Lessons from the Wilderness for Such a Time
In the rush to reopen the economy, epidemiologists are warning of a second wave of the COVID19 infections that may be more severe.
Time will tell.
Meanwhile, angry white protesters, preferring guns over facemasks, have been expressing their outrage over constraints on their individual freedom of movement.
As I look at pictures of such protests, I’m half expecting to see a sign that reads: “You will not fear the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
Or “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”
Perhaps these Bible verses from Psalm 91 contain too many words for a single sign.
But my guess is that many Christians caught up in these protests regard Psalm 91 as the biblical license to forego all social restrictions and venture out with care-free confidence like “warriors.”
Psalm 91 seems to guarantee protection from all “pestilence” and “plague” (vv. 6, 10) and any
other kind of danger: “For [God] will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all
On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (vv. 11-12) and, one could perhaps add, “get COVID-toes.”
However, such protection does not come automatically.
“Refuge,” according to the psalm, is for those who “love” God and “trust” in God (vv. 2b, 14a).
It is for those who have “made the LORD [their] refuge” (v. 9a), an act of fidelity that acknowledges God alone, rather than wealth or power (Ps 52:7), as the true source of one’s refuge.
In the Psalms, “refuge” in God is the opposite of idolatry.
One wonders whether the rush to ease social restrictions is more an idolatrous testimony to American individualism (“Live free or die!”) than a commitment to the country’s wellbeing.
In the face of COVID-19, “live free and die” is the greater possibility.
Reading Psalm 91 through the lens of American rugged individualism is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, let’s read Psalm 91 through the lens of the New Testament.
In the wilderness, Satan invites Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple by quoting Psalm 91:11-12.
Jesus flatly refuses, citing Deuteronomy 6:16. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
The Deuteronomic text adds, “as you tested [the LORD] at Massah.”
“Massah” (Hebrew for “Test”) was a place in the wilderness where the people complained and tested God, questioning whether God was “among” them and yearning to return to Egypt (Exod 17:2-7).
In biblical tradition, the wilderness was a place that was particularly prone to plagues.
Today, we know that pandemics typically begin when wildlife is disturbed by human
COVID-19 is no exception.
For the wandering Israelites, there were many lessons to be learned in the wilderness.
Foremost was patience.
After Moses informed the people that they would have to remain in the wilderness for an extended period of time, the people decided in their grief to take some of the promised land right then and there, despite warnings to the contrary.
They tried, they failed, and they were decimated (Num 14:39-45).
They could not wait and paid for their impatience (cf. Ps 106:13).
Another lesson from the wilderness was: Take only what you need (Exod 16:16-21).
This admonition applied to manna then and today applies to . . . (fill in the blank).
There is also the enigmatic story of the poisonous serpents that attacked the people because they “became impatient on the way” (Num 21:4).
Moses made a bronze serpent (nĕḥaš nĕḥōšet) and mounted it upon a pole for everyone to look at and thereby live (v. 9).
That image of a serpent on a pole, not coincidentally, prefigures the “Rod of Asclepius,” the Greek god of healing and medicine, widely used today as a symbol of the medical profession.
Follow the science to determine how to be safe. (OK, I admit that was a hermeneutical stretch).
Perhaps the most important lesson from the wilderness for the church is this: Be creative.
In this COVID wilderness, church leaders are hard-pressed to sustain the “ties that bind” their communities together, calling forth new forms of leadership and technology.
Is it any wonder that the greatest “technological” achievement in the Bible occurs in the wilderness?
The tabernacle, the means by which a people found a way to remain connected to God amid their wanderings, required the best artistic minds and the full support of the people (Exod 31:2-5; 36:1-7).
The tabernacle was a community project in which Israel and God found a way to sustain their communion in the wilderness.
In our COVID wilderness, God is finding ways to be present in our virtual gatherings.
The results have been surprising.
Online worship has become decentralized and more creative; our homes have become our new sanctuaries.
I suspect that certain developments in our evolving, adaptive ministries will be sorely missed once it is truly safe to refill our empty buildings and campuses.
Case in point: with inspired teamwork and creativity, Columbia Theological Seminary hosted a commencement this year unlike any other, one that could never be replicated in any physically gathered way.
Rather than feeling cheated by COVID-19, our graduating students felt unexpectedly moved and blessed in ways not possible in a traditional setting.
Creativity only comes by trial and error.
We must be patient also with ourselves as we improvise and experiment our way through this wilderness.
Let this liminal time be the occasion to cultivate new ways of ministry without succumbing to nostalgia.
The Israelites never went back to Egypt, despite their yearnings to do so.
God made sure of that.
Through the wilderness of pain and promise, the people discovered new ways of being in community while traveling together, yes, for a very long time.
Being a “refuge” for refugees in the wilderness, both then and now, begins with loving God, just as the psalmist says.
And our neighbors, just as Jesus says.
William P. Brown is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Bill has also taught at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond and at Emory University. He is the author of several books and numerous essays on biblical interpretation and theology, including Sacred Sense (Eerdmans), Wisdom’s Wonder (Eerdmans), The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University), Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (WJK), as well as editor of Engaging Biblical Authority (WJK). Bill was recently a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton (www.ctinquiry.org), where he worked collaboratively with scientists, philosophers, and ethicists exploring the “societal implications of astrobiology.” He is currently working on a major commentary on the Psalms. Bill is an avid Sunday School teacher and was a founding member of Earth Covenant Ministry, an organization of Presbyterian churches in the Atlanta area dedicated to creation care now part of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL). Gail and Bill have two grown daughters, Ella and Hannah.