On the COVID Pandemic (1) – “Plagues, the Finger of God?”

Seung Ho Bang (from a Hebrew Bible perspective 1) (한글 Click to read in Korean)

Before last Easter, I emailed my excavation director saying that we were planning to have our Easter service through Zoom. In reply, he told me, “Oh, we’re going to have a Passover Seder through Zoom as well!” “A Passover Seder through Zoom?” I thought it’s weird, but we have to admit that the Coronavirus has changed many things in our lives in many different ways. In the confusion and difficulties, many raise a question, “Is it God’s judgment?”[1] In fact, in the book of Exodus, the Egyptian magicians acknowledged the plague as “the finger of God” (Exod 8:19). So, is COVID-19 the “finger of God”? Before we hastily jump to conclusions, it would be wise to have a thumbnail sketch of how plagues appear in the Old Testament.

[Flying locusts in the Sinai Peninsula like the eighth plague in Exodus 10:1–20; Photo by Anonymous]

We see that the Israelites experienced plagues not only in Egypt but also in the wilderness as acts of God. Numbers 25 depicts the breakout of plagues as the result of their apostasy. When they settled in Canaan, we also see that plagues were brought upon three of the Philistine Pentapolis; when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and held it captive in their cities, the hand of God was heavy and struck them with tumors (1 Samuel 5). And much later when David became king over Israel and ordered to have a census, God became angry and sent a plague on Israel (2 Sam 24:1–17).

So far, the breakouts of epidemic diseases are described to be acts of God as a means of punishment both on the Israelites and other nations. While some people try to explain these extraordinary epidemic diseases as a natural cause (e.g., The Exodus Decoded produced by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron) or like a side effect of an alien technology (e.g., Giogrio Tsoukalos from History Channel’s Ancient Aliens), there are some cases in the Old Testament which the epidemic breakouts may be explained scientifically.

In the southern Levant, during the Iron Age and later, whenever foreign superpowers invaded Israel or Judah, one of the most effective, but as a last resort tactic, has been siege. The local people went into their fortified cities and locked themselves in. A couple of places in the Old Testament provide specific descriptions of the preparations for and the besiegements themselves (e.g., the best example is Hezekiah’s preparation in 2 Chr 32).

[The Siloam Tunnel was built as a part of the preparations for a long-term siege with a particular purpose of concealing a water source outside the defensive wall and securing access to water for those who were inside the fortification; Photo by Seung Ho Bang]

Both invaders and defenders suffered if the siege lasted long. The number one problem was the lack of access to clean water. This caused not only thirst but also many kinds of diseases, especially for those who were confined in a limited space inside the fortification. During besiegement, epidemic diseases easily break out due to the lack of hygiene and without sewer systems. In a confined situation, any contagious disease could be as dangerous as any other epidemic or pandemic disease like the Coronavirus. Sometimes it could be deadly.

[The channels at the gate of Tel Gezer (upper) & Tel Lachish (lower) that ran through the city gates were most likely for runoff rainwater. There were no additional channels from houses and no running water for sewer and feed sewage system; Photo by Seung Ho Bang]

[A modern concept of a sewage system was not introduced in the southern Levant until at least the Hellenistic or Roman period and can be found in Roman cities; The Hadrianic aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima (upper) and the public restroom at Beth Shean (lower); Photo by Seung Ho Bang]

While we don’t have in the Hebrew Bible an exact case in which a plague broke out inside a city during a siege, we have a case for a breakout of plague in an army camp which was besieging a city. It seems that a disease broke out in King Sennacherib’s army shortly after he laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE (2 Kgs 19: 35–37; 2 Chr 32:20–21; Isa 37:36–37). Although the Assyrian record reports Sennacherib’s decisive victory over Hezekiah by listing acquired booty items after he had shut up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” it seems that all three biblical passages unanimously viewed this outbreak as the work of God as well. For example, 2 Kings 19:35 says, “That very night the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.”

[Lachish Relief (upper; © The Trustees of the British Museum) and the Assyrian siege ramp (lower; photo by Seung Ho Bang)]

[The Taylor Prism, Sennacherib’s Annal; Photo by David Castor]

As we have seen briefly, plagues in the Old Testament throughout times, plagues were considered to be the “finger of God.” Yet, we cannot simply refer to COVID-19 as the “finger of God” implying that it is God’s judgment. It may be a morally and theologically wrong claim. So then, is it the “finger of God”? Maybe not and maybe yes. Nevertheless, seeing our helplessness in the face of pandemic diseases throughout our human history, the Coronavirus that we are facing now may reveal human folly; we don’t see ourselves as part of God’s creation and don’t grasp the idea that we’re only servants whom God entrusts with stewardship to take care of His creation. So, we divide, conquer, and exploit nature for our benefit. In this sense, surely we may say that it is indeed the “finger of God.”

[1] Judgment is one of six reasons for why we are having COVID-19. Piper, John. Coronavirus and Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2020. 69­–72.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Seung Ho Bang is a supplemental faculty and academic field chair of the Hebrew Bible for Korean Programs at Central Seminary. Since 2008, he has been a staff member of the Lahav Research Project excavating Tell Halif, an ancient city in the northern Negev, Israel. He studies domestic religious practices during the Iron Age in Israel. To see more about his works, please visit https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Seung_Ho_Bang

 

EDITORIAL NOTE:
This is the first in a series of featured articles on the “COVID Pandemic.” Various contributors from within the Korean Programs at Central Seminary will participate in the blog, including Seung Ho Bang, Sung Min Hong, Yeon-Seung Lee, Hyo Jun Kim, Kwangsup Shin, Shinchan Jeong, and Kyung Pan Kim. Readers may submit their feedback and perspectives to spark@cbts.edu for possible inclusion in the blog series.

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