15 May 2020
It was Only When…
By Clive Marsh
This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 17 April
For obvious reasons I have been re-reading the Exodus plague stories recently (Ex 7-13). It has been a very long time since I’ve read them in one sitting. It is a sobering and challenging exercise, and reading the stories now, when coronavirus rages, sharpens the exercise further. It is also a dangerous thing to do.
Whilst it is true that our Christian sense-making requires us to make connections between what happens to us now, and narratives, texts and traditions from the Jewish and Christian past, sometimes we can make those links too easily and sloppily. Reading about ‘The Ten Plagues’ now may imply that the coronavirus is God’s doing.
We can, of course, only say that in the sense that everything can be called God’s doing. All is ‘of God’ in so far as God has ‘let the world be’. Whilst God remains tangled up with the world in a creative way – as incarnate and as Spirit – it no longer looks as though God fiddles with things in the world in detail. In love, God has even let the world go astray, for that is what love’s freedom entails.
The coronavirus is not, then, a God-sent plague. It is a consequence of a free world. What, then, is the point of reading the plague stories now? Scripture still throws us vital stuff to wrestle with even when its distance from us in time can shock. We often have to accept that it can’t possibly deliver insights straightforwardly to our present concerns. And yet, in wrestling with the texts, using all of the wisdom we can lay our hands on – human and divine, and accepting that’s God’s Spirit is working with us right now, fascinating things come up.
God doesn’t come off too well from the plague stories, let’s be honest. ‘Why would God do this?’ is a simple, honest and sharp question. It is easy to start from the happy ending of the Exodus – this is the liberation of the children of Israel after all – and work back. If freedom came, then it had to be God’s doing. But the God who is portrayed here is not altogether pleasant, actively making Pharaoh stubborn (Ex 7.3, 10.20, 11.10, for example).
It is understandable why believers might say God must have behaved this way: God is always in control, so ‘it must have been like this’. But what if we are to read this whole text much more as an account of human oppression and the thirst for justice? It matters less that Pharaoh was Egyptian (against whom the God of Israel was hostile). It also matters less how involved God was in the detail of Pharaoh’s decision-making than the fact that people were being taken advantage of, and being held captive.
It also matters relatively little exactly what happened and when. Were there ten plagues? Two of the Psalms (78 and 105) refer to seven plagues (a much more biblical number). And what if these plagues were memories of ‘natural disasters’ anyway, tangled up with the memories of captivity? Those who live in cramped conditions, with little freedom or opportunity to escape when nature takes a nasty twist are always more vulnerable.
How clearly we see this at the moment. These are powerful stories that help us understand how the people of Israel came to be, how they grasped the nature of the One God, and how the drive for liberation in all its forms overcomes whatever obstacles (human or natural) are placed in its way. They are a mix of memory and community-creation. They are also a gift to the whole world.
And for us, now, as contemporary Christians, faced with a frightening global virus? The plague stories provide a clear opportunity for us to look carefully at the understandings of God we carry with us, and why. God – as reality – always eludes us, even as we live, move and have our being within God.
All our attempts to grasp God in words will be inadequate. But we need to keep on trying, otherwise we shall not be able to communicate to others the nature of the divine reality within which we believe the whole creation has its being. Christian understandings of God are of course profoundly shaped by the person and stories of Jesus, whom the early Christians identified (we believe correctly) as the Christ. There is much in the Gospels about which we also have to say: ‘we don’t know precisely what happened’. But the stories of Jesus still work effectively to help us understand God better.
In so many cases in life we find ourselves saying ‘it was only when…’ something happened that certain things became clear to us. I feel sure that this kind of reaction was going on as the Exodus narratives and the Gospels were put together. Though historical, or history-like, texts they are doing much more than narrate historical events.
They are shaping individuals and communities. I wonder whether there may come a time when we say of the coronavirus things like ‘it was only when…’ I could not speak to my neighbours face to face that I realized how important they were; or that I realized my addiction to foreign travel might not be a healthy thing; or that a simple trip to the shops to pick up readily-available food is such a privilege. We may then (rightly) not want to say God caused the coronavirus. But we shall want to draw out some big consequences for what we say about God, humanity and nature as a result.