Exodus 14 Passing Through the Waters

Dr. Lidia Kozenitzky, Painting of the Splitting of the Red Sea (2009) available from http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Effib

Exodus 14: 1-9 The LORD of Hosts and the Army of Pharaoh

Then the LORD said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. 3 Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” 4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. And they did so.

 5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” 6 So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; 7 he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. 9 The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

The hardening of the heart of Pharaoh comes up again before this final conflict between the LORD the God of Israel and Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt. I have dealt with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which is an important theme and interpretive decision, both in chapter seven and more fully in chapter ten. I’m not going to revisit that discussion here other than to say our modern views of free will or divine causality would present us with an either/or choice. Either the person has free will or their actions are controlled by something externally. The Hebrew scriptures, and the worldview of the ancient Jewish people have far less problem than we do with these two principles existing together at the same time. Perhaps an analogy to addiction might be helpful at this point: an addict certainly makes choices that impact their life and the lives of those around them but addiction has many components (including genetics, family of origin issues, reinforcing behaviors, etc.) that make the choice to deny the addiction much harder. Regardless, in the story Pharaoh’s heart is again hardened and once again he places his forces in conflict with the people of Israel and the LORD.

In verse five the cost of Israelites’ freedom is realized by Pharaoh and his officials. The suffering of the signs and wonders is eclipsed by the future suffering of the loss of their source of forced labor. Ultimately this conflict is about slavery. Pharaoh and the officials of Egypt have benefited from the economic exploitation of the Hebrew people and imagining a new economy without their laborers proves to be a challenging task. It is far easier to mobilize the military might of the empire to reclaim the fleeing Israelites and return them into bondage in Egypt.

Six hundred picked chariots, this represents the elite military technology of the day. In an era prior to people fighting from horseback, chariots represented a quick and devastating force, especially on the open ground. The chariot provided the rider a platform from which they could use a bow or spear. Chariots became a key part of the army of Egypt and later the Israelites would adopt this weapon in the time of King Solomon, “Solomon gathered together chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.” (1 Kings 11: 26) Yet, Deuteronomy 17: 16 insists that ultimately technology, horses and chariots are not to be what the kings of Israel rely upon, but rather they are to rely upon the LORD their God and to fear the LORD and trust in the deliverance of God.

Exodus 14: 10-30 Deliverance at the Sea

 10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

 15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”

 19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged1 their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

 26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

 30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Ivan Kramskoi, Moses at the River Jordan (1861)

The approaching Egyptian army achieves its desired effect upon the host of Israel, they immediately fear the approach of the chariots of Egypt. In comparative size the Egyptian’s 600 picked chariots (in addition to other chariots and forces) comes upon the 600,000 men of Israel (see chapter twelve, verse 37) and if these were truly two armies the mass of the Israelites could repel the Egyptians but despite the military language used in relation to the movement of the Israelites they are still mentally slaves. They have not been trained for combat nor would they be able to match the equipment of the Egyptians. The people panic but Moses exhorts them to stand firm and that the LORD will deliver them.

The history buff and former military officer in me cannot resist the tactical piece of this narrative. Technology in warfare can often be decisive, but not always and frequently terrain may play a key role in neutralizing an advantage in maneuver, firepower or speed. On open terrain, which there is a lot of in the area the people would have to traverse, a chariot gives a decisive edge in maneuver. Yet, like all wheeled or tracked instruments of war in areas or dense forestry, urban landscape, mountainous terrain or swampland these vehicles become mired and unable to move (and conversely relatively easy targets for lighter infantry type forces). Here the chariots and chariot drivers, their horses and riders become ineffective because their wheels have become clogged. They are unable to move where the people previously passed on foot. The technology that provided a decisive advantage on the clear plain where there was easy traction becomes a liability unable to be freed from the soft ground.

Although it would be easy to rest on the tactical piece of the narrative and to discount the action of the hand of God in making the waters form a wall for the people to pass through on dry land in addition to the pillar of cloud and the angel of God taking place behind the people to prevent the Egyptians from being able to overtake them, that would be to miss the primary point of the narrative. It is not because Moses was a military tactician that the Israelites were delivered from the army of Egypt. Through the Exodus we have a God who intervenes, the LORD of hosts (literally LORD of armies) who conquers the Egyptian army, and who allows the people to pass through the waters of the Red (or Reed) Sea. This is a narrative about the LORD’s triumph over Pharaoh, the gods of Egypt and the army of Egypt. The LORD stands on behalf of these former slaves and repels and destroys those who would return them to slavery. The LORD the God of Israel is not an uninterested prime mover or a God who does not become engaged in history, but instead the point of the Exodus narrative is that God does become involved: sees, hears, chooses a side and acts decisively. As children of the Enlightenment, living in our secular and disenchanted world, it may be hard for us to imagine a time when God intervenes this directly in life. Even for the people of Israel they would have to wrestle with times in their story where God seemed uninvolved or to be silent, and yet here at the beginning of their story as the people of Israel they are constituted by the action of God to free them from slavery.

