I think that many of you will recall the case of Hayashi Masumi, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for putting arsenic in a pot of curry resulting in the deaths of two children, two adults, and the poisoning of over 60 other people back in 1998. I remember it well and I remember the first interviews after it happened. A number of people from the community repeated that what really upset them was the fact that the act was 無差別. That is, it was “indiscriminate” killing. I think this gets at something very deep in human beings. I would not say we “prefer” but I would say that we tolerate a bad order better than no order at all. We may well condemn a killing done from jealousy or greed, but at least we feel that we can understand it. It “makes sense.” But indiscriminate killing is “senseless.”
A plague, this pandemic, is nature’s indiscriminate killing. It does not differentiate the we usually do, the way we think that the world ought to be differentiated. For the pandemic one may be rich or poor, happy or sad, hard working and virtuous or a “lazy bum” and still die or still be spared. Something in us, as humans, rebels against this. We want our world to make sense. It needs to conform to some rules, we want our measure of control over reality and a plague mocks that desire as it takes it away.
This disruption of an undifferentiated reality relativizes our usual discriminations; the chaos relativizes our order. Think of all the plans for 2020 we had last January or February. All the things we just assumed we were going to do in April, May, June and for the rest of the year. Things we felt that had to do. Almost all of them gone. Each of us has a story of what didn’t happen, could not happen in this situation.
Now on a wider level also, this relativizing makes evident the arbitrariness of all of our discriminations, of our present order. Since this is easier to see in someone else I will use the United States as an example. It is not at all accidental that the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement happened together. One is a kind of cause and the other an effect. Going way back in the history of the United States is a kind of unspoken order that, if we were to express out loud, everyone would know is false, but it still exists. I will put it this way: Violence by the police is good; violence by blacks is bad. We need the good violence to keep the bad violence under control. But as the pandemic began to destroy other distinctions—not just the distinctions between the healthy and the sick, or between those activities deemed safe and those deemed dangerous, but also distinctions between those of different religions, different socio-economic classes, and those of different races, other distinctions began to appear less absolute, more easily questioned. More and more people were able to see that not all police violence is good. That something is seriously wrong with the way many black people are treated by law enforcement. The coronavirus and Black Lives Matter are two sides of one coin. Two phases of a single phenomenon.
This brings me to the Bible. In the Bible the “plague” is mentioned over 100 times. Of those, 96 are in the Old Testament, and 13 in the New. All 13 are in the Book of Revelation. In general in the Old Testament, the plague is an instrument of God’s anger or God’s wrath, so that we could just say the plague is God’s wrath. The way we know God is angry is that he sends a plague. When a plague comes, we know God is angry. As the Psalm that we read says: “They provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them.”
The Psalm also speaks of Phinehas. “Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked.” Thus, the Bible gives us some clues as to how to end a plague, and I thought everyone would be interested in learning how do that. So let’s look at the original story of Phinehas. It is told in Numbers, chapter 25.
Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom. But it is a difficult freedom. They are wandering in the desert, trying to get to the Promised Land. It is a hard journey. Dry and dusty. It is difficult to stay faithful to God. The people keep falling into idolatry and Moses has his hands full trying to keep God’s people together. Even God gets tired of it and has to talked out of just killing them all. In this particular part the problem is that the men have begun to engage in sexual immorality with the Moabite or Midian women. These women invited the men to join in the fertility rites and sacrifice to their gods, to engage in idolatry. As the Bible puts it: Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel. Notice there is no mention of any plague. The problem here is idolatry.
Here is what the Bible says happens next: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.’” God speaks. He has fierce anger and the way to appease that anger is to kill and expose all the leaders of Israelites. Now pay attention to what Moses actually does. He says to God, OK, leave it to me. Then he turns to the judges, or the leaders of the people, and says: “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” In other words, he just changes what God has commanded and, from our viewpoint at least, makes it a lot more reasonable. Only the people who have actually committed the crime are going to punished. This isn’t great, because a lot of people are going to die, but at least it is those who actually “yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
So things are pretty horrible in the Israelite camp. They face a real catastrophe. God is angry and a lot people are going to be executed. Into this tense situation walks an unsuspecting Israelite male and his Midian consort. They walk right in front of all these people weeping and go to their tent to do what they are going to do. Here is what happened:
7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
Now God reacts to this act. He says to Moses:
“Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
There are number of things to notice here: First of all, it is emphasized over and over that Phinehas is a priest and this act is a priestly act. It is for this act that he is remembered in the Psalms. His killing stopped God’s anger. It also stopped the plague, because these are the same thing. Until we are told that the plague was stopped there had been no mention that there even was a plague. So the situation went from the threat of killing all the leaders, to the threat of killing all those guilty, to the actual killing just one Israelite and his Moabite concubine.
