Loving God, may we tune our hearts and minds to your Spirit in this moment. May we listen for your call to each of us to be agents of your work of liberation. And may you move in us, through us, and among us. Amen.
“Let my people go!” Those are the famous words Moses and Aaron will speak to Pharaoh over and over in this part of the Exodus story; in this great and dramatic contest of wills between Pharaoh who wishes to keep the Israelites enslaved and God who is determined to bring them to freedom.
Moses is beginning to live into his call from God. That burning bush, that Spirit of God, has ignited his soul. And, as Pastor Dave said last week, despite his hesitations, resistance, and self-doubt, he has gotten off of the sidelines and into the game.
And so, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and make this first demand that he let their people go so they may worship their God in the wilderness. If only it were that easy! We could skip the next seven chapters of the book.But it’s not, of course. Pharaoh resists. “Who is this God?” “Why should I care about the God of the Hebrews?” “I’m not let my enslaved workforce go free, are you out of your mind?” “They are just lazy. Get back to work!”
“Lazy,” Pharaoh calls them. His hypocrisy is obvious. Pharaoh probably hasn’t done a day of hard physical labor in his life.
But he’s also scared. What if the Israelites revolt? What if they rise up? They are now most of the population of Egypt. The Pharaohs of this world don’t like to have their power questioned or challenged. And sometimes they react violently, oppressively, and make things worse for the people they have put down and enslaved.
Better just give them more work. That’s Pharaoh’s solution. “Make them find their own straw for brick-making,” he tells his taskmasters and supervisors. And yes, their daily quota of bricks is still the same. Perhaps then they’ll be too busy and too tired to listen to this freedom foolishness Moses and Aaron are promoting.
Moses confronted Pharaoh and things have gotten worse for his people. So, he gets discouraged and slides back into his own self-doubt too. It’s understandable. “When, Lord? How long? Where are you? Why aren’t you doing anything? And are your sure you called the right person for this job? Because I’m not so sure…”
“Now you will see,” answers God. And then, once again, God promises to deliver the Israelites from their enslavement.
And so, Moses goes to Pharaoh again. And this time he performs a sign, a wonder, by turning his staff into a snake. But Pharaoh’s magicians can do that too. So, what?
Next, Pharaoh instructs Moses to turn the Nile River to blood. Spoil their water supply, kill all the fish. That ought to get Pharaoh’s attention. And maybe it did. But it didn’t change his mind or his heart. He still won’t let the Israelite people go.
So next, it’s frogs. And then Gnats. And then Flies. And then all of the Egyptian livestock are diseased and die. And then festering boils (gross! and ouch!) And then hail that destroys most of the crops that are left. And then locusts to finish off any leftovers. And finally, darkness… will Pharaoh (the Egyptian Sun God on Earth) finally relent when his very light is eclipsed?
The plagues essentially destroy Egypt as it was. God the Creator exhibits intense destructive power in this story.
And as this drama unfolds, we keep hoping Pharaoh will change his mind and let the people go. He keeps acting like he might, actually promising that he will at times, and even saying that he’s sinned against God. He’ll let them go if Moses will call upon God to end the plague du jour.
But he never acts on those promises. And we are told over and over that Pharaoh’s heart hardened. Interestingly, sometimes the author says, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” I wonder if part of the reason for this distinction is to point out that God is in control of this situation and God will ultimately prevail. Even Pharaoh’s heart is not out of God’s reach.
But Pharaoh also has a choice. The unrelenting chaos and suffering brought on by these plagues could end if Pharaoh only changed his mind, let his heart be softened, and let the Israelites leave.
The plagues are, arguably, acts of God in this story. But they go on and on and get worse and worse not only due to God’s action, but also to Pharaoh’s inaction.
What will it take to change his mind? What will it take to break open his hard heart? Surely by now, he has realized the limits of his own power. He’s not going to win this one! And sadly, it takes the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn of Egypt, to get him to surrender his grip. Pharaoh heard a loud cry, the text says. There wasn’t a house without someone dead (not even Pharaoh’s house, presumably).
It’s horrible. What do we do with this story? What do we do with the theological message that God would do this? Is God just as tyrannical and violent as Pharaoh? I don’t believe that. And I don’t personally take this episode as instructive theology. It is ok to question the way the character of God is portrayed in the Bible sometimes. It’s not all in agreement. They are varied perspectives in the text itself. And that’s ok.
But even as I am not sure I have a satisfactory answer as to why God follows through with this tenth plague, I do feel compelled to pay attention to it.
And I take this whole first part of the Exodus story as a warning to avoid the hard-hearted way of Pharaoh. I take it as a call to let my heart be broken open; to let my heart be softened. I take it as a convicting call to relinquish some of my power and control and to let go of some of my fear. And I take it as an inspiring call to not only get out of the way of God’s will and work of liberation, but to get involved in God’s work of liberation.
Pharaoh lived by the sword. And his empire was built by violent oppression on the backs of enslaved peoples. Remember, he was the one who tried to get rid of all the Israelite boys in the first place. He tried, but failed, thanks to all of those awesome women who spoiled his plan. But now here he is, finding out that his own horrendous idea has backfired upon him and his people.
And finally, he relents. Finally, he lets the Israelites go. It’s not actually the end of this confrontation, however. There’s more to come and we’ll get to that next week.
But here, in the wake of the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally says, “go; leave.” And they do. And they don’t wait around for him to change his mind again. They flee quickly, leaving their enslavement behind. As our Jewish friends remember during the celebration of Passover, they didn’t even have time to leaven their bread.
One of our key take-aways from this story is that it is God’s will to liberate all creation from what binds us; from what enslaves us; from what holds us captive and holds us back from being our best selves, individually and collectively. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it is the need for control. Maybe it is the thirst for power. Maybe it’s greed. Humanity has long been held captive and enslaved to all of these throughout history.
And this whole story illustrates an ideological contrast and a theological contrast between the Reign of Pharaoh and the Reign of God.
In the Reign of Pharaoh, a fearful, violent tyrant was in charge. And it depended upon the enslavement of an entire people for four-hundred years. And it was obsessed with production (make bricks; build stuff; amass power, territory, and wealth). In the Reign of Pharaoh a few had everything, and most had little to none. Sadly, this is a picture we know well, as it has played out many times throughout human history and still strikes a familiar tone to us today.
In contrast, what would the Reign of God look like? What would the world look like if our loving God was in charge? Exodus offers some answers, some of which we’ll explore further in coming weeks.
Instead of enslavement, God wills our liberation – our collective liberation from all those things that bind us. And God will