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On Plagues and Hardened Hearts

A couple weeks ago in our Wednesday Bible study class, we looked at the story of Jonah (you remember, the prophet who ran away from God’s call to preach to the wicked people of Nineveh, and who was swallowed by the big fish?). The question was raised: “How might you regard this story differently if you learned that it was not a work of history, but instead was written as a parable?” We were invited to let go of the debate over whether the story was factual in every detail — because it’s “the Word of God” — and to instead ponder the life lessons that could be gained from engaging with this intriguing tale on an allegorical and spiritual level.

We might do well to approach the Exodus story from the same viewpoint — but before we do, let’s refresh our memories about the first nine of the plagues.

We’ll take this as a sort of quiz. How many of you have watched The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt? While the filmmakers did take some liberties with the biblical text, I think those popular movies probably have helped many of us remember a lot of the story. The account of the plagues covers several chapters of Exodus, so in the interest of time, we’ll do our best to rely on our memories. As we go through these plagues, I want to take notice of the original storyteller’s attention to detail,  and witness the “upping of the ante” as we go along.

If you brought a Bible with you, you can “cheat” by turning to Exodus chapters 7 to 10.

1. Nile to blood (even water already stored; fish died; smell of blood; people dug for water; 7 days)

2. Frogs (came out of water and covered the land, and after, on Moses’ word, they died and stank. Note that these first two plagues mention the smell — remember how a couple weeks ago we read that the hebrew supervisors complained that Moses’ appeal to the Pharoah had brought them “into bad odor” with the Egyptians? There’s some humor in this story!)

3. Gnats/lice (Aaron stirs up dust and it turns into these; magicians could not reproduce this one — Exodus 8:19: “This is the finger of God!”)

4. Flies (this is the first time that the author mentions that the plagues are not happening in Goshen, where the Israelites live. Pharoah says “do your sacrificing here” Moses says 8:26-28 “That would not be right; The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians.” Pharoah — “well, don’t go too far” — and then, when the flies go away, he “hardens his heart.”)

5. Livestock died (again, not in Goshen; this time, Pharoah sends investigators out to confirm this.)

6. Boils (magicians are so afflicted they call in sick — more humor!)

7. Hail (some of Pharoah’s officials heeded the warning and brought people and animals inside, but others dont’t. It’s reported to be “the worst storm in history,” strippig trees, and ruining those crops ready for harvest; again, it doesn’t happen in Goshen. This time Pharoah says, “I have sinned. Pray and I’ll let you go.” Moses says, “I’ll stop it but I know you still don’t fear God.”)

8. Locusts (Moses tells Pharoah what will happen next, and the Egypitan officials beg Pharoah to let them go, saying, “Egypt is being destroyed!” In Exodus 10:8-11, Pharoah asks, “Who will go along? No women and children!” His heart is hardened, and all the rest of the crops are consumed.)

9. Darkness (light in Goshen; In Exodus 10:24-29, Pharoah says, Okay, you can take the children, but leave your animals behind.” Moses replies,”But we won’t know what to sacrifice until we get there!” And in a final jab of humor, there’s one last exchange between the Phraoah and Moses [show Ex 10:28-29]: “Out of my sight!” “Very well, you won’t see my face again” — and the Pharoah’s fate is sealed.)

Our Wednesday Bible study group all purchased study Bibles for our six sessions of What Is the Bible?, the first six-session study of the Dickinson Series produced by the ecumenical  Massachusetts Bible Society. (We’ve enjoyed the first book so much that we’ve decided to go on with the second and third, entitled Introducing the Old Testament and Introducing the New Testament, respectively. There is still space for newcomers, and I’ll bet there are participants who would be happy to loan out their copies of the first book to anyone who’d like to check it out.) I got a new study Bible for myself, and I tell you, I have really enjoyed reading the insights in the margins for these plague stories!

One general observation from those notes that I’d like to share with you is the idea that these plagues are presented as a systematic undoing of the creation — that there are many parallels between the account of the plagues in Exodus and the creation stories of Genesis. In the face of gross human injustice (i.e. the enslavement of the Hebrew people), ecological disasters follow — from the water, the land, and the sky.

