Among the traps associated with reading an ancient text, whether it is the Bible or any other document, is the reality that modern readers may confuse a secondary concern with a primary one. That is certainly true for the famous “plagues” in Exodus. We may be tempted to only look at the incredibly unusual phenomenon and conclude the “miraculous” is the focus. These stories are so “out of the ordinary” that surely that’s the point, right? Well, not exactly. Most commentators note that what’s “unusual” about these plagues is the degree of “blood” or “frogs” or “gnats.” In reality, the Nile does turn “red” like blood (due to rain storms and iron rich soil run off far up stream), hordes of frogs do appear from time to time and there are pesky insects.
At other times, we miss the point of the “plagues” because of our less than accurate view of God. Many people look at these actions as God’ way of punishing Pharaoh because they believe God is essentially vindictive. You don’t send plagues to your friends. You reserve them for your enemies. Why else would they be called “plagues,” right? Well, not exactly. Repeatedly in Exodus 7-11 we are told these events are warnings and divine attempts to convince Pharaoh of something! And Exodus 7.17 tells us what Pharaoh is supposed to acknowledge: “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” And that probably came as a shock to Pharaoh because he thought he was the Lord.
The central tension has been building since the beginning of the Book of Exodus. And that tension is summed up in one Hebrew word: abodah. It can mean either “work” or “service”…which is what Pharaoh wants and demands from Israel. But it can also mean “service” or “worship”…which is what God deserves from Israel. Pharaoh and God are competing for Israel’s work/service/worship. And only one can receive Israel’s abodah because only one is worthy of a relationship with Israel. Only one has Israel’s best interest at heart.
Of course, Pharaoh thought that was himself. He was, after all, the most powerful man on Earth. He controlled Egypt, one of the most powerful nations on Earth. And he controlled the Nile River, Egypt’s life source and one of the most important rivers on Earth. Additionally, he was worshiped as a god, along with all the other Egyptian gods including Hapi, the river god and Heqet, the goddess of childbirth, who was depicted as a human being with a frog’s head. It is no accident that the first two plagues relate to the river. Pharaoh and his priests and magicians controlled the Nile…or so they thought. Yahweh, Israel’s God, through Moses and Aaron, shows that God has total control over the Nile and in turn over Egypt and even Pharaoh, himself. Pharaoh’s magicians match all of Moses and Aaron’s actions, but when they “play” god things quickly run out of control: there is no water to drink and frogs are everywhere. Pharaoh must ask Moses and Yahweh to undo what has been done, thus suggesting that only Yahweh controls the river.
And when the plague challenge moved to dry land, Pharaoh’s magicians were helpless to act. They were incapable of imitating Moses and Aaron. Their actions only worked on the river. They could not reproduce God’s work on dry land. And they told Pharaoh this in 8.19: “This is the finger of God.” They are admitting they are out of their depth. Something or someone is at work here which is beyond them or Pharaoh. We should not be surprised, after all we know that back in Genesis 1, God gathered the waters and made dry land appear. Pharaoh’s men may have partial control of the Nile River, but God is Lord of the entire Earth, both the waters and the dry land. Pharaoh, however, is unmoved. He reverts to his hard-hearted mode! He still sees himself equal to God and he demands Israel’s service.
Thankfully, none of us believe in human gods or frog-headed goddesses of childbirth. And we have different words for “work” and “service” and “worship.” So, we aren’t likely to be stuck between a pretender like Pharaoh who demands our allegiance and the one true God who deserves our allegiance. Or are we?