On an ordinary day in 1347 a lone ship came into dock at the port of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik). No doubt friendly jibes were exchanged between the crew and the workers on the dock as the ship’s cargo unloaded. And no doubt everyone eventually got back to work. After all, it was a busy place. Everything seemed normal, the world was well.

Except it was not an ordinary day.

Unbeknown to all on that ship, and several other ships that followed into the nearby ports of Venice and Milan, they were carrying rats.

Rats in themselves were not unusual, but these rats had fleas bringing the Black Death – also known as the Plague – already rampant in countries to the east.

Within a few weeks it had spread around the port areas of Italy, and slowly but surely the Plague began its slow march across western Europe.

The first quarantine

In those days of slow travel, it took around seven years for the Plague to cover the landmass of Europe, beginning in Central Asia. Today in 2020 we covered the same ground with Covid-19 in weeks, such is our ease of travel and our frenetic pace of life.

We can count ourselves fortunate that in the 2020’s, whatever else we have to put up with, it will not be the mortality rates of the 14th Century. The Plague wiped out hundreds of millions of people, up to 60 per cent of the population of Europe. Thank God, this will not be the case for us facing coronavirus, but there are still lessons to be learned from the way the people of Ragusa managed the crisis.

Ragusa was not the first city to be overcome by the Plague but, in 1377, it was the first to pass official quarantine legislation. By ordering apparently healthy sailors and traders to isolate for a period of 30 days (later extended to 40 days), the town officials showed a remarkable understanding of incubation. People arriving with no symptoms at all were held for the quarantine period  to determine if they were disease-free.

Quarantine and scripture

The word quarantine comes from the Latin quadraginta and the Italian quaranta, both meaning “40 days”. This word was chosen because of its strong biblical roots.

The number 40 occurs many times and in lots of contexts in the Bible, but although every case is different, most of the biblical periods of 40 relate to the single idea of waiting and testing:

  • 40 days and 40 nights of rain when God flooded the Earth.
  • 40 years wandering in the wilderness for Israel. Because they did not obey God, they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
  • 40 days of Moses on the mount receiving the Ten Commandments; while there, “he neither ate bread nor drank water” (Exodus 34:28, ESV).
  • 40 days given to Nineveh; if they did not repent, their city would be destroyed.
  • 40 days of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
  • 40 years of rule for many of Israel’s Judges; and kings Saul, David and Solomon each reigned for 40 years (although many believe that in the Bible the term “40 years” often simply means “a really long time”).

We are all in “quarantine”

We are all currently in a state of waiting and testing: economically, psychologically, mentally, physically and spiritually, and it feels like a trial. The novelty of clapping for our emergency workers is a fading memory, and the air of discovery of those early online meetings has turned into a kind of Zoom fatigue.

To be sure, some people enjoy the enforced quietness, the ability to cycle on calm roads and the welcome break for our climate – and these are important, but most of us miss something of our old life.

Initially the experts talked about a “V” shaped recovery period, which was then adjusted to a “U” shape (ie with a longer time down at the bottom). Recently, I read an economist’s article talking about a “W” shaped recovery. I don’t know who’s right, but to me this wait is starting to feel like a whole line of “W’s” end to end.

As we wait in this U, V or W quarantine, what can we learn from the biblical periods of waiting?

Although the 40 years of wandering in the desert for ancient Israel was punishment for their inconsistency and lack of trust, it nevertheless showed them that God really was dependable. He met with them, he showed them the way and he sustained them with “bread from heaven” - daily.

But it was one day at a time, each day lived with little knowledge of what would happen the next day, except for God’s promise. Living each day for that day alone is something I am starting to think about now – maybe you are, too? What can you see that is good, just today?

In the New Testament, Jesus fasted for 40 days. He was left physically weak and susceptible, and yet, somehow, it brought him closer to God. His waiting in the wilderness connected him with God in ways that ultimately strengthened him, enabling him to face great trials (it’s where we get the Christian idea of Lent from).

This is a hard truth to accept, but sometimes God needs our weakness in order to connect to us. Even the Apostle Paul eventually discovered this: it was precisely when he felt weak that God’s presence in him reached its peak: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12).

Waiting, feeling weak, with little idea of the future isn’t something we would choose, but good can come of it.

Lots of people tell me we are living in historic times. I’m told people will write about these times for ages to come. Most of us, however, including myself, have decided we don’t like living in historic times; we quite liked the ordinary times when you could…well, go out and meet people.

That’s also something to think about in our “quarantine”. When all of this comes to an end, and it will, we must celebrate an ordinary day.

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