Four Theological Students talk about God and Plagues – A Dialogue by Sandy Yule

Lauren: My friend Betty thinks that this coronavirus is a punishment sent by God because of our wrongdoing. She shifts about as to what exactly we have done wrong, but for her, plagues are always from God and they always punish evildoing. What do you all think of this view?

Mary: I think there are two main questions to explore here. Firstly, sin is not the same as crime, or wrongdoing. I think God is more interested in sin than in crime. How does God deal with sin? And secondly, what role can we see for plagues in God’s good creation?

Lauren: Yes, crime is socially defined by us humans and punishment looks like the best we can do for justice. Sin is separation from God, which is only overcome by God graciously forgiving us and re-establishing an active and loving relationship.

Stephen: Crime is defined by society, so that only some people are criminals. Sin affects us all, including the institutions of society. It is rather undefined. Those most down on criminals like to think themselves sin-free, which is hardly likely.

Robin: We do link crime and punishment quite closely, but I prefer rehabilitation to punishment as our first response to crime. Of course, you can’t hope to rehabilitate hardened criminals without serious interventions. 

Lauren: Well, I think Betty wants to have God enforcing the rules against our permissive and careless society. I don’t disagree with her about social carelessness and abusive behaviour, but we should look at our selves first when it comes to judgements about sin.

Stephen: It is claiming God in support of our moral principles that worries me here. Even our best principles can get distorted by self-interest when we apply them. 

Robin:  I am very doubtful that plagues are primarily directed as punishment for sins that we can identify. This strikes me as a typical human blame game.

Lauren: Yes. I think we are all agreeing here. Let’s talk about the second question that you mentioned, Mary. Why did God create a world with plagues and other natural catastrophes? Does God send the plagues, or is it more a matter of allowing them to happen? 

Mary: If you look at the story of Israel’s delivery from bondage in Egypt by the actions of God (Exodus 3-15), it is hard to refute the idea that God did send the plagues.

Stephen: I don’t hold with the idea that God micro-manages everything and that we can call on God for immediate assistance as needed. We can paint whatever we like on the blank canvas of our idea of God, but when we get to praying for a parking space or for an accident to happen to an enemy, count me out.

Mary: So how do you read the story of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, as we have it in the early chapters of Exodus? 

Stephen: Well, God is a character in this story, indeed, the main character. God calls Moses at a low point in his life to become God’s agent in negotiating with Pharaoh for the release of the people. It does tell how God (through the catalytic agency of Moses) sent the plagues to pressure Pharaoh into acquiescence, but it also says that God ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’, so that he (mostly) refused. I find it very hard to square this story with what we know about plagues, let alone what we think we know about God.

Robin: What seems difficult here, Stephen?

Stephen: Plagues attack weaknesses, physically considered, whereas the plagues of Egypt are an escalating series of quite unrelated disasters, culminating in the death of the firstborn of every household across the land in a single night. This is a battle between divinities, not a natural pandemic. Because of the overlay of Jewish monotheism, the Egyptian gods do not appear, except perhaps in the feeble and failing efforts of the Egyptian magicians. God comes across as a cosmic bully!

Robin: ‘Bullying’ is a bit harsh. Everyone at that time knew that if you went up against a divine being, you would come off very poorly, unless you happened to be a hero with connections to other divine beings.

Lauren: So why didn’t Pharaoh back off?

Stephen: As I said, God hardened his heart.

Robin: The Exodus account does read like a classic myth in telling of a struggle between divine powers, but transposed into a human and historical setting.

Stephen: The Egyptian and Greek gods were tyrannical, responding with a vengeful cruelty to what we see as minor infractions. I am simply noting that Yahweh is not free from these power games in this story.

Mary: Well, Yahweh does take a long time to get to the murderous end of exercises of power, though you have a point about Yahweh also stopping Pharaoh from taking the easy way out.

Lauren: I am happy to accept the scientific stories about illnesses in terms of bacteria and viruses, but I don’t see how that excludes God from, as you so delicately put it, Stephen, micromanaging our fate.

Robin: I agree. You won’t resolve a theological argument through quoting scientific and historical facts. These can discredit overly precise theological claims, but they cannot get behind the limitations of our experience and knowledge to determine how we might picture God.

Mary: I think we can all agree that God created the world and that this includes microbes, death and accidents. I like the idea that God created the world in the fashion of a seed. The world was created good,1 with room to grow and develop. The world was not created perfect, as if there were no room for improvement, indeed, no room for human history.

Lauren: Are you denying that God is in charge of everything?

