Comparing COVID-19 With the Biblical Plagues
Coronavirus—a plague of “biblical proportions.” That’s how leaders and commentators far and wide (even including the Islamic State) have termed it.
Just how accurate is that assessment? Is it even possible to compare? The Bible actually gives us a fair bit of data regarding a handful of plagues that afflicted ancient Israel. In this article, we’ll crunch the numbers and see how they compare with the coronavirus pandemic of today—to see how truly “biblical” it is.
Spoiler alert: The coronavirus-related numbers are “biblical”—though perhaps not in the way you may think.
There are three key numbers to consider: death toll, general duration of the plague, and overall population numbers. Before we begin, we must qualify the biblical population count: We will use the raw, face-value numbers provided in the Bible. Censuses of males 20 years and older, “able to go forth to war” were taken at the start of the Exodus, at the end of the Exodus, and during the reign of King David. From those, we can roughly extrapolate a general population figure.
Plague of Korah
Summary: Following an attempt to usurp power from Moses, Korah and his men are miraculously “swallowed up” by the earth. The Israelites subsequently blame Moses for the deaths, and God sends a “plague” upon the embittered Israelites, ending after Moses and Aaron intercede. Circa 1445 b.c.e.
- Death toll: 14,700
- Duration: Minutes
- Population of Israel: around 2 million (603,550 fighting men)
- Percent of population killed: 0.74
- Daily death toll (hypothetical): Anywhere from 2 million to 20 million
- Reference: Numbers 16 (Population: Numbers 1)
Plague of Peor
Summary: Israelite men begin fraternizing, sacrificing and indulging in widespread prostitution with Midianite and Moabite women. A “plague” is sent upon the people, ending after a leader of the idolatrous group is slain along with his Midianite whore. Circa 1410 b.c.e.
- Death toll: 24,000
- Duration: Days?
- Population of Israel: around 2 million (601,730 fighting men)
- Percent of population killed: 1.2
- Daily death toll: Anywhere from 4,000 to 24,000
- Reference: Numbers 25 (Population: Numbers 26)
King David’s Pestilence
Summary: David calls for a census of Israel’s military, against God’s will. As a result, a “pestilence” comes upon the people, ending after David asks God to punish him instead, and sacrifices at the site of the future temple. Circa 980 b.c.e.
- Death toll: 70,000
- Duration: 2-3 days
- Population of Israel: around 5 million (1.57 million fighting men)
- Daily death toll: approximately 25,000
- Percent of population killed: 1.4
- Reference: 2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21 (Population: 1 Chronicles 21)
Numerous other plagues are described in the Hebrew Bible; however, these lack a death toll or other parameters. Nonetheless, the inference is that thousands—if not tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—were likewise killed. There is the bubonic-type plague of the Philistines after they captured and paraded the ark of the covenant. (“[F]or there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven”; 1 Samuel 5:11-12, King James Version.) There was the Plague of the Quail (“While the flesh was yet between their teeth … the Lord smote the people with a very great plague”; Numbers 11:33). Of course, there were the famous plagues of Egypt (which included diseases) that broke the back of the entire country and led to the Exodus (Exodus 7-12). The list goes on.
Now, let’s look at the coronavirus figures. Both worldwide and Israel figures are given (data as of early November, at the time of writing):
- Death toll: Worldwide–1,273,714; Israel–2,592
- Duration (since first registered death): Worldwide–10 months; Israel–8 months
- Population: Worldwide–7.8 billion; Israel–8.9 million
- Daily death toll: Worldwide–4,176; Israel–11
- Percent of population killed: Worldwide–0.016; Israel–0.03
So how do the numbers stack up? Well, let’s stick with Israel (since we’re making comparisons with the ancient nation and the numbers are more reliable; “worldwide” data actually artificially lowers the overall figures). In comparing the maximum coronavirus numbers with the minimum biblical plague numbers:
- The least of the above-described biblical plagues had a daily death toll 400 times greater than coronavirus (at a minimum; 2,000 times greater maximum).
- In overall numbers, the plague with the smallest death toll killed nearly six times as many people as coronavirus (but in a matter of minutes—compared to eight months of coronavirus).
- The smallest percentage of biblical Israel’s population killed is nearly 2,400 times greater than the percent killed by coronavirus.
Again, comparing the data with the worldwide coronavirus figures available would result in an even bigger numerical gap. It goes without saying, then, that the biblical plagues for which there is known data were almost incomprehensibly deadlier than coronavirus. (And the given numbers don’t take into account that the biblical plagues would have targeted certain Israelite tribes, territories or groups differently—thus resulting in far higher mortality rates.) All in all, our minimum biblical figures are hundreds to thousands of times greater than our maximum coronavirus figures.
The Real ‘Apocalyptic’ Numbers
None of this diminishes the fact that coronavirus is a deadly disease and a real curse. All diseases are (Exodus 15:26; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). But it is not the apocalyptic plague that commentators have made it out to be. Other plagues in more “modern” history are: the 1918-20 Spanish Flu (some 50 million deaths, in a world population less than a quarter of today’s); and most famously, the “Black Death” of the Middle Ages, which killed between one and two thirds of Europe’s entire population (with estimates between 75 million to 200 million people).
