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.
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.