Chapter 11 of the Bible book Numbers records a plague experienced by the Hebrews on their way to Canaan following their exodus from Egypt. The people are not hungry; God has provided them manna for food. But they miss, indeed crave, lust for the food they used to eat in Egypt as slaves: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. Most of all, however, it seems, they miss eating meat.
God heard these complaints and decided to send the people meat in the form of quail. The quail arrived in abundance, blown in by a wind from the sea. In Chapter XX, “General Observations on Birds,” in The Book of Household Management , Mrs. Isabella Mary Beeton, the author, notes that “the flight of birds across the Mediterranean was noticed three thousand years ago, as we find it said in the book of Numbers, in the Scriptures.” [Household Management, Section 921]. One can only lament the decline in the spiritual and literary quality displayed in many contemporary household management books.
Back to Numbers: God got angry with the people for two reasons. One, he was upset about what they’d done – their longing for the food they’d eaten as slaves. And two, he was disturbed about what they’d not done – their not showing gratitude for the manna given them in the wilderness. So, in a pique, he decides not to send them only a few quail, enough to make a good meal or two. No. Instead, in the words of the King James Bible, Numbers 11:19-20:
I’m not sure, but I think I might be able to get along with thirty days of pizza. But after a month, I don’t know. Anyway, following on the wings of the quail are the agonies of a plague. Verse 33 says: “And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.”
No attention is given in the text to the plague’s physical mechanism, that is, how it worked, spread, etc. Biblical characters are not scientists; the Bible has a different purpose. Instead, we are given to understand only that it results from God’s anger with the people, his “wrath.” In other words, the focus is on why not how. This is very different from what we hear today, of course. For us, the emphasis is generally, if not exclusively, on the how of disease, not the why.
But the why question lasted a long time. Shortly after King James I’s accession to the English throne, England faced a plague. The disease started in Eurasia, made its way across Europe, crossed the channel, found a home in English ports, then spread throughout the country.
There is a reason that in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson uses excerpts from chapter 11 of Numbers as the epigraph to his second chapter. James arrived in London for his coronation in May 1603. Forty-thousand strangers, non-Londoners, showed up as well. “By the end of May,” Nicolson writes, “the Council, in the king’s name, had already issued a royal proclamation that ‘Gentlemen were to depart the Court’, for we find the sicknesse already somewhat forward within our City of London.” [p. 22]
Today, we would call this proclamation a “restriction,” a royal kind of social distancing. Nicolson says that by the end of the year, the deaths in London would reach 30,000. Then he makes the following keen observation:
Disease exposes the assumptions of a society, and this ferocious outbreak of the plague throws the nature of Jacobean England into sudden highlight. People felt they understood the plague. It was a moral affliction which attacked cities because cities were wicked and disgusting.Adam nicolson, God’s Secretaries: the making of the king james bible, pp. 22-23
This explanation has in common with the one in Numbers, an understanding of the plague’s source as punishment for a moral failing. Very few people today, as I see it, would say that about coronavirus. However, some do say it, not unlike those who said something similar about AIDS.
I thoroughly believe—it’s not a question, really—that we need to address a disease’s mechanism. But I think that we lose something vital if we don’t, at the same time, at least consider the question of why the disease exists. The “why” question is worth exploring. But this is a dangerous area. Our thoughts, feelings, conclusions about it should never be stated dogmatically, with malice or prejudice. They should never be used to shame, blame, or be taken as an opportunity to oppress anyone. Instead, armed with the implications of what we have examined, we should engage in repair.
Nicolson points out concerning the plague faced by James that London, “or at least the poor and dirty parts of it, were a perfect breeding ground.” At least two answers can be given to the question, why is that so [note: not how does it work]. One is that people residing in those parts of the city are being punished for the lives they lead. They deserve to grow sick and die. But another is that we who don’t live there are being punished because we’ve created those parts of the city; we accept them. The second answer could lead to great good: cleaner streets, more parks, and better housing. And these improvements could arise, making the world a better place, even if it’s never understood how the plague works, even if we never make a connection.
We ask the “why” question not for what we learn about the disease, but for what we learn about ourselves.
All the best,