— 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:
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.