Christopher's Bible Blog

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Exodus 1-15: Out of Africa

When last we left the story Joseph, easily the most decent member of his family, had endured much hardship and scored a cushy job in the Egyptian administration. Fast forward 400 years or so and the leadership has changed, meaning that Joseph's people are on the "out" list. How out? In Exodus 1:15, the Pharaoh demands that all male Israelite babies be put to death. This is important to remember when we examine the fairly brutal retribution that follows.

Anyway, enter Moses (who would probably prefer we call him by a non-Egyptian name), who escapes this fate in a custom-made basket. As a young adult and self-identifying Israelite, he kills a taskmaster who's beating one of his kinsfolk. The Pharaoh catches wind of it and Moses high-tails it to Midian, whereupon our story becomes pretty familiar.

God, masquerading as a flaming shrub, has hatched a plan to show his power. As a side benefit, the Israelites would be delivered from Egypt as well - in fact, that's the first part he pitches to Moses (3:7-11) - but it's not exactly his primary concern. Verse 4:21 gives us our first clue, and our first iteration of what will be a common theme: "I will harden (Pharaoh's) heart, so that he will not let the people go." Anyway, Moses, who must have reformed since his killing days, is now something of a pantywaist, so God dispatches his brother Aaron to help out.

What follows is a frightening display of stubbornness - not on Pharaoh's behalf, as I always took it, but on God's. I'll not even discuss the historicity of the plagues; even if you read it as literal (in fact, especially if you read it as literal), this is a troublesome story. Bear in mind also what 4:19 tells us, which is that the Pharaoh who ordered the baby-killing is not the same one who gets the plagues.

The new Pharaoh is able to dismiss the first few plagues out of hand, as his court magicians can duplicate them. I'd like to see their books of illusions, because I'm not sure why they could conjure frogs but not gnats. Anyway, soon thereafter the sickening repetition commences.

In 8:8, Pharaoh offers to let the Israelites go. In 8:15, when the frog mess is gone, "he hardened his heart... just as the Lord had said. In 8:19, even though the magicians are telling him divine things are afoot, "Pharaoh's heart was hardened, just as the Lord had said." In 8:25 (after flies), Pharaoh capitulates. In 8:32, his heart is hardened. In 9:7 (post-anthrax), his heart is hardened. In 9:12 (apres boils), "the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh." In 9:27, after a hailstorm, Pharaoh says "This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong" - a bona fide Dickensian turnabout. Sure enough, in 9:35 "the heart of the Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses." Locusts and darkness don't do the trick either, and the point of all this repetition on my part is clear when you remember the final plague.

All along, God meant to kill the Egyptians' firstborns. Otherwise, he wouldn't have had to mess with the Pharaoh's free will and "harden his heart" repeatedly. Pharaoh didn't know it, but he was playing a rigged game, preprogrammed to end in genocide. In fact, as the preparations for the final plague are being made, in 11:9, God reiterates his stance, which has nothing to do with the plight of Israel: "Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt."

One might think that the carnage of the Passover would slake God's thirst for blood, but one would be wrong. The Israelites officially ditch their Egyptian citizenship in Chapter 12, but in 14:4, as God tells them to camp by the Red Sea, he throws in: "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue (the Israelites), so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army." So the army chases Israel across the Red Sea, which Moses has parted, and then, in 14:24-5, God impedes their progress, even as they decide to surrender, specifically so he can drown them, which he does.

The last verse of Chapter 14 tells us this: "So the people feared the Lord." To say "no kidding" would be a hefty understatement.

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A couple of notes on names, which are nearly always important and appropriate in the Old Testament: Moses means "to draw out," which niftily refers to both his salvation from infanticide and his role in Jewish history.

The burning bush scene allows God to name himself for the first time - "I am who I am." Moses had to ask, because there were so many gods to choose from at the time, and business cards hadn't yet been invented.

One final question: did Egypt even worship YHWH for any significant period of time thereafter? I suppose I'll have to read further to find out if the wholesale slaughter had any productive outcome.