My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

God and puny gods: A meditation on the Ten Plagues (Exodus 7:14-12:39)

It was a night so terrible it is still remembered today
Then Moses confronted Pharaoh: 'God’s Message: “At midnight I will go through Egypt and every firstborn child in Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl working at her hand mill. Also the firstborn of animals. Widespread wailing will erupt all over the country, lament such as has never been and never will be again. But against the Israelites—man, woman, or animal—there won’t be so much as a dog’s bark, so that you’ll know that God makes a clear distinction between Egypt and Israel.”

Then all these servants of yours will go to their knees, begging me to leave, ‘Leave! You and all the people who follow you!’ And I will most certainly leave.'”

Moses, seething with anger, left Pharaoh.
Exodus 11:4-8, The Message

The sound of them devouring must have been terrifying
This is the final confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses. For weeks Egypt has undergone one body blow after another come from the hand of the God of Moses known only as the Lord. (In fact, the word translated 'plague' really means 'blow' and it is only found, or so I am told, in Exodus.) At the beginning of the plague narrative (Exodus 5:1), Moses had delivered the terms of Yahweh: “Let my people go, so that they hold a festival to me in the desert.” To wit Pharaoh, sitting ensconced on his throne in haughty repose replies, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (5:2). All that follows (7:14-12:30) – the Nile turned to blood for seven straight days, the air choked with mosquitoes and flies past counting, the outbreak of plague upon livestock and people, the devastating rain of hail, the swarm of locusts eating Egypt literally alive and finally the descent of a blackness on the land of Re, the sun-god, so thick it can be felt – all of it was God's answer to that question: He is who He is, God of all the earth and sky, and to resist his will is futile. Ironically, as devastating as all these “blows” have been, by the next morning they will pale in significance of what will happen in Egypt that night as God himself moves through the land (v. 4).

As I have re-read this story this past month or so, a story as familiar to me as is the story of Noah's Ark or David and Goliath, I have been reminded that the Exodus tale per se – the one that has been transposed into films like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and more recently The Prince of Egypt (1988) – is far more than a great human drama. It is a contest between the God of Moses and the gods of Egypt and as it turns out it is no contest whatsoever.

This is how historian and scholar Thomas Cahill puts it:

...there is deeper human and theological business at work in this story than the theme of the inevitability of Pharaoh's behavior. God the Creator has ultimate dominion over all he has created; earthly dominion is given to men only in a subsidiary sense – only insofar as they conform their actions to God's will. Pharaoh must fail because he is not so conformed. The god whose representative he is, is powerless before YHWH; he is as nothing, so much so that he never even makes an appearance in the narrative: his residual presence is like the faintest scent, discoverable only by an inquiry into linguistic roots.”

The comedy of the narrative lies in ironic juxtaposition: Pharaoh, supposedly all-powerful, understands nothing. It would not be too much to say that this narrative asserts that power (because it is a feckless attempt to usurp God's dominion) makes you stupid, blinding you to your true situation – and absolute power makes you absolutely stupid. The simple audience of semi-nomadic herdsmen to whom this story was first told understood that they were wiser than Pharaoh: they, certainly, unlike the great Ra-Moses, now with frogs jumping all over him, now covered in horseflies, would not have required the cumulative impact of ten plagues to change course! And this audience would also have appreciated the paradox that they were also more powerful than Pharaoh, because God is on the side of the little people, the people who have no worldly power. This is a lesson that will be repeated again and again in the story of Israel.”

It is precisely Pharaoh's pretense to a dominion that he does not own – the very motivation of his actions throughout the plague narrative – that is mocked in Exodus, that gives the narrative its satirical edge. The lesson is so cunningly shaped as drama – ten separate plagues, any one of which might have convinced a more ordinary mortal to give in – that it burns itself into the memory like a brand: when a human being arrogates to himself the role of God, he must fail miserably.”

