Last week, President Trump announced that he and his wife Melania had tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, a number of those in his administration and his campaign have also tested positive. In the wake of this diagnoses, the US media has fixated on the political ramifications of these diagnoses. But how might the stories of biblical rulers who suffer disease and sickness speak to the moment?
Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament and program coordinator of Bible and theology at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta and the of author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters and its forthcoming sequel, Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters.
Imes joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss if scripture treats the illnesses of leaders differently than general illnesses, the difference in the Old Testament between simple illness and illness as judgment, and whether or not it’s possible to link sin and sickness.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #233
It seems that scripture treats the illnesses of leaders differently than general illnesses. From your knowledge and study, does this ring true?
Carmen Imes: I think that part of what we're seeing when we read the Old Testament is that the narrative tends to focus on leaders almost at the exclusion of common people. And so we're going to get a disproportionate amount of space spent on everything having to do with leaders.
And that seems to shift when we get to the New Testament because Jesus is from a poor family, he's coming as the underdog, upending social structures. And so rather than tracking with the leaders, we're tracking with common people in the streets.
So I think that might be why we have a different feel between the Old Testament and the New Testament. But we do have several stories in the Old Testament of leaders who become ill—either Israelite leaders or leaders of surrounding nations—and so it's a lot of food for thought.
Is there a connection between power and illness in the ancient Near East cultures in general, or among God's covenant people and revealed scripture?
Carmen Imes: Yeah, I think it would be fair to say that there is.
I don't feel quite as qualified to speak broadly on the ancient Near East on this question; I just haven't investigated it deeply. But I would say that in terms of Israel's leaders or Israel's portrayal of other leaders from other nations becoming sick, there does seem to be a specific link between power and illness, as well as between ritual infractions and illness.
So rulers are being held accountable for their pride or their failure to give God glory, whether they're Israelites or they're foreigners. And sometimes if that pride involves coming into the temple precincts where they're not allowed, like trying to enter the holy place, then the disease or illness that they experienced can be a result. It can be a ritual uncleanliness that results from their pride.
And again, the spotlight is on the leaders so much of the time in the Old Testament that it's not surprising that we see this, but it does seem like there's a connection between overweening pride and illness. But I don't necessarily think that's the situation that we're in with the United States.
I don't think we can draw a line and say President Trump has COVID because he's proud. I think we could look across and see 7 million Americans, or whatever the number is now, have had COVID. And I wouldn't call this a specific judgment of God for any particular reason.
Can you help us better understand the way things are in the Old Testament? Were leaders— whether of God's covenant people or of other nations—representative of the people in a different way than we would see leaders today?
Carmen Imes: I think they were representative in a more specific way, but I also think in an ancient worldview, everything is spiritual. There's no divide between sacred and secular, and each leader, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, is thought to be appointed by the gods to rule on the god's behalf.
And so the leader’s health and the leader’s success is a reflection of their divine appointment to that task. And so as soon as the leader is sick, there are the questions of what have they done to anger God and what must be done to make it right.
I think that's the normal way of thinking about things in an Old Testament context, and that doesn't tend to be our first question today when someone gets sick.
Does the Old Testament have a theodicy of illness that is distinct from other calamities or is illness often interpreted through a similar lens as something like a fire or flood or drought?
Carmen Imes: Yeah, there is a specific theodicy of illness, but it is connected with other calamities. Particularly war and drought would be things that are connected with illness in that whether we're talking about Yahweh, the God of Israel, or gods of other nations, people thought that their god's job was to protect their land, protect its fruitfulness, and protect its flourishing. And so illness, lack of crops, and attacks from other nations all fit in the same category.
And so if we read, for example, Deuteronomy chapter 26 or 28, which lists the covenant and the consequences for covenant disobedience for the Israelites, they are told to expect that if they're not faithful to the covenant, they will experience wasting diseases, war, famine, illnesses of every kind, exile, and drought. These are all vividly described in those sections of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
So I think that's why they're put together, and why so often the kings who experienced illness, the story of their illness is surrounded with attention to whether or not they've been faithful to the covenant.
