Sunday, September 26, 2021

God's Love for You is Unique. God's Law is Not. Don't Demand Miracles.

Several times in the Bible, God intervenes to save people. From manna in the desert (Exodus 16) to Paul's shipwreck survival on Malta (Acts 27), these stories are told and retold, sometimes assuming that the main teaching is that God's chosen ones lead a charmed, shatterproof life. This approach to faith has led several Christians to argue that we should shun masks and vaccines, because God will save us.

This has led to death in several cases, some with high-profile public figures, many more unknown to us. Many people who've assumed they are immune to Covid have died. But even if God hasn't protected thousands of other people, God will still protect me, so I shouldn't try to protect myself - isn't that what the Bible says?

Time and time again, God's care for us is not a supernatural intervention, but a command to follow. God doesn't build the ark: Noah obeys and builds the ark (Genesis 6). God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their homes and embark on a long journey (Genesis 12). God reveals the meaning of Pharaoh's dream to Joseph, and amazingly, Pharaoh listens to this foreign prisoner, and the people comply with his instructions to build granaries and collect food (Genesis 41). Yes, God sends plagues upon Egypt to support Moses' demands for Israelite freedom, but not while Moses stays on the sidelines expecting miracles: instead, God's first intervention is to demand that the reluctant Moses take action (Exodus 3), and gives Moses further orders throughout. Consider the manna story itself: most of Exodus 16 is about the instructions that come with the manna, about how much to gather when, how long to keep it, and pitfalls of noncompliance. The Exodus story continues straight to Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments, and the beginning of the Law.

Expressing our faith by following instructions rather than demanding miracles is particularly explicit in Biblical passages about disease. In the story of Naaman's healing with Elisha (2 Kings 5): Naaman, an Aramean general, travels far to see the great prophet of Israel, and is indignant when, instead of calling on divine intervention, Elisha tells him to bathe seven times. But it works, and Naaman is led to a deeper understanding and commitment as a result.

Rules for how to behave in the face of disease are given at length in Leviticus 13-15, including quarantine periods and sanitation rules for clothes and houses after infections. It's worth dwelling on these chapters, because this is the place in the Bible that talks most about disease in terms of public health legislation for all times, rather than narrating a particular event. If infected, you must appear before a priest for examination. Chapter 13 lists several symptoms for the priest to check, and timelines for when to check again to see if the infection has cleared. The word "leprosy" or "leprous disease" is often used in English translations for historic reasons, but the symptoms described, the possible timelines for recovery, and the detection of disease in clothes and buildings indicate that the Law isn't talking about leprosy in the modern sense, and may have referred to a variety of skin infections. If you test positive, the rules are strict:

"Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp." (Leviticus 13:45-46).

So healthcare status is not private information, freedom of movement is curtailed when preventing the spread of disease, and the Law can dictate when to wear a face covering. We don't know precisely what disease motivated these regulations, but we do know that there was serious illness, and that individuals did not have an "inalienable right" to go anywhere wearing anything: personal freedom in time of sickness was subordinate to the Law that protected the community.

We are left with a very clear picture of where the ancient Law stands with regard to public healthcare mandates. They were in place. God's commandment was to follow the Law, not demand personal exceptions.

This leaves the tempting claim that this was for them: it doesn't apply to us. One may argue that ancient Israelites may be forced to cover the lower part of their face, but not modern Americans. Irrespective of whether we support this argument, I hope we can at least all agree that it is a nationalist, not a religious objection.

So perhaps we can argue that even if public health mandates are part of the Law, that is the Old Testament and doesn't apply to Christians. (It is easy to find parts of the Law that we never follow nowadays, for example, instructions on animal sacrifice.) So maybe Jesus says we should trust God's direct intervention rather than instructions on health precautions?

One of the times Jesus heals a leper, the next thing Jesus tells the patient is to "go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering prescribed by Moses" (Matthew 8:4). Jesus himself reinforces the community rules discussed above.

In the Gospels, Jesus does encourage us to trust in God's care. "Consider the lilies" (Matthew 6:28, Luke 12:27), "Take nothing with you for the journey" (Luke 9:3). But not with the promise of supernatural miracles: with instructions to find people along the way who will help ("Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave" Matthew 10:11). Practical preparation is sometimes mandated. The whole parable of the bridesmaids is about this: they should all make sure that their lamps are well stocked with oil for a wedding, and those who don't bother are left in the cold (Matthew 25). They don't get miracle oil instead. Yes, Jesus commands us to free ourselves of worldly concerns: but following "Consider the lilies", the instruction given is not "Take any risk and don't let anyone else tell you what to do" - it is "Sell your possessions and give alms" (Luke 12:33). The notion that faith in Jesus saves us from earthly troubles is dispelled by Jesus himself: "Then they will hand you over to suffer and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations because of my name" (Matthew 24:9). If we reckon this suffering is intended metaphorically but not physically, the persecution of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles dispels that. Belief in Jesus doesn't shield us from physical harm: Jesus' own physical sacrifice was not to guarantee our physical invincibility, but to share something much deeper.

When St Paul says that the gifts of the spirit include miraculous powers, this is with the understanding that the Spirit distributes these gifts "according to his choosing" (1 Corinthians 12:10-11). This is clearly not advice to count on miracles and ignore practical instructions. Foolhardy decisions that demand a miracle to save us are born of hubris, not faith. Jesus addresses this point exactly in the Temptation in the Wilderness (Luke 4) - when tempted to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple because God will save him, Jesus answers "It is written, You must not put the Lord your God to the test" (referring to Deuteronomy 6:16). When a voice says "Take whatever risk you like, God will save you!", remember that Jesus rejected this advice as devilish not divine (Luke 4:11).

There is another related argument made against face masks and vaccines: God made us in his image, therefore our bodies are perfect, and any attempt to interfere with them must be wrong. From a New Age perspective, this is defensible (albeit irresponsible). From a Biblical perspective, it's simply wrong. If human bodies are perfect and shouldn't be tampered with, then God's chosen ones from Abraham (Genesis 17) to Jesus (Luke 2) were wrong to be circumcised. Obviously the Bible does not teach this.

In the Bible, faith isn't demonstrated by refusing to act and by demanding miracles instead, but by following God's commands, often delivered by other people. Biblical law and modern secular law both agree that where we go and what we wear can be regulated, for the safety of the community. And in the Bible, that sometimes includes face coverings.