We often refer to tornadoes or earthquakes or floods as acts of God. Here and frequently in the bible God does act specifically through natural actions. All throughout the signs and wonders the river, the frogs, the bugs, the boils, disease, hail, and even the east and west wind (used previously with the locusts and here with the water) are all means by which the LORD showed power. The God of Israel is a God who can use the creation and manipulate it to overcome the power of humanity and the empires they create. Unlike the cinema versions of this story the narrative of Exodus moves more slowly, the wind from God blows through the night drying and then reverses in the morning covering up the Egyptians. The pillar and angel provide time and space for the large and probably disorganized Hebrew people to pass through the waters on the beginning of their journey from slavery into freedom.

Benjamin West, Joshua Passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant (1800)

The passing through the sea becomes a powerful symbol for both the Jewish and Christians who would continue to tell this story. For the Jewish people it becomes a marker of hope and power and a resonant image for what their LORD can do. In Joshua chapter three now the ark of the covenant becomes a marker of the LORD’s presence with the people and the river Jordan parts so the people can pass through. Centuries later in their exile in Babylon the words of the prophet Isaiah would poetically reference this previous crossing of the waters in preparation for what God would do in their time:

But now, thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43: 1f.)

 For Christians, this would become a part of the references to the times water was used to set apart a people as a part of the baptismal service. As, “through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 230) So, Christians understand baptism as a way in which God delivers them to their freedom and calling as children of God as well.

 

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Exodus | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exodus 13- Sacrifice, Liturgy and Journey to Form a Chosen People

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 13:1-16: Setting Aside Firstborn and Time in Remembrance

The LORD said to Moses: 2 Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

 3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the LORD brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year.

 11 “When the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13 But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. 14 When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem1 on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

It is a common religious practice to set aside that which is one’s best in the service of the deity one serves as a sign of trust, and in many ancient fertility religions there was a sense that if one does certain things to appease the god then fertility in the fields or flocks or family would be granted. The sacrificial system in Israel brings animals and they are sacrificed to the LORD, but the family would (as described in Deuteronomy, see Deuteronomy 14, 15, and 26) take part in the eating of the sacrifice as a celebration. This practice of setting aside the first born of animals that can be eaten and redeeming animals which cannot both demonstrates trust in the LORD providing future fertility for the flocks and herds as well as providing opportunities to bring together the family and community to celebrate the abundance of the LORD’s provision. Sacrifice for ancient Israel becomes a way in which the presence of the LORD is mediated through the tabernacle/temple and the priest and the acts of worship to the people. The setting aside of the firstborn animals also adds to the annual storytelling centered around the Passover and reinforces that the people are a people redeemed from the land of Egypt.

The redemption of the firstborn male children also serves as a reminder of the narrative of the people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It is a reminder of the oppression of Pharaoh that sought to kill the male children of the Hebrew slaves (and to represent the oppressive form of government their society was not to represent). It serves as a reminder of the final sign where the LORD breaks the hold of Pharaoh on the people by the death of the firstborns of Egypt and as a reminder of the LORD’s power. Finally, it is a reminder of their own status as redeemed people. Their identity is not based upon their power or might but upon the choice and action of their God. This identity is reinforced through the cultic action of the priests at the tabernacle or temple in their future settled identity in the promised land.

Liturgy, which is what is being discussed here, becomes a visual narrative with signs that point back to the narrative of the Exodus. In a world where people would not be able to attend worship at the temple every Sabbath the festivals and sacrifices become opportunities for the families and communities to re-narrate their constitutive story and reinforce their identity as the chosen, and redeemed, people of the LORD. They become opportunities to reflect with thanksgiving upon the LORD’s provision through the fertility of their flocks and herds and to remember the way in which the LORD acted decisively against the might of the Egyptian empire.

Exodus 13: 17-22: The Long Road to Freedom

 17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.1 The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. 19 And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” 20 They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Paul Hardy, The Pillar of Fire, from the Art Bible (1896)

As the people of Israel begin their long walk to freedom, they begin by taking the circuitous route. The people, fresh from their lives as slaves of the Egyptians, are not an army ready for conflict and are not settled into their new identity as the chosen people of the LORD. They may go out of Egypt physically prepared for battle, marching in formations or carrying what weapons they may have. Yet, mentally they are not prepared for conflict nor are they prepared for the burden of freedom. Ultimately, even the long road to the promised land will not be enough to calm the fear of the people of Israel or to remove from their mind the desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. All journeys must begin somewhere.