Coronavirus, though, is not even in the top three most fatal worldwide pandemics of the past 100 years. The top three are the Spanish Flu (which lasted into 1920), the 1957 Asian flu and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. You may not have heard as much about the latter two—while the overall death tolls for each range between 1 million to 4 million, the smaller population at the time meant that even if we go with the lowest death tolls, people were more likely to succumb to these diseases than the current population is to coronavirus.
What is unprecedented about this current outbreak is the reaction to it—specifically, the worldwide societal shutdown. This is what is leading to some truly “apocalyptic” numbers. In April, the World Food Program released a stunning projection (one that was widely—and rightly—proclaimed as “biblical”): that as a result, 265 million people around the world could face starvation. Lockdowns, it turns out, don’t just affect the country at hand, they have a knock-on effect around the globe. On a smaller, individual national scale: In the United Kingdom, projections have been made that as many as 50,000 could die of cancer alone as a result of missed screenings (that’s as many as have died in the UK of coronavirus itself). In Australia, economic experts have predicted 1,500 suicides per year as a result of the Australian lockdown and economic slump (that’s nearly twice as many as have died of the virus in that country).
Many economic experts view the reaction to coronavirus as national suicide. The United States—already over $27 trillion in debt—has spent $4 trillion on this pandemic alone. That’s the equivalent of $33,000 for every single household. The UK is spending roughly £500 billion (us$660 billion); that’s over £18,000 ($24,000) per household, and it’s a full third of its national debt. Experts have forecast that the eventual economic fallout for the UK will be far beyond the 1929 Great Depression or either world wars—instead, they point to a time over three centuries ago: the Great Frost of 1709. Yet the “biblical” coronavirus spending in both countries is hardly criticized on either side of the aisle of government. There are eager calls for more.
As for Israel? So far, the nation has allocated ₪100 billion ($29 billion) for tackling coronavirus. That works out to ₪40,000 ($12,000) for each household. And the above is all simply money being spent—not including the incalculable amount of money lost through shuttered industries and businesses. “The borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7, New International Version).
Those are not economic numbers that simply go away.
Those are numbers that start world wars.
Coronavirus as a disease may not be comparable with the scale of the ancient biblical plagues. But the fallout will be even worse.
All diseases are a curse—coronavirus certainly is. And coronavirus comes as part of the bevy of prophesied curses to fall upon our people in the “end time.” (The sum of dramatic events of 2020 have been a case in point). But another prophesied curse is a fearful, knee-jerk overreaction, which can be even more detrimental. “The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and panic” (Deuteronomy 28:28; New Living Translation). “… I will even appoint over you terror …. [T]he sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them …. they shall fall when none pursueth. And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword …” (Leviticus 26:16, 36-37; King James Version).
So what should our perspective be? Our March-April issue of the Watch Jerusalem magazine focused on the coronavirus pandemic, specifically this question. In his From the Editor piece, “Coronavirus in Prophecy,” Gerald Flurry wrote:
How should we respond to what we are witnessing? What is going to happen? Many are asking these questions.
It is right to be sobered by this pandemic. God is trying to get our attention. The Bible clearly tells us that He uses catastrophes, including disease and pestilence epidemics, to correct mankind. There are prophecies showing that far worse disease outbreaks are yet ahead.
Ultimately, the Bible does prophesy end-time plagues in a time of world upheaval that will dwarf even the ancient biblical plagues. Ezekiel 5-6, as one example, describe a full third of the modern nations of Israel dying of pestilence (and another third dying of violence; this includes the United States and British peoples—request our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy for more information). As Mr. Flurry explained, these prophesied plagues are intended to turn a stubborn people to God. “The Bible is clear: God allows disease and pestilence epidemics to come upon us. Why?” He continued:
As Daniel wrote, “… that we might turn from our iniquities, and have discernment in Thy truth” (Daniel 9:13). God wants crises like the coronavirus to humble us, to cause us to seek His truth, and to change the way we live and think. Has the coronavirus had this effect on you?
Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has not had that effect for a majority of people. Rather than turn to God, mankind has relied on his own devices—and in doing so, inevitably made the problem dramatically worse. The present coronavirus pandemic is a case of extreme physical overreaction—but extreme spiritual under-reaction. And so inevitably, the curses become multiplied.
“Where is this leading?” Mr. Flurry asked. “We are already experiencing the preliminary stages of what the Bible terms ‘Jacob’s trouble’ in which one third of the populations in Israelitish nations will die—before being directly attacked by foreign enemies (Jeremiah 30:7; Ezekiel 5:1-2, 12).” He continued:
These passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel and Zechariah are not dusty old prophecies. They are mostly for our time today! They are dramatic, dire prophecies whose fulfillment lies directly before us! Multiple millions of people are prophesied to perish from sickness and disease. What will it take for more people to simply believe God?
‘And There Is Hope For Thy Future’
Just as the Bible predicts a surge in pandemics and their severity, it also prophesies their end, once a repentant humanity finally turns to God and allows themselves to be led by the soon-coming Messiah. This will begin a new era, free from not only disease but also needless fear, famously described in Isaiah 35:3-6, 10:
Strengthen ye the weak hands, and make firm the tottering knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, fear not’; Behold, your God will come … He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, And the tongue of the dumb shall sing …. They shall obtain gladness and joy, And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
It is important, then, to keep coronavirus in biblical perspective—to surrender to God sooner, rather than later—to not, as is so typical, depend on the human intervention that so often makes a problem far worse than it already is. And to pray for the coming of the Messiah, when “the Lord that healeth thee” will rule mankind.