COVID-19 continues to make life unbearable for humanity. In the midst of the crises brought about by it, governments of nations are trying to stop the spread of the virus and prevent their citizenry from contracting it. In Ghana, some people are finding it difficult to observe the various safety protocol outlined by the Government of Ghana and the Ghana Health Service to contain the spread of the virus. One of such flouted regulation is the continual refusal to wear nose masks and or face shields (and other safety protocols) due to their belief in God and on some biblical texts; one of such is Exodus 15:26. This article undertakes a study on the text to find out why God gave that decree and unravel its essence in the light of COVID-19 belief among Ghanaians.
Ghanaian Religious Beliefs
Ghana, a West African country is interspersed with many religions. According to Mbiti, Africans are notoriously religious. This assertion is true with the people of Ghana (Ghanaians), for they interpret everything in line with their religious beliefs. Three main religions are in Ghana, namely: Christianity, Islamic (Muslims), and African Traditional Religion. There are, however, several other religions which are not widely practised.
There are many denominations in the country which are grouped under four main Christian bodies—Ghana Catholic Bishop Conference, the Christian Council of Ghana, the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, and the National Association of Charismatic and Christian Churches. The 2010 national population census reports that Christians are about 71.2% with Pentecostals being 28.3%, Protestants 18.4%, Roman Catholics 13.1%, and other Churches recording 11.4%. Ghanaian population is largely Christians who accept laws and orders from governments, leaders, and among others through the lens of and belief in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (Bible). Even if they do not know the exact text, they try to paraphrase to buttress their argument.
Novel COVID-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) is a novel disease which originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak. COVID-19 is now a pandemic affecting many countries globally. It is also referred to as SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Disease-Corona Virus-2). This means that it is a new form of the disease that attacks the respiratory system of human beings.
According to scientists, the virus spreads primarily from one infected person to another through small droplets from the nose or mouth via coughing, sneezing, or speaking. These droplets are relatively heavy, do not travel far and quickly sink to the ground. These droplets can land on objects and surfaces around the person such as tables, doorknobs and handrails. People can become infected by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. These viruses are no respecter of persons; they infect anyone who fails to heed to the health guidelines. Even with those who practice, they are not immune to the virus.
As said earlier, the virus has spread to many parts of the world like a bush fire, destroying human lives. As of the time of writing this article (June 24, 2020), the total number of deaths worldwide exceeded 475,000. The stems from its rapid spread, infectious nature, and the non-availability of a vaccine have brought panic on a number people, for many people fear they will contract it in their line of duty or when they step out of their homes. This has necessitated for the imposition of many measures by the various heads of states to stop the spread of the virus and to protect their citizenry.
In Ghana, there is the mandatory wearing of face mask, the practice of social (spatial or physical) distancing, thoroughly and regularly washing of hands under running water with soap, and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Others are avoiding handshakes, being physically active, drinking enough water daily, eating healthy, avoiding stress-related activities, and having enough sleep. People are also to stay at home if they have nothing doing outside. Despite these protocols, Ghanaians are still dying from the COVID-19. As of the time of writing this article, 95 people had sadly lost their lives.
Some beliefs of Ghanaians on COVID-19
In Ghana, the first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 12, 2020, by the Hon. Kwaku Agyemang Manu (MP), the Minister of Health. These persons had returned into the country from Norway and Turkey. Fast forwarding, the virus has now spread to almost all the parts of the country with 14,568 people been infected out of which 10,907 have recovered.
In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, the Government has on several occasions addressed the nation on the effect of the virus on the citizenry and measures to stop its spread. In addition to that is the weekly engagements the Ministry of Information with the media, dubbed; “Meet the Press.” This happens on every Tuesday and Thursday and is broadcast live on almost all Ghanaian Televisions. The discussions are translated into more than seven major Ghanaian languages (mother-tongue) to help Ghanaians to understand the message, so that they will know the reality of COVID-19, and observe the safety protocols outlined by the Government and the Ministry of Health to stop the spread of the virus. Recovered patients are often brought on stage to share their experiences.
