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Freedom: it’s the bedrock value of our national identity. Freedom is also at the heart of what it means to be a follow of Jesus the Christ, who promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) And yet how often do we feel truly free – to see and be who we are? Are our actions determined by our past, our psychological baggage, family systems, our racial and cultural identity, our educational experience, and our faith journey? Exodus wrestles with the metaphysical question: From what are we free? What are we given freedom to do? Can you have freedom and yet have constraints, rules or limits? It’s not just a question for adolescents. We are faced with our freedom in terms of the decisions we’ve made, or not made, in our lives, in our relationships, and the paths for action that seem to lay before us.
Our next section of Exodus is the portrayal of the 9 plagues, which end with the 10th and final plague: the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians. It wrestles with this theme of freedom. Ironically, the major problem in the text is Pharaoh’s freedom. Is he free to follow his own will, or is God pulling his strings as if he were a puppet by hardening his heart? What is the God of Israel like? A God who leaves us no room to make our own choices?, who has favorites? Or a God who interacts with us, giving and taking in a dynamic relationship? If we follow God are we free, or merely puppets, destined, tricked and forced to do God’s will?
The plagues are also spoken of in Psalms 78 and 105. In Exodus a pattern can be discerned in the text. The parables are organized by threes (or in triades), with progressing statements about why Pharaoh refuses to concede.
Pre-Plague: Last-chance warning and turning of staffs into snakes by Moses & magicians. (Exodus 7:1-13)
v. 13 Pharaoh’s heart is hard
1st Plague: the Nile turns to blood. Effects Egyptians & Israelites. Some see this as a extreme flooding of the Nile, which happens in the summer, and turned up red particles making the water flowing from Sudan to Egypt appear as blood. (Exodus 7:14-25)
v. 22 Pharaoh’s resolve remained strong
2nd Plague: the Frogs. Effects Egyptians & Israelites. Frogs commonly invade during the flooding of the Nile in late summer – but this is extreme. (Exodus 8:1-15)
v. 15 Pharaoh hardened his heart
3rd Plague: The Gnats. It could be mosquitoes reproducing in the numerous pools lefts from the flooding of the Nile (plague of Blood) in Sept/Oct. Effects Egyptians & Israelites. (Exodus 8:16-19)
v. 19 Pharaoh’s resolve remained strong
4th Plague: the Flies. Effects Egyptians. Israelites are protected. (Exodus 8:20-32)
v. 32 Pharaoh hardened his heart
5th Plague: Pestilence against the Livestock. Effects Egyptians. Israelites are protected. (Exodus 9:1-7)
v. 7 Pharaoh’s hear remained hard
6th Plague: Festering Boils. Effects Egyptians. Israelites are protected. The magicians can do no more magic as they too are afflicted by boils, similar to anthrax. (Exodus 9:8-12)
v. 12 Yahweh strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve
7th Plague: Hail. It’s no longer a battle between Moses & the Magicians. It’s now an apocalyptic battle of God versus Pharaoh which impacts all of creation. Effects the whole country. God gives a warning that some heed, but which Pharaoh refuses (Exodus 9:13-35)
v. 34, 35 Pharaoh sinned yet again hardened his heart. So Pharaoh’s resolve remained strong.
8th Plague: Locusts. An apocalyptic battle to persuade the Israelites and teach the Egyptians to believe. Servants of Pharaoh plead with him to concede. The destruction of the spring and summer harvests for the coming year effects the whole country. (Exodus 10:1-20)
vv. 1, 20 “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Yahweh strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve
9th Plague: Darkness. Pharaoh will let them go to worship Yahweh in the desert, but not with the livestock and animals which are needed for sacrifice. (Exodus 10:21-29)
v. 27 Yahweh strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve
10th Plague: Death of the Firstborn. Pharaoh concedes and demands that the Israelites leave. They don’t just leave, but plunder the wealth of Egypt. (Exodus 11:1-10 & 12:29-36)
v. 10 Yahweh strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve
Questions for wondering and exploring:
1. What troubles you and/or encourages you in this text? Why?
2. In Exodus 3:1-15 Moses is transformed as he encounters God who “is who God will be”. In the space that God creates Moses discovers the capacity to become something he had not been before. In 7:8-13 Pharaoh will not listen or recognize the God of Moses. He will not move beyond his own settled-mind set to adopt a new policy. Moses experiences God as God is, while Pharaoh experiences God a he expects God to be. Who is free? Why? Who is a captive? To what are they captive? How does this touch our lives today?