Recently I was sitting with a family who was watching a loved one struggle with an unexpected illness which eventually led to their loved one’s death. As a part of their devotion one morning they read the verse eighteen which refers to God taking the people on the roundabout way and they found it speaking to their situation. They did not wish for their loved one to suffer but it took time for the family to come to the point to where they were willing to let go and they found the difficult period of waiting as a period of grace where they could come to terms with the grief they would soon experience and they made peace with the decision to follow their loved one’s stated wishes and to let him die rather than prolonging his life through intensive life support. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, discussing Maimonide’s interpretation of these verses, states, “God sometimes intervenes to change nature. We call these interventions miracles. But God never intervenes to change human nature.” Yet, in Sack’s words, “He (God) gave humanity the freedom to grow.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 99) Perhaps there are times where God grants an instantaneous change of heart but it is my experience that God often allows us to grow into that change of heart through the experiences and relationship that we live through in our lives. The LORD, the God of Israel, is a God of the journey, a God of the Exodus. The people will come to understand both who their God is and who, by extension, they are in relation to God through their experience both in their liberation but even more on their journey in the wilderness along the winding path from Egypt to Canaan and from slavery to their new identity as the people of the LORD, the God of Israel.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Exodus | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exodus 12: Passover, Departure and a New Identity

Exodus 12: 1-20 Time, Ritual and Eating as Acts of Identity

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. 18 In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. 19 For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.

The taking of an enslaved people and transforming them into a chosen people, a nation of priests and agents of blessing for the entire world is a daring act of identity reconstruction. There will always be the temptation to revert to the former identity, to return to the land of Egypt and resubmit to the yoke of slavery when the call and covenant of the LORD becomes heavy or the passage of the wilderness or the people already occupying the promised land become a real and present danger. Identity is not something that is stated once and naturally becomes a part of one’s character, identity is formed through action, hearing, ritual and practice. If the Exodus is the narrative of Israel’s creation as a nation then Passover could be the ritual of renewal of that identity as it is handed on from generation to generation.

There are many ways in which identity is reinforced. We can trace the calendar most of Americans use back to the Julian calendar in 46 BCE so we may not consider the calendar as an important way of stating identity but you don’t have to spend much time studying ancient documents to realize how important the organizing of time is. For example, the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (A collection of documents from the centuries around the birth of Jesus which didn’t get included as a part of the bible) spends a great deal of time arguing about how to structure the calendar. Festival days which occupy the calendar shape the year and say when and how the year is ordered. For liturgical Christians, as another example, the year begins with the beginning of the season of Advent (four Sundays prior to Christmas) and this is held in tension with the Julian calendar which begins on January 1. Here time begins in the springtime in a time that celebrates the setting free of the people from their captivity in Egypt. Their year, like their new identity, begins and is centered around this act of liberation. The calendar is structured so that time becomes an active participant in the re-narrating this foundational story of the people of Israel.

Eating and practices also becomes an act of identity and remembrance. A couple of secular examples: when I served with 2d Cavalry in the U.S. Army there was a practice of always wearing our sleeves down (long sleeved battle dress uniforms can have their sleeves rolled up in garrison in warm weather for comfort) which while hot, especially serving in Louisiana, was the manner in which they would be worn in combat. It was a way in which the unit’s motto ‘Toujour Pret-Always Ready’ was reinforced through a practice. In the United States the practice of Thanksgiving, where certain foods are shared and eaten as an act of celebration but also a, perhaps unconscious, remembrance of the story told in elementary school of the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in the new world of 1621. Eating becomes an act of remembrance and storytelling in the Passover. The food that is eaten remembers the events of the Passover where a lamb is slaughtered and the people eat unleavened bread. The festival and the food that is eaten also becomes a boundary marker for the people who are gathered. As I mentioned, in connection with Deuteronomy 14, if we understand the prohibitions legalistically we miss the point. The action of not eating leavened bread over the week of the Passover becomes a boundary marker which defines those who are a part of the community and those who are not. They are both expressions of devotion, reminders of a shared identity and bearers of the story. The lamb and the unleavened bread become visual words to pass on the story in a visual form across the generations.

Exodus 12: 21-28 The First Passover

 21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24 You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. 25 When you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.'” And the people bowed down and worshiped.

