Exodus 5-11 – The Plagues (part 1)

We’ve seen this week how God answered Moses’ question what is your name by saying, effectively, watch this space. In the chapters which follow, God now proceeds to reveal something of himself through the ten plagues visited on Egypt – plagues designed to force Pharaoh to let God’s people go.

But why ten? I mean, if you gave God only one shot at this, I think he’d get it on the first go. Like David’s first stone killing Goliath. Why draw it all out? Why all the big, showy miracles?

God gives us a couple of reasons. Firstly, so that Israel will know who their God really is, in no uncertain terms:

6:6-7  “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.'”

Secondly, so that Egypt (and all the other nations around) will know him too:

4:4-5 Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.

So what is God telling Israel, Egypt – and us – about himself through these plagues? That’s what the next two days are about.

Now I’m going to assume you know the story; if not, you might like to skim through Exodus 5-11 now, to remind yourself of the events (this post is a little shorter than tomorrow’s to allow you time to do that). But its not the events I want to focus on here, but the interpretation of the events.

There’s a saying amongst biblical scholars: action + interpretation = revelation. Actions by themselves mean nothing. A weird series of plagues with no explanation would have told Israel and Egypt nothing about God.

What made God’s actions a source of revelation is that they were accompanied by interpretation. In the first instance, Moses was on-the-scene to provide some measure of interpretation to Pharaoh. He told him it was Israel’s God causing all that havoc, and he was doing it for a reason: he wanted Pharaoh to let his people go.

But as well as from Moses, how the story is narrated in the Bible also gives some further interpretation for us, in the way it presents the plagues. Action + interpretation = revelation. 

God using his world for his purposes

Firstly, let’s look at the one that was the most obvious to the Egyptians – that these plagues showed the power of God in his world. He uses the natural things in his world to achieve his purposes. The fact that after two plagues, the court magicians gave up trying to match God’s power, sends the clear message: ‘I’m in charge here, Pharaoh. Not your court magicians. I control the world.’

It intrigues me that there’s such a debate between scholars about whether the plagues could have occurred by “natural means’.” There are in fact some natural connections between the plagues. They seem to follow on logically after each other – like the blood-filled rivers being uninhabitable and filled with dead fish meant that the frogs would have to find somewhere else to live. And piles of dead frogs and a polluted river system would make an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and flies.

There’s been a number of attempts to connect at least the first nine plagues into a logical, naturally occurring sequence – the first in 1957, and the most recent in a documentary I saw about 15 years ago. Microbiologists and climatologists got together (that’d be a happening party) and were indeed able produce such a theory. It all stemmed from unusually high rains produced every so often further up the Nile, which washed down red earth and a red-coloured algae, turning the river ‘blood-red’ but leaving the surrounding bore water clean. This killed the fish and caused the frogs to leave the river. The frogs then died from anthrax bacteria from the dead fish, which was transmitted from the frogs via the mosquitoes to the livestock, which died as the fifth plague. This then spread as skin anthrax to other animals and humans, who broke out in boils. The same freak climate conditions that produced the heavy rains would have resulted in severe hail, and sent swarms of locusts further east than usual. The locusts were driven off by strong winds, which would have brought thick dust storms that would have blocked out the sun for three days…

Fascinating stuff. All apparently scientifically possible. Who knows? But so what if it did happen this way? For a start, every “natural” occurrence in the world happens because God set it up that way. It doesn’t diminish God’s control over it – personally, I think it would make God seem even cleverer, to make them so interconnected! Like this award-winning advertisement:

But here’s the thing. There’s still this guy Moses, who has a hotline to God and is there on hand to tell Pharaoh exactly when these plagues are going to occur. That’s what makes it revelation, irrespective of how “supernatural” these plagues are. God predicts it through his prophets, and explains that it has happened because of Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go. The action of the plagues means nothing by itself. It only becomes revelation once Moses provides the interpretation.

The same sort of thing happened when Israel was conquered by surrounding armies. That’s a pretty natural occurrence in the ancient world. Yet God predicted it through his prophets; he told Israel that if they disobeyed him, they would be oppressed by their enemies; and that interpretation is what made it revelation.

God, throughout history, has used not only the supernatural – like angels, dreams, miracles, etc. – but the natural to achieve his purposes. He created the world. He set it up. And so he can use the natural processes he created, to his own ends. Or he can intervene supernaturally. But whenever he does it, you can be sure that he’ll provide the interpretation there as well, so that it becomes revelation.

More interpretation (and therefore revelation) tomorrow…

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