Journal of the Plague Year
I remember reading this classic by Daniel Defoe when I was in high school. It is set in 1665, when a dreadful plague ravaged Europe, and it's a tough read even when you aren't living through a not-so-dissimilar situation. Of course, we are infinitely luckier than the folks trying to survive with no vaccinations, no decent sanitation, etc. But still, a global pandemic is a century-defining event, and COVID-19 has been no exception.
Back in the day, pestilence, natural disasters and other kinds of mass suffering were seen as God’s judgement on, and righteous anger towards, God’s creation. Even now, there are many people who still pin the responsibility on sinful humanity, and on a Divine Power they see as exacting appropriate punishment.
In Bible Study we are reading Exodus, and last week we discussed the ten plagues of Egypt. These vivid passages frequently make the cut for children’s Story Bibles and Vacation Bible School lessons, and for the life of me I don’t know why some saner soul doesn’t actually READ the darned things (and we’ll throw in Noah’s Ark here too) and say, “Yeah, yeah these are colorful tales but…a flood that destroys most of the earth? A series of horrors that culminates in the mass murder of babies? Uh, no.”
I find it interesting to dig a little deeper and discover that the plagues were actually set up by the writers of Scripture as a competition between the Egyptian gods and the God of Israel. Each plague corresponded to a different Egyptian deity: Frogs: Hequat, goddess of fertility, Flies: Khepri, god of regeneration, Boils: Isis, goddess of healing. Israel’s God, of course, beat them all in an epic smackdown. We now can identify almost all the plagues as natural occurrences (the waters of the Nile sometimes turned “blood” red with a certain type of algae, intense dust storms did “blot out the sun”).
Bad stuff happens, happens often, and I don’t see it as Divine Retribution. The ending of Defoe’s “Plague Year” is, I hope, not prescient (as that plague receded, the people returned to their old ways, having learned absolutely nothing from the ordeal). I pray this will not be us. What I do take away, as the plague survivors in Defoe’s book do not, is the importance of remembering. Doing what we can, with the knowledge we have now, to avert future calamity (like, I don’t know, doing something about climate change maybe?)
But mostly, pulling together in these times of sorrow, and caring for each other.
As, hopefully, our Plague Year Journal comes to a close, I am promising myself not to ever forget the lessons I learned. I will try to watch out, always, for the most vulnerable people in our society, and do nothing to further endanger them.
When my mask is finally put away, may I not discard the habit of extra caring for my fellow humans. THAT is where I can see a loving God at work in this world.