I Send My Scourge
One of the most famous stories from the Bible finds the people of Israel far removed from their homeland, enslaved in the land of Egypt. While the story of how they got there in the first place involves a young man named Joseph – who God chose to save not only his own family but the entire Egyptian nation – the deeds of this Hebrew hero would be forgotten by the powers of Egypt, and Joseph’s own people would be enslaved and oppressed for hundreds of years.
The book of Exodus finds us far distant from the prestige and prosperity of Joseph’s political appointment in Egypt. Now the Israelites have been in Egypt for more than four hundred years, and they are enslaved laborers instead of respected guests. The chosen deliverer, Moses, returns to confront Pharoah with a simple but inescapable command: “let my people go.”
Pharaoh refuses – and as a result of his disobedience to God, devastation reigns. As a punishment for Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites, God unleashes a series of plagues –each of them striking against the perceived powers of Egypt’s gods. With each plague, a message is sent to Pharaoh: God is God, not you or your gods, and you do not have authority over human lives.
But while this may be a familiar story there is a troubling phrase that repeats throughout the Exodus account speaks of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Exodus speaks of the this twelve times: six times Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, and then six times it says that God hardened his heart. God says, “But I will harden Pharoah’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.” (Exodus 7:3 NIV).
One explanation suggested by theologians is that the Pharaoh and the citizens of Egypt were already evil people complicit in centuries of oppression of the Israelites. As slave masters and mass murderers, they deserve their punishment; the fact that God does not completely annihilate Egypt altogether is itself a mercy.
Another explanation is that God isn’t pro-actively hardening Pharaoh’s heart at all. The early Israelites did not have our contemporary understanding of Satan and his ability to influence people. In the polytheistic cultures surrounding them, every event was caused by a god – some mischevious, some benevolent. Since Israel only worshipped one God, they attributed all things – good or bad – to him. On the one hand, it could actually be Satan at work in Pharaoh’s action of hardening his own heart. On the other hand, there is a sense in which God sometimes expresses his wrath against evil not by acting, but by “letting go” – in essence, handing someone over to the natural consequences and results of their own intentions and actions. (See Romans chapter 1 for more on this.)
Israel’s history has a tricky two-pronged moral dilemma built into it. When God allows his people to be enslaved, oppressed, conquered, and beaten down by other nations, we question why God does not defend them. When God does step in, however, his power is so clearly overwhelming and far beyond that of Israel’s enemies, that it may seem unfair for him to “take sides.” The Exodus story begins with Pharaoh – a slave driver – slaughtering Israelite babies in mass. But we easily forget this when we see Pharaoh’s own son supernaturally perish. How do we begin to make sense of it when God kills?
• Today we understand that ecosystems affect the behaviour of animals like frogs, flies, and locusts. Natural causes bring about different types of weather and storms. Modern people may be tempted to look for naturalistic explanations of the plagues. If the plagues have natural causes, does that mean they weren’t caused by God? Do you think that the miracles in the Bible could be God working through nature in unexpected ways? Why or why not?
• In Exodus 7:8-13, there is a magical “showdown” between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses throws down his walking stick and it transforms into a snake, but then Pharaoh’s magicians perform the same action with their own staffs. If the God of Israel is the only true God, how is it possible that they were able to do this? Do you think it was just an illusion, or did they also have access to other supernatural sources of power? Does this mean that “magic” is real? If not, why not? If so, is God’s power just a stronger form of this magic, or something else?
- What are other Bible stories that might be relevant to this conversation?
• For an example of the Israelites’ evolving understanding of God and Satan, consider the different accounts of an event found in 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. In one, God convinces David to do something and then punishes him for it – in the other, Satan convinces him to do it. Do these passages contradict each other – or do they reveal an evolving understanding of Satan: one that the Israelites in Egypt might not have had?
• In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses asks God what his name is, and God responds with a very unusual statement, “I Am Who I Am.” This might seem like it is not really an answer. Or, it could be a very profound answer. What do you think it means for God to claim that his name is “I Am?”
• The Jewish festival known as Passover comes from Exodus chapter 12. Read this chapter in its entirety. What connections are there between this story and other parts of the Bible? How is the Passover relevant for Christians?
• There are a number of verses in Exodus that indicate that many Egyptians actually took the side of the Israelites and began to heed God’s warnings as the plagues progressed. Read Exodus 8:19, 9:20, 10:7, 11:1-3. Deuteronomy 22:7-8 suggests that there are also Egyptians present in the midst of the Israelites after the Exodus, and gives instructions about when these people would be permitted to enter “the assembly of the Lord.” Exodus 11:1-3 seems to especially suggest that some Egyptians viewed the Israelites favourably and may have paid them some form of reparation gifts prior to the Passover and tenth plague. Do you think that some Egyptians participated in the Passover with the Israelites? Do you think some of them were spared?