Do people see God as the source of sickness because they see him as the source of healing? Do they see them as the source of healing because they're focused on him as a source of calamity? Or is it that sovereignty wraps up everything because everything comes from God?
Carmen Imes: Well I would say that God creates the world and he creates it as good. He creates an environment in which we can flourish. And it's only as we rebel against him that we're opting for this other side.
In Exodus 34:6-7, Yahweh declares his name to Moses, and he spells out what his character is. He's gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. And that's the side of God that we don't like to think about, but it's actually essential to who Yahweh is—that he holds us accountable for our sin, he takes sin seriously.
But I would say the priority is his giving of good gifts and his giving of blessing. And that's the default. It's only as we fail to relate well to him that we end up with these negative consequences.
I wouldn't say that he's the source of all disaster in the world, but there are cases where, where disaster is something that he allows to chasten us and to bring us back to our senses so that we can obey again.
Does the Old Testament describe how people, especially rulers and those acting on behalf of the people, are supposed to tell the difference between a simple illness and their illness being judgment?
Carmen Imes: Well, I think we have something a bit unique in the Old Testament in that it's selective. It's not like all the things that ever happened we are told about. It's selective and it's a covenant story, so it focuses in on the times where leaders were unfaithful to the covenant or acted in despicable ways and so they experienced judgment.
As I've been brainstorming over the past 24 hours, I was unable to come up with examples of a time when a leader was ill and it was not God's judgment—except perhaps Job, who doesn't officially have a leadership role, but he could arguably be a leader of society, respected in his community.
In terms of kings, when they experience illness, they are supposed to inquire of the Lord what they've done wrong. And so we have prophets who speak truth to power and who are there ready to be consulted, we have the High Priest, who has the pouch on his chest to help discern the will of God, who they can consult. And often what we find is that these Kings who are sick and not getting well have alienated themselves, or alienated all the prophets of Yahweh from themselves so that they can't get a good, clear answer about the origin of their sickness. Because they have effectively plugged their ears from hearing from the Lord. And the sickness that should be bringing them to their senses doesn’t do that because they've already deadened their hearts.
It's kind of like the story of Pharaoh, where multiple times we're told that he hardened his heart and eventually we're told that Yahweh hardens his heart. It's like he's giving Pharaoh what he's been asking for all along. And so there are cases when, like King Asa whose feet are diseased, a leader doesn't seem to recognize that he needs to seek God's help, not just medical help.
Could you walk us through three to four examples of different Old Testament rulers and the encounters that they have with disease?
Carmen Imes: The story that I just mentioned of King Asa is found in 2 Chronicles 16. It’s just a few verses. And we're told that he's a generally good king, but towards the end of his life, he comes down with this horrible foot disease. (Now I wonder, was he diabetic and he had untreated diabetes and so he's got this horrible foot disease?) We’re told that his disease was severe, but even in his illness, he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physician. And he ends up dying. So, for him and for any king who is supposed to be serving under the covenant, any calamity is a warning sign, a reminder to get right with God.
But that's even true of foreign kings. I'm thinking of the story of Nebuchadnezzar from Daniel 4, where he is just really impressed with himself, and he loves to brag about how great he is and how great his rule is. And this story of Nebuchadnezzar is so striking because it shows us that no one, no matter how powerful they appear to be, is beyond God's chastening. It illustrates the danger of pride.
Nebuchadnezzar has a dream about this giant tree that gets cut down and its stump remains in the ground and it's drenched with the dew of heaven. And that dream comes true concerning King Nebuchadnezzar and his glory is greatly diminished. He goes through a period of seven years where it says in verse 33, “he was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox, his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” And it was only after that period when he looked toward heaven and praised God that he was rich and his sanity was restored. So this is an example of a foreign king. He's not under the Israelite covenant, but his pride is so great that God seeks to set him back in his place again.
And there are other stories of foreign kings or foreign rulers. In 2 Kings 5, we have the story of Naaman who's a military leader and he's from outside of Israel. And yet, when he becomes sick with leprosy, he has a Hebrew maid working in his household and she says, “Oh, if only you were in Israel, then your leprosy could be healed.”
