Monthly Archives: March 2017

Exodus 9: Hard Hearts and Hard Consequences

Gustav Dore, The Fifth Plague: Livestock Disease from Dore’s English Bible (1866)

Exodus 9: 1-7 Pestilence and Hard Hearts

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2 For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, 3 the hand of the LORD will strike with a deadly pestilence your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. 4 But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites.'” 5 The LORD set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.” 6 And on the next day the LORD did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died. 7 Pharaoh inquired and found that not one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

While the signs in the chapters seven and eight provided an inconvenience for the Egyptian people, in chapter nine the intensity of discomfort is increased as the pressure exerted by the LORD on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt to let the people go intensifies. Now the food supply and personal health of the people is impacted. Even when the waters of the Nile turned to blood there was a way to dig for drinkable water. Here pestilence and disease and what we would still today call ‘acts of God’ threaten the livelihood of the people in their continued resistance to the LORD.

Like the preceding sign, the LORD differentiates between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The livestock of the Israelites are unaffected by this pestilence while the Egyptian livestock and flocks perish. Yet, the entire food supply is not wiped out, the grain is still in the fields and there is still a path for life to continue. As when the frogs, a sign of abundance and fertility, threatened to overwhelm life and then polluted the land with their dead bodies and smell, now the beasts of labor and the meat producing animals die in the fields- sources of commerce and feasting now lay in waste needing to be disposed of.

Throughout this chapter, we will encounter the rhetorical use of ‘all.’ If truly all the livestock are lost here at the beginning of chapter nine, then the opportunity to bring in ‘slaves and livestock’ to a secure place at the end of the chapter make little rhetorical sense. Yet, the manner of telling the signs does draw a harsh connection between the protection offered to the Israelites and the impact of the pestilence on the Egyptians.

Much later, at the end of the Judean kingdom, prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel will use pestilence along with famine and the sword as the complete list of manners in which the people of Judea will be reduced. When Israel or Judea begins to act like Egypt and their kings begin to act like Pharaoh they too will see God’s judgment attempt to call them to repentance. Yet here, as later in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the pre-exilic prophets we see God continuing to restrain the final cost in human life. Yet, at the end of the time before the exile, as here, the hearts of the leaders were hardened and they would not listen to the prophets speaking God’s word to them. Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah saw that only God was going to change the hearts of the people of their time. As Ezekiel could say, “I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 11.19, see also Jeremiah 31:33)

Exodus 9: 8-12 Sores and the Failure of the Magicians

 8 Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. 9 It shall become fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt.” 10 So they took soot from the kiln, and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses threw it in the air, and it caused festering boils on humans and animals. 11 The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians. 12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.

For the first time the signs begin to impact the health of the people of Egypt and the leaders. This will be the first time where the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart will be attributed to the LORD and perhaps it is the first time that Pharaoh himself will feel the direct impact of the signs. Before this point the magicians have acknowledged that the signs (with the gnats/lice) are the finger of God but here the boils have left them unable to even stand before Moses. As Rabbi Sacks can point out, “Remember that Job lost everything he had, but did not start cursing his fate until his body was covered with sores: Job 2.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 71)

Both its place within the groups of plagues (third in a series of three) and its initial form sets this plague up in parallel with the gnats/lice that come from the dust. As mentioned above the magicians in both cases are powerless to replicate (the swarm) or even stand before Moses (here). Both are thrown into the air and it is the air that carries the dust and ash towards the Egyptian people. Yet, suggestively, the ash might come from the kilns used to make the bricks the Israelites have been forced to make. Now the fiery furnaces which were used to build up the Egyptian empire on the backs of the Hebrew slaves may have their own role to play in the humbling of Pharaoh the bringing down the might of Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites. (Myers, 2005, p. 85)

Here is the point in the signs and wonders where both the magicians and Aaron exit the drama and narrative focuses on Moses and the LORD and Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Moses has moved beyond the point where he needs a spokesman or a prophet. Even here Moses and Aaron pull out ash from the kiln but only Moses throws it in the air. The intermediaries are no longer needed as the drama enters its critical juncture. Perhaps the drama has gone too far to change course at this point, or perhaps there is still a chance for Pharaoh to repent, as he does briefly below, but as we enter the final contest between the LORD and the gods of Egypt we are entering a moment of life or death significance. To continue in the ways of oppression and slavery will lead to fatal consequences.

