Exodus 5-11 – The Plagues (part 2)

You need to read yesterday’s post first, as we’re taking a two-part look at the plagues, and what they tell us about God. His actions + scriptural interpretation = revelation.

God ‘undoing’ creation

The second piece of interpretation we find in the story of the plagues comes through the “creation language” used by the biblical author. In fact, the plagues can be thought of as God undoing creation just a little bit. For example: when God created the world, one of the first things he put in it was water. Before he even said “let there be light,” there was water. In Genesis chapter 2, before God formed Adam, he caused streams to come up from the earth and water the ground. The Garden of Eden had a river to water it, which split into four streams, one of which perhaps significantly flowed to Egypt. Water is presented in Genesis as one of the fundamental ingredients of life, which God provided for us.

Yet here, God changes that. Creation is turned on its head. The water becomes undrinkable. It turns to blood, and the river no longer fulfils its God-given function of sustaining life. In direct contrast to Genesis, in which God says “let the waters teem with living creatures,” all the fish die and the frogs leave. Creation is being un-done.

Or take the animals. They were put on earth for us to rule over and to serve humans. Yet here, animals – whether they be frogs, mosquitoes, flies, cows or locusts – are the cause of harm for humans. We’re left unable to exercise our dominion over them, as they threaten the Egyptians’ very existence.

Or take light – that which God created on the first day. In the ninth plague, three days of darkness turns back the clock to before God said “let there be light.”

Or take human life itself. The creation of human beings was the climax of the creation story. The climax of the plagues is the tenth – when God takes back the lives of the Egyptian firstborn. Creation is being un-done.

This reversal of creation becomes even more obvious through the choice of Hebrew words used, which we can’t pick up in our English bibles – deliberately using words out of the creation account in Genesis. The writer of Exodus is obviously trying to communicate something here – providing another layer of interpretation of God’s action, furthering the revelation.

Here, the message seems to be to do with the power of God in his world. It’s like he’s saying to Pharaoh and the Egyptians: “I made this place you live in; and I can unmake it.” He wants the Egyptians to know that he is, indeed, Yahweh – the creator of the world.

In the ancient world, the other gods were usually thought of as being connected to a location. The gods of Egypt were good for Egypt; but if you went travelling, you came into an area controlled by other gods and so couldn’t necessarily rely on your own outside the borders of your country. By controlling the created order in Egypt, God is sending the clear signal that he is not bound by location. He is the God who created the whole world, and as such can display his power anywhere and everywhere he chooses. The so-called “gods” of the Egyptians are no match for him.

God’s commentary on Egyptian religion

The third piece of interpretation is even more subtle to modern readers. It seems that the plagues are presented in Exodus as God’s satirical commentary on Egypt’s religion and Egypt’s gods.

For a start, we have what seems to be a lame magic trick in comparison to the spectacular plagues which follow – simply turning a staff into a snake. But snakes are the animal that in Egyptian thought represented their power as a nation. Like the lion of Great Britain, the dragon of China, the bear of Russia, the kiwi of New Zealand… The Pharaohs’ famous headdress is made to look like the neck and head of a cobra. Another snake, the asp, was supposed to be the symbol of divine royalty – so by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp, Cleopatra is said to have become immortal.

And so Moses’ first sign takes on a new dimension. When his staff becomes a snake, it’s a direct challenge to Egyptian power. Although Pharaoh’s magicians can do the trick too, Aaron’s snake swallows them up – a sign of things to come.

The first plague continues this theme, attacking the Nile, the source of Egypt’s greatness as a civilisation. But more than that, the Nile was worshipped as a god by the Egyptians. So the first plague attacks not only the source of Egyptian power, but one of their gods as well. This tells us that the plagues are in some sense a battle over which god is the true God.

The second plague, of frogs, attacks another Egyptian god: Heqet, the goddess of childbirth who has the head of a frog. Obviously the kiss from the handsome prince didn’t quite finish the job.

You put these two plagues together, and they seem to function as a judgement on what the Egyptians did in chapter 1 of Exodus: killing all the male babies born and throwing them in the Nile. Their own goddess of childbirth and god of the Nile are first on God’s hit-list.

Moving on, the fifth plague seems to attack the sky goddess, Hathor, who was depicted as a cow. The seventh plague – hail and thunder – makes a mockery of their god Seth, the god of wind and storms. The ninth plague – darkness – shows how powerless their sun god, Ra, really is.

Through all this, God is sending a clear message: I’m the one to worship. Where are your gods now? What can they do in the face of my power?

The plagues and us

So God has now provided – through Moses and through the account in Exodus – an interpretation of the actions he took. This gives us revelation – a greater understanding of who God is. That’s what he said he wanted to do back in chapters 6 and 7: to show Israel and Egypt who he was.

That still stands for us today. We can look back on the plagues and marvel at what a spectacular display it was of God’s power and complete control over his world. He still can use both the natural and supernatural to achieve his purposes. Whether it be a huge catastrophe that causes people to turn to him; or whether they be those little “coincidences” in which God brings just the right people across your path at just the right time for them to hear the gospel… It is all part of God’s complete control over his world.

God’s power as displayed in the plagues were also a direct rebuke to the Egyptians and the gods whom they served. Don’t give other gods credit for what I have done, says God. So what he did in Egypt was systematically challenge each of their gods, taking away what power the Egyptians thought their gods had.

I guess God can still do that today. When he takes away the idols that our society holds dear. When he takes away peace and security in allowing war; or the job that provides food on the table disappearing in corporate downsizing; or the house lost in the bushfire; or the loved one who was taken away… He is still capable of challenging the gods we worship, taking away from us the very things we trust them to give. Forcing us to realise that he is the only one worthy of worship. He is our only hope of salvation. He is the only one in whom we find true satisfaction.

For through the plagues, God not only demonstrated his power, but also his mercy. He did all that so his people could be released from slavery.

1200 yrs or so later, God gave another spectacular display of his power and mercy. So that all of humanity could be released from slavery to sin, from the sentence of death. Again, he did the spectacular: darkness came over the land; the earth shook. And in place of us, God’s Passover lamb was sacrificed. But that’s for tomorrow…

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