When the college campus where I teach closed over a month ago, an older colleague said it reminded him of the time just after the draft announcement during the Vietnam War. Crying students filled the hallways, and dazed professors huddled in groups outside their offices. Since then, as the COVID-19 crisis has intensified, others have reached for similar analogies: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called Congress’s $2 trillion relief package “a wartime level of investment in our nation.” Doctors and nurses have likened their hospitals to “war zones.” And of course everyone now curses our “invisible enemy,” the coronavirus itself.
This collective recourse to war as an analogue for pandemic makes sense: none of us has ever lived through one before. We don’t know how to ground it in previous experience. Maybe we know someone who fought in World War II, or Vietnam, or Iraq or Afghanistan. But is anyone alive today acquainted with survivors of the 1918 Spanish Flu?
If memory of the destruction wrought by that disease no longer exists in our current collective imagination, we can still glean wisdom from ancient sources. The Hebrew Bible, as it turns out, made the connection between war and pandemic long ago.
In Psalm 91—known as the “Song of Plagues” (shir shel pegaim) in Jewish tradition—war and sickness occasion seismic upheavals, both individual and collective. The psalmist makes sure we grasp the connection, calling them “the hunter’s trap and the deadly pestilence” (v. 3). He then elaborates a few verses later. War becomes “the terror by night / the arrow flying during the day,” plague “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness / the destruction that devastates at noon” (v. 5–6). Both epitomize the material harshness of life in ancient Israel. We may chafe against the rigidity of our stay-at-home orders, but they hardly compare to the experience of ancient Israelites, who were never far from qeteb, “destruction.” It’s one of the three words (the others are deber and negaʿ) the psalmist uses interchangeably to signify “plague,” thereby underscoring its omnipresence in ancient life.
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