10/09/22 “Pharaoh’s Twelve Chances”

This message was offered by Ron Myers, Certified Lay Speaker.

Exodus 20:1-4; John 11:25 (The stories of the Aaron’s rod, the ten plagues, and the crossing of the Red Sea can be found in Exodus, chapters 7-14.)

When I was 10, my mother went back to school to get a teaching degree. This was about 1960 when campuses were quiet. While she was there, some students pulled off a prank. They watched campus security do their rounds and knew exactly when and how long the door to the library would not be seen. So, one night they took a popular professor’s VW bug and rolled it a 1/3 of a mile up a 75-foot change in elevation to the library. Meanwhile, another crew took the hinges off the library double doors and removed the center post in time for the VW to be carried up the steps and placed in the library in a way that made it look like it belonged there. They put the center post back in place, put the doors back on, locked them and left before security came by again. It was three days before campus maintenance could reverse the process and give Professor Vanauken his car back. The administration was not pleased.

Only the participants know why they did it. It was a good prank: there was no property damage, nobody was endangered, and nobody got hurt. But, it did show the power of a group of students, and it did embarrass the security people and maintenance. If the administrators thought they had good control of the students, they learned otherwise. The plagues of Egypt start off like this; they did not end like this.

The Exodus and then Sinai are the high points of the Old Testament. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” is a key verse which captures the core of the mosaic covenant. Without this act of God, there is no basis for a relationship between God and His people. He is the rescuer who made it possible, and his authority comes from these mighty acts. I paired it with Jesus’ declaration of being the Resurrection and the Life, which captures the core of the New Testament in 35 words. It could be said that for Israel, the Exodus was a national resurrection; a slave’s national identity tends to disappear in the toil.

We rarely go over the plagues, probably because there are the ten plagues and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds covering several chapters of Exodus. Don’t worry; I won’t try it. Instead, I’ll step back and look at the big picture and trust that you know the story well enough.

It is possible to learn too much from a passage. Not all misfortune is God’s judgment, but we know that it is in this case because Moses and Aaron are saying it. We see the opposite in the Book of Job where Job suffers at the hands of Satan because he is notably good. We also know people suffer because of other people’s actions; just read the news.

There are some passages that suggest that God affected Pharaoh in some way which touches on predestination and free will, which is a topic that has engaged the minds of theologians and philosophers for thousands of years. It is clear from the account that Pharaoh does have free will and is responsible for his actions. In any event, the idiom “harden his heart” means “to do what Pharaoh already wants to do,” so think of it as a more of a nudge than a decision reversal. We might say God made Pharaoh hard-headed so that Pharaoh is not a puppet. He was the absolute ruler, so think of Aaron’s snake/staff, the ten plagues, and the crossing of the Red Sea to be contention solely between God and Pharaoh.

Since the Exodus is a major event of the Old Testament, one might think that God would start and end with intensely overpowering acts. It isn’t so, but when does God do as we expect? Instead, let’s look at the subtlety and increasing suffering of the events. Each one goes to the core of something the Egyptian elite held dear. Keep in mind that Egypt was a theocracy: the Pharaoh ruled because he was the connection between the gods and the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s job description was to keep peace with the gods so that Egypt ran smoothly. Also, there were gods for every aspect of Egyptian life, so if anything does go wrong some god is upset or shown to be powerless. I think, though, that we can relate better to what it does to the people of Egypt.

Aaron’s Rod Become a Snake
This is not one of the plagues, but this kicks off the whole thing. Snakes were considered to be protection. Many statues of the pharaohs had an image of a snake on them, not to intimidate but as protection. The Egyptian primeval snake swallowed seven cobras to get power. So, for Aaron’s rod to eat up the seven snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians was a warning; “My snake is more powerful than yours.” Here, if Pharaoh had let Israel go, it would never have been widely known that he met a superior power. The rest of Egypt would have not known that their ruler met a higher power.

The Nile Becomes Blood
Next comes the Nile, which is the lifeline of the nation. There were several gods who were responsible for the supply and purity of the Nile. So, effectively turning the Nile off and then back on pokes them in the eye and makes Pharaoh look bad. However, people could dig small wells near the Nile and get water, so they were inconvenienced but not hurt. This is the second time Pharaoh sees a superior force and ignores it.

Frogs Come Out of the Nile, and They Are Everywhere
There was a goddess of childbirth who was represented by a frog. One of Pharaoh’s crimes was to have Hebrew male babies drowned in the Nile. The frogs may have been a reminder of the crime against childbirth. So, there was a theological point as well as making a huge, very public mess of things. Again, nobody was hurt, but there was a lot of cleanup labor. And again, the power of God over Pharaoh was evident.

