Notes from a Bible Study

We gathered after the heat broke, after a day of rain, and tried to imagine Egypt.  Exodus chapters 5-7, Moses and Aaron’s first encounter with Pharaoh, and the beginning of the plagues.  Becky wanted to know who was the younger brother, Moses or Aaron, and we found the answer in Chapter 6 – it was Moses, of course.  Again and again, it’s the younger brother whom God chooses, the one who should be lowlier, less important.  But unlike other older brothers, who resent being passed over, Aaron seems more than happy to serve as spokesman for Moses, because Moses, in the memorable phrase of Robert Alter, has “uncircumcised lips.”  Meaning that he can’t speak well, but also that he sees himself as unfit for his sacred task, just as, much later on, an uncircumcised priest wouldn’t be fit to serve at the altar in Jerusalem.

Still, when the actual dual between Moses and Pharaoh begins, Moses seems more than willing to do most of the talking.  First he gets his orders from God.  This is happening a lot in Exodus.  God tells Moses exactly what will happen, Moses becomes afraid and complains, God reassures and tells him to get working.  Now, God tells Moses that He will “harden Pharaoh’s heart,” a phrase that made us pause and consider.  Doesn’t it seem like God is setting Pharaoh up, ensuring that Pharaoh will misbehave so that God will have an excuse to punish him, and all of the Egyptians, with the plagues?  God wants to show great power so that the world will pay attention.  Remember, up until this point God has been so obscure that even Moses didn’t know who He was.  God had to introduce Himself from the burning bush, and remind Moses that “I am the God of your ancestors.”

But this seems like a very unsatisfying, even disturbing reason for the plagues.  We would  be horrified by a human being who caused disasters and killed people just to get attention.  Should we just throw up our hands and say that this is a very old and no longer relevant understanding of God?  We were stumped, sitting around the table, staring at our Bibles, until Kelsey suggested that God is, in effect, taking the blame for Pharaoh’s actions.  Perhaps, she suggested, God wants Moses to still be able to love Pharaoh, just as God wants all of us to love each other.  And if God knows that Pharaoh is going to act obstinately, this might be God’s way of explaining that obstinacy in advance.

Then we moved on to the plagues themselves, to the river of blood and the frogs.  Robert Alter, in his footnotes to The Five Books of Moses, points out that the plagues parallel the seven days of creation.  God creates water at the beginning of the world, and here God transforms water into blood.  God creates the things that creep upon the earth, and here God summons forth the most abominable version of those creeping things, frogs that get into the bed and the kneading bowls and presumably the bread.  This is a dark version of creation, so dark that it reverses creation and verges towards destruction itself.  The part of God’s personality that is so evident in the story of Noah appears again here, the part of God that meets human injustice with destructive despair.

And that was where we ended, closing our Bibles and going out into a dark and clement evening.  Next week we’ll have to examine and try to understand these things.  But for now it was enough to go home, to our studies, to our rest, driving or walking through a world that seemed creatively alive.

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