Jehovah Rapha and COVID-19

* Though I used “Jehovah” in the title of the post, I will use the term ‘YHWH’ in the content’s body. See the following post for the problems of the name “Jehovah” : 여호와, 야훼 JEHOVAH, YAHWEH.
* This post is a much abbreviated and revised version of my published article in 재난 시대를 극복하는 한국교회 (publisher: 킹덤북스; organization: 대한예수교장로회총회, 2020)

1. YHWH Rapha: its usual (and misunderstood) meanings in faith communities (especially Christian ones)

Before I begin, I must say that I will problematize the concept of YHWH Rapha, but my critique perhaps applies only to Korean Christian communities. It is my hunch that most Christian communities share the same notion of the expression, YHWH Rapha. But I honestly cannot verify whether the same problem pervades most Christians’ perception of the term.

For most Christians in Korea, YHWH Rapha means God heals Christians and saves them from all kinds of illnesses and diseases. But its meaning is not that simple, and therefore, should not be used as such. Nonetheless, in the pandemic, the expression is abusively utilized and eventually creates a backdraft against the reputation of Christianity. Though I do not think that I can stop its abusive appropriation, I still want to spread a better understanding of the expression.

2. YHWH Rapha: the words

“YHWH Rapha” is an expression that does not actually appear in the Hebrew Bible in its exact form. The phrase originates from Ex 15:26, in which God promises, “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you.” Here, the expression “the LORD who heals you” is the origin of “YHWH Rapha” and transliterated as “Yahweh Roph-ekha.” To be more specific, “Yahweh” is “YHWH,” and “Roph-ekha” is “your healer,” which is rendered into “who heals you.” As you can see from the image above, Hebrew is written from right to left. Thus, roph-ekha is on the left side, composed of four consonant letters (in black). And among the four letters, the first three letters (ר פ א) are the root of Rapha, meaning “to heal,” and the last one is a pronominal suffix, “your” (masculine singular). “Roph-e” is the participle masculine singular form of the verb, meaning “the one who heals,” hence “the healer.” YHWH Rapha is an expression derived from the event that occurred in Exodus 15, where God claims to be “the healer” (roph-ekha) to promise Israelites protection from diseases.

But why does God promise this protection? Did Israelites do something commendable or pleasing to God? No. Far from it. They, in fact, did something that they should not be proud of. Nonetheless, the text proclaims God’s healing power. The storyline does not flow naturally. This is why we should carefully examine the text before appropriating God’s power to heal us.

3. YHWH Rapha: its context

When Israelites escaped from Egypt, they almost immediately encountered a life-threatening event in front of the sea, usually known as the Red Sea. The Egyptian army was chasing after them, and Israelites could not go any further because of the sea. According to the narrative, however, God miraculously saved them from the threat by drying the water or (more famously) splitting the water. Whichever is the case, Israelites again experienced God’s power to save them from an impasse. Still soon after that, they started complaining about the lack of water amid the wilderness because the water they found after three days of wandering in the wilderness was not drinkable. So Moses cried out to YHWH for help. Then God fixed the problem.

Then the narrative turns to a new direction, perhaps because the compiler used more than one source to complete this story, but that is not the concern here. I will take the passage as it stands and will not separate sources. But the reader of the text should be aware of the narratological difficulties here though that is not the primary concern of the post. I just want to suggest how one can understand the meaning of “YHWH Rapha” in the final form of the text.

The narrator says that YHWH made for them a statute and an ordinance after fixing the water, which makes sense. Since they complained about their situation almost right after the miracle at the sea, YHWH should have set a rule so that Israelites do not complain later. (Nonetheless, we do not know what the rules were). But it is very awkward then that YHWH put them to “the test.” (see 25b)

15:25b There the LORD made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test. 26 He said, “if you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you.” (NRSV)

Exodus 15:25b and the following verses do not nicely fit into the immediate context. The test cannot refer back to the event of wandering without water, because, if so, the lawgiving event should have occurred before the test. Rules should be given before a test. But the law giving event happened after fixing the water. That is, we cannot find any event that can be called “the test” in the text. Moreover, it is also not clearly stated why YHWH mentions diseases and God’s healing power in this context, in which no disease or illness actually occurred. The text just says that Israelites quenched their thirst thanks to YHWH despite their complaints.

In this situation, if we wish to read the text without separating the sources here, we may have to reconstruct the story with a little bit of interpretive imagination. Here is what I come up with.

YHWH fixed the water, but YHWH had to give them a lesson about their complaints after all the miraculous deliverances. So YHWH punished them with diseases that YHWH brought to Egypt though YHWH eventually healed them. Then YHWH said, “I will make a statute and ordinance for you Israel. Do not complain but trust me. Otherwise, I will bring the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians and you today. If you endure all difficulties without complaining in the wilderness, however, I will never bring the diseases, but rather heal you and save you from all the diseases, because I am YHWH your healer!”

4. YHWH Rapha: a better understanding

This rereading is not the only way to understand the text. In fact, this is not what the text says. It is also possible to move the YHWH Rapha section along with the passage about law giving to somewhere appropriate, for instance, at the end of the plague narrative, in which God saves Israel from all the diseases, illnesses, and even disasters that God brought to Egypt. Then you should consider relocating the test section.

But, if you read the text as it stands, no matter how you interpret it, the announcement of YHWH’s healing power would require punishment or at least a warning of punishment, because God’s healing power mentioned at the end of v. 26 should be a consolation of a punishment or a warning.

Therefore, YHWH Rapha does not just mean a romantic God’s power to deliver Israel from any circumstance whenever they pray. Rather its messages should include God’s warning about Israelites’ complaint.

For many Christians, “our sins” caused COVID-19, and “we” should repent. Of course, Kant would say, “the causality between the appearance of the virus and someone’s sins cannot be verified. Therefore, it is not reasonable to blame someone for what is happening now.” I understand this position, and it is not my intention to negate this reasoning.

I am just trying to say that it is wrong to claim that God will heal us or protect us no matter what happens under any circumstances. God will not heal anyone if they keep doing unhygienic behaviors such as gathering closely without wearing masks or touching one another by shaking hands or giving hugs even though they do that in the name of God. Such behaviors should rather be called “testing God,” not “belief in God.” Lots of Korean Christians, as a matter of fact, became the virus carriers doing dangerous behaviors and spread it all over. I admit that it is not possible to scientifically and specifically prove the connection between those Christian virus carriers and the actual spread of the virus. However, the sudden surge of the number of positive test cases of COVID-19 after their unhygienic religious activities suggests that is actually the case. They made the entire Korean community suffer from various problems, including the forced closure of many people’a business. Christians should understand that YHWH gave the promise of YHWH Rapha after, not before, YHWH established a statute and an ordinance and told Israelites to heed to YHWH’s voice. That is the condition. That is a prerequisite.

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