Thursday, March 21, 2013

Exodus 7:1-9:35


There is more magic in Genesis and Exodus than I'd ever realized. There was that business of the mandrakes back in Genesis 30, the apotropaic foreskin in Exodus 4:24-26, and the signs that Moses is given to establish his credibility (also in Exodus 4). Moses' and Aaron's staff (or staves, I'm not sure) functions like a magic wand. Now in Exodus 7 there are Egyptian magicians who use their secret arts to recreate the signs performed by Moses and Aaron.

There is a difference between magic and miracle. Arguably, the signs done by Aaron and Moses qualify as miracles. A miracle is a divine intervention in worldly affairs. Magic is a human manipulation of the divine for human ends. The distinction I'm making is basically about who takes the initiative, who is in control. In magic, humans control God, the gods, the forces of nature, or what-have-you.

When Aaron and Moses go to the Pharaoh, Aaron turns his staff into a snake. Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate the feat, but Aaron's snake eats their snakes. But Pharaoh is unimpressed. "His heart was hardened."

Aaron uses his staff to turn the water of the Nile to blood. Pharaoh's magicians are able to do the same thing. This is the first of a series of 10 plagues that will strike Egypt. Pharaoh's magicians are also able to turn water to blood. The Egyptians have no water to drink for 7 days. The text doesn't say that the blood was then turned back into water, but we can probably assume that it did.

As chapter 8 begins, Moses again specifically asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship. The second plague brought on Egypt is an overabundance of frogs in the land. Pharaoh's magicians can also produce frogs. Still, Pharaoh asks Moses to get rid of the frogs. When Moses prays, the frogs die off. They are gathered into huge stinking piles. But, relieved that the frogs are gone, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelites go.

The third plague, also brought about by Aaron's staff, is a cloud of gnats over the land. Pharaoh's magicians cannot reproduce this feat. They tell the Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." Still, Pharaoh's heart is hard.

The fourth plague is flies. There are flies everywhere except in Goshen where the Hebrews live. At this, Pharaoh attempts a compromise. "Offer your sacrifices here," he says.

Moses declines claiming that the Egyptians would find their sacrifices to be abominations.

Pharaoh then agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt, provided they don't go far. Moses accepts these terms and prays so that the flies leave. But once more Pharaoh hardens his heart.

The fifth plague comes in chapter 9. All of the livestock of the Egyptians die off. The Israelites' livestock are unaffected. Pharaoh's heart? Still hard.

Moses tosses soot into the air and produces the sixth plague. The Egyptians are covered with boils. Pharaoh's magicians, covered in festering sores, won't even appear before Moses. In verse 12 we read for the first time that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart." To this point Pharaoh has either hardened his own heart or it is simply sad to be hard.

YHWH's apparent motivation is stated in verses 14 ff.  God wants to demonstrate his power. I'm not quite comfortable with that. It seems show-offy and un-godlike. I mean, we all know where this is going. God is going to kill all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Just to show his power?

The most common description of God in the Hebrew Bible is something like "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." That may not apply to Egyptians.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible there are strains of exclusivism and inclusivism. In some books God is God for all people. Sometimes God smites Egyptians just to show that he can. Since the Bible (and I mean both testaments now) was written by  many people over a long period, I don't expect its various books to be in agreement with one another. Rather, they are in conversation with one another. Reading the Bible is a way of joining the conversation.

As a Christian,* the ultimate revalation of God's nature for me is Jesus Christ. He leans much more toward the "gracious, merciful, slow to anger" side of things.

This is not to dismiss what we read in Exodus. That God is powerful and that he is acting to rescue his chosen people are important statements. But God's revelation in Christ tempers any portrayal of God as capricious or cruel.

But back to the plagues...

The seventh plague is a storm of hail, rain, thunder, and fire (which I must suppose is lightning). It destroys the Egyptian harvests of early crops, flax and barley. The late crops, wheat and spelt, haven't come up yet and are unaffected. Is this a hint of mercy toward the Egyptians?

Moses warned the Egyptians to keep their slaves and livestock indoors lest they be killed by the hail. This forces a question: Where did the Egyptians get livestock? Weren't all their animals killed by the fifth plague?

Maybe it is best not to read these stories too literally.

*I always cringe when I hear someone begin a sentence with the words "As I Christian...." What follows is almost inevitably some horribly un-Christian sentiment.

Next: Exodus 10-12. There are more plagues to come!

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