Exodus 9: 13-35 An Act of God

 13 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 14 For this time I will send all my plagues upon you yourself, and upon your officials, and upon your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth. 17 You are still exalting yourself against my people, and will not let them go. 18 Tomorrow at this time I will cause the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Send, therefore, and have your livestock and everything that you have in the open field brought to a secure place; every human or animal that is in the open field and is not brought under shelter will die when the hail comes down upon them.'” 20 Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place. 21 Those who did not regard the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the open field.

 22 The LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that hail may fall on the whole land of Egypt, on humans and animals and all the plants of the field in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire came down on the earth. And the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; 24 there was hail with fire flashing continually in the midst of it, such heavy hail as had never fallen in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 The hail struck down everything that was in the open field throughout all the land of Egypt, both human and animal; the hail also struck down all the plants of the field, and shattered every tree in the field. 26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail.

 27 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Pray to the LORD! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” 29 Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. 30 But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the LORD God.” 31 (Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. 32 But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they are late in coming up.) 33 So Moses left Pharaoh, went out of the city, and stretched out his hands to the LORD; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer poured down on the earth. 34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials. 35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses.

My wife holding one of the hailstones from the mentioned storms

Last Sunday night a ferocious storm rolled through north Texas, where I live, dropping two inch hailstones on my house (and in some locations hailstones the size of baseballs). In a modern home with both wood and shingles providing insulation for the roof the noise of the storm was intense. When I walked around my property in daylight the next day the yard looked like it had been aerated because of all the divots the hailstones made in the ground. My car looked like someone had taken a ball-peen hammer to the roof and hood. Fortunately, no glass was broken on the house but the force of the storm was incredible. I lived for five years in Oklahoma and have seen the aftermath of tornadoes, though the worst damage I personally experienced was a time when a tornado stripped some of the shingles off the roof and knocked down my fence (neighbors two miles away were not so lucky.) I have been in Houston when a tropical storm rolled in flooding areas and knocking out power. We frequently refer to these natural disasters as acts of God and the power of a storm, a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake or any other natural disaster can make us realize the minute power we may have to resist the elements at these critical moments. I can only imagine a storm like this in the ancient world where most living conditions are much less robust than modern homes.

This begins the final set of signs and for the first-time things turn deadly to humans who do not heed the warning that is given. Moses becomes the early warning system to Pharaoh and his officials that an ‘act of God’ is indeed coming and how the people should react. The people and the livestock (which remains after the rhetorical ‘all’ in the pestilence above) are to be brought into a secure place. This, like the frogs and the death of the first born, is one of those places where the word plague is used. Here, unlike the previous signs there will be loss of life for those who do not listen as well as the loss of crops. After the preceding signs, there are some who listen and act and yet some remain who are obstinate and refuse to heed the warning that Moses brings. The thunder and lightning, hail and fire bring disaster upon the land and upon the crops. Yet, even here there is every restriction made to avoid the loss of human life. The flax and barley harvest are decimated in the storm but the wheat and the spelt still have the potential to allow life to continue. One of the other dynamics in the story of the people of Israel in Egypt is the gathering in of excess grain to prepare for the famine. As Scripture recollects the story of the Hebrew people there is the memory that since the time of Joseph the Egyptians began laying up grain for a time of famine, and this practice allowed for the ascendance of Pharaoh’s increased power. Now here the decimation of the grain in the fields brings Pharaoh for the first time to repentance.

Here for the first-time Pharaoh seems ready to let the people go in the midst of the hailstorm. The language that, “I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” For the first-time Pharaoh acknowledges that he has done something wrong and that now the “people may go.” Pharaoh will harden his heart again once the storm relents, but here is the first time where Pharaoh is humbled to this point and the possibility of a lasting freedom is voiced. Repentance here only brought a temporary change of behavior. Like an addict who returns to his chosen addiction Pharaoh’s heart hardens and the status quo remains in place. The pain of the signs and wonders of the LORD is still apparently not sufficient to allow Pharaoh to let the slaves go free and to abandon the economic system which is built upon their backs.

