Sunday, April 1, 2012

March 31 - Plagues, Pharaohs and Parallels

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, ‘Go, worship the Lord. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.’ But Moses said, ‘You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt-offerings to sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the Lord our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the Lord until we arrive there.’ But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, ‘Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.’ Moses said, ‘Just as you say! I will never see your face again.’

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbour and every woman is to ask her neighbour for objects of silver and gold.’ The Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials, and in the sight of the people.

Moses said, ‘Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been nor will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, “Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.” After that I will leave.’ And in hot anger he left Pharaoh. -- Exodus 10:21-11:8

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 the lives of 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 March* 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.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, March 31, 2012.

*Corrected from February in the original article.

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