I was thought of an episode in the Bible relevant to COVID-19 earlier, but my memory failed me when I was going to write today’s blog. It is a very strange episode in Numbers, on one of many times when the Lord had problems with the Israelites. The Israelites are wandering through the desert to the Promised Land, and the Bible says,
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” The LORD sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mount it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.
Now, taking shots for COVID-19 might seem like a less bizarre way of saving a person’s life than a copper serpent on a staff. Certainly there have been those who accused Moses of creating an idol himself by putting up the snake to bring about the Israelites’ salvation. Yet this act was done in a time of extremity, and because people were dying right and left. More, it was done on behest of the LORD. Thinking about it rationally, however, with over 850,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, the situation is equally dire. As the frightened Israelites attained salvation looking at Moses’ copper serpent, so we are asked to do something that apparently people today find as weird as some historians find Moses’ cure: simply taking a shot.
Yet there is something that can be learned by studying this story. Sometimes we do not understand what it is that is making us sick. Perhaps, in fact, it is not merely COVID-19 which is making us sick but a form of idolatry involving Donald Trump. For in his Cult of Personality, it is not reason he is using. He is using people’s least admirable instincts, their secret fears. People apparently fear massive changes in how the future population of America might look. They also fear threats to old values and established norms. Yet because of their contagion, they do not realize that his answers are not the real McCoy for a cure–like the true God and Moses, for all they use strange devices–to those grievances they have that are real. No, they are fed the lie that can lead to their very deaths–and that is why a right-thinking person pities rather than hates them. Why they shouldn’t believe them is almost made crystal clear by that bizarre gold statue of Trump dressed in an American flag made into a pair of boxer underwear. The statue represents a kind of idol to the head of an irreligious cult.
People need to be assured that in the “New America” kids will not simply leave behind everything that made the “Old America” what it was. I remember watching a film about my favorite ex-President, Harry S. Truman (Give ’em Hell Harry) in which he said, “We have to keep kids enthused about our history.”
Indeed he was right. I have nothing against telling kids things that were left out of the traditional history textbook, like that Benjamin Banneker, the designer of Washington, D.C. was an African American. Or that Scott Joplin’s score for Treemonisha–his opera–is great music for all that the ideas it delivers are nearly incomprehensible to modern day listeners. (This is not a big deal; lots of operas are like that. They are great as music but the story sags.) Treemonisha itself was lost for many years until it was rediscovered in Modern Times. And of course, real historians know that besides The Trail of Tears, Tecumseh of the Shawnee Tribe; Geronimo of the Apache tribe; and Chief Joseph of the Nez-Perce Indians all deserve to be remembered. I myself hope to some day study the Native Americans in great detail.
Yet at the same time, our text book must not leave out what was great about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Kids need to know that without General George Washington and later President George Washington, there would have been no America. They need to know that he is the one man in America who could have been king if he had wanted to be, but desisted governing after two terms. They need to know that flawed man though he was, Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and was responsible for the United States doubling its territory under the Louisiana Purchase. They need to know that Jefferson’s friend Madison is considered “the Father of the Constitution” because he was in so many ways its architect. They need to know about Ben Franklin who discovered electricity (or at least proved the theory true) and invented the Franklin stove. They need to know who John and Abigail Adams were, and how Adam told her husband to “remember the ladies” in politics. They need to know about those “great gals” Martha Washington and Dolly Madison, who did so much to aid their husbands in battle (Martha) and in politics (Dolly). They need to know that Abraham Lincoln, who led the fight to save the union and free the slaves, saw himself as bringing about what the founders really intended for the Republic. More, they need to know more than the names of Lincoln’s Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of War Stanton.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Teddy Roosevelt, the “Rough Rider” (who despite being a hunter was an early conservationist). Like Americans of a bygone generation, I also love his second cousins Franklin and Eleanor, who saved America using the New Deal during the Depression and World War II. I am still a fan of Harry Truman, and for the Marshall Plan as much as for his run across the country in 1948. Eisenhower was a better general than president but belongs in the History textbook anyway. John Kennedy had few hard accomplishments but is remembered well because of his assassination and the myth of “Camelot.” LBJ accomplished more (despite his dreadful performance leading the country in Vietnam) in terms of Civil Rights and the Great Society. That Nixon was not exactly a shining example of “how to be a President” is obvious, but how Reagan is rated depends on which side of the political perspective a person is on.
It is true that every kid should know about why the Vietnam War was a failure (and, for that matter, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) but they also need to learn about the American Revolution, the War 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the War Against Spain, World War I, World War II and Korea.
The knowledge above is what I think is needed by every high school age kid. It sounds like a lot–and I know I’m at an advantage as somebody was a History Major in College–but I believe in our kids needing to know the basics of our history. I take as my role model Thomas Jefferson himself. I was watching PBS Antique Roadshow, and learned that an ordinary farmer wrote to Jefferson after his presidency asking if he could give him some advice on “improving” himself, by which he meant education. Thomas Jefferson replied saying that reading was the best means of doing so, and supplying a list of books. In this regard, Thomas Jefferson showed his interest in the average citizens in Virginia who honestly wanted to be better able to farm but also better to govern themselves. He did not see impudence in some small time yeoman asking for his assistance, he was only to happy to give of himself.
This is the Thomas Jefferson forgotten in discussions of Sally Hemmings. It is now undeniable that he had her as a mistress–though we can’t know exactly what their relationship was like. It is even true that unlike George Washington, whose will said that after Martha’s death all of his slaves were to be freed, that most of Jefferson’s slaves outside of the Hemmings family were sold to pay off his debts. Why could he not restrain his spending, so that he could act as Washington did? It is his tragedy that in the Declaration of Independence–and we might not have it without him–his moral vision outpaced the reality of his private life. Yet to treat this man who risked his life for freedom in the American Revolution (like all the Founders he would have been killed if we had lost) as though he had nothing to do with his greatest idea–his seeing that we all have equal rights as human beings–is to me too much of a blow not only against him but our country’s history.
I don’t blame African Americans for wanting the rights they deserve. I just wonder if there are historians throwing out the baby with the bathwater…
As for the story of Moses and his copper serpent… it is a story that transcends reason, transcends politics, which expresses the strange need in human beings to put up idols in times of crisis in place of better values. For though Moses was not an idolater he had to make an image to save the Israelites from themselves.