But the important thing to see is that any of these killings, even the actual one was just as 無差別, just as indiscriminate as the plague. It didn’t matter whom was killed. The leaders were a mixed lot, good and bad, and they would all be killed. Those who had yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor were all not equally guilty, but all would be killed. This couple could have been anybody. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were scapegoats.
God makes a covenant of peace with Phineas and a covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants. But then something else happens. Something so small you might not notice it. The bible discriminates, the bible differentiates. We are told:
The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Kozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family.
The victims are given names. They are to be remembered also. They are not simply forgotten. Midianite Lives Matter.
Jesus prayed the Psalms. Jesus knew the story of Phinehas. Jesus knew how he stopped the plague. But Jesus never speaks of the plague. In spite of its huge presence in both the historical books and in the prophets, we hear nary a word about it from Jesus. But I think Jesus does tell us something about plagues and about Phinehas and about the priesthood. Rather he shows it in that odd story that we know as the “woman caught in adultery.” I call it odd because it was pretty clearly not written by John, although it appears in that Gospel. It is probably from Luke or his school. I cannot help but read this story as a counterpoint to the Phineas story. Almost every element in one story finds its negative image in the other.
As you know, the woman caught in adultery is brought alone to Jesus by the crowd of Scribes and Pharisees. Students sometimes have asked me, where is man she was with? They have questioned and I have wondered if this just another case of patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible. But maybe something else is going on. In the Old Testament we have a group of men and women gathered and stationary at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The man and the woman go past them. In the Gospel the group of just men brings the woman alone to Jesus. Every element is reversed. In the Old Testament Phinehas alone goes after the couple. In the New Testament Jesus is confronted by the group with the woman. Phinehas, it says in the Psalm, “stood up and intervened.” Jesus bends down and does not intervene. He does not tell the Pharisees to stop what they are doing. Phinehas has his spear. Jesus has his finger. Phineas never speaks, he kills. Jesus does not kill, he speaks. “Let you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Phineas stopped the plague by killing. He made a clear distinction between those two doing evil and those for the Lord. Jesus stopped the killing by… Strangely Jesus stopped the killing by releasing what I can only call a counter-plague. There is no mention in the Gospel story of a plague, as there is in the Numbers, but if I am right about them being counter-points, then there should be some element in the Gospel story that corresponds to the ending of the plague. I think there is. Jesus is God’s counter-plague, or anti-plague. Jesus is God’s form of 無差別. God, who lets his sun shine on the good and the bad, is indiscriminate in his love. Jesus infects the world with this indiscriminate love. He points out that Scribes and Pharisees are the same as the woman, sinners all.
God is indiscriminate in his love and the pandemic is indiscriminate in its victims. Phinehas stopped the plague violently by asserting an arbitrary difference between the group at the tent of meeting and the couple. Jesus stopped the killing by reminding us of our identity with those who sin.
There are things that we could do to end this plague. There are effects of the pandemic that we can fight against. For example, I have read that students who will graduate this year have faced a very hard year with many companies cancelling their plans about hiring. In addition, they will have face another challenge next year, because they will be one year late and the new graduating class will be given preference to them. But this is discrimination. This is unjust to these young people. I think we should start a movement from this ICU Church that demands that company treats the graduates the same whether they graduate in 2020 or 2021. We should demand data on hiring to ensure that no discrimination takes place and if it does, these companies should be boycotted. We should fight the pandemic.
I know someone who works as a nurse in Tokyo and works to help people with Covid-19. It has been a stressful time. When this person asked to visit some friends, to meet even outside, wearing a mask, these meetings, under any conditions, were refused. This is not prudence, this is not wisdom; this is discrimination and it is wrong. It is magical thinking; that this person is now unclean or impure because of the work they do. If you know someone working on the frontline, against this pandemic, please do not withdraw from them. Take the necessary precautions but do not cut them off. Their work is hard enough already.