The implications of this lesson were radical in their time, since there was no political edifice that did not claim to be founded by a god. In one fell swoop, this subversive narrative delegitimizes all political structures claiming a god as their author – delegitimizes, in fact, all the political structures of the ancient world. And Pharaoh, who claimed to know nothing of YHWH, has come to know him all too well, 'and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there is not a house in which there was not a dead man.'” The Gift of the Jews pp. 116-17

This long excerpt makes me think of the little cult classic short from 1969, Bambi Meets Godzilla. There's the beloved deer of our childhood memory, nibbling the grass contentedly, without a care in the world and then – splat.

Yeah, game over.

More recently and certainly much more satisfying to watch is this scene from The Avengers when Loki, adopted brother of Thor, bids to overthrow the earth and then encounters a force called the Hulk.

Puny god, indeed.

As I have been studying the text and reading various commentaries on it, I have grown increasingly annoyed by those theologians who try and link real life phenomenon with the events of the plagues as a way to let us know what really happened. You know, the guys who say the Nile turning to blood is really just a description of a cataclysmic flooding of the mighty river of Egypt that brings all kinds of red soil down from present-day Uganda causing it to turn red like blood. This is what causes all the frogs to exit the river and when they “croak” you have a tsunami of biological causes and effects that taken together cripple the greatest superpower of its day. As if the ancients, unscientific as they were, couldn't distinguish between a river turned red because of being inundated with silt and actual, literal blood. In my mind, their comments say more about our present day outlook on the world, one that Professor A.J. Conyers fittingly described in his book The Eclipse of Heaven, than it does on theirs.

Author and television personality Bruce Feiler makes this point so definitively:

When I first started reading the Bible closely I, too, wanted – maybe even needed – to hide behind the screen of history, topography, science. I was interested in the setting of the story, I said. I was interested in the historical context. I was interested in the characters, by which I meant the patriarchs, their wives, Moses, the Israelites. But in doing so, I was strenuously – at times acrobatically – avoiding showing interest in the central character of the entire book. I did this, I was coming to see, because I deeply wanted to avoid thinking about that character, about what that character meant to the story, and about what that character might mean to me. But in doing so, I was shielding myself from a principal storyline of the Bible: the relationship between humans and the divine.”

Not until I reached Exodus did I finally begin to recognize the futility of this exercise in self-delusion. As it happens, the text itself reveals precisely what caused the ten plagues. God caused them. To miss that point is to miss the essence of the tale, the battle between the god of the Israelites and the gods of the Egyptians, the battle that Eliezer Oren referred to as “My god is stronger than your god.” Biblical storytellers clearly understood this struggle, because the plagues expressly attack the things that Egyptians held most sacred: the sun, the animals, the river. As the Bible says, summing up the experience, 'The Lord executed judgment on their gods.'” Walking the Bible: A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses, p. 183

If we miss this point, we miss the story altogether as well as the moral: God is God and must be accorded the respect he is due. Or else. As J.A. Motyer puts it,

All ten of the disasters inflicted on the Egyptians were acts of God, but the final one was outstandingly so, for in its performance the Lord in person entered Egypt to exact a just judgment (11:4; 12:12). In this regard the sequence of plagues illustrates the awesome biblical truth that the final issue for recalcitrant humanity is to come face to face with God. Divine patience and forbearance wait while every avenue of moral probation is offered, tried and exhausted, but then comes the point which Jesus underlined in his parable, when he said, 'Last of all, he sent his son' (Matt 21:27). The word of God cannot be refused endlessly. There always has to be an end, a meeting with the God whom our refusals have offered to the point of finality. The Bible Speaks Today: Exodus, p. 126

So reading Exodus is not just the re-reading of a good Bible yarn that we heard first in the Sunday School of our youth. No, it's equipping us to deal with every braggart and political leader who tries to persuade us that contrary to the wisdom of Scripture they hold the keys that promise to open the closed doors that bar us to a wonderful future we have not yet realized.