And so we have this wonderful story of Naaman going to Israel and trying to find healing. And he meets with the prophet Elisha who tells him to bathe in the Jordan River. And he has to swallow his pride and bathe in this river and then he is cleansed. And he acknowledges that Yahweh is the greatest overall. So in that one, his illness doesn't seem to be punishment for sin, but it's the occasion of him encountering Yahweh as the one true God, and then wrestling with what it looks like to properly worshiped this deity.
What is the significance of the stories of foreign rulers and kings being included in the Old Testament?
Carmen Imes: Yeah, it depends on the moment. If we take a step back and look at the wider sweep of the Old Testament, it's key to look at Genesis 12:1-3, God's call of Abram. And he tells Abram that his name will be great, he'll have a great many descendants, and that he'll be blessed. But the key thing I'm thinking about is in verse three, “through you, all nations will be blessed.”
And so I think we see that in the story of Naaman, that Naaman is a representative of the nations who is experiencing blessing because of the faithfulness of the prophet Elisha and this maid.
In the case of Nebuchadnezzar, it's a little different because these are the days of Daniel, and so the Israelites are in exile and there are Israelites who've risen to high positions in the government. And so here, there's a sort of rubbing up against the covenant people and perhaps that's why God is paying attention to Nebuchadnezzar's pride and setting him in his place. Or perhaps this is for Daniel's sake so that as he passes this on to us, as followers of God that we see that no one is beyond God's correction, we all need to be diligent about pride.
So I think the point is to show that Yahweh is not just a local deity for the Israelites, but that his power is universal, and all nations need to acknowledge that.
When you were going over passages of these different Old Testament leaders who ended up being sick or afflicted, was there any story that made you feel uncomfortable or seemed to show something you weren’t expecting about who God is or God's nature?
Carmen Imes: There is one that bothers me from Numbers 12. It's not a new problem for me, but I've been wrestling with it for longer, and I have a potential solution, but I still don't love it.
This is the story of when Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses' leadership and they're rebelling against him. God clearly appointed Moses to lead, they are getting a little too big for their britches, and Miriam bursts out in leprosy. What bothers me about it is that Aaron is just as rebellious, and he doesn't break out in leprosy. And we see the same problem with the golden calf episode in Exodus 32. Aaron actually helps them craft the golden calf, he lies about it saying, “I threw the golden to the fire and out came this calf,” minimizing his own responsibility, and then there's this mass slaughter of all the people who have been engaging in revelry around the golden calf. But somehow Aaron gets off scot-free and he still gets to be the high priest? Like how does that work?
I'm not entirely comfortable with either of these stories. The best explanation I've been able to come up with is that Aaron, although he's personally culpable in both cases, if God were to punish him, it would have a negative effect for every Israelite because he is the person appointed to mediate between Yahweh and them, to maintain the proper worship in the tabernacle. So if he had broken out in leprosy in Numbers 12, then he would be unclean and unable to enter the tabernacle and the whole system would collapse. And so maybe, by the grace of God, he doesn't personally contract leprosy. Miriam does it for both of them.
I think my solution is decent, but what I don't like is that it doesn't feel fair. Like why is there this disproportionate consequence for Miriam and not for Aaron? It feels out of balance. Like when is somebody going to slap him on the back of the hand and tell him to shape up? It just feels a little bit out of sync because clearly in the Old Testament, over and over again, we see that God takes a ruler seriously and that their disobedience is taken seriously.
I mean, Moses, what does he even do that disqualifies him from entrance into the Promised Land? It's not entirely clear. It seems like he might claim a little bit too much credit for getting water out of the rock for the people and now he doesn't get to go into the Promised Land. But somehow Aaron never gets demoted. His sons go into the most holy place with the wrong kind of incense and they're struck dead, but somehow Aaron is like untouchable.
And it's a little mysterious to me. The only way I can sleep at night over this one is just thinking this is God's grace because Aaron has to continue to intercede for everybody else.
You mentioned the King Asa story and the verse that says, “though his disease was severe, even in his illness, he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians.” And in The Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity, there's a line that says there's no case in the Old Testament of a physician actually healing someone. Does the Old Testament have a problem with doctors or was it just that times were not good for medical understanding?
Carmen Imes: Again, because every king is being measured against the covenant. I tell my students when we read Deuteronomy, “This is the measuring stick against which everyone else is going to be measured for the rest of the Old Testament.” So if you want to know who's a good king and who's a bad king, you've got to read Deuteronomy. How well did they adhere to this covenant?
And so for Asa, he's good and then suddenly he turns bad towards the end of his life by oppressing his people, and then he gets this foot disease. So I think the point is not that physicians cannot be helpful ever to us. The point is that if an Israelite king gets sick, the first question he should ask is, “Have I violated the covenant in some way?” And he fails to do that, he doesn't seek the Lord.
So I don't think it's saying this blanket statement for all time that we shouldn't see doctors. But that we should constantly be checking our hearts. Am I walking wisely with the Lord? Am I walking in obedience? Is there something in my life I need to get right? Is this illness a consequence of some really stupid decision that I've made or rebellious thing I've done?
I don't think we can usually diagnose illness based on sin, but I think it does still happen that God can use sickness as a way of getting our attention.
There has been a lot of chatter and responses to discovering that President Trump had COVID. Does the Old Testament give us a sense of how a godly nation responds to leaders who are sick?
Carmen Imes: If a king was sick, I would think he would definitely stay behind closed doors and not let the word get out because that would suggest instability to his rule. And that's not something that modern leaders have the luxury of doing because so much of their life is on camera.
I can't think of an example where we get a picture of the widespread people's response. But, again, the spotlight is really on the leader and we're hearing from those in power or those adjacent to power. I do think though that there's a principle that we can take away from it.
I was asking myself the question, is it unsettling to have a president who is hospitalized? Well, of course, it's unsettling, but presidents are human, they will die like everyone else, and they're not indispensable. And I think that's something that comes out of all of these stories, that human leaders are not indispensable. God can remove a leader at any moment and replace them with someone else.
And I'm not suggesting that that's what he's doing right now with President Trump. But if President Trump were to die in office, it would not mean that God is no longer on his throne or that the world can't go on. God's purposes are not tied to President Trump, and neither would President Trump be someone who's able to frustrate and destroy God's purposes— whatever side of the political spectrum you find yourself on.
If this was good news that he was sick—I don't think that's how we should be responding to anyone getting sick, but I did see some jubilation on social media—but if you're thinking this would be good if he wasn't in the picture anymore, what is it that you're thinking that God is now going to be able to accomplish without this leader? As though God cannot work through average ordinary humans who are flawed in many respects.
On either side of the political spectrum, whether he lives, whether he dies, God's purposes still go forth without interruption. And so I think that's what I get out of looking at all of these cases of Old Testament leaders who get sick, that God's purposes are not forwarded by human illness. The illness is often a means of getting people's attention, a means of calling for their repentance, and if they fail to respond in the way that he wants them to respond, he removes them from the picture, and he gets onto business with someone else.
Is there a continuity of that idea in the New Testament? Or does New Testament reframe or change some of these understandings of illness?
Carmen Imes: Yeah, illness is different. There seems to be a propensity to want to assign blame in the New Testament. We see that in John 9, with a man born blind, where the disciples want to know who sinned—this man or his parents—that he was born blind.
And Jesus' response was, “No one, neither. This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Jesus is less interested in assigning blame or even in calling for repentance. Though I can think of a couple of places where he does connect his healing act with a call for repentance, that's not the norm.
It seems to me that Jesus is announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and there are implications in the kingdom of God for ordinary people and their diseases and illnesses. And so by healing people, he's demonstrating that God is among them and that his power is being unleashed to begin the process of restoration that we've needed. Since the garden of Eden, things have been spiraling downward, and Jesus is coming to set the world right again.
And because he's turning the world upside down and he relativizes the power of those who are in leadership roles, that might be why we see so much less in the New Testament about leaders with illnesses.
I didn't spend as much time thinking about this, but we do have the example of King Herod in Acts 12, who has some experience with worms, and then he dies. So that's an example of a leader whose state of pride does lead to sickness, but it seems like by and large, we're looking at ordinary people who are sick and Jesus is touching and healing them.