The disaster follows a progression:

  • From water to water-animals
  • From water to land (as the dust becomes lice)
  • Then it moves on to sky (as the wind takes away and brings insects)
  • There is a progression from wild animals to domesticated ones, then the people are afflicted
  • Early crops, then later crops
  • And finally (for today), the chaos of darkness reminds us of the beginning of Genesis

Another thing to note is that Pharoah is stubborn all by himself for the first several disasters — but then he reaches the point of no return, and God then does the “hardening” of Pharoah’s heart.

One also observes the progressive loss of confidence between Pharoah and his magician advisors, who first are able to copy Aaron’s signs, then are overcome by them, then can’t copy them (and declare “this is the finger of God”) then they call in sick because of the boils, then there’s a division between those who believe the hail is coming and those who scoff (and then they fall victim to that plague), then they beg Pharoah to give in the demands because “all Egypt is being destroyed!”

Some biblical scholars have asserted that each of the plagues represents the defeat of one of the Egyptian deities: for example, Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile; Heket, the fertility goddess, who is pictured with a frog’s head; and the more widely-known sun god, Ra. There are some variations in these lists, but you get the principle: the plagues represent a great showdown between the “false gods” of the Egyptians and the “true God” of Israel. (Two examples of these lists may be found at the following links:

This past spring an article appeared on the Time magazine website concerning the current scientific theories explaining the plagues. The first is a volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini in the south of Greece; the second is the development of red algae. Both events could have triggered the series of disasters mentioned in Exodus.The article concludes with a reflection on climate change, ending with comments on how the drive for fossil fuel use today is as offensive an ecological injustice as slave labor was a social injustice — a condition that will rain havoc on ourselves if we don’t stop)

Along the same lines, Susan Taylor,  the author of What About Our Money  (the book I read for the recent UMW Mission U event), suggests that the Pharoah of Egypt, in the biblical narrative starting in Genesis with the story of Joseph, introduced the idea of fear, hoarding, and greed which was not part of God’s original plan, and this mindset led to enslaving others, even further moving in the direction of an unjust economy. (It would be later, in the wilderness, with the provision of manna, that the freed slaves would re-learn the dependence on God and the principles of sharing and equality that comprised God’s original vision.) So in her view, the plagues were an undoing, or vengeance, not only against the Egyptians’ deities, but against their economic system and the injustice which it perpetuated.

The Serendipity Bible, which I use with the Brookdale Bible study group, asks of this story: “Why is it that some [people] would rather self-destruct than admit they [are] wrong?” I think that’s an important question, and not just about that old Pharoah from long ago. I think that we should take care not to distance ourselves from this story too much, either by getting caught up in the probability of these plagues happening just as they were described in the biblical account or explaining them away with similar modern-day phenomena, nor by reading them as purely fictional or allegorical, of some showdown between the gods of ancient Egypt and the Hebrew’s God. At least, we should not leave our musing there, at a comfortable distance.

We would do well to imagine godly anger at the injustices today which undo the creation as God intended it, and consider our complicity, apathy and hardness of heart.

Consider the economy of greed, the tendency to individualism and self-aggrandizement. Are the ways of ancient Egypt still at work today?

Consider that human slavery is currently at its highest level in the history of the world, from children and vulnerable adults working in mines to extract the minerals that go into cosmetics and cell phones, and laboring in fishing boats in Asia and Africa, to those trafficked for sex or domestic work, in far-off countries and just down the street.

Consider the injustice of a record 70.8 million displaced persons, forced to leave their homes by violence, famine, lack of access to water. or extreme poverty and how those vulnerable persons are treated when they reach what should be a safe harbor.

Consider the fear fueled by racist rhetoric that is erupting into mistrust, hatred and violence.

One does not have to look far to see forces in play that are undoing the world as God intended it to be. Will our hearts be stirred to compassionate action, or hardened by self-interest? Will it take a plague, or two, or many, to get us to listen? Amen.