Among Ghanaians are outlooks of misbelief, for while some do believe the existence of the disease, others do not. Some of those who believe the disease is real are observing safety protocols to avoid contracting, while others find it difficult to observe the safety protocols outlined. They believe that God is not a wicked One to inflict his own with plagues. One of such persons is a story I witnessed on television.
While watching the news on TV with my family, someone who was interviewed (perceived to be a Christian) said, he finds it difficult observing the safety protocols especially the wearing of face mask, for he believes God will not inflict him with the “plagues of other nations.” This view seems to be so for a cross-section of Ghanaians who believe without the wearing of the nose mask and or face shield (and not observing other safety protocols), they cannot contract the virus. They take solace from God’s word to the Israelites in Exodus 15:26, “He said, ‘If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you’” (NLT). They see the COVID-19 as a plague, and of a truth it is. And that God will not destroy them with it, for they belong to him.
This explanation pricked my mind to undertake a study on the text to find out why God gave that decree and unravel its essence in the light of the fight against COVID-19 among Ghanaians.
Background to the Book of Exodus
“Exodus” simply means “going out”, “departure”. Hence the book of Exodus chronicles the mighty acts of God in Israel that led to the deliverance of his nation (the Israelites) from Egyptians. Thus, it brings out how the people of Israel became slaves in Egypt for about a hundred years and how they were rescued by God and became established as a nation. It teaches how the Almighty God made his promises to Abraham to increase his descendants into a nation while as sojourners, became fulfilled. The book also gives the history of the Passover, one of the Jewish festivals our Lord Jesus Christ observed beginning his crucifixion processes (Mark 14:1). The book is attributed to Moses as the author. This is affirmed by the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels (Mark 7:10; 12:26; Luke 20:37; John 5:46-47; 7:19, 22-23).
The book of Exodus can be divided into three parts; chapters 1:1—15:21, which outlines how the nation of Israel became a mighty nation, entered through oppression, and was led out of the land of Egypt; chapters 15:22—18:27, which reveal how God keeps Israel in their wilderness experience; and chapters 19:1—40:38, where God speaks to Israel at Sinai.
In the first part of the book, Moses writes how God delivers God’s chosen people (Israel) from bondage in Egypt. After revealing himself to Moses as the LORD God Almighty (“I AM”), the self-existent, self-sufficient, and eternal God in the burning bush, God chooses Moses as a leader for the nation of Israel to lead them to the Promised Land. As a leader, Moses goes to Pharaoh together with his brother (Aaron) to demand the release of the Israelites, only to be snubbed. The LORD sends ten plagues giving freedom to the Israelites to leave Egypt on their mission to the Promised Land (7:14-13:22).
The Plagues of the Israelites
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a plague is a disease that affects humans and other mammals. It is notorious for killing millions of people in the world. Today, modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague. However, without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death.
The people of Egypt suffered from ten plagues of; blood (7:14-25), frogs (8:1-15), gnats (8:16-19), flies (8:20-32), and against livestock (9:1-7). Others were the plagues of festering boils (9:8-12), hail (9:13-35), locusts (10:1-20), darkness (10:20-29), and the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians which led Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Though the Egyptians had mighty men and pantheon of gods who were mighty as they claimed (Exodus 7:11-13), but none of Egypt’s gods, mighty men, wealth, or powers could keep the LORD from inflicting them with the plagues.
Aside from showing his absolute power over the Egyptian gods, for the Egyptian land was interlaced with gods, God also manifested himself for the Israelites to know that he was with them and had sent Moses, their leader. Hence, they were not inflicted with the pain despite living in Egypt, at Goshen.
The plagues devastated the Egyptians to the extent that their firstborn sons were sacrificed as a result of Pharaoh’s obstinacy. The devastating judgment persuaded Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, but soon had a change of mind and pursued them. God intervened by splitting the Red Sea into two and causing them to pass through on dry land. Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians did not realise the existence of the Hebrew God to the extent of believing in Him, God showed himself stronger through those plagues for them revise their theology. Pharaoh later testified of the existence of the God of the Hebrews; he requested Moses to entreat the Lord that the plague would be removed (Exodus 8:8; 9:28; 10:17).
In a nutshell, God inflicted the Egyptians (Israelites masters or ‘enemies’) with sickness and diseases and kept his people (Israelites) safe from danger.
The Meaning of Exodus 15:26
The text under study falls under the bitter water at Marah incidence. After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the people of Israel walked for three days without water; hence, became very tasty and complained bitterly to Moses for water. This was when they had reached the oasis of Marah, which was too bitter for drinking.
Upon crying, God gave Moses direction to pick a stick into the unsavoury water for them to drink. After Moses obeyed God’s command and performed, the water became tasty for drinking. Clarke explains that the stick represents the cross of Jesus that has been the means of healing infected nature, and through the virtue of which the evils and bitters of life are sweetened. God used it as a typology for humanity to know that only Jesus heals (c.f. 1 Peter 2:24).
After quenching their (Israelites) taste, the LORD gave to them their first command as a standard to test their faithfulness to him. “He said, ‘If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you’” (Exodus 15:26, NLT).
According to Adam Clarke, this command implied that the Israelites were to do three main things; acknowledge Jehovah as their God, and thus avoid all forms of idolatry; receive the word of God and his testimony as coming from heaven, binding on their hearts and lives, not to acknowledge the maxims or adopt the customs of the neighbouring nations; and adorn their profession with a holy life. After they had enjoyed from the healing wood which had changed the unsavoury water, the Israelites were to fully obey God’s dictates thereafter.
God was calling their attention to the incidence of Egypt where the people (Egyptians) were devastated with sorrow, pain and death as a result of the disobedience of Pharaoh. His failure to heed to the command of God spoken through Moses led to their destruction. And if they (Israelites) did same, they were to be visited with same plagues or better still, destruction different from (or mightier than) that. However, their obedience to these principles will keep them away from diseases or plagues the LORD brought on the Egyptians.
The text suggests restricted plagues of the Egyptians. However, it must be noted that the Israelites were to suffer other forms of plagues which they had not witnessed before if they disobeyed God. This is as a result of the other plagues that befell them during the wilderness experiences such as the “plague of the earth’s opening” which swallowed Korah and his counterparts (Numbers 16:32), “the plague for worshipping Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:5-9), “the plague of fire” (Numbers 11:1-3), and among others where the people became disobedient.
I believe God was letting them know that total obedience to him is what he delights in, to qualify him to continually be their God who will heal them, now that he knows that he (God) is their LORD. The text does not suggest that the Israelites were not to fall sick in their obedience, they will, but he (God) will heal them; he is their healer. This is clearly manifested in Numbers 21:4-9 where the obedient children of God who were bitten by a small snake (“plagues”) looked at the bronze snake (Jesus Christ) and were healed from their bites and infirmities.
The import of the text is for Christians to be obedient to God’s commandments once they confessed Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour, and by so doing, he will not allow them to suffer the Egyptian plagues. Even if they do, he will heal them, for he is the healer. To Christians, after believing in Jesus Christ, what follows thereafter is total obedience to God, and nothing else. Christians must totally obey God at all times irrespective of what they may be going through, and he (God) will continually be our healer.
