Interpreting troubled times: Joseph and COVID

I dont know much about science but I know what I like.
“I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like.”
Cartoon by David Sipress from The New Yorker 21 May 2020 1

[As in previous posts, I am assuming familiarity with the biblical account of Joseph in Genesis chapters 39-41. You can find it here:]

In ‘Unlocking potential’ (Thursday 21st May 2020) I reflected on the Genesis account of Joseph in prison in Egypt, suggesting parallels with the experience of Terry Waite who was taken captive by Hizbollah/Islamic Jihad in Beirut on the 20th of January 1987. Waite endured solitary confinement for four of the next five years of captivity, while the world’s media filled column inches with the tragic and tedious ebb and flow of politics surrounding the civil war in Lebanon. BBC Radio news continued to broadcast the interminable litany of violence and the accumulating daily count of Waite’s imprisonment, along with that of the other hostages whom Waite had gone to intercede for, including the journalist John McCarthy. With hindsight and the present comfort of our sofas we may imagine such uninterrupted solitude could lead to the gestation of fruitful mediation and deep reflection. Waite did indeed publish several books after his release, including in 2017, “Out of the Silence: Memories, poems & reflections.”2 McCarthy, reflecting on his early incarceration, said that he nearly went bonkers. 3 I wonder how many of us are presently preparing a volume of poetry.

But we are far from being ‘released’, or ‘rescued’; individually or as communities. Each day, we awake to reports of coronavirus case numbers and death counts, some rising and others falling, depending on which part of our world we are paying attention to. For some, life has become a blur- we’ve lost our grasp of the passing of time and recollection of which day of the week it is. For others, their experience is far more acute, as they face any number of challenges within their current reality: the health of family and friends, affected by any combination of serious conditions in addition to this particular virus, peril to their employment or business, and/or the sudden interruption to their significant life plans. After the simplification of life under the initial lockdown rules, we are now faced with inescapable complexity. How and when can we return to work and study, to travel and freedom generally? There cannot be simple answers to the multitude of difficult and interconnected questions we are confronted with, and, in short, this is very troubling.

And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

Genesis 41:7b-8 ESV

Pharoah awakes from his two dreams and takes them extremely seriously. On the face of it, there is no reason why he should do this, for the nation is not in trouble. Yet Pharaoh is troubled. He summons his cabinet and his special advisors, convenes parliament and committees of experts, but whatever suggestions they have to make, which presumably included the tentative diagnosis, ‘Too many burgers and too much beer, sire?’ he is not convinced, and says so. “I want an answer right now.”

All this is prelude, of course, for Pharoah’s cupbearer suddenly remembers exactly what happened during his brief stay at the lockup two years earlier- Joseph had interpreted his dream, and that of the baker! “The young Hebrew… the servant of the captain of the guard” was the key to my freedom and my future in your court, testified the cupbearer, “And as he interpreted to us, so it came about.”

Interpretation. This is one of the core elements of theology, and its ultimate challenge. Without interpretation, there is no prospect of appraising weight of meaning for the present and future– what the meaning of the text is for us. Just claims amongst other claims, and a plethora of opinions4– no more so than in a world of religious relativism. Pharaoh seems to appreciate this. My dreams are supposed to mean something. I can feel it, but I cannot rationalise it. And if there is any connection between words that are said and things that happen, then we want to know if this connection is causal or merely coincidence. Sleight of hand, or reliable patterns of natural behaviour? Joseph is not summonsed because the magicians and wise men are inherently unreliable. It is because Joseph can bring another element to the analysis- revelation. “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer,” Joseph tells Pharaoh, without false modesty. And when he is finished bringing divinely anointed and insightful interpretation and application, notice something else: “This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants.” [Gen 41:37] In giving both insight and clear instructions on how to proceed through the seven years of plenty to prepare for the global catastrophe that will follow, Joseph has specifically referenced the management roles that other officials will need to exercise in order for the big idea to actually become successful. Joseph has outlined a plan of preparation, management and preservation that will bring the benefit of understanding Pharaoh’s dramatic dreams to everyone in the land, regardless of their class, position, influence- or their humble circumstances. “Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years.” In this way Joseph has not only shown respect to the supreme leader who has just summoned him from his prison pit and holds his life as delicately as that of the baker beforehand. Joseph’s words carry a weight of meaning for the significance of every man, woman and child in the land, and indeed, beyond it. No wonder the text records that the servants are so impressed.

But this is not all. Joseph’s words also respect the practicalities of farming and the realities of nature. His plan is realistic in scope and scale- and if in our world today more developing nations had taken this advice in past years they would not be facing famine again this year, right now. To put it plainly, Joseph’s pragmatic action plan is scientific, in the common meaning of the term. It is rationally connected to this reality– to the ‘real world’- yes, to the very place that theologians are so often accused of not inhabiting.

Not that this lesson would be remembered. Four hundred years later, after this generation of Egyptians have lived well, survived the seven years of famine, finally died and been buried, along with Joseph and all his extended family- then a new pharaoh arises, and the prophet-prince Moses comes with his brother Aaron to confront them all: the great Pharaoh, his powerful magicians- who can do impressive things- and all the gods of Egypt. There would be no further future for the sons of Israel in Egypt, and Moses’ cry ‘Let my people go!’ would finally be heard so that the first people of God could live an example of freedom and dignity elsewhere.

US President Donald Trump reading his prepared statement insisting that places of worship are to “open right now.” 22 May 2020

Would that Joseph’s combined insights into rationality, science, universal human dignity and spiritual revelation were more understood. As it stands today, there is now an unholy rumpus developing across the world as ‘magicians’ and so-called ‘wise men’ slug it out with their opinions about which way the world should go as we grapple with the middle-effects and after-effects of coronavirus. If our education systems were more joined up, we might have had a cohort of political leaders in the ‘developed West’ who would be able to distinguish fake news from facts, and vision from fantasy- exercising critical reasoning in the interests of society as a whole. As it is, current science has developed in a silo, separate from the rest of society, except for technologists and business leaders who happily embrace its fruit for profit. Meanwhile, over more than a century now, religious piety, fundamentally separated from science, has become monstrously imbalanced. Over recent weeks, news websites have reported a roll call of sick and then dead church leaders who denied the reality and/or seriousness of this novel coronavirus. Thank God for Christian leaders, evangelists and all who carry a personal passion for the eternal gospel and the living conviction of power in the name of Jesus Christ for dealing with what lurks in the dark recesses of our human hearts. But these leaders should not have forgotten that smallpox was finally eliminated from the whole world in 1977 by the globally coordinated management of the World Health Organisation5, not by prayer. They should remember that the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis6 had fought for years for official recognition of his boring statistical research that proved that hand washing was the way to prevent fatal disease spreading in hospitals and especially in maternity units- long before the roll out of antibiotics, mass vaccination programmes or antiretrovirals. He died in 1865. Or did you not know any of this world transforming history? We should all know better now. It is good that our political leaders hear us clapping on our doorsteps for our health care professionals, but what our communities need- what the world needs- is leadership that is properly informed about the contrasting issues at stake. No individual leader needs to know everything- but in the meeting of minds and hearts, in the public square, in the media and in pulpits- and most of all in our governments, there should be a collective awareness, a wisdom that can bring together the pertinent considerations of medicine, statistics, science and society, spirituality and piety, business and farming… my list need not be exhaustive: transport and the management of people’s desire to travel- to go everywhere and anywhere, for all sorts of reasons- all this should be brought together with the coherence that comes with collective wisdom.

But we do not have this wisdom, or at least we have not exercised it. Nor, typically, have we elected this kind of leader, or nurtured this kind of politics. And in Christian circles- I must say this, for otherwise I cannot wear the badge of theologian- we must recover the prophetic insight of Joseph, whose mission under God and in God’s timing was to bring an example of leadership in the public interest to a nation that did not know his God, though his God certainly knew them. His mission was to speak truth to power, but not just the particular man at the top of the tree, whose grasp on reality may be so evidently ever so tenuous. It has so often been thus. No: speaking to power must be collective, at every level, to every concern, and certainly without giving in to the baying crowds and special interests that pick on certain bogeymen while keeping quiet about their friends. This is to our shame.

