One phrase that has been used about the current pandemic is that it is of “biblical proportions.” Those commentators and journalists who use this phrase sadly have no concept of what a ‘biblical’ plague is really about. Just because it is large and widespread does not make it ‘biblical’.
The choice of words conveys more than just scale. Biblical stories of devastating famines are familiar to many, but we must understand that famines in biblical times were interpreted as more than mere natural occurrences. The authors of the Hebrew Bible not only used famine as a mechanism of divine wrath and destruction – but also as a storytelling device, a way to move the narrative forward.
Underlying the texts about famine in the Hebrew Bible was the constant threat and recurring reality of famine.
Israel occupied the rocky highlands of Canaan – the area of present-day Jerusalem and the hills to the north of it – rather than fertile coastal plains. Even in the best of years, it took hard work to produce a harvest each year. The rainy seasons were brief; any precipitation less than normal could be devastating.
Across the ancient Near East, drought and famine were feared. In the 13th century B.C., nearly all of the Eastern Mediterranean civilisations collapsed because of a prolonged drought.
For the biblical authors, rain was a blessing and drought a curse – quite literally. In the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, God says that if Israel obeys His laws, “the Lord will open for you his bounteous store, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in season.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). The opposite was destruction, “The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24)
The Bible’s association of famine and other natural disasters with divine anger and punishment paved the way for faith leaders throughout the ages to use their pulpits to cast blame on those they found morally wanting. Alcohol, abortion, homosexuality – all have been blamed for natural disasters seen as God’s divine wrath.
For the biblical writers interested in legislating and prophesying about Israel’s behavior, famine was both an ending – the result of disobedience and sin – and also a beginning, a potential turning point toward a better, more faithful future.
Other biblical authors, however, focused less on how or why famines happened and more on the opportunities that famine provided for telling new stories.
Famine as a narrative device – rather than as a theological tool – is found regularly throughout the Bible. The writers of the Hebrew Bible used famine as the motivating factor for major changes in the lives of its characters – undoubtedly reflecting the reality of famine’s impact in the ancient world.
We see this numerous times in the book of Genesis. For example, famine drives Abraham and later Isaac into Egypt
Similarly, the book of Ruth opens with a famine that forces Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, and her family to move first to, and then away from, Moab.
The story of Ruth depends on the initial famine; it ends with Ruth being the ancestor of King David. Neither the Exodus nor King David – the central story and the main character of the Hebrew Bible – would exist without famine.
All of these stories share a common feature: famine as an impetus for the movement of people. In ancient times this was a physical movement into a strange land, residing where you had to abandon land, kin even religion. You no longer had power and became vulnerable.
What does the ‘biblical’ pandemic have to say to us today?
Is it God’s wrath for our sinfulness? Well I don’t believe in a wrathful God so no!
I believe that if we think theological about the pandemic then there are two lessons we can take from this year of hiatus. First we can look with greater compassion on the refugee and the migrant and recognise something of their powerlessness in the powerlessness we have experienced. Secondly it gives us the opportunity to move our ‘narrative’ forward if we are courageous.
God bless and take care, Alan.