John Martin, The Seventh Plague (1823)

Exodus 8 The Insignificant Brings Low the Mighty

The god Khnum accompanied by Heqet, molds Ihy in a relief from the Mammisi (birth temple) at Dendra Temple complex

Exodus 8: 1-15: The Second Sign

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2 If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. 3 The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. 4 The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.'” 5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.'” 6 So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. 7 But the magicians did the same by their secret arts, and brought frogs up on the land of Egypt.

 8 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron, and said, “Pray to the LORD to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.” 9 Moses said to Pharaoh, “Kindly tell me when I am to pray for you and for your officials and for your people, that the frogs may be removed from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” 10 And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “As you say! So that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God, 11 the frogs shall leave you and your houses and your officials and your people; they shall be left only in the Nile.” 12 Then Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh; and Moses cried out to the LORD concerning the frogs that he had brought upon Pharaoh. 13 And the LORD did as Moses requested: the frogs died in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 14 And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank. 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.

The first sign which appeared in the previous chapter struck at the bleeding heart of Egypt and here in the second sign or warning, the plague of frogs takes the fertility of the land and now that fertility overwhelms the ability of the Pharaoh, his wise men and the magicians to control. These seems a strange sign and an odd display of power and yet the next three signs use things that on their own are weak and insignificant to bring the mightiest power of that time to the point of begging for Moses and Aaron to intercede for them. Frogs called up from the waters of Egypt will lead even Pharaoh to for a time acknowledge the LORD’s power in the land.

The Egyptian goddess Heqet, a goddess of fertility and childbirth

Frogs seems an odd choice and yet there is perhaps something to be seen in this choice. Frogs and the death of the first born in chapter eleven are the only signs where the language of plague is used (even though we are used to calling them the ten plagues).  Perhaps the connection goes back to fertility. In Ancient Egypt, the goddess Heqet, which is depicted as having a frogs head is one of the goddesses of fertility and seems to be the most ancient of these (since most of the other fertility images seem to be imported from other regions at later times). The association between Heqet, birth and fertility probably goes back to the frogs that would be common with the flooding of the Nile during the germination of the grain. Even midwives were known as servant of Heqet. The prolific presence of frogs at the controlled cultivation of the croplands probably sent a strong signal of fertility and life. Yet, here frogs instead of remaining in the places near the waters of Egypt move beyond their boundaries and cover the land and interfere with the life in the household, in the field and throughout the empire.

That which normally is received as a sign of blessing becomes a plague and fertility threatens to overwhelm that life which is already present. The magicians are able to replicate this sign, to demonstrate that they too can call up additional frogs-or perhaps that their powers to can be a plague. Regardless of their ability to add to the plague of frogs they cannot stem the amphibious infestation. Here Pharaoh for the first time acknowledge the impact of the LORD’s action in Egypt and ask Moses and Aaron to pray (or plead) to the LORD on behalf of Pharaoh. Moses’ prayers do lead to the elimination of the frogs and where once fertility threatened the households of Egypt now they are left with stinking piles of dead frogs.

Exodus 8: 16-19: The Third Sign

16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt.'” 17 And they did so; Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and gnats came on humans and animals alike; all the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could not. There were gnats on both humans and animals. 19 And the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.

The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to be able to control and manipulate the land and the water to bring forth a regularly fertile land. Their control of the elements of creation has often led people to believe that they are now masters of their own destiny and, as in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, how they will make a name for themselves. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) loves to use irony and satire and like the Tower of Babel, which God has to come down and see (since even in their desire to reach up to the heavens is apparently isn’t visible from there) and confuses their language and thwarts their desire to make a name for themselves. Here it is in some type of small biting insect (can be translated as gnats, or lice or some other type of biting insect). Yet, here in the smallest of insects the magicians secret arts fail them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is worth quoting at length here:

The Egyptians worshipped a multiplicity of gods, most of whom represented forces of nature. By their “secret arts” the magicians believed that they could control these forces. Magic is the equivalent in an era of myth to technology in an age of science. A civilization that believes it can manipulate the gods, believes likewise that is can exercise coercion over human beings. In such a culture the concept of freedom is unknown. (Sacks, 2010, p. 54)

The irony was that the Egyptian civilization which could harness the power of the Nile river and could build monuments to its leaders which stand even millennia later was shown powerless by a biting swarm of bugs. The magicians and wise men can realize their limits and acknowledge this is ‘the finger of God!’ Yet, in Pharaoh we have a leader whose heart (or will) is set, who knows the truth (even when all the facts contradict that perceived truth).