What truth should such prophets speak within the Christian church? As has become all too clear, across Europe as well as in the United States, it seems painfully obvious that far too many leaders are preaching a message that ties the life and practice of faith to a place- to a building. I will allow the faithful followers of other religions to speak for themselves. The Church of Jesus Christ is the collective people of God, called to live differently [that is what ekklesia means: the church are the called out ones] and in no way to be confused with the large buildings that we necessarily enjoy for many corporate purposes. Public address systems, web conferencing and other technologies will no doubt continue to impact the way we ‘do Church’, but the email calls I have received to petition national governments to reopen churches as ‘essential services’ betray a fundamental failure of spiritually informed rationality. Those who lobbied the US President this week- successfully so, we now hear, to overrule the lockdown policies of states and counties have not achieved the success of the godly voice speaking to power. The placard wavers7 who parody the words of Moses, ‘Let my people golf’- this is the diametric opposite of wisdom. It is foolishness of the highest order, and certainly not the kind St Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 4 verse 10. Now I will be a fool, and paraphrase Galatians 4:7 and James 3:10. ‘If you now hold church meetings, what will happen? Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for if one sows coronavirus, the congregation and community will reap coronavirus. If any of you are reading this: Brothers and sisters, these things should not be!’

The lesson of Genesis 37-50 should be clear. God told Abraham that his offspring would be a blessing to the world, and a blessing is certainly what Joseph became. Life went on, far longer and far more fruitfully, for so many, through the blessings that Joseph brought in Egypt. God was merciful to Egypt, allowing them a significant glimpse into the future, and he opened a path for Joseph, once he had been thoroughly schooled in wisdom and deep discipleship. At just the right time, Joseph was called out of a dark pit, in a little fear and trembling, to exercise godly wisdom in God’s world. For such it is- God’s world! We have not forgotten that the health of God’s whole planet is in grave peril. The famines and storms are already upon us. As the waves of this virus, and who knows what other perils, sweep around and around the globe- it all depends on what we do- the greater tasks lie before us. We must all go back to school. We should thoroughly examine our opinions. We ought to pay more attention to God’s dreams. And before we seek to speak to power, we Christians should study our bibles more closely, starting, I suggest, with chapters 13 to 15 of the Book of Leviticus. What has come- what is coming- is not God’s fault. Rather, God has placed the future in our hands, and in every nation the Pharaoh is now looking for overseers.

UPDATES after references.

  1. Cartoon by David Sipress from The New Yorker. › thursday-may-21st-royal-science
  2. Out of the Silence: Memories, poems, reflections by Terry Waite, 2017.
  3. Former hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy on Lebanese soil together for first time since kidnap.
  4. Opinions should be EXAMINED! See Nine Life Lessons – Tim Minchin University of Western Australia Address The full transcript of his speech is at this (atheist!) website: Tim Minchin makes many pertinent comments about the significance of scientifically informed thinking in this very amusing speech.
  7. Placard ‘Let my people golf.’ photographed by David Poller

UPDATE August 5th 2021.

UPDATE November 29th 2021

FOR MY US FRIENDS: Mike Hayes of Covenant Church in Carrollton, Texas, recalls that some parts of the Christian community have long adopted a hyper-pietistic attitude to medicine, rejecting ‘human medicine’ as being a poor alternative to trusting God in faith for supernatural healing. Medicine in any age is seen as relying on ‘the [godless] world’ rather than living by faith in God’s Word, which offers healing ‘through the blood of Jesus.’

Secondly, he observes that for many US Christians, their faith is inextricably linked to their political conception of civil liberty, expressed in party commitment for the views of their favoured political party, and opposed in principle to anything claimed by their opposition. Thus vaccination and even believing that COVID is a real phenomenon have been moved from the realm of concrete reality to that of a political football, as has the range of safety adaptations such as wearing masks. These views are very widely disseminated through US social media. Mike Hayes quotes a friend thus, “I don’t know about recovery of sight of the blind, but the internet sure has enabled the dumb to speak.”

Thirdly, Hayes reflects on the wider phenomenon of regular folks naïve appraisal of risk. This has been exploited by the deniers to exaggerate the small risks of taking any medicine, including vaccines, versus the larger benefits to individuals and especially the community at large. For Heyes, this benefit even includes the potential to carry on Christian ministry far from his home: the ability to heed God’s charge to ‘Go!’

In sum, I am helped by my Christian brother to appraise the relationship between faith and medicine, faith and politics, and the implications for mature faith exercised in neighbourliness in society. What I would add to his short analysis is the global dimension, where our safety at home is predicated on other’s wellbeing abroad. The long term health of the Good Samaritan now depends on the health of the community of the poor man. As I write this update, the omicron COVID variant from South Africa is now spreading into Europe and the USA.

(c) Stephen Thompson 2020

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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