Throughout both the Old and the New Testament, disruptive disasters, both ‘natural’ and of human origin, are understood as the means by which Yahweh exercises judgement, in history, in response to gross and persistent injustice. This is both foundational, and structurally key as the story told of this God continues to unfold.
The cradle of humanity is judged in both the flooding of the fertile crescent—an act that may hide within itself a struggle between the gods as to the extent of judgement, and through which Yahweh saves a family and secures a future—and the linguistic confusion of Babel(on), the pinnacle of human engineering.
Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by fire from heaven—perhaps by lightening striking tar pits; but ‘from heaven’ does not merely reference an originating direction, but, rather, an authorial intention—because they are merciless, because instead of offering hospitality to strangers they employ gang rape as a weapon of power. And in this episode, we see Abraham, the father of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, intercede on behalf of the people of the Cities of the Plain, albeit to no avail.
Yahweh brings a series of increasingly devastating plagues against Egypt, relenting each time that Pharaoh repents, but returning each time Pharaoh subsequently hardens his heart. This sequence, ultimately resulting in the liberation of the people of Israel, is presented as a clash not only between a god and a mortal, but between a particular God, Yahweh, and a pantheon of gods who exert influence for oppression.
Later, once the tribes of Israel enter and settle the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, defeat at the hand of neighbouring tribes in the time of the judges, and extended periods of drought in the time of the divided kingdoms, are alike seen as divine judgement on his own people, for their unfaithfulness to a covenant of just relationship.
Joel proclaims Yahweh’s judgement on his people in waves of locusts stripping the early and later harvests; but even within that devastation, holds out the possibility that blessing may be known.
Jonah is sent to the merciless imperial power of Nineveh, to notify the Assyrians—enemy of his own people—that unless they repent, their great capital will be overthrown in forty days. The king of Nineveh leads his people in public repentance, and—much to Jonah’s disgust—Yahweh relents from punishment. There is, however, no historical record of a lasting change of heart, and soon enough, Nineveh will be overthrown.
The defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, and, later, of the southern kingdom Judah to the Babylonians, with the royal court of Jerusalem being carried off into exile, are likewise understood to be acts of divine judgement. Nehemiah teaches the community that the appropriate immediate response is lament, for all that was good that has been—arguably unnecessarily, had the people only repented when they had the chance—lost.
In the Gospels, Jesus is clear that, the people having rejected his persistent call to turn back to God, Jerusalem would fall (again) and the Temple be desecrated (again) and thrown down. While he healed physical sicknesses and drove out literal demons, these were at the same time symbolic of a communal social and spiritual disease, and the possibility to receive, or reject, cure. His response to the refusal of the leaders of the nation to receive him was to weep over Jerusalem; his response at the grave of Lazarus, whose death was grievous in and of itself but also symbolised a wider dying, was, likewise, to weep.
Later in the New Testament, famine is seen as divine judgement on the Greco-Roman world, within which a made-new humanity ensured that no one within their community would go without their needs being provided for. Ultimately, a succession of plague, famine, and warfare—imagined as apocalyptic horsemen—would bring down the grossly unjust Roman empire.
There is, then, no progression of understanding from a God who engages in history in such a manner to a God who does not, who is no longer directly concerned with injustice or active in history. There is, however, throughout all this, and pre-eminently revealed in the person of Jesus, a God who fully identifies with his people in particular and humanity in general in their suffering—Pharaoh will lose his firstborn son, but so will Yahweh—even if it is brought upon themselves by their rejection of God’s loving wisdom.
Theologically, it is right that we should speak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 as an outpouring of divine judgement—one that was repeatedly forewarned by voices we chose to ignore. But how we speak of it matters, too. This pandemic is an outpouring of judgement on and for the whole world. On our common humanity—and, emphatically, not some group we can ‘other’ in order to socially distance ourselves from them—for the liberation of the non-human world we have argued over but refused to release from exploitation. In this present disruptive moment, the planet itself gets to breathe, to exhale the pain of subjugation as a prayer of longing, and inhale hope and a foretaste of the world made new, sharing in a glorious liberty.
Theologically, it is also right that we should intercede on behalf of our neighbours; prophetically call the nations to repentance; hold out the possibility even in judgement to experience blessing; lament the good things that have, for now and perhaps forever, been lost, and the poverty that comes in the wake of disaster, including upon those who were poor to begin with; model a new way of being that ensures that every member of the community has what they need; extend compassion, and not seek to shield ourselves from suffering.
Moreover, it is right to note that this is a recurring pattern, on a long trajectory of liberation. We must speak out, prophetically, resisting the siren song to return, as quickly as possible, to how the world was: for ‘how the world was’ was, in need of divine judgement. Instead, we must foster an imagination for justice, for the earth we share, and for all her inhabitants, including (but not limited to) all people regardless of where they come from. Economics concerns the ordered running of the household, for the wellbeing of society, and is a good servant but a poor master. If this moment in history is something that those of us with the most resources come out of least scathed, unrepentant and glorying in our ego, it will be merely a stay of execution.
In this present disruptive moment, the planet itself gets to breathe. But it also holds its breath, watching to see how we will respond.