Mary: Not exactly, but I do think we have mostly got it wrong about how God chooses to be ‘in charge’. We don’t take nearly seriously enough the reality of human freedom, which is a God-given gift. I think God is willing to let a lot of suffering and struggle happen before co-working with human agents to bring good out of evil. This maximises our growth and also our ownership of the resulting achievement.

Stephen: I like the fact that you give such a high role to our human efforts, and also that you accept in full what we know from scientific inquiry. I can’t help feeling, however, that you leave us with a fatalistic bondage to whatever happens as somehow ordained by God.  

Mary: You aren’t listening to me, Stephen. I am not supporting a fatalistic submission to the will of God without questioning what that will might be. Some believers talk as if our given situation is fully blessed by God, which I don’t believe for a moment.This is why I really like this Exodus story despite its problematic features. It talks of a God who hears the cry of the oppressed people and who does something definitive for their liberation. 

Robin: Yes, that is important to me. Divinities in the ancient world mostly blessed rulers of cities and states, in return for their homage. Israel’s God chooses to side with a group of slaves who were no people and who took action to make them a people. It is ironic that in the later period, the prophets show God complaining at the lack of faithful homage from this ‘No-people’ who have forgotten their origins.

Stephen: Well, I am glad to see that you are not trying to make God into that strange, Calvinistic being who has written the whole of human history, indeed, the history of the universe, before all worlds, with some lucky goodies and many baddies heading for destruction.

Lauren: I do see God as intentionally exercising a providential oversight of our world and our human history, though I am not ready to speculate about how God holds our reality in being while also entering into relationship with us. So in my view, God permits the suffering caused by plagues and other catastrophes. I recognize that I don’t have a clue as to the ultimate motivation of God, apart from faith that it is for a loving purpose into which we are invited.

Robin: Yes, I prefer to think that the most that can be said about God’s involvement in our suffering is that we are left to experience the consequences of our sin and folly, our poor choices, for a time. God does not send the plagues against Egypt to punish them for sins committed. The plagues are acts of power in a divine power struggle.

Mary: I agree. Yahweh is raiding the human ‘possessions’ of Egypt in order to create for himself a new people. 

Lauren: I think that’s right. It does turn the argument towards a quest for God’s intentions in doing this. There is a clear picture in Exodus of the wrongdoing of Egypt in the harsh conditions for the Hebrew slaves, so that there might  be an element of punishing Pharaoh for this, but it reads much more like a quasi-sociological recognition of the availability of this oppressed people for a new and independent future in a promised land. 

Stephen: I am having trouble getting my head around this interventionist God who may not be micro-managing everything, but who swoops in for occasional liberation as long as there are people willing to act as this God’s agents. Don’t you find it highly arbitrary, as a reading of human history?

Robin: Yes and no. Yes, there is an arbitrary element here. ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’.2 It is not so arbitrary if we read it as a revelation of how God regularly acts in our history. Oppression creates its own opposition, so that there is regularly pressure for the overcoming of injustice and oppression. I think we should be seeing the universal activity of the Holy Spirit of God in opposing injustice here.

Lauren: I am still uncertain about plagues. Why did God create them?

Stephen: Why did God create death? These things are just given realities, as it seems to me.

Robin: We have become very human-centred in our understanding of reality. Some Christians seem not to think about much beyond ‘God and me’. One of the things I like about the Greek gods is that they give a much more diverse picture of realms of reality. While Athena inhabits and rules the city of Athens, Artemis does the same for wild nature and Hades for the realm of the dead. Our Christian understanding needs to grow more capacious. Plagues are at least a reminder that we are not eternal beings and that our vaunted civilisation is vulnerable to their unchecked presence.

Mary: Well said. Our society is determinedly one-sided in our quest for human control of our environment, with negative effects that are becoming catastrophic. Plagues show the inadequacy of this.

Lauren: I see that. So you think that plagues are one way in which God pulls us up short and gives us a time for remembering that we are creatures?

Stephen: Yes, that does seem right enough.

Mary: For me, the general point is that God seems to wait upon our turning away from our own self-chosen (or merely drifting) pathway through life and turning towards a renewed reliance on, and connection with, God. Once this relationship is there, salvation (earthly as well as eternal) follows. This is beautifully expressed by the Psalmist: 

‘Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town: hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way until they reached an inhabited town.’ (Psalm 107:4-7).

Lauren: Well, thanks! Maybe you have answered my questions.

Notes

  1. I owe this phrase and the wider idea to Terence Fretheim. See T. Fretheim. Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters. Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Publishing Group, 2019.
  2. To which the response might be, ‘But not so odd as those who choose a Jewish God, despising Jews’.