Man Blind From Birth).

Flagellation in the New Testament

The challenges in interpreting the type of story that is represented by David’s disastrous census and its sequel is not confined to the Old Testament. The Book of Revelation also uses the image of plague.

In chapter 16, a devastating series of plagues, recalling those of Egypt, are visited upon a sinful people. A heavenly voice orders seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God” (Rev 16:1). Seven horrors are then cast on the world: “a foul and painful sore” (v. 2); the sea “became like the blood of a corpse” (v.3); “the rivers and the springs of water […] became blood” (v. 4); “they were scorched by the fierce heat” (v. 9); “darkness” (v.10); “the great river Euphrates […] was dried up” (v. 12); “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people” (v. 21).

That is only a summary account of some of the catastrophes that are detailed in the chapter. Again, this seems to clearly be divine punishment meted out on a faithless world. So many images are to be gathered up and used to flagellate a world in which the modern prophets of doom feel so alienated. However, is this what the text is meant to say to our modern world, suffering in the throes of this pandemic?

Taken out of context, the text loses its primary meaning. The Book of Revelation, like Old Testament prophecy and apocalypse, is comprised of three intertwined elements: discernment, clarity of vision and response.

The book seeks to discern the times, the past and the present, clearly outlining the forces in this world and the stakes involved in taking sides with God.

In this discernment, the contours of the future are discretely outlined. The book offers a vision based upon the conviction that Christ has already won the battle and he will ultimately vanquish evil even if it is going to be a long struggle.

Finally, the book demands a response. This response is not to engage in gloomy prophecies of doom. Rather, everything depends on how the believers transform their own lives in the light of their knowledge that ultimately Christ will be victorious. Believers must be actively engaged in bearing witness and energetically helping to change the world. This is a call to help build the kingdom by imitating Jesus the meek lamb, immolated for the salvation of the world.

The Book of Revelation, coming as it does at the end of the Christian canon, calls us to an ever-deeper faith, an ever-deeper conversion, an ever-deeper longing for the kingdom of God.

A mission for today’s testing times

In our own times, the Book of Revelation reminds us that the Church is called not to assent to a predominant culture of fear, of accusation, of shutting down and isolating. If the world offers a vision of the future built on fear, the Church, inspired by the Bible and the Book of Revelation at the end of it offers a different vision based upon the conviction founded on the Good News of Christ’s victory. When things seem dark, the follower of Jesus is called to radiate a certainty that the time of darkness is limited, God is coming and the Church is called to prepare for this coming with prayer and testimony. This means that our reading of God’s Word in the Bible must result in a word of Good News that calls the world in crisis to convert, not a moralistic judgment or one of prophetic doom. The word that must be proclaimed is for “building up, encouraging and consoling.” The word is not given for battering, abusing or oppressing the spirit.

There is one theme that runs through the entire Christian Bible, from beginning to end. God has not allowed in the past, does not and will not allow sin, darkness and death to prevail. In his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27, Pope Francis neatly turned around the tendency to see the crisis as God’s judgment. Boldly addressing God from the heart of our COVID-19 stricken world, he said, “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose between what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others (cf. 1 Cor 14:3).”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 06 art. 9, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0620.9

[1] Pope Francis, Extraordinary moment of prayer in times of an epidemic, March 27, 2020.

[2] If that were not enough, God “incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’” (2 Sam 24:1). The verse clearly scandalized the Chronicler, who rewrote the story about two or three centuries later, suggesting that the entire initiative came from Satan and not from God. “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel” (1 Chron 21:1).

[3] “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly” (2 Sam 24:10),

[4] Also, it is important to note, the Bible does not end there. In the Christian canon, this whole history is retold in the books of Chronicles (and the story surges ahead, beyond the Exile to the return and the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem in Ezra and Nehemiah). Although telling substantially the same story, the 4th century B.C. writer was not interested in teaching about this time. The entire narrative was mobilized to a very different purpose. He was concerned to communicate a teaching about how to give thanks for the outpouring of God’s grace because God has not allowed death, destruction and exile to be the last word. Rather, the dry bones had been covered with living flesh in a wondrous resurrection and the people had another chance to live rightly when King Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. There is, of course, even a third series of History Books in our Catholic Bibles, stretching from Tobit to 2 Maccabees, which tells the story yet again. After the focus on saying sorry and giving thanks, the third series presents the heroes of faith: Tobit, Judith, Esther, the Maccabees and the martyrs in 2 Maccabees. They present examples of right living, focused on loving God and fellow human beings.

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