To save a life is to save a world
Lois Tverberg explores the Hebraic principle which influenced the teachings of Jesus, and explains why it is relevant to today’s pandemic
Billions of pounds sterling, trillions of dollars. The quantities of money that governments are spending to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic are not just shocking. They’re breathtaking. Political commentators debate how much money is too much, but no one debates the idea that human lives are precious, and that if they are put at risk, we should be extravagant in our spending in order to protect them.
Most of us instinctively resonate with the line made famous by the movie Schindler’s List: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved a whole world” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). This classic rabbinic quotation describes the fact that human life is greatly precious in the eyes of God.
A related principle in Jewish law is called pikuach nephesh, which literally means ‘preserving life’, a rule that all laws (except a few) can be set aside to save a human life. Even though Sabbath laws are quite strict, any one of them can be broken if a life is at stake. Just the possibility is enough to put this principle into effect. As a result, Jewish doctors and nurses go to work on the Sabbath because they may potentially save a life.
Jesus likely had this principle on his mind when he healed on the Sabbath and then responded to his accusers: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9, my italics). In the first Century, a debate was going on about what circumstances were considered life-threatening, and whether improving a person’s life by healing them was considered pikuach nephesh. Jesus was working within Jewish law, rather than rejecting it altogether, in his discussions about healing on the Sabbath.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, this principle of pikuach nephesh has been invoked widely by Jewish leaders to discontinue meeting in person in synagogue services. Even the most sacred feasts like Passover are subject to this rule. Normally every person must gather with family to celebrate Passover but, for the first time in thousands of years, rabbis recommended online gatherings instead, because of pikuach nephesh. A small minority of Christian pastors are still putting their congregants at risk by insisting on gathering for worship. I wonder if Jesus might want to point them towards pikuach nephesh.
A unique viewpoint
The idea that human life is a supreme value may seem second nature to us, but it was without precedent in the ancient Near East. The extreme value of human life was what caused the laws of Israel to fundamentally diverge from those of other nations. The Hittites recorded this court case: a man is leading his ox across a river when he is attacked and murdered by another man, who steals his ox. What’s the penalty? The murderer would be expected to join the victim’s clan and do the work the victim was doing. The loss of life had no value beyond the person’s output as a labourer.
Elsewhere, murder was seen as a debt between two clans that could be paid off with a sum of money. Or, in some law codes, a murderer could offer the wronged party one of the people they ‘owned’ as compensation, like a wife, a son or a slave (or even a few camels, sheep or cows). But in Israel, no amount of money could be exchanged for a life, because nothing could compensate for murder except for the life of the murderer himself. By the first Century, Jewish interpreters narrowed the limits of capital punishment so that it was extremely rare, because they could see the peculiar and supreme value that God placed on human life.
From the very beginning of scripture, God made it clear that human beings are precious to him. We often don’t contemplate how this singular idea has transformed our entire civilisation to the point that it is what makes us ‘civilised’. Hospitals, orphanages and charities of all types have arisen out of the belief that human life must be preserved at any cost. Even secular governments acknowledge this fundamental Judeo-Christian value, and we see it most clearly in their response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Of course, there is perhaps an exception to this rule. Life inside the womb. The apparent discrepancy between a society which values life in so many areas, yet not this one, is one which has long motivated Jews and Christians in their pro-life campaigning).
The pandemic of sin
You can also see how the Torah challenged the theology of the surrounding world. In other ancient creation accounts, humans were created to be slaves to the gods, to relieve them of daily drudgery. The general assumption was that the gods were largely amoral and uninterested in human welfare. The world was arbitrary, unpredictable and cruel. This dismal, pessimistic worldview pervades the writings of surrounding societies.
In contrast, the Genesis stories focus on the creation of humanity. The first man is made from dust like the rest of creation, but he alone receives the breath of life from God himself. He is created in the image of God, and is related to him in a unique way. Because of that, God is our kinsman-redeemer, our protector and saviour. We are called to represent God as his image on earth.
Of course, there is a plot twist. Humans are precious bearers of God’s image and he pronounced the day he created us “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But then sin enters in. First comes the forbidden fruit, and soon after, Cain murders his brother, Abel. Finally, violence fills the earth to the point that it grieves the heart of God. This tragic tension fills all of scripture – that while humans are precious to God, they are plagued by sin. This provides the backdrop of God’s ultimate plan to redeem humankind through Christ. Nations around the world are taking unprecedented steps to deal with Covid-19, but nothing compares to the extreme lengths God went to, in order to deal with the pandemic of sin and heal humanity.