Chapter eight of Exodus is full of signs that are not lethal but inconvenient. The ecological disaster at this point while perhaps distasteful is not endangering the life or welfare of the people. Pharaoh’s entrenched resistance (whatever its source) allows the conflict between the LORD of Israel and the gods of Egypt to continue. Now for the first time the secret arts of the magicians has failed to replicate the finger of God. In the structure of the signs the third sign closes the first set but there is some wisdom to the way the chapter division occurs in our bibles. The frogs, gnats and flies all are ways in which the smallest and most inconsequential things manage to bring the might of Egypt to its knees.

Exodus 8: 20-31: The Fourth Sign

 20 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 21 For if you will not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, and your people, and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies; so also the land where they live. 22 But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people live, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I the LORD am in this land. 23 Thus I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign shall appear tomorrow.'” 24 The LORD did so, and great swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh and into his officials’ houses; in all of Egypt the land was ruined because of the flies.

 25 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” 26 But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so; for the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive to the Egyptians. If we offer in the sight of the Egyptians sacrifices that are offensive to them, will they not stone us? 27 We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he commands us.” 28 So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. Pray for me.” 29 Then Moses said, “As soon as I leave you, I will pray to the LORD that the swarms of flies may depart tomorrow from Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”

 30 So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 31 And the LORD did as Moses asked: he removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; not one remained. 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and would not let the people go.

The structure of the signs would indicate this is a new set. As mentioned previously the first sign of each set occurs in the morning as Pharaoh is outside, the second occurs after Moses speaks to Pharaoh inside and the third comes without a warning. With each set of signs the intensity of the damage increases as the pressure increases on the Egyptians to let the people of Israel go. Another distinction between the first three signs and the remaining signs is that now there is a distinction between the people of Israel and the Egyptians. The remaining signs will now not afflict the land where the Hebrews dwell, almost as if an invisible barrier is erected to keep out the flies and later afflictions.

After the frogs, had come upon the land the Pharaoh asks for Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession on behalf of him and his people offering to let the people go and worship but once there is a respite Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he forbids the people leaving to go and sacrifice. In a similar way, Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron and offers to let the Israelites worship and sacrifice within the land but now cultural differences get in the way. We don’t know exactly what these cultural differences are that the Egyptians would have stoned the people of Israel for. Perhaps it had to do with the animals the Jewish people would sacrifice (mainly sheep and goats which the Egyptians found distasteful, for example in Genesis Joseph warns his brothers not to say they were shepherds for the Egyptians found shepherds abhorrent (see Genesis 46: 34)). Regardless cultural and religious differences would ultimately make cohabitation impossible for the Jewish people in Egypt. As a religious and cultural minority, they felt unsafe within the broader Egyptian culture.

The ancient world was a pluralistic one where multiple religions did encounter one another and sometimes those cultures would live together peacefully. The people of Israel found a home in Egypt for several generations and were welcomed, yet the Exodus relates a time where they were a persecuted and oppressed group. Their present is now that of slaves and their future will be one of being refugees in search of a new home. The economic system of Egypt was built upon forced labor. Change frequently occurs only when the situation becomes so odious it can no longer be maintained. The people of Israel will be reluctant to leave Egypt behind and will long for it when things become challenging in the journey to the promised land. The people and leaders of Egypt are reluctant to let the people go because it means changing the way in which their society functions. In some respects, it is not surprising that Pharaoh continues here to harden his heart and defend the status quo and that only the continued pressure of these strange acts of God makes him even consider the possibility of temporarily granting the people a time to worship. Frogs, swarms of small biting bugs and flies continue to make life in Egypt unpleasant and continue to show

Exodus 7: The Conflict Begins

Ancient Egyptian Art Depicting Apep battling a Diety from the tomb of Inher-kha, Thebes

Exodus 7: 1-13 The Initial Challenge

The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” 6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the LORD commanded them. 7 Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.