In light of how the Old and New Testament frames illness, what is good theology for us now when we get sick? Should illness still be an opportunity for us to take a deep dive into whether sin was involved?
Carmen Imes: Oh, such a good question. I wish I felt more qualified to answer, but I do have a couple of thoughts for what they're worth.
I had a student last year who didn't show up on test day once. And this seemed unusual to me because I don't even have to take attendance usually on test days. I know they'll all be there cause they don't want to get a zero. Well, this guy didn't show up. And he didn't talk to me until later when I finally tracked him down.
And he said, “Oh, I emailed you.” Well, it turns out he had spelled my name wrong, so I didn't get it. And he's like, “Yeah, I was just feeling so sick. I couldn't come to class. I thought I was going to throw up.” I said, “Oh, what do you think was going on?” And he goes, well, we didn't have anything in the house yesterday that I could eat for dinner. I was so hungry, so I ate a whole package of bacon. And then when I woke up this morning, I just felt so sick.” And I said, “You think?”
Clearly, the choices he was making about how to manage adulting were not working very well. Like no one feels well after eating an entire package of bacon and nothing else. And so to me—like I'm not calling this sin—his sickness showed a lack of wisdom. And so I think there are cases when people are sick and it's because they made the poor choice. There's this lack of wisdom that results in physical ailments.
But the other side of the coin is people who struggle with chronic illness and are on this spin cycle of trying to figure out what they did to trigger it this time. Did I eat something wrong? Did I sleep wrong? Should I not have gone outside without my sunglasses? Did I forget to take my meds? Did I not take them soon enough? My mom is someone who's struggled with chronic pain since a car accident almost 20 years ago, and I've watched as she's tried to wrestle and figure it out. There's always this desire to figure it out. What did I do wrong this time? Is this spiritual? Is this God trying to show me something?
And finally, there came a time a couple of years ago where we just agreed, enough. Enough of trying to figure it out. This isn't because of anything. It just is. So stop spinning your wheels and trying to figure it out and just try to find the best quality of life you can find amid chronic illness. I do not think there is any possibility of unconfessed sin in her life. She has scrutinized her life, every inch of it, to figure out what could this be.
And so maybe we need to think, and at least be asking ourselves the question, “Is there unconfessed sin in our lives that could cause illness?” But on the other hand, to attribute things to unconfessed sin can be demoralizing.
We just live in a broken world. We live in a world where our bodies don't work quite right. Our environment is not quite in the right state to promote our flourishing. And so it just is. It's not God's judgment. It's not some lesson. It just is.
I tend to feel that way about COVID. That it just is. This is just the feature of us being a globally connected society. I don't think of it as a conspiracy or a hoax. I don't think of it as the judgment of God or a warning. It just is.
I was thinking about President Trump's diagnosis. There are millions of people around the world who’ve had the same diagnosis, some of whom have been gravely ill. Some who've had very mild symptoms or none at all. So he's one of the millions of people who've been infected. And yet he has access to the best state of the art medical care, an around-the-clock team who is monitoring his every vital sign. And so the chances of this actually taking his life or causing permanent damage seems so slim to me.
But what the pandemic has done is it's opened our eyes to the disparity in health—the access in different communities, for some even just access to clean water and sanitation. And it's shown us that the world is not a level playing field and that the pandemic does affect some people more than others. And so we probably should ask, in what ways have I contributed to this disparity of wealth and access, and what is my role now in making that right?
Because, based on the prophets, if there's anything that God judges people for more stringently than anything else, it's that they have failed to be neighborly. Their own greed and their own violence have preoccupied them, and they have failed to care for others.
I'm thinking especially of the Book of Amos. Amos 4 is an example of where covenant unfaithfulness leads to covenant curses, but Amos 1 and 2 depict God's judgment on the nations who are not in covenant, but who are being called to task for their brutality, for their violence, and for state-sponsored greed.
And so I think even if we're not asking whose sin caused this pandemic, we should be asking what has this pandemic revealed about our sin and ourselves and how do we need to make it right.
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