Walter Brueggemann has published a book during this Covid-19 pandemic to encourage and challenge believers. In the second chapter, “Pestilence…Mercy? Who Knew?” he considers the strange story about David in 2 Samuel 24:1-14.
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.’ So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, who were with him, ‘Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know how many there are.’
…But afterwards, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.’ When David rose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, ‘Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’ So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, ‘Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee for three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.’ Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.’ (2 Sam 24:1-2, 10-14)
The gist of the story is that the Lord incited David (in the Chronicles account it is Satan) to take a census, either for the purposes of taxation or to take stock of Israel’s military readiness. David recognizes this as a sinful act, betraying a lack of trust in the Lord’s leadership and resources. And so the prophet Gad comes with the Lord’s word to David, giving him a choice of the consequences he must face. David may choose (1) famine, (2) military defeat, or (3) pestilence. In the end, David opts for pestilence because this punishment comes directly from the Lord’s hand without human mediation. Famine would involve conflicts arising from injustices in the economic system. The sword would be brandished by enemy soldiers. So David prays, “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.”
David decides his best hope is, as Brueggemann says, that: “The God who prescribes punishment is all the while the God of mercy who may mitigate the sentence.”
I find Walter Brueggemann’s comments on this text thought-provoking and worthy of meditation.
I do not think for one moment that there is any ready transfer from this narrative to our real-life crisis with the virus. The Bible does not often easily “apply.” The Bible does, however, invite an open imagination that hopes for the best outcomes of serious scientific research. At the same time, it affirms that deeply inscrutable holy reality is in, with, under, and beyond our best science. Thus, in the calculus of David’s transactional world, he knows that foolish decisions and actions may evoke unwelcome outcomes. He knows, at the same time, that a hovering holiness could rule otherwise. So now we witness a virus that may possibly be linked to our ambitious ordering of reality. We meet, pray, sing, and hope in our exercise of faith, nonetheless, that beyond every quid pro quo there is more and other.
It is most impossible to see the virus as something like a divine blowback to the hubris that has propelled the global narrative, its indulgent use of earth’s resources, and its exploitation of the vulnerable. I note on the day that I write this that China has experienced an “unintentional consequence” of the virus, namely, a clear sky without the smog of over-loaded street traffic. Who knew? The virus may indeed amount to a curbing of our worst social habits, and invite a slow-down to the pace of creation’s reality. It may lead to gentler treatment of prisoners, and a more generous offer to the left behind. We may dare imagine with David that the final word is not pestilence; it is mercy.
Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty
By Walter Brueggemann
Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. 2020.