Sunday, March 02, 2008

God Massacres Egyptians to “Prove” His Greatness: Exodus 6-11

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary funded by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh with some impressive signs to prove their worth. Despite the earlier admiration for the “staff of God,” this time Moses's staff is largely irrelevant, having been demoted in favour of Aaron's. Moses and Aaron appear for another royal audience and warn Pharaoh that God's people must be released or the Egyptian people would suffer “mighty acts of judgement.” Aaron turns his staff into a snake – so do the Egyptian mages, but their snakes are eaten by Aaron's. The next several chapters are a sort of magic pissing contest between Aaron (and by extension God) and the Pharaoh's magicians (and by extension, presumably, whichever pagan idols they derive their power from). Aaron, again using his magic staff, turns all the water in Egypt into blood – and so do the magicians, “by their secret arts.” Aaron calls up massive numbers of frogs, which “cover the land” - and so do the magicians. Aaron finally wins out with a horde of gnats which rise from the dust all over the country, harassing men and animals alike. The magicians “could not” match this feat, and admitted to Pharaoh that “this is the finger of God.” It's odd that the magicians would say this: did they believe in God, but doubt God's support for Moses and Aaron? Do they now recognize this support? Have they come to believe in God as a result of the plagues? In either case, what is their response? Does their new faith spare them from the suffering to come?

The Pharaoh suffers the next several plagues without the support of his mages. Moses – directly now, without Aaron's support, it seems; there is no explicit explanation of why this is so – continues to strike Egypt with swarms of flies, then the death of all Egyptian livestock, then a hailstorm which destroyed the flax and barley crops, then locusts to destroy whatever vegetation the gnats hadn't already got to, and finally a three-day period of darkness which inexplicably covered all of Egypt except for “the places where [the Israelites] lived.” Amongst it all, Moses invents the first chemical weapon in history: a “fine dust” which causes “festering boils” on “men and animals.”

The Pharaoh was upset with the previous plagues but kept permitting Moses to come before him. The long darkness, apparently, is enough for him to throw in the towel: he agrees to let the Israelites go for their festival, at least initially, before commanding him to leave: “Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” Moses agrees that this will not happen again.

God has one further plague in mind, however, in order to complete the oppression of Pharaoh: a plague which kills every firstborn male in Egypt. This one will not need besting, God explains to Moses: “after that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely. Tell the people that men and women alike are to ask their neighbors for articles of silver and gold.” By this time, the Bible suggests, Moses has already won the sympathy of “the Egyptians” as well as of Pharaoh's high officials. It is apparently only Pharaoh who persists in his resistance and resentment.

My Bible offers no editorial comment on the plagues, but in my half-dozen years as a committed evangelical I can’t recall any serious discussions – let alone sermons – about the morality of the plagues, and particularly of the last one, in which a considerable number of Egyptians die. Presumably many others also died as a result of the effects of some of the other plagues – lack of water and destroyed food crops come to mind as significant causes of death, just as drought and famine are major issues in some parts of the developing world today. Rather, it was always seen as a strident demonstration of God’s power, a judgement against the wickedness of that pagan nation and simultaneously the liberation of God’s chosen people, the Israelites. One children’s Bible lesson I just found online makes the dubious claim that God punished Egypt in order to prove that only “He” – unlike the pharaohs, say – was God, and that the Pharaoh could not protect his people against the wrath of this just God. I have a friend who believes the lessons given to children and new believers are most revealing about a particular faith – because it is here that complex concepts are simplified into what people of that faith have determined to be the core essentials or basic building blocks. If that is true here, it is a very disturbing thought.

The Biblical account tells us that the Egyptian people had actually come to sympathize with the Israelites early on in the process of the plagues, certainly before the murder of the firstborn. One could argue, I suppose, that each is being punished for their particular sins. This is essentially the argument that I have heard adopted to discuss the Israelite’s massacre of other pagan nations: the people were wicked and this is the way God chose to punish their wickedness. However, the Exodus story seems very carefully constructed to be God’s punishment of Pharaoh for his oppression of the Israelites. There is a pattern to the plagues which carries only a slight variation in each case: Moses and Aaron come before Moses to repeat their unaccepted demand to release the Israelites, they perform a miracle which causes suffering for the Egyptians but not for the Israelites, and the Pharaoh initially repents, but ultimately “hardens his heart” and refuses their request. Just before the plague on the firstborn, God explains to Moses that the slaughter will let “my wonders” be displayed in Egypt. Earlier, God had said he would “perform these miraculous signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.” God is killing Egyptians in order to punish the Pharaoh for his stubbornness, but primarily he is doing so to demonstrate to the Israelites his absolute power over human life – to paraphrase a Chinese proverb, God is killing the chickens in order to scare the monkeys. The birth of the free nation of Israel from the womb of Egypt is presaged by a mass slaughter of people intended to remind the new tribes of the peril of disobedience.

If the rightness of killing Egyptian subjects for the arrogance of their king is morally dubious, we may also question the rightness of killing that king for actions which, the text seems to imply, were not fully the result of his own free will. Between Exodus ch. 7 and ch. 11, Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” against the Israelites a dozen times or so, sometimes by himself and sometimes by the will of God. When appointing Aaron as speaker, God had told Moses that he would “harden Pharaoh’s heart… [so that] he will not listen to you.” When the waters became blood, Exodus says only that “Pharaoh’s heart became hard.” After the plagues of flies and frogs, however, the Bible specifies that the pharaoh “hardened his heart.” This phrasing occurs again later – but so does the suggestion that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (after the plagues of boils, locusts, and darkness). The last two are particularly dubious: pharaoh had repented numerous times before and broken his word, but in the second case God uses the refusal to justify the murder of every firstborn male in Egypt, and in the first he seems to deliberately reject and reverse Pharaoh’s own repentance before God. Pharaoh had confessed to Moses that “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now forgive my sin once more and pray to the Lord your God to take this deadly plague away from me.” The Lord removed the locusts, then “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” once again. Why would God behave in such a manner? Do the lives of the people of Egypt not matter to him beyond their ability, in suffering and death, to serve as symbols of his own rage? This need to prove one’s power seems almost petty from an omnipotent deity.

Unfortunately, the question of whether God hardened his heart or pharaoh hardened his own heart is not an academic or semantic question: it has grave consequences for how we understand what is happening in the story of Exodus. The results are grisly in either case, but as I have mentioned before, there is some question about the degree to which God is manipulating events for God’s own purposes. The proposal of a religious festival in the desert was a pretext: it was proposed to incite a denial from Pharaoh, which would in turn justify the divine destruction of Egypt. In the same way, pharaoh seems at times willing to release the Israelites – and, despite God’s original intention of liberating the Israelites, God intervenes time and again to prevent the pharaoh from letting them go. If the Israelites left early, after all, God would not have the opportunity to display all of God’s awesome power and wrath in meting out punishment against the people of Egypt. The plagues deliberately build towards an awesome and terrible climax – the murder of the firstborn – and God does not want the show stolen by an inconveniently gracious pharaoh.