Friday, March 23, 2012

God Plaguing Us - Exodus 7-11

   This is a long and complex passage.  You will probably have unanswered questions after I’m done talking.  That’s OK.  There is no way I can talk about everything here, so I want to make some observations that can help us understand this strange text and apply it in our lives today.   Ten observations about the ten plagues.

1. Yahweh is God of all the earth.  In the English text, any time you see the word LORD in all capital letters, that is a textual symbol that the Hebrew word used is YHWH (or Yahweh).  Yahweh is the special Hebrew name for God.  The background for the plague story is a battle of Egypt’s gods and Yahweh Israel’s God.
    Moses comes to Pharaoh and says, “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go ...”  But Pharaoh responds, “And who is the LORD?  ... I don’t know him, and I won’t let Israel go.” (5:1-2).  This is the essential conflict of the plagues.  Yahweh is making himself known to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh is learning to submit to the God of all the earth. 


2. Yahweh wants all people to worship him.  Before the plague of the flies, God says, he is sending this plague so that “you will know that I am the LORD and that I am present even in the heart of your land” (8:22).  Before the plague of the hail, God said, “By now I could have lifted my hand and struck you and your people with a plague to wipe you off the face of the earth.  But I have spared you for a purpose—to show you my power and to spread my fame throughout the earth...” (9:15-16).  
    God wants all people everywhere to worship him.  This was a radical concept.  Back then, each tribe or nation worshiped their own collection of gods.  The gods were regionally or topically based - the god of this area or this issue.  No god asked for everyone’s exclusive worship - only some worship from some people.  Yahweh’s claim that he is the One True God of All the Earth was - and is - radical.

3. Israel is Yahweh’s special people -- as a means to get all people to worship him.  At first this sounds like a contradiction.  If God wants all people, why have a special people? 
    Honestly, this is one of the most difficult questions in the Bible, but I think the story of the plagues gives us a clue to the answer.  In several of the plagues, God says that he will “make a distinction” between his people and Egypt’s people.  His people will be different.  They will have a different quality of life.  The plagues will not strike them.  The difference between God’s people and ordinary people will be proof that Yahweh is the real God.  The better life of Yahweh’s people will convince other people to worship Yahweh as God.  (This is very similar God’s plan still today.  Our lives of love and kindness and balance convince others that our God is the real God.)

4. Reality is often confusing.  This story is packed with irony and upside down plots.  Pharaoh seems to have all the power, but Yahweh proves he is weak.  Israel seems to have no power, but they are protected from the plagues, and eventually they leave Egypt with livestock and wealth. 
    Just before the plague of locusts, Pharaohs officials reveal that the whole story has turned upside down.  They shout to Pharaoh, “How long will you let this man hold us hostage?”  What?!  Israel is holding Egypt hostage?  I thought it was the other way around.  Who are the slaves and who are the masters?  Who has real freedom, and who is living in bondage? 
    We’ve heard lots of preachers talk about the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asked a few questions and said, “You only have to do one more thing.  Just sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”  The man went away sad because he was rich and couldn’t give up his riches.  He didn’t own his possessions.  His possessions owned him.  (Mark 10:17-23)

5. Israel also has hard hearts.  One of the most difficult parts of this story is Pharaoh’s hard heart.  Did Pharaoh make his heart hard, or did God make Pharaoh’s heart hard?  The story actually says both, but I don’t think it matters very much. 
    Here’s why.  Israel also had hard hearts, and shockingly, God also brought plagues on Israel. 