 8 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.'” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. 12 Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

The liberation of the people of Israel from their servitude to the Egyptians in not just a conflict between peoples, at its root it is a conflict between the LORD the God of Israel and the Egyptian gods. Moses becomes the vessel of the LORD’s work against the Egyptians and Pharaoh and the ‘wise men, the sorcerers and the magicians of Egypt’ line up on the other side. The central two characters, Moses and Pharaoh, both become representative or avatars of the divine power behind them. Moses here will be ‘like a God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.’ Pharaoh derives his authority from a divine claim that the Pharaoh is a ‘son of Ra’ the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Two conflicting views of creation (Ra is the chief god of not only the sun but creation for Egypt) and two conflicting views of the way that world should be structured are in play. Within Egypt, the superpower of that era, Pharaoh is all powerful and yet in this narrative Pharaoh plays a tragic character. Pharaoh will not listen to Aaron and Moses initially, but the conflict between competing sources of divine power will be seen not only by the individual players but also by both peoples (the Egyptians and the Hebrews). The end is that even the Egyptians will ‘know that I am the LORD,’ as the coming ecological disasters will testify to the power of the LORD over creation and the inability of Ra and those loyal to him to prevent this upheaval.

One of the places where translations don’t quite do justice to the original language is here with the language about the snakes that come from Aaron’s and what comes out of the Egyptians staffs. The word here in Hebrew is Tannin which is not the typical word for snake but rather for the serpent like chaos monster or dragon. Both sets of Tannin, from Aaron’s staff and the Egyptian magicians, are forces of war and destruction and chaos. Here chaos is unleashed symbolically in a struggle between the LORD of Israel and the lords of Egypt. Interestingly, to me at least, in Egyptian mythology the nightly struggle of Ra is against Apep (or Apophis) the snake like force of evil and chaos but now in matching the display of power by the LORD unleashing the forces of chaos even the emissaries of Pharaoh, son of Ra, must unleash their own forces of chaos. Ultimately it is the tannin released by Aaron which swallows the tannin released by the wise men of Egypt and this initial conflict foreshadows the chaos unleashed on creation that is to come. One of the things that begins here is the inability of the Egyptian wise men, sorcerers and magicians to undo what has been unleashed through Moses and Aaron. They may initially replicate what Moses and Aaron do but they cannot undo it. They can only add to the chaos which threatens to consume all of Egypt.

One of the aspects of this and the following passage to consider is the ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.’ There are certain passages where Pharaoh himself is the one who hardens his heart and others where the heart of Pharaoh is hardened by God. For those looking for a definitive answer to the tricky question of divine determinism I am afraid you are likely to be disappointed. Many interpreters see within this, and each interpreter makes theological choices based on their understanding of God, for Pharaoh’s free will remaining intact and the responsibility for the choices remaining entirely on Pharaoh’s shoulders. Others take serious this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by the LORD and see the enslaver losing his own free will and becoming the tool that once the enslaved Hebrew people were. The truth is probably subtler as the ancient writers of the Bible were not dogmatically rigid. Divine determinism and free will could coexist without any perceived conflict. Perhaps, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can state:

Pharaoh is in fact…a tragic figure like Lady Macbeth, or like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, trapped in an obsession which may have had rational beginnings, right or wrong, but which has taken hold of him, bringing not only him but those around him to ruin. (Sacks, 2010, p. 49)

Perhaps Pharaoh is merely trapped within a worldview that cannot imagine letting the Hebrew slaves go. Perhaps Pharaoh’s heart and mind receive some divine nudge to harden his resolve and will as the chaos unfolds around him and his people. Perhaps Pharaoh, who views himself as the king on the chess board is merely a pawn being played. Regardless Pharaoh, the son of Ra, will be unable to avoid being swallowed up by the chaos unleashed as he struggles against the LORD. The gauntlet has been thrown, the challenge has begun for the lives of both peoples. Warnings are unheeded, hearts are hardened and next the heart of Egypt will bleed.

The Roman Kiosk of Trajan (left) on Agilkia island in the Nile River, near Aswān, Egypt

Exodus 7: 14-25 The Bleeding Heart of Egypt

 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. 16 Say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened.’ 17 Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD.” See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. 18 The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.'” 19 The LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt– over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water– so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'”

20 Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the LORD had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.

