Brueggemann: Virus as a Summons to Faith (2)

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.

12 thoughts on “Brueggemann: Virus as a Summons to Faith (2)

  1. I lack imagination to see how this virus and the situations it is causing to unfold is a summons from God. I don’t deny that it could be — it is a truism that God is involved, and invested, in everything that happens. But it’s not in the least clear to me that it’s incumbent on me or anyone else to figure out what that involvement or investment is, or what that summons may entail. It could be that this virus is a summons to me — or anyone else, or society as a whole— to die: bodily, spiritually, socially, financially. If I can keep my imagination as open to God’s call as Lazarus lying at Dives’ gate, I think I have a right to be counted among those who imagine, hear, and respond to the summons, despite not being able to imagine what it might be. “All is grace….”


  2. When we ignore the cues of our own bodies and minds for an extended period we often face illness. Did God make us sick or was He speaking to us along the route to malady, telling us to change course, but we ignored the prompts? In much the same way the corporate body of humanity has certainly been in mental and physical distress and now we are ill. Perhaps it’s time, not to blame God for punishing us but to reflect on where He has been guiding us while we ignored all the cues. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on how we have even lost the ability to recognize those whispers when they are, so to speak, screaming at us. God is for us despite ourselves. If there is any blame to be given we have no further to look than the mirror. However you get there, the end result is that repentance is in order. It’s time to stop, turn around and listen.


  3. Dan, I wouldn’t focus too much on WB’s particular hopes for the “mercies” this virus may bring us. I think we will all have different perspectives on the good that can come from this situation, based on our understanding of what “good” outcomes would be.

    For some, it may be an awakening to the role humans are playing in climate change as they note the clearing skies. For others it may be a return to a more robust family life, relearning habits of conversation and the table. For still others it may be a recognition that we have emphasized and given too much importance to “the church gathered” and have not developed a proper understanding of “the church scattered” throughout the world, with corresponding changes in the way congregations function. For still others, it may be a recognition that our form of government and our economic systems here in the U.S. may need to be adjusted so that we will be able to be more responsive to national emergencies like this in the future.

    I’m sure you have a list, as do I. The big point Brueggemann is making is that we must let this current crisis expand our imagination so that we can have productive discussions about what “mercies” might emerge from it.


  4. Well, a three day pestilence is likely to be less “discriminatory” — less “unjust”, if you will — than an open ended plague or pandemic. I’m not disagreeing so much with the text in David, or its concern for minimizing socioeconomic injustice via choice of the three day pestilence instead of the other punishments. But I disagree with the idea that our virus is like that, or even for that matter that the bubonic plague was like that; and with the idea that it is likely to lead to merciful socioeconomic outcomes — it certainly hasn’t so far.


  5. So a world wide lowering of our standard of living might be a forced benefit of the virus, am I understanding the underlining thought of Brueggmann? The bad thing , the virus, may lead to a good thing, a healthy earth with a halt in environmental damage I.e, the clear skies of China, The flip side could be as we regress with a supply chain delivering first world tech, supplies and knowledge the advances in medicine, food and a healthy infrastructure will fall apart also. A good example is the homeless in L.A. , SF or any big city who operate to a large part off the grid but have numerous problems as they live in a third world environment. Maybe, I am not reading Brueggmann correctly. The majority of China still lives in extremely poverty and it is coastal industrial China that is advancing . I believe there is always a nugget of learning and truth if we apply Bible teachings/stories/principles to our decision making. Brueggmann is honest enough to admit that he is using the David story as a spring board for his narrative, which is fine. So the reference about the children, is this a transactional thing from God punishing the world for our actions? As it started in China, what did they do?


  6. I agree, but in the story David saw the option he chose as a fate with less human involvement. Perhaps he had different reasons than I’ve surmised.


  7. Immigration detainees — who are prisoners, in reference to Brueggemann’s idea that the virus might lead to “gentler treatment of prisoners” — are suffering disproportionately in our custody from the pandemic. Regarding the children, I don’t know what’s happening now, if they’ve been released or are still in custody, as reporting about their condition has slowed to a trickle during the pandemic. It’s like they don’t exist. They may as well have disappeared.


  8. as a country, we were ill before the pandemic came,
    when we failed to stand up for the little ones when our government refused to provide proper supplies for them:
    soap, dental care products, diapers, proper food for the small ones and enough access to water (cupped hands drinking from a faucet don’t work too well for a small one, no)

    it is not difficult to see that even now, that same sickness keeps many from facing what needs to be faced and acting in ways that address that need


  9. Famine would involve conflicts arising from injustices in the economic system.

    Yes, but apart from the question of the acuity of Brueggemann’s thoughts as offered here — I’m not convinced — so does pestilence, as we see playing out in our current crisis. Pandemic is deepening already existing socioeconomic injustices.


  10. –> “We may dare imagine with David that the final word is not pestilence; it is mercy.”

    Mercy sometimes comes with an awful price, I guess.

    But since it cost God His son, should we expect anything less?


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