Plagues, Pharaohs, and Parallels

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— Exodus 10:21-11:8 NRSV

The story of the plagues of Egypt reads something like a soap opera with twists, turns, double-crosses, accusations, and personalities: Pharaoh the protagonist, Moses the hero and, above all, God acting as the controller of all the action. The script becomes predictable, almost like a rubber band:

Moses approaches Pharaoh with demand from God to release Israelites
Pharaoh nixes the request
God sends plague
All Egypt held for ransom by plague
Pharaoh changes mind, agrees to request
Israelites get ready to leave
God hardens Pharaoh’s heart
Pharaoh does a 180 and says no again
Moses approaches Pharaoh with demand from God to release Israelites

This is the final time God will harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to prove God’s own greatness over all the earth, including Egypt. I often wonder, though, how did the ordinary Egyptians, the farmers and herders, weavers and brewers and washerwomen, felt about all this really bad stuff happening to them. Since there was no ENN (Egyptian News Network) to call a play-by-play in real time, I imagine most would only be aware that bad stuff was happening, not why. I have to say, though, that I feel sorry for them, paying the price for the hardheartedness (and hard headedness) of the guy who was, in their minds, the image of the gods.

When rotten stuff happens, it’s all too easy to blame God (or the image we have of God). What did I do to cause this to happen to me? Why do I have to suffer so when I really haven’t done anything that seems to warrant this kind of punishment? Why is God doing this to me? There are really rotten people out in the world walking around in perfect health, financially well-off, seemingly living the good life while I’m here stuck in this awful situation. Why me? Where is Moses when I need him, interceding with the Pharaohs of my world for me? Is God hardening the hearts of those with whom I have problems and who seem to hold the power to bind or release me at their pleasure? WHY ME?

I was taught as a child that troubles come to make me a stronger person, to learn to rely on God, and to show my faith in the face of adversity. I have found that having gone through struggles in my life, I certainly have become a stronger person. I do look to God for guidance but when I read this passage where God deliberately hardens Pharaoh’s heart to prove God’s own superiority, punishing innocent people for one man’s decision, I have a real problem trusting that God. It’s like saying that with Adam’s sin (or Eve’s, depending on the interpretation and denomination), every person in the world has to die as punishment. I still have trouble getting my head around that one.

Some folks in various churches seem to think that we are in a time like that of today’s passage and that we need a Moses to prophecy what will happen if we don’t straighten up and fly right, according to their lights anyway. We’re being tested by God with natural disasters (“acts of God”), bad things happening to good people with no real apparent reason (“acts of Satan”) and being really rotten to our neighbors (“acts of enemies/non-Christians/this or that political party, etc”). Seems like we wait for a Moses with a clear-cut message from God to go stand up to the bullies like Pharaoh and end all our problems. Today it seems like we have a whole lotta Moseses but even more Pharaohs. A Moses speaks to the issue but Pharaoh hardens his heart and everyone pays the price in one way or another.

Like all good soap operas, today’s reading sort of gives me the “stay tuned for exciting scenes from tomorrow’s episode of…” The story of Moses, Pharaoh and the plagues is familiar so I know how it ends, but every time I read the story I find something new about it that I hadn’t considered before. I confess, this time it’s the plight of the people all down the food chain, the ones who pay the price for the arrogance and stubbornness of the Pharaohs. Maybe one day the voices of those nameless, faceless, genderless people will be heard and the Pharaohs will hear and heed the message of God.

Meanwhile, I will read on and see the parallels to the world I live in. It’s only February and a very long time until November, but I have a feeling the hearts of Pharaohs across the country (and across the world, if truth be told) will continue to be hardened, by their own wills rather than by God. Meanwhile the “plagues” will continue and everyone will point fingers and blame others for them.

Egypt’s Pharaohs were born to the job or fought their way into it. Ours get elected, either by us or by some religious group who believe theirs is the only way.

“Stay tuned for the next exciting episode…” God hasn’t finished talking yet.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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Linda Ryan
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Linda Ryan

I agree that I'm not certain that it should be taken completely literally. I don't know how literally I should take it, but I wonder how much to believe that God did the goading and heart-hardening and how much it was like the writer acting David did many centuries later, wanting God to do all kinds of really rotten things to his enemies. I look at the story of the flood and wonder how much was really God's doing and how much was someone's inability to find any other reason for it to happen using God to explain the unexplainable.

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Linda McMillan
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Linda McMillan

We really don't have to be quite so literal.

The writer could have been speaking metonymically, for example. Or it could just be a case of an active verb referring to permission for a thing, not the literal thing itself. Those things happen in Hebrew, just as they do in English.

It seems to me like the circumstances were such that one's heart might be hard. I think the scripture is unclear as to who did the actual hardening.

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Linda Ryan
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Linda Ryan

I appreciate your point of view, Eric, however, I think about what that passage says to me in today's world. How much am I allowed to blame God for either causing or allowing plagues, natural disasters, atrocities in war and terrorism, and the like? what responsibility do I bear? Where do I have to own up to my share in either helping to create or sustain the problem?

Did God really do all that the passage claims? That's beyond my pay grade to decide. I do have considerable trouble, though, in seeing God manipulating people just to prove God's greatness. To me, it makes God a puppetmaster, and if that is so, then it potentially makes every one of us puppets with not as much choice as we think we have. Could not Pharaoh's change of heart been simply Pharaoh's change of heart, without God pulling the string? If that God could create a universe then simply changing someone's heart and making it stay there should have been simple. Perhaps it was a way to demonstrate to the Israelites the power of a God they already professed to follow but who needed constant reminders of that power. Like I said, it's beyond my pay grade to decide that. All I can do is see it as best I can and take from it what I can. Thanks for making me think this morning.

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Eric Funston
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You write: "When rotten stuff happens, it's all too easy to blame God (or the image we have of God)." In today's Daily Office reading (and the whole of the story of all these plagues), however, it really does seem to be God who's to blame. Pharaoh keeps bending almost to the point of freeing the Hebrews, at which point(s) God "hardens Pharaoh's heart" and then no freedom comes. It isn't Pharaoh's on stubbornness; God keeps manipulating him to be obstinate! In today's lesson, Moses leaves "in hot anger" - I think that anger is directed at God who's caused things to come to this point, to a point where death seems to be the only answer. It's a troubling story. I'm not sure what it says about the God of the Hebrews, but I do believe there's a lesson to be learned about being angry with God - that it's OK; God can take it and sometimes God deserves it! http://thefunstons.com/?p=1772

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