 25 Seven days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile.

The Nile River, or to the ancient Egyptians simply the river, is the heart of the Egyptian empire. Egypt was shielded from other early civilizations by deserts on both sides and the Nile river delta provided for an agricultural abundance that allowed the people to focus on the construction of large public projects like the pyramids. The river is a source of food, transportation, and ultimately life. Without the Nile River, there is no Egyptian empire and even though the Nile never becomes a significant source of worship for the Egyptians, it is simply an assumed part of life. Yet, it is here that the LORD instructs Moses and Aaron to strike first. The heart of the Egyptian empire bleeds, life begins to end and an ecological disaster begins to unfold.

This begins a highly-structured telling of the signs and wonders that bring the people out of Egypt. In the three sets of three where the first in each set Moses speaks to Pharaoh outside in the morning, the second Moses speaks to Pharaoh inside in the palace and the third comes abruptly without a warning. Some would argue ecologically that one plague would naturally follow the others because of the ecological devastation, and while that may be true the narrative moves where the LORD is in control of each sign and wonder unfolding.

In Genesis 3, the end of the story of Adam and Eve, the disobedience by Adam and Eve which is supposed to result in their own deaths is ultimately born by the earth (see Genesis 3: 17). Here also it is the earth which bears the consequences of the disobedience of Pharaoh. Of the first nine signs, only the hail is fatal to humans and even then, Pharaoh and his people are warned to bring their people and animals into a secure place with a twenty-four-hour warning. Each sign seems designed to make the Egyptians aware that it is the LORD who is the God who has power over the creation and here the waters of Egypt are the first to bear the consequence of the refusal of Pharaoh to let the people go to worship the LORD.

Again, the magicians of Egypt, by their secret arts, are able to replicate this chaos with some of the uncontaminated water and yet they are unable to reverse or limit the effects. They can only contribute to the chaos. The river turns to blood, the fish die and the waters stink and are unable to drink. The lifeblood of Egypt is now biological waste and yet the people continue to find a way. Even though the river will be contaminated people are still able to dig for freshwater along the banks of the river. The ecological disaster forces the people to change their patterns and yet the Egyptians continue to find the water they need for life to continue. Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened and his will is resolved since his priests can apparently in some way replicate what the LORD is doing through Moses and Aaron. Perhaps, he is also shielded from the immediate effects since he would not dig for his own water, ultimately slaves or servants would do that for him. He retreats to his house without taking to heart the bleeding heart of his empire. He closes his eyes and his doors to the disaster beginning to unfold around him.

Communio: A Poem



There are times when the words and symbols spark
Lighting up our world, illuminating the dark
And in our mundane world magic appears
To strengthen resolve or to calm our fears
With a community of saints on holy ground
Where the remnants of ancient faith are found
In those rare times, you can almost feel
The mystery hiding behind the real
Where good and evil struggle and strive
And God and the devil are still alive
Where water and wine and flesh and stone
Unite us together. We are not alone
Where God’s presence has come to earth to dwell
And deep runs the water in the spiritual well
Where hope emerges from the pain
And the drought ends in heavenly rain
Where we see again the world made new
And the magic returns to me and to you

Exodus 6: God’s Response and Moses’ Heritage

Exodus 6: 1-13 A God Who Speaks and A People Unable to Hear

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

2 God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. 5 I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” 9 Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

 10 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” 12 But Moses spoke to the LORD, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” 13 Thus the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them orders regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, charging them to free the Israelites from the land of Egypt.

The same message may be heard very differently in different circumstances. When Moses and Aaron relay a very similar message at the end of chapter four the people receive in hope, they bow down and they worship. After the abuse received in chapter five the supervisors have called for the LORD to judge between Moses and them. Oppression changes our ability to hope and believe that a change can happen. One of the dynamics of abuse is that the abused person often feels they have no choice because all their energy is expended on survival. Slavery continues to breed hopelessness among the people and as daily survival becomes harder imagining a change becomes both more essential and increasingly difficult. It will not be words or promises that will move the people of Israel or Pharaoh away from the oppressor/oppressed dynamic.

The upcoming plagues upon the land of Egypt will be harsh and there will be much to wrestle with in these sections as they come up, but here we are at the end of what words can do. Ultimately words, without some type of recognized power and authority behind them, short of their power to convince do not sometimes break through the hardened worldviews of opposing parties. Moses may not be a person who is confident in his speaking ability but we have seen previously he is a man who acts when he sees oppression. Yet, here, where his previous words seem only to have increased the suffering and oppression of the people he again appeals to his poor speaking ability. He is unable to engender with these words of the LORD hope within the people of Israel or fear within the person of Pharaoh.