  • After God led them through the Red Sea, while Moses was meeting with God on Sinai, they made a golden calf and worshiped it as god.  God calls them a “stiff-necked people” (32:9).  “Then the LORD sent a great plague upon the people because they had worshiped the calf...” (32:35). 
  • After the twelve scouts returned from Canaan, ten rebelled and said they should give up on going into the promised land.  All ten “were struck dead with a plague before the LORD” (Numbers 14:37).
  • Korah, Dathan, and Abiram started a rebellion against Moses, and God caused the ground to open up and swallow the men, their families, their followers, and all that they owned.  Then, when the people complained about this God sent a plague roaring through the camp that killed 14,700 people. (Numbers 16:1-50).
  • When the journey to the Promised Land was taking too long, the people complained, and God sent a plague of poisonous snakes among the Israelites to teach them to trust him again (Numbers 21:1-9).
But that’s not all, we are also in danger of having hard hearts.  The author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:  “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness” (Hebrews 3:7-8), and then he adds this warning: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).  Israel is not immune from hard hearts, and you and I are not immune from hard hearts.

6. We want to bargain with God.  We are like Pharaoh bargaining with Moses.  Listen to the progress of Pharaoh’s negotiations with God.
No, work harder! (Exodus 5:6-7)
Ignore both the request and the plague (7:23).
OK, you can go ... no never mind (8:8, 15).
Go offer sacrifices to Yahweh but only in Egypt (8:25).
OK, just don’t go very far (8:28).
OK, you can go ... no never mind again (9:28, 35).
You can go, but only take the men - not the women and children (10:7-11).
You can take your families, but leave your animals (10:24).
Isn’t this just like us?  We try to bargain with God too.  I’ll do this much, but not that.  I’ll go this far, but not there.  I’ll give this much, but that’s too much.

7. Resisting God brings consequences.  For Egypt, resisting God brought ten increasingly painful plagues.  For us, who knows?  I’m not saying that every bad thing that happens in the world is God punishing someone.  The Bible is frustratingly mixed on this point.  It seems that sometimes bad things just happen - not as a punishment, but just as part of life in a messed up world.  (See Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:1-3.)  Other times, like in the case of these plagues, it seems that “the LORD disciplines those he loves” to correct our harmful ways (Hebrews 12:5-9). 
    But regardless of how the consequences come, we know from bitter experience that doing our own thing and rejecting God brings chaos and destruction in our lives.  Bargaining with God never pays.  At best, it blocks the blessings God wants to give us.  At the least, it opens us the natural consequences for our own poor choices.  At worst, God may need to “plague” us for a while to get our attention.

8. God wants total surrender.  God is not content with bargaining.  He may keep the conversation going.  But eventually God is going to get God’s way.  God will do whatever it takes to win everyone’s total worship for the rest of our lives.  God is amazingly persistent.  God will do whatever it takes to earn our 100%, total loyalty and worship.  God loves us more than we love ourselves, and he will pursue us until the day we die. 

9. Confessing and praying are not enough.  Pharaoh asks Moses to pray for him.  Pharaoh gives in to God’s demands.  Pharaoh gave a classic confession of sin and submission to God: “I have sinned ... The LORD is the righteous one, and my people and I are wrong.   Please beg the LORD to end this terrifying thunder and hail.  We’ve had enough.  I will let you go” (9:27-8).  After the locust, he said the same thing, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you ... Forgive my sin” (10:16-17).  But after each confession, Pharaoh returned to his own ways.  The simple truth is that confession and prayer are not enough.  God wants real change in our lives.

10. Surrender is a daily process.  God wants total surrender and total worship.  Jesus said the whole Bible hangs on two basic commands: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).  That’s beautiful, but it’s a lot easier to talk about than it is to live.  Total surrender to God is a daily process - even more, it is a minute by minute process. 
    We stand in our lives as our own Pharaohs.  We are addicted to our selves.  We are addicted to our own pleasure, our own glory, our own status, our own possessions, our own beauty.  This is our Egypt.   Like Pharaoh, we can pray and ask God to forgive our sins, and then return to our old ways.  But what really counts is living each day and each moment in total surrender to God.   For God to lead us out of Egypt we have to trust God more than Egypt.  For God to lead us out of Egypt, we need to give up Egypt every day -- every moment of every day.  This is a life-long process, and God will not give up.

    May we trust God, and may God truly set us free.
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