Understanding Obedience in the light of COVID-19 pandemic safety protocols adherence
Obedience is simply an act of submitting to an authority or the command to one in authority. The Judeo-Christian Scripture has much to say on the subject of obedience. Of a truth, without obedience, the Christian faith will not suffice, for it is an essential part of it. The patriarch Abraham was obedient to God to the extent of giving his only son—Isaac as a sacrifice. This was a typology of Jesus Christ who was to die for humanity. Hence, when the time had fully come the Lord Jesus Christ came on earth to express the greatest form of obedience by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). In their line of duty, the early apostles while with Jesus Christ also showed obedience to him in his presence and absence. Their obedience to Jesus Christ to carry the gospel across the length and breadth of their immediate environment through other regions of the world was fully obeyed. This has led to our salvation in Christ Jesus. In Christianity, the taking up of believers cross and following Jesus Christ is a form of obedience.
Jesus Christ gave the litmus test to know those who are truly his “lovers” or friends, which is obedience: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15, GNT). Failing to obey his commandments clearly makes it easier to be known that you do not love Jesus; hence, not his friend. When such people decide to call on him as their Lord, Luke tells us that Jesus Christ will tell them “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Implying that without obedience to Jesus’ command you do not qualify to refer to him as your Lord. Yes, you do not! This does not matter the number of years you might have become a Christian, Jesus will not know you. For Christians to maintain their identity with Christ as their Lord, they must obey Jesus’ command which is the word of God; the duty of the believer to do so.
Aside from being a command or duty, obedience must also be pursued as a result of the love we have for the Lord. You cannot disobey someone you respect or love. This happens to everyone. Even if they tell you to do something difficult (some beyond your means), you try as much as you can to meet their demands. In likewise manner, Christians have to do the same for God—demonstrating our love to him because we love him.
Another dimension of obedience is respecting people in authority as our working definition shows. Many people including Christians think they are to obey God only, and he only will they respect. This is not what the Bible teaches. Believers are to obey God in addition to obeying the authorities he has instituted on earth such as kings, queens, church leaders, heads of nations, etc. The apostle Paul tells the Roman Christians and by extension to all Christians to “…submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Romans 13:1, NLT). He goes on by saying “So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished” (Romans 13:2, NLT). It means that God has instituted government and ordained as his; hence, expects the citizenry to not oppose the regular execution of the laws. For so doing, one opposes him (God). Albert Barnes teaches that Christians must not be agitated about the titles of the rulers; not to enter into angry contentions, or to refuse to submit to them, because we are apprehensive of a defect in their title, or because they may have obtained it by oppression. If the government is established, and if its decisions are not a manifest violation of the laws of God, we are to submit to them.
In view of this, Ghanaians must submit to the authority of the government. They must obey the safety protocols instituted which includes the mandatory wearing of a nose mask and or face shield, the practice of social (spatial or physical) distancing, thoroughly and regularly washing of hands under running water with soap, and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Others are avoiding handshakes, being physically active, drinking enough water daily, eating healthy, avoiding stress-related activities, and having enough sleep. Adhering to these are not against the teachings of the Bible.
From the discussions so far, we know that what God expects from humanity especially his own is to obey him and the institutions or government he has established. He also expects us to fully obey the laws they enact so far as they do not contradict the Bible. The Government of God, in consultation with the Ghana Health Service and other health professionals, in attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect lives, has outlined a number of preventive measures such as social distancing, regular washing of hands under running water, the use of hand sanitizer, wearing of face masks or shields, and among others are expected to be obeyed by Ghanaians. Since the government is instituted by God and he expects us to respect and obey laws such institutions enact so far as they do not go against biblical teachings and standards, Christians must not be recalcitrant to disobeying these safety guidelines. Our failure to obeying these directions especially the wearing of face mask or shield which seems to be the fulcrum of preventive measures makes us disobedient to God, for he instituted the government. We will then be inviting the “plague of the Egyptians” which in this case is COVID-19.
Pastor Emmanuel Foster Asamoah, MPhil, Research Associate, Department of Religious Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi. District Pastor, The Church of Pentecost, Antoakrom, Kumasi. His areas of interest are New Testament Apocalyptic Literature, New Testament Studies, Bible Translations, and Mother-tongue Biblical Hermeneutics. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org