We as people who hear these words in relative comfort can also hear something new in this moment of revelation, something perhaps Moses and the people could not hear in their oppression engendered deafness. The name of the LORD, revealed to Moses on the mountain in chapter three, we now learn has not been previously revealed. Others have known the LORD and called the LORD by other names (typically describing an attribute of God: God almighty, God who sees, etc.) but now Moses hears again the unique name of the LORD. Again, there are the promises of the land of Canaan, the promise to deliver, the covenant promise that the LORD will be their God and they will be the people of the LORD, these things will unfold as we journey through the Exodus narrative, and yet all these promises are unable to heard at this time. Ultimately it will be in retrospect that the people will be able to look back and in light of the commandments remember “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)

We are moving from the time where the time of actions in the future will become the present of the narrative. If this were our story we would move directly into the confrontation between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh, between the LORD the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt. Yet, there is one more pause before we move into this conflict. The LORD has revealed something of Godself in both name, heritage and promise and we have seen something of who Moses is in his actions. But for the people of Israel there is something else we need to know before we can move forward.

Theo van Doesburg, Moses (1906)

Theo van Doesburg, Moses (1906)

Exodus 6:14-30 Who are Moses and Aaron

 14 The following are the heads of their ancestral houses: the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi; these are the families of Reuben. 15 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the families of Simeon. 16 The following are the names of the sons of Levi according to their genealogies: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. 17 The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, by their families. 18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, and the length of Kohath’s life was one hundred thirty-three years. 19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their genealogies. 20 Amram married Jochebed his father’s sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses, and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. 21 The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri. 22 The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Sithri. 23 Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 24 The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph; these are the families of the Korahites. 25 Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and she bore him Phinehas. These are the heads of the ancestral houses of the Levites by their families.

 26 It was this same Aaron and Moses to whom the LORD said, “Bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.” 27 It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, the same Moses and Aaron.

 28 On the day when the LORD spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, 29 he said to him, “I am the LORD; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I am speaking to you.” 30 But Moses said in the LORD’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”

This is not how we tell a story because we see the world differently than people in the ancient world. We live in a world where we construct our identities, we are who we are because of our choices and actions is the narrative we try to live our lives within. Yet, in the ancient world you inherited your identity: you are who you are because of your parents, grandparents, etc. This is why the Bible and most ancient texts take extended sections for genealogies. Often an ancient person’s telling of who they are would be a narrative of not only their name but their name within a list of the ancestors. You still see this in the Middle East where names, Osama bin Laden for a famous example, revolve around this pattern (Osama son of (bin) Laden). Here what is interesting to me about this genealogy is its incompleteness. It begins with a telling of the ancestry of the tribe (Reuben, Simeon and Levi) but before it can get to the remaining tribes it holds up within the tribe of Levi focusing both on the upcoming divisions of labor among the descendants of Levi as well as the priestly heritage of both Aaron and Moses. Here for the first time the parents of Moses and Aaron are named: Amram and Jochebed and presumably Aaron is the older son based upon how they are listed. There is a long series of exceptions where the LORD chooses the younger rather than the older son (Jacob and Joseph for example in Genesis) and here is one more of those incidents.

Another unusual piece of this genealogy is that Amram and Jochebed are related more closely than would be allowed in Leviticus (see Leviticus 18:12) and yet here they are a man and his aunt who are lifted up as the ancestors of Moses and Aaron: the great leader of Israel and its first high priest. Again, this is one of those places where a close reading of a genealogy often renders a few surprises in the family tree.

I have done enough work with Family Systems theory and have spent enough time observing families as a part of my ministry within a congregation to know that we are never truly the crafters of our own story. We inherit a lot of our identity, knowingly and unknowingly, from our parent and their parents. Many of our opportunities are opened by the position and standing of those who came before us. In our world, we may simply attempt to judge Moses and Aaron based upon their position and actions but perhaps there is some wisdom in these ancient stories that pause and remind us who are the ancestors of the people in our stories and where are the roots of their family trees. Now that we know where Moses and Aaron came from we are ready to follow them into the rest of the story.