 28 The Israelites went and did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.

The meal within the home, or within the community of faith as it may be practiced today has a teaching purpose and here that purpose is located in the first Passover. The identification with future Passovers with the first Passover goes with one of the basic question of children, ‘what does this mean?’ The act and the ritual becomes an opportunity to tell again the story of God’s action of liberation, of the constitution of the people of Israel as they were taken out of the land of Egypt, and the beginning of the people’s journey to becoming the people of God. In the ancient world the slaughter of an animal was often reserved for a special celebration. In a world before refrigeration the meat would have to be eaten in a short period of time and therefore it was often only at festivals where a large animal like a lamb, goat or bull would be slaughtered and used as a part of the family’s or community’s celebration. It would be a feast looked forward to.

The plant here is probably Origanum Syriacum (Syrian Oregano) pictured above rather than what we call hyssop today

This first Passover has an element that was unique to that celebration: the painting of the lintel and doorposts with blood with hyssop. Here the blood serves as a marker to keep the ‘destroyer’ traveling with the LORD away from the Israelite houses. The ‘destroyer’ may have been thought of as ‘night demon’ which was a part of the folklore of all ancient Near Eastern cultures or, more likely in a biblical context, an angelic being that was dispatched as a means of destruction (see for example 2 Samuel 24: 16f. and 2 Kings 19: 35). (Myers, 2005, p. 99) Hyssop, which was used to apply the blood, is used elsewhere in the scriptures as a means of purification of lepers (see Leviticus 14 and Numbers 19) and that also serves as a metaphorical purpose of purification of sins in Psalm 51:9.

Lamentations over the Death of the First Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877)

Exodus 12: 29-36: The Final Sign and the Departure of Israel

 29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD, as you said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

 33 The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. 35 The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, 36 and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.

In the previous chapter the death of the firstborns in the land of Egypt and the people asking for gold and silver from the Egyptians is foretold, now the final sign comes and the cry goes up from Egypt. The loss of the children of Israel and their enslavement which brought about their cry to the LORD now has its echo in the cry of their oppressor. The portrayal of the LORD in the book of Exodus is that of a passionately engaged and involved God taking sides with the people of Israel against the leaders and people of Egypt. Egypt has been devastated, it’s crops, livestock and future have been compromised in seeking to hold on to a reliance upon the enslaved people of Israel. Change is hard and rarely comes without resistance but here, finally, the pain of the signs and wonders is enough to allow Pharaoh and the people to relent. No further conditions or restrictions are placed on the people’s departure to go into the wilderness and worship the LORD. Yet, now Pharaoh is put in the position of the petitioner asking Moses to intercede and bring a blessing for him as well.

The people do receive jewelry and clothing as they prepare for their departure. There is an urgency to the scene as the people of an Egypt, wishing for an end to this drama, open up their wealth and resources to send the former slaves on the way. Perhaps for the Egyptians this is a time of repentance or paying for years of servitude. Perhaps for the Hebrew people this is a recompense for lifetimes of servitude and the beginning of establishing themselves as a new people who are independent and free. The jewelry and clothing may not be the most important things for a long journey but for the departure of the people to worship they are gifts that can be dedicated to the worship of the LORD their God.

David Roberts, The Israelites Leaving Egypt (1830)

Exodus 12: 37-42: Beginning the Journey and Time Renarrated

 37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. 38 A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. 39 They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

 40 The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. 41 At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt. 42 That was for the LORD a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the LORD by all the Israelites throughout their generations.

The journey of a mixed crowd of six hundred thousand men (not counting women, children) would lead to a departing people of over a million people, probably larger than two million. This is probably hyperbole, populations in the ancient world were much lower than today and even a million people would have been a very large portion of the population of ancient Egypt. Even at the beginning of the Exodus the people are not purely one ethnicity, they are a mixed group. The mixed group may refer to Egyptians and others who either chose to depart Pharaoh’s empire or who were linked to the community through marriage or other relationships. The narrative of a large group of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, and large herds making the initial stage leaving for the wilderness would have been a chaotic scene and yet an urgent one for the Hebrews and the Egyptians. The Egyptians want the people to depart prior to any additional punishment (or changes of heart within Pharaoh) and the Hebrews also now are finally having the opportunity to depart but are also driven out of Egypt.

Four hundred and thirty years of the Hebrew people in Egypt comes to an end. Their new calendar points to a new identity and the beginning of a new epoch. Time now becomes measured by their departure from Egypt and is reinforced by the vigil they are to keep. The move as a host, and military language begins to be used for their people, as they depart by companies.

Exodus 12: 43-51: The Ordinance Restated and Boundaries

43 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised; 45 no bound or hired servant may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 The whole congregation of Israel shall celebrate it. 48 If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the LORD, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; 49 there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.

 50 All the Israelites did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 That very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.

Defining group boundaries is an important function in any society. With the Passover being the constituting ritual for the people it is important to address who is to eat of the Passover. What does it mean to be a part of the community that takes part in this rite. Circumcision becomes the marker that a person chooses to identify with the Israelite community. Slaves become joined to the household and are circumcised and an alien in the land may choose to have their household circumcised and join in the Passover celebration and by extension the community.

 

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Exodus | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Exodus 11-The Final Deadly Sign

Exodus 11:1-3 Reparation, Respect and the Healing of Slavery

The LORD said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. 2 Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.” 3 The LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials and in the sight of the people.

These initial verses set the frame for the final and most deadly sign to come as well as the transition for the people of Israel from slavery to freedom. It seems strange to think of the Egyptians giving their former slaves objects of silver and gold and yet this gives a strong narrative resonance to the practice the people of Israel were to have in setting their own slaves free. Deuteronomy 15: 12-17 places this freedom in the seventh year of service and expects that the person will not be set free without the means to take care of themselves. The person who frees the former slave is to give generously so that the new freed person is able to re-enter community with freedom and possibilities and not be quickly reduced to servitude again. It will take the people of Israel many years to truly make the transition from being the Hebrew slaves longing to go back to Egypt to being the people ready to enter the promised land, but this action of receiving payment from the Egyptians may have been a symbolic step in that direction.

The Egyptians are not looked upon as the enemy after the Exodus. As Deuteronomy 23:7 states: “You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” Perhaps after all of this, for the people to truly be free they would have to make peace with the Egyptians. As Rabbi Sacks can insightfully say,

A people driven by hate are not—cannot be—free. Had the people carried with them a burden of hatred and a desire for revenge, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. (Sacks, 2010, p. 93)

Indeed, a wedge is driven in the narrative between Pharaoh and the officials and the people. The Egyptians here are holding the people in favor and granting what they ask. Even Pharaoh’s officials, along with the people, see Moses as a ‘man of great importance’ and a powerful alternative to Pharaoh. Perhaps Pharaoh sees Moses not only as a threat to his authority over the Hebrew slaves but also a threat to his authority and power over the Egyptian people. By the time of the final sign the only heart among the Egyptians still hardened is Pharaoh’s and the only ears that would not listen belong to him as well.

The giving of wealth does not guarantee that it will be used in the right manner. While some of this will ultimately be used in the construction of the tabernacle it will also figure into the construction of the golden calf. Ultimately the construction of the tabernacle will be a place where the best is given to make a place where the LORD can dwell among the people. Yet, the same gold and silver will be used in the construction of the image that makes the LORD’s anger burn hot enough he contemplates the destruction of the people.

Lamentations over the Death of the First Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877)

Exodus 11: 4-10 The Final Deadly Sign

 4 Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5 Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 6 Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. 7 But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites — not at people, not at animals — so that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. 8 Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.” And in hot anger he left Pharaoh. 9 The LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” 10 Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.

This would be a story much more to our modern liking if Pharaoh remained the agent responsible for the continued intransigence against the LORD, but here again the narrative has the LORD as the agent who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. I have talked about this in both chapter seven and more in depth in the chapter ten. The witness of Exodus tells of God being that agent that hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that the ‘wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ God is the divine warrior whose blade has been loosed and who acts in wrath on behalf of God’s firstborn, Israel. I am not going to revisit the long discussion from the beginning of chapter ten on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart other than to say that we as hearers of this witness have to make decisions on how we will receive the witness’ testimony.

Narratively there are many connections between this passage and the beginning of Exodus. An earlier Pharaoh’s policies calls for the death of the male children of the Hebrew people, and now there is a harsh ‘eye for an eye’ type of justice in the loss of the firstborn for the Egyptian people. The same cry that the Israelites make in their oppression and slavery will be the cry of the Egyptians at the loss of their firstborn.

The witness of Exodus is to a passionate God who refuses to allow the continued enslavement of his people. Walter Brueggemann (Actemeir, 1997, p. 773 vol. 1)points to one of the parables of Jesus to help illuminate this passage. In Matthew 21: 33-45 Jesus tells a parable about tenants in a vineyard (a common image in the prophets for Israel) who refuse to give their harvest to the slaves sent to collect and then eventually he sends his beloved son. The tenants kill the son and cast him out of the vineyard and the owners response in the words of the people hearing the parable is one we can understand:“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” (Matthew 21: 41) The people hearing the parable call for a response of violence against those who perpetrate violence against the slaves and the son. We hold this witness in tension with the many other witnesses to the loving and forgiving father, but never dispassionate. Here in Exodus God reacts passionately to the oppression and murder of his people, his firstborn as he names them.

Moses leaves Pharaoh in anger, the first time that Moses shows hot anger as he leaves. The anger, with Pharaoh and perhaps also with God for things coming to this point where children are now the victims of the conflict is striking. Previously Pharaoh has cast Moses out but now Moses storms out on his own and it will be the people who urge the Israelites to hasten their departure. Yet between the declaration of the final sign and its execution there is a liturgical moment where the Passover is instituted and the narrative is brought symbolically into a meal to be told from generation to generation.

The witness to the people being brought out of Egypt is a complicated one even in its brevity. The LORD the God of Israel portrayed in this narrative might seem like a strange one to modern ears, even modern ears familiar with the story. We are used to a picture of God that does not become involved in dramatic ways. Often the portrayal of God by many modern people is benign, kindly or unengaged. The LORD, the God of Israel is none of these things. The God of the Exodus is powerfully engaged in the liberation of the people but who is also a jealous God who refuses to have any other loyalties above him. The God witnessed to in the Exodus is a God who it is wise to fear. God’s passion for Israel will be tried by the Israelites inability to show that same devotion back to the LORD.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Exodus | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Exodus 10: Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart and the Eclipse of Ra

Exodus 10: 1-2- The Hardening of the Heart

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, 2 and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them — so that you may know that I am the LORD.”

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of the officials of Pharaoh within this story is a place where the hearer has to make a choice based upon their own theological leanings how to take the story. I discuss this initially back in chapter seven, but since we now hear for the first time, “for I have hardened the heart of Pharaoh and his officials” it is worth revisiting this discussion. As Walter Brueggemann can say when we search for an Old Testament theology and way of discussing the LORD, the God of Israel:

Old Testament theology, when it pays attention to Israel’s venturesome rhetoric, refuses any reductionism to a single or simple articulation; it offers a witness that is enormously open, inviting, and suggestive, rather than one that yields settlement, closure, or precision. (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 149)

The people of Israel, and the book of Exodus in particular, do their theology in narrative, prose, proclamation and song. They never construct a systematic way of talking about God nor do they have any struggle with paradox. Modern questions of ‘divine determinism’ verses ‘free will’ do not find a single answer even within the same book and often within the same story seeming contradictory views inhabit the same space. With this suggestive language of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened by the LORD here there are a number of ways to use this narrative. One reading of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened would be centered around the power of the LORD being uncontested. This conflict between the gods of Egypt and the LORD the God of Israel, which occurs around the meetings of Moses and Pharaoh, the LORD’s dominance is demonstrated by the leader of the empire of the day not even being in control of his own will power. In this case Pharaoh becomes a tragic and sympathetic figure who is merely a pawn in a much larger game. It also suggests a side of the LORD that demands to be taken seriously and who will have his actions told for generations to come. The signs may serve a teaching function for both the people of Israel and for Egypt. In the increasing pressure put upon the Egyptians there has always been a restraint where the damage to the Egyptian people was recoverable. Yet, here at the point where the consequences are becoming lethal the LORD seems determined, in the narrative at least, to see these signs go to their end.

Others will resist this type of reading preferring to have Pharaoh retain his free will and thus his culpability in resisting the LORD and the freedom of the people of Israel. We may want to have Pharaoh be the scapegoat, and there will be plenty in what follows where I call attention to an abusive dynamic in Pharaoh’s words, and yet the Hebrew scriptures always seem to resist easy answers to a complex world. Coming from a Christian perspective we often want to blame evil of sin and yet even within the New Testament there is always a place reserved for some external force of evil, whether in the form of Satan, demons or principalities and powers, that resists God. Here again, Brueggemann’s words are illuminating:

We may say that all such evil is the result of sin, but Israel resists such a conclusion, if by sin is meant human failure. Evil is simply there, sometimes as a result of human sin, sometimes as a given, and occasionally blamed on God. (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 159)

At least in chapter ten of Exodus the narrative resists an easy tying of Pharaoh’s actions to the consequences for his will has been hardened. The empire of the Egyptians has been made foolish, it has not acted foolish on its own. It is perhaps an uncomfortable ambiguity that the text invites us into. Yet, perhaps in its suggestive nature it may also enable us to see ourselves in the picture of the oppressor. Whether the power over the people of Israel and the economic benefit at their expense is an addiction for Pharaoh or whether he is unable to see another way or whether he is simply one more example of a leader made foolish we will never know. Yet, as we continue with this narrative I think it is important to not try to force the text to fit a theology we would impose upon it. I believe there is wisdom in its uncomfortable but suggestive way that evades simple answers.

Exodus 10: 3-11- Abusive Dynamics

 3 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 4 For if you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your country. 5 They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the last remnant left you after the hail, and they shall devour every tree of yours that grows in the field. 6 They shall fill your houses, and the houses of all your officials and of all the Egyptians — something that neither your parents nor your grandparents have seen, from the day they came on earth to this day.'” Then he turned and went out from Pharaoh.

 7 Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long shall this fellow be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” 8 So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh, and he said to them, “Go, worship the LORD your God! But which ones are to go?” 9 Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, because we have the LORD’s festival to celebrate.” 10 He said to them, “The LORD indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind. 11 No, never! Your men may go and worship the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.

One of the insights I had in looking at this passage this time was the way in which Pharaoh attempts to maintain control of Israel in a dynamic that is similar to what may happen with an abuser. Previously, at the end of chapter nine, Pharaoh has acknowledged that he has sinned, that he has done wrong but refused to let the people go. Here the officials of Pharaoh, who previously the chapter mentioned had their hearts hardened, appeal to Pharaoh and implore him to let the people go. Pharaoh reluctantly is willing to make provision for the men only to go but wants to maintain control of the women, children and flocks of the Hebrews. He attempts to maintain control of the people and property that will force the men (and people as a whole) to return and submit to slavery and servitude.

As Pharaoh’s power becomes less his desperation is becoming greater in dealing with Moses and Aaron. Previously Moses and Aaron have left on their own terms but here they are driven from Pharaoh’s presence. Yet Pharaoh’s words here speak an unintended truth: “The LORD indeed will be with you, if I ever let your little ones go with you!” The presence of the LORD and the action of the LORD on the behalf of the people of Israel will be a major theme of Exodus. The LORD is with Moses and is active in a way that the forces of Pharaoh, the secret acts of the magicians and wise men, and ultimately the gods of Egypt cannot match.

The coming eighth sign once again will use the insignificant to humble a Pharaoh who refuses to be humbled. Previously frogs, gnats (or lice), and flies showed how the smallest of things could bring an empire to its knees. Pharaoh’s officials have seen before that these things are ‘the finger of the LORD’ and that at this point Egypt is ruined. Yet, Moses and Aaron and the people of Israel continue to be a snare that the king of Egypt is trapped within. Whether through his own stubbornness or divine hardening he is trapped within his role as the oppressor and refuses (or is unable) to imagine a world where his empire is not built upon the servitude of an enslaved people.

The Plague of Locusts, Illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible

Exodus 10: 12-20- Locusts and the Loss of Agriculture

 12 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt, so that the locusts may come upon it and eat every plant in the land, all that the hail has left.” 13 So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night; when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. 14 The locusts came upon all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again. 15 They covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt. 16 Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. 17 Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the LORD your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me.” 18 So he went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 19 The LORD changed the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea;1 not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt. 20 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.

Previous signs have impacted the prosperity of Egypt in significant ways: the livestock were diseased and died, the hail destroyed the flax and barley harvest (as well as any remaining animals in the field and servants), but now the remaining harvest for the year is wiped out. Yet, even with the loss of a complete harvest Egypt probably had the means to survive agriculturally because of the provisions set in place to deal with a famine. Genesis 41 narrates Joseph’s rise to power but also the consolidation of harvesting in centralized granaries to prepare for famine. If these granaries are in place, which the narrative seems to indicate, the people could still survive even the loss of a complete harvest. Yet, this is not to minimize the harshness of a farmer losing the production of their land for an entire year or the impact the individual people of Egypt would have felt in the midst of these signs. Yet, there is also a restraint even here as the pressure has been applied to force Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. The picture of agricultural and environmental devastation is intense as the signs have progressed, and yet the LORD has continually provided a way for both the people of Israel and Egypt to continue.

This sign also has several points of resonance with the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea. Both here and in Exodus fourteen the sign begins with a strong east wind which blows all night which allows the locusts to come here and the sea to be parted later. Also the reverse wind, from the west, is used to get rid of the locusts and to return the sea to its banks after the people of Israel have passed. The link is strengthened by the locust being driven into the Red Sea. At a symbolic level there is also the possible poetic linking of Pharaoh and the people of Egypt with the locusts. They, in their oppression of the people of Israel, have been the ones who have consumed the produce of the productive land and who have transformed harvest into desolation. They too, like the locusts, will be thrown into the sea by the hardness in Pharaoh’s heart. Again, the LORD is the one who Exodus lifts up here as the one who is behind this hardening.

The Ninth Plague, Darkness from Gustave Dore’s English Bible

Exodus 10: 21-29- Darkness and the Defeat of Ra

 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. 23 People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. 24 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the LORD. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.” 25 But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to sacrifice to the LORD our God. 26 Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the LORD our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the LORD until we arrive there.” 27 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. 28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” 29 Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”

The tangible darkness, darkness that can be felt may seem like a strange penultimate sign until you consider that this is not merely a battle between Moses and Pharaoh. At its heart this is a conflict between the gods of Egypt and their emissary, Pharaoh, and the LORD the God of Israel. Ra, the god of the sun in Egyptian mythology, was the central god in the Egyptian pantheon. Earlier chapter seven I mentioned the strange uses of the word tannin for snake (tannin is typically a word for dragon or a chaos monster) and I alluded to the Egyptian myth of Ra entering into a nightly battle with Apep (the snake like evil force of chaos) who attempts to consume Ra and the sun each night in the underworld.  Many of the Pharaoh’s even took the name Ramses (and the traditional Pharaoh viewed behind the narrative of the Exodus was Ramses II- whether the book of Exodus can be traced back to events in his reign ultimately is something that will likely never be proved). Pharaoh, the son of Ra, here would see the chief god of the pantheon and the authorizer of his reign blotted out for three days until the LORD relents. The future commandment that the people shall have no other gods before the LORD goes back to this time where the LORD in bringing the people out of Egypt demonstrated his power over the gods of Egypt.

Egyptian god Ra in his Solar Barque

Pharaoh again attempts to maintain control in his demonstrated weakness. Here men, women and children are free to go but the flocks must remain behind. There is a narrative logic to the Egyptians wanting the Israelites to leave their flocks behind as they depart to worship. Remember the Egyptians flocks were wiped out by disease and the hailstorm and even thought the Egyptians in Genesis and here seem to prefer cattle to sheep and goats in a desperate situation it would make sense to retain the herds. That being said, in the narrative it is also about coercion and power and ensuring the people would return to servitude. Pharaoh is still not willing to let the people go from their slavery or to imagine a new system without the Hebrews enslaved.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Exodus | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Djinn’s Warning

Djinn by Remton at deviantart.com
http://www.deviantart.com/art/DJINN-279317118

Dreams you think I peddle, yet nightmares are what I sell
Fondest wishes may be the path into your darkest hell
If who you are and what you have don’t leave you satisfied
The things that you would ask me for will leave you dead inside
The wishes you are about to speak won’t fill the hole within
So, think carefully before you speak these wishes to the Djinn

You think you will be satisfied with wealth beyond your dreams?
Wealth I will give, but not enough, though gold flow down in streams
Money a cruel master is, though it starts a gentle drug
Even with more than you can spend the emptiness it won’t plug
Possessions can indeed possess and men of means grow mean
Defending what he thought would give him freedom makes him obscene
 
Perhaps it is the beauty, the princess that you seek
Though she is pleasant on the eye she isn’t for the meek
For though I can grant you what you need to get into her bed
I will not grant you release from the questions in your head
You are the one who thought perhaps an angel at your side
Would make you more than who you are or calm the boy inside
 
Fame it is a fickle thing and power fails you too
Although it makes you for the moment bold and new
But soon you find it is just another mask you have to wear
An act you play, a part to act, a path into despair
You’ve sold your soul to become the person others need
And their applause and adulation becomes your source of greed
 
Oh, I’ve been asked to grant the master work of song or pen
And I’ll grant one but remember the inspiration is not within
You’ll try with all your life to reach the pinnacle once more
But all the notes or words you write fall hollow to the floor
In years to come they’ll look back and remember the one hit wonder
This work forever more will be the shadow that you live under
 
Strength and speed and athletic skill or enemies who are laid waste
Athleticism I can grant for a time but you’ll find it’s just a taste
Strength and speed and skill they come from years of discipline
But when it’s given suddenly the regimentation is not within
And one enemy’s place another soon will fill, a vacant space is free
You won’t have changed, and nature it abhors a vacuum. See!
 
If I an evil spirit were, this warning I would not make
You humans somehow do not to see the thing makes you great
For somewhere deep inside your soul there is long dry well
Some unrequited emptiness into which you seem to dwell
Your wildest wishes I will grant, but eventually you’ll see
There is a hook, you will want more, you are as trapped as me.

Neil White, 2017

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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)

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Exodus | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment