In his commentary on Exodus, at the end of his general comments on all the plagues and at the point where he is supposed to “apply the plagues to modern life,” Peter Enns writes,
“When we read that old story of frogs, gnats, rivers turning to blood, and so forth, perhaps scenes of the famous movie The Ten Commandments come to mind. We are so familiar with it that we do not allow it to strike us deeply, which is the effect it had some three thousand years ago. At the end of the day…do we really believe in the God that the biblical narrative is presenting to us?…This story was not taken for granted by the generations of Israelites living after the Exodus. It was rather intended to be a gripping reminder of who God is. In the final analysis, the story of the plagues is not about what God does to save you, or perhaps even so much a story of how he saved Israel. It is about God, period; for when all is said and done, we all need to be reminded of him now and then. The question, then, to ask of our passage is not, ‘What does this have to do with me?’ We must at least first ask, ‘What does this tell me about who God is?’” (The NIV Application Bible, page 236).
Please allow me to take a stab at this as we focus on the 4th, 5th and 6th plagues or, as I suggested last week, signs given to Pharaoh to change his mind.
Last week’s sermon noted that the showdown between Pharaoh and Yahweh revolved around Israel and the claims both made on the Hebrews. And that showdown is summed up in one word: abodah, which could be translated either as “work/service” or “service/worship.” Pharaoh claimed Israel’s “work.” Yahweh claimed both Israel’s “work” and “worship.” They both wanted Israel, seemingly for different reasons, and at the end of the third plague, Pharaoh and Yahweh are at an impasse.
There is movement, however, when we read the fourth plague. Pharaoh is willing to share Israel with Yahweh. In 8.25, Pharaoh tells Moses Israel may worship Yahweh…within the land of Egypt. Essentially, he is saying, “I will let Israel worship their god so long as I can control their labor.” But Moses counters this won’t work because the general Egyptian population will be offended by Israel’s worship. They will be so offended they will begin killing the Hebrews. We don’t know exactly what the nature of the offense is, but I suspect it has something to do with Egyptian polytheism and Israelite monotheism. We do know that in the ancient world the Jews’ neighbors, who worshiped many gods, saw them as “atheists.” And Israel’s insistence that only Yahweh was to be worshiped would be a problem if they set out to sacrifice to their ONE god in front of their neighbors.
The plagues and the rejection of Pharaoh’s compromise offer points us in an awkward direction: Yahweh doesn’t like to share…at least God doesn’t like to share Israel. There is no “meet in the middle” thinking here. Neither Pharaoh, the human-god, nor any of Egypt’s other gods, like Hapi, the river god, or Heqet, the goddess of childbirth depicted as a frog, or Hathor, the sky goddess depicted as a cow, have a claim on Israel. That, in large measure, is what these plagues and signs are about. Yahweh has work to do. Israel has been elected to help do that work, and Pharaoh is standing in the way. That work is God’s redemption of Creation. In order for that to happen, Israel must be redeemed, and Yahweh is here to claim them from Pharaoh and his oppression. Israel is God’s, and God isn’t in the mood to share.
Evidence of this unique, exclusive relationship appears for the first time in the fourth and fifth plagues: Israel is spared the impact of the plagues, but the Egyptians bear the full brunt of the fly infestation and the death of their livestock. 8.23 and 9.4 offer an intriguing subtle insight as to what is happening. Both verses tell us God makes a “distinction’ between his people and Pharaoh’s people and between Israel’s livestock and Egypt’s livestock. The Hebrew word for “distinction” (8.23 and 9.4) comes from the root word “redeem.” Yahweh is in the process of “redeeming” Israel as the redemption of Creation depends on their redemption. Yahweh is working to bring wholeness to his people and to Creation.
For some reason, known only to God, this plan for Creation’s redemption, which was promised back in Genesis and Abraham’s call, includes the flawed people of Israel. God desires they work with God as the divine plan is implemented. Additionally, Yahweh accepts their worship. And often their “work” and “worship,” like the word abodah, is the same. But they can’t do either the work or worship if they belong to Pharaoh and are busy doing his work. So, Yahweh will not share them with Pharaoh or any other self-styled god, who stands in the way of Yahweh’s redemption work.
Perhaps you are wondering what this redemption of Creation and humanity might look like. What might it involve? Who or what will be impacted? The sixth plague offers an intriguing and ironic small insight into one aspect of Yahweh’s concern for Creation. We know that on the surface, it is “simply” a plague in which seemingly both the Egyptians and their animals develop “festering boils.” Even the Egyptian magicians, who previously had some control over the plagues, can’t avoid this plague. And the source? Moses and Aaron are told to “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh” (9.8). Moses is directed to carry out a “prophetic action” not unlike what the later Hebrew prophets do when Israel lost their way and did things which offended Yahweh…things like oppressing the poor or unjustly dealing with the weak.
Where does the soot and ash come from that Moses throws into the air? It comes from a kiln where you bake bricks. Who makes bricks in Egypt? Enslaved Israel. Who is Moses’ audience for this prophetic action? Pharaoh, who oppresses Israel, who demands their work, treating them unjustly. Pharaoh may not care that Israel is oppressed. In fact, because he benefits from the injustice, I am sure he doesn’t mind at all. Yahweh, however, minds very much. And Yahweh acts to stop the oppression because it is as odious to him as the Egyptians’ infected skin will be to them. So, Moses is directed to do this, and we could say Moses “throws the sooty accusation of injustice in Pharaoh’s face.” This sixth plague is God’s judgment against Pharaoh’s oppressive offense. In God’s redeemed Creation, oppression and injustice will be things of the past, because seemingly Yahweh hates injustice.
I am tempted to apply these two divine attributes of refusing to share God’s people with other “gods” and Yahweh’s dislike of injustice. But you are thoughtful people seeking to be faithful. You are quite capable of drawing your own conclusions and applications. But let me give you this: If Yahweh refuses to share us with other gods and hates injustice, then we __________.