…or lice or some other undesired thing which come out of the earth and make one miserable. The Hebrew word suggests some sort of skin-burrowing insect—bad enough by itself for anybody. The Egyptian priests appear to have valued keeping clean by washing daily, etc., so having insects that crawl on oneself and burrow is the opposite of what they wanted to be, and thought they needed to be, to properly present themselves and their worship to their gods, among them a god charged with keeping the ground good. So not only is this god insulted, the priest (including Pharaoh), could not appear before their gods to do their jobs. Call it job insecurity. Again, no death, no property damage, but a lot of discomfort.

A few flies are irritating; many flies much more so. They were a symbol of resolve in Egyptian thought, so that swarms of these things would change Pharaoh’s mind is ironic. To be sure, as before, Pharaoh reneged. Again no death, no property damage, but a lot of discomfort.

Up to this point, nothing has died except a lot frogs, fish, and insects. It began in private with Aaron’s rod. It became very public and uncomfortable, the yuk factor became rather large, and it did demonstrate that Pharaoh and his priests could not do their job. In terms of consequences, this is much like the prank I described—a demonstration with no lasting consequences. These were mighty acts, however there was mercy in that Pharaoh now has five warnings. Egypt is undamaged. Pharaoh is shown not to be moved by a display of superior, if not lethal, force. Pharaoh should have known the limits of his power. Now it turns expensive and deadly by stages.

Next there was a plague of livestock. There were gods that were supposed to keep livestock safe; well, they didn’t. While there was no direct human injury, it was expensive and the economic losses meant suffering to some and, perhaps, many people. Still “no” from Pharaoh. We learn that he is short on empathy for his people.

For most of us, boil as a deep, painful infection are a distant memory, but memorable. I had two as a kid, one at a time; they hurt and made my parents worry. Multiple boils are beyond imagination, particularly if they are near any joint or on one’s feet, butt, or hands. Egypt was in pain, and the healing gods were helpless. While scripture does not address it, if lots of people had boils, some probably died. There was pain, but at least the food supply was good. This is the next level up in Pharaoh’s lack of empathy.

Hail is not good for crops; in this case the flax and barley were ruined—flax to make linen and grave goods, barley for beer and bread. But, at least there is wheat and orchards. Things are being taken away, slice by slice. Potential starvation and human suffering loom. It didn’t seem to bother Pharaoh that key crops were destroyed.

If hail is bad on crops, now locusts come to remove other field and tree crops: more human suffering and another god powerless to do his job. They now were going eat from the storehouses.

The sun god Ra was the primary god in Egypt; he supplied the light, except he couldn’t. Being in darkness for three days was no fun either. One could say that the boils, livestock, hail, and locust plagues happen from time to time and were just plain bad luck only if one ignores that they did not extend to where the Israelites lived. Three days of pitch black isn’t bad luck.

At this point, the plagues had penetrated all aspects of Egyptian life, religious and practical. God, through Moses and Aaron, had demonstrated that there was no part of Egyptian life that could not be stopped and restarted at will. In today’s terms, it would be like making our money be useless for a while, shutting our food stores, burning our crops, making our leaders go mute, keeping us off the roads all for a day to two each. We can destroy, but allowing restart takes real power. There was one more.

Plagues that strike randomly we understand; a disease which strikes only the firstborn in one night is evidence of real power and judgement. Of course, Pharaoh was directly affected. This finally changes Pharaoh’s mind and sets Israel free.

There is one more mighty act brought about by Pharaoh’s decision to once again to take back his permission to let Israel go: the crossing of the sea of reeds and Pharaoh’s death. Keeping Israel was a sin. Each reneging was a sin. Pharaoh even acknowledged it, and now after ten refusals and one temporary assent, at the 12th time, Pharaoh is killed. He refused one too many times.

I see this as God’s mercy. He could have just struck Pharaoh and his soldiers dead or paralyzed Egypt until Israel got out of town. Instead, he had 11 increasing lessons in the power of God—twelve chances to do right and stop sinning, counting the decision to or not to chase Israel as a last chance. I see God trying to avoid the death of a sinner, ultimately futilely. Pharaoh, in the end, is punished personally.

We see a similar pattern in Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles where, after hundreds of years of second chances, Israel and Judah are finally exiled. Again, in Revelation, after multiple plagues, disasters, etc., the judgement finally comes but not before the rebellious have a chance to repent. Even in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man has a long life in which to repent. Each time he saw Lazarus was a chance to repent. In the end the rich man is punished.

What does this tell us? God gives us lots of chances but does not wait forever. Forbearance is not approval. Waiting doesn’t mean that what is going on is OK; waiting gives the sinner more chances to repent. We also see an example of how God navigates the mercy vs justice paradox, since God is both just and merciful. Mercy is extended many times to Pharaoh, and justice is given finally to Israel. In the end, for the persistent sinner, judgement comes, and justice is served. Just as Pharaoh was offered many chances to let Israel go and live, so all people are given many but limited chances to turn to Jesus, accept His grace, respond by ceasing to sin, and to live eternally.

~~ Ron Myers, Certified Lay Speaker