In the ancient biblical tradition, what is a "plague"? Where does it come from? Is it anything like coronavirus? Is it anything like the wildfires that have so damaged California and Australia? Can these ancient stories teach us anything today?
Some of the great plagues of the Exodus are what we would call diseases, but not all. There is a cattle affliction that sounds something like mad cow disease. There is an affliction of all water in the land of Egypt, not only the Nile but even water in pots and pans. There is the death of all firstborns.
But there are also the invasions of frogs, of locusts, of lice or mosquitoes. These are ordinary animals in extraordinary numbers and places. But so are diseases. The Coronavirus is perfectly normal until it leaps a species. Carbon dioxide is perfectly normal – – even necessary – – until human corporations create so much of it by burning fossil fuels that it becomes extraordinary, planet-destroying. The Exodus move to a freely wandering, struggling, learning, growing journey in a Wilderness, seeking to become a loving and beloved community.
The Exodus is empowered by a series of Ten Plagues. In some understandings, they were brought on by a God Who is a sort of Super-Pharaoh in the sky, proving he is even more powerful and more cruel than the Pharaoh on the Egyptian throne, who claims to be a god. Pharaoh enslaves Israelites; God kills Egyptians.
This understanding that the Exodus is a contest between a king and a Super-King is underlined by the false biblical translation of YHWH as “LORD.” (The rabbinic tradition substituted “Adonai/ Lord” for “YHWH” but the Hebrew Bible does not.) It is more likely that YHWH with no vowels is simply a breath – Yyyyyhhhhhwwwwwhhhh: the Breath of life, sometimes the Wind of change, sometimes the Hurricane of destruction.
This Ruach (Hebrew for “breath, wind, spirit”) is what intertwines all life. We know now this is literally, physically, scientifically true: the Oxygen-CO2 interbreathing between animals and vegetation keeps all life alive. So YHWH is the bearer of consequence, not punishment or rewards. Try reading the whole Plague narrative substituting “Interbreath of life” instead of “LORD.” For me and others who have tried this, it changes the whole story.
From this vantage point, the concentrated power and the arrogance, cruelty, and stubbornness of a Pharaoh whose subjugation of human beings soon became subjugation of Earth. The cruelty that Pharaoh sows, all Egypt reaps.
Those plagues did not come from outside us. They came from our own society, from our own government, from our own way of living. "We" allowed a Pharaoh who turned Egyptian farmers into sharecroppers and an immigrant community into slaves.
And that's the case today. The coronavirus only becomes destructive and deadly because we don't leave space between ourselves and various other species. We don't leave space for bats who fly around perfectly well carrying that virus. We take up all the space there is, and we take up all the air there is with far too much CO2. We allow ourselves to become "sharecroppers" within the system that brings plagues upon us. And we become accustomed to the system of domination, so much that we think it is normal. It is not arrogance, it is not cruelty; it is normal.
Until Earth rebels, and what is normal becomes lethal. Some groups of us suffer more from the "diseases" than others, die more than others. More and more of us even begin to notice that the "overseers" who casually murdered Israelite slaves in the ancient story are not so different from the police today who use their legitimized authority to kill more Blacks. Then more and more of us realize that some of us are sharecroppers and some of us are enslaved.
Yet these plagues have an unexpected effect, in the ancient story and for us today. Though the ancient plagues were the horrifying results of Pharaoh’s cruelty, they became the instruments of liberation.
How could both truths be true? The Exodus story splits the targets of the plagues. For Egyptians, they were utterly destructive. For Israelites, who according to the story were physically and ecologically separated in their own region of Goshen, the plagues were liberating. Zoom becomes our Goshen. And if we stop to think, we know that Zoom is a class and racial privilege. The deeply poor do not get to live in Zoom.
Whether the separation was factually accurate or a part of a larger parable, it was a way of celebrating the emergence of a new kind of community -- committed to a new birth of freedom yet welcoming, as the story of Pharaoh’s daughter indicates, to “renegade refugees” even from the palace of privilege and power.
We, living in the midst of the Coronavirus Plague and the varied plagues of global scorching, do not have the luxury of regional separation. Our own “Goshen” is retreat into our own homes, scattered everywhere. Our own new plagues imposed by modern pharaohs are again horrifying and might-be liberating: Undrinkable water. Intrusive “forever plastics,” even inside human bodies. Droughts. Famines. Floods. Fires. Human beings becoming unable to see each other through the darkness of fear. Ultimately, the dangerously impending death of the next generation of the human species -- our own first- and second- and tenth-borns.
Our new Plagues might be sounding the death-knell of an old world order of Domination and Hierarchy. Or they might by making uprising for freedom so difficult to do in public and by destroying jobs and workplaces, reinforce the power of our pharaohs until all of us are conscripted into the chariot army that drowns in the Sea of misery, despair, and death.
Which future is our future depends on us. Can we suffer from the plagues and yet -- and therefore! -- act on them as birth-cries of a new worldview of ecological interwovenness: seeing our communities of life as conscious interconnected ecosystems of biology, culture, and society--rooted in love and flowering in life-affirming justice?
In the ancient story, on the very night when they must choose Exodus or Death, the Israelites must encircle the doorways of their houses with blood. To leave the Tight and Narrow Land, they must leave a household rimmed with blood. There is one bloody house that every human being exits: the womb, in every birth. Here a whole people is reborn.
And then, those Israelites who made that choice – not every descendant of Abraham and Sarah did, and some Egyptian-born, like Pharaoh’s daughter, joined that choice to be reborn –- met another birth-choice on the seventh day.
On that day they found themselves at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, a roaring, roiling ocean. Behind them they heard the drumming hoof-beats of Pharaoh’s horse-chariot army. It was coming to insist they turn back to familiar life: slavery, yes, and accustomed onions, garlic, chewy meat.
Which should they choose? The unknown? The Sea of drowning? A wilderness beckoning on the other shore -- still more unknown?
They chose another birth – the breaking of the waters.
Today the whole human species is standing between the Unknown Sea and the world of Customary Order – garlic, onions, and slavery.
Time to choose. We’ll write some more about choosing birth.