WHEN my recent trip to the United States was cut short because of the coronavirus outbreak, my insurance company classed the virus as an “Act of God”. This raises the question what God has to do with this pandemic.
As an Old Testament scholar, I am reminded that plagues — the closest ancient parallel to this virus — are a familiar concept. The plagues of Egypt were sent specifically by God to destroy the enemies of the Israelites to help them flee from their oppressors.
There was the plague of frogs, and then that of gnats and of flies, and later of locusts. Perhaps the plagues most like a virus were the “deadly pestilence” on all livestock, reminding us of the link with animals of today’s outbreak, and the dust, which caused festering boils on humans and animals alike.
The final and worst plague was on the firstborn of all humans and animals: sudden death, unless there is a sign of blood on the doors of the houses. Although this was a moment of liberation for the people of Israel, it was one of abject disaster for the Egyptians.
In these stories, God is clearly on the side of the victor. They are a demonstration of God’s power and of his purposes.
SUCH plagues are localised and specific to a situation, and they come and they go at God’s command. They seem very different to our modern pandemic, which shows no sign of leaving soon. I find little nourishment in the stories for understanding our present situation. And I have trouble with a primitive view of God that sees him on the side of the victor. It is a less sophisticated view of God than developed even in the writing of the Old Testament.
A more profound treatment of suffering that, in my view, speaks more to all of us at this time is the book of Job. While Job did not suffer in a pandemic, he did suffer from a leprous disease that brought him out in boils from head to toe and caused him immense discomfort and suffering.
Getting such a disease pushed Job out of normal society, just as this virus today leads to isolation and societal separation. Job sits on a pile of ashes outside the town with other outcasts, and he expresses the pain of being not only loathsome to his wife but at having lost his position in society and his enjoyment of helping others.
Job has a good argument with God. Suffering is a punishment for sin, is what he has been taught; so how come he is suffering now, when he hasn’t sinned?
THE same question might be asked of this virus. How could it be a punishment from God when people were just going about their daily lives with no specific cause or trigger? Yes, there is good and bad in all of us, but surely this virus has no moral compass for its victims: the humble and the great alike are its victims. It does not discriminate.
Job, too, cannot accept that his suffering is as a result of punishment from God. He blames God for putting him in this situation; but he fails to understand any reason why. Rather, he finds God alongside him in his suffering, in that he cannot give up on God.
But he does want answers, and calls on God for them. He has friends, too — they come to him from afar and speak with him, no doubt at a safe distance. They are, perhaps, some comfort to start with; but their endless repetition of the traditional mantra — that Job must have sinned in order to be punished — starts to annoy Job, such that he calls them “worthless comforters” in the end.
The book climaxes with an appearance from God. At last, God appears in a whirlwind, ostensibly to answer the questions. Why suffering? How is it linked to moral choice, if at all? Why illness?
In fact, although these questions might be raised by Job, as by many human beings over the ages, God chooses to circumvent them. Instead of answers, all Job receives is more questions. “Were you there at creation to know all the answers?” is one of them.
The bottom line from God is an expression of his power, of his great power in setting up the world and allowing the creation to happen and then to be sustained. The animals, the fish, the birds were all made by him, and behave according to their own rules, without human interference. Indeed, the world does not need human beings to have function and meaning.
It becomes clear that God does not need to be restrained by human understanding, which falls short of his greatness and all-encompassing power. Job is humbled by God’s speeches that culminate in his description of great monsters, yet he is not really answered.
This is where we are left, too, as we try to understand this coronavirus. It is a part of creation; a by-product of processes that are in themselves good, such as the interaction between humans and animals, and yet it has warped into something truly harmful.
WE cannot put a moral value on the virus itself. Natural disasters happen in the world as a result of the way the world is. In that sense, the virus is neutral: neither morally good or bad, even though its effect on its victims is bad.
Perhaps we can blame God for setting the world up that way, but it is hard to see it as a purposeful blight sent by God in the way that the plagues were.
We have, instead, to look beyond the nature of the virus itself to the way that it affects us and how we behave. In some ways, our community has been shattered by it: people are isolated at home, fearful to go out — and, indeed, restricted from doing so.
And yet, in our collective effort to fight the virus, we are finding new depths of community spirit and of sacrifice — from our health workers and all the other networks of business and government that are supporting the effort to contain it.
We are missing spending time with our wider family, but many are enjoying the company of their immediate loved ones in a more intense way. Those excuses of not having time to do things ring hollow. Those important appointments that we had have all evaporated into thin air.
We are starting to focus, perhaps, on what is really important. Because of the presence of a threat, we are clinging on to those things that are of true value: health, families, friendships, and any work that we can still perform.
ONCE he was restored to good health at the end of the book, Job took a new delight in his close family. He even had more children, and a long life to enjoy his grandchildren. He came out of the crisis the other side, and he never lost his faith in God. His trust in God was unwavering even through the darkest night of despair.
He admitted that he did not fully understand why he suffered, and, in the end, he got no answers. And yet there was something about the journey that led him to a more mature faith, and an understanding of himself and others that he had not had before.
Plumbing the depths of suffering, whatever it may be, often leads to a degree of maturing. Experience of the darker side of life can help one to find hidden depths within oneself.
As we go through our Joban moment with this virus, let us not lose hope that there will be life on the other side of the pandemic. Rather than calling the coronavirus an act of God, or trying to understand it in those terms, and blaming God for it, let us find God in the midst of our suffering, alongside us in our hour of need.
And then, when a brighter day does eventually come — and it will come — let us rejoice in the fact that, ultimately, life triumphs over death.
Dr Katharine Dell is Reader in Old Testament Literature and Theology in the Divinity Faculty in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College. She is a world expert in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and has a monograph coming out this summer with OUP on Solomon and wisdom. Her most recent book was a riposte to Richard Dawkins: Who needs the OT: Its enduring appeal and why the New Atheists don’t get it (SPCK, 2017; review 19 May 2017). She was interviewed for the Church Times in 2018 (Interview, 17 August 2018).