By Clare Ruff
Derived from the Latin quadragenta, meaning “forty”, and the Italian quaranta giorni (“space of forty days”), the word quarantine is relational to the word Lent. No wonder COVID-19 is transforming my annual season of penance and sacrifice. I find myself identifying with the isolation of Israel in the desert, and wonder if their 40-year sojourn can help me conquer these 40 days of confinement with better insight and purpose.
Their “social distancing” was not punishment, but an opportunity to “tryst” with God in the wilderness. The goal was not minimalistic conformity to God’s code of righteousness, but acceptance of the Ten Commandments as a covenant and guidepost to authentic freedom.
Israel had become habituated to slavery after 430 years of captivity; it drove their actions, inactions and reactions. The rod of the taskmaster trained the people to act from fear. Israel’s desert isolation was the necessary school where they learned to choose: to commit to the Covenant, and discipline their unruly hearts in order to love God and each other freely. Slavery in Egypt was an outward sign of the inner reality of slavery to sin. God staged the Exodus to free His people from both.
Eyewitnesses to the miraculous plagues in Egypt (Ex. 7-12), including the escape from death of their firstborn children, the Israelites responded with impatience, bickering, and infidelity. Remember: they saw the pillar of cloud before them, and a pillar of fire distance them from Pharaoh’s army. They watched every chariot and charioteer be swallowed by the sea (Ex 14: 15-30).
But they panicked. They worried how they would eat and drink (as if their Deliverer would forget such a detail). Had there been toilet paper in those days, there would have been a rush on it! They murmured about missing their flesh pots, onions, and herbs! God dependably provided manna every morning, and every evening filled the camp with sufficient quail for the entire nation. But they complained, “Would that we were back in the land of Egypt” (Nu 14: 3). Many preferred the routine of slavery to the growing pains of freedom!
While Moses prayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, the Israelites faithlessly worshiped a golden calf made with their own hands, even after ten plagues exposed the inadequacy of all Egypt’s false gods. The Lord gave them every reason to be faithful! They lacked courage, fortitude and mostly love.
So, what’s the point?
Can we learn from their mistakes? Can we apply their experience to ours? I think so.
The imposed “corona-cation” is a desert-like experience. Being isolated from each other and other nations can be approached as either an imposition or an opportunity to mature and deepen our relationship with God and each other. When denied our equivalent of “flesh pots and garlic”, we must depend on God’s providential care and exercise faith in the future promise ahead. COVID-19 and other calamities make us ponder why God is getting our attention! Is it to return to righteousness? Do we have our own “false gods” to shatter? “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” (Ps 95) encourages the psalmist. We have a unique chance to listen and respond.
Personally, I cannot help hear the cry of our nation’s unborn children. The death toll from Coronavirus is currently 487 (US stat Mar. 23, 2020), compared to 3,000 killed daily via abortion. Where are the 24/7 news reports, White House press conferences, and stimulus packages for the children obliterated on the altar “choice”?
And for those who may not be aware, another epidemic is sweeping our country, even more widespread than the current coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is an alarming, exponential increase in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Nationwide from 2014 – 2018, chlamydia increased 19 percent; gonorrhea rose 63 percent; primary and secondary syphilis jumped 71 percent; and congenital syphilis sky-rocketed 185 percent (see chart below).
The World Health Organization (WHO) states, “Syphilis is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections globally, with approximately six million new cases each year. If a pregnant woman who is infected does not receive early and effective treatment, she can then transmit the infection to her unborn infant. This is known as ‘congenital syphilis’ which is often fatal. It can also cause low birth weight, prematurity, and other congenital deformities.” WHO’s findings, published February 27, 2019, state that globally, there were “more than half a million (around 661,000) total cases of congenital syphilis in 2016, resulting in over 200,000 stillbirths and neonatal deaths” (emphasis mine).
I’d scratch my head--except we’re not supposed to touch our faces.
In review: (CDC Statistics Updated March 23 at 1:50 PM)
• USA COVID-19 : 41,126 confirmed cases, 487 deaths.
• Global [minus China’s unpublished statistics]: 366,860 confirmed cases, 16,098 deaths.
• The “pandemic” of congenital syphilis: 200,000 stillbirth and neonatal deaths (2016).
Number of Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the United States in 2018
STD # of Cases Increase*
Chlamydia 1,800,000 > 19 % Gonorrhea 583,405 > 63 %
Syphilis 1st & 2nd 35,063 > 71 % Congenital Syphilis
1,306 > 185 %
* Percentage Increase from 2014 – 2018
The CDC provides a downloadable pamphlet for physicians with recommendations regarding treatment of syphilis. It includes the following statement: “If sexually active, the surest way to avoid transmission of syphilis is to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.”
Appropriate social distancing could eradicate more than one disease with alarming growth and mortality rates.
In the end, the Israelites revealed through its 40 year quarantine the secret to purposeful social distancing: do not distance yourself from God. I wonder if our nation will learn such lessons from COVID-19 over the next 40 days?
from University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX. She serves as Director of Events and Outreach for the Hosea Initiative and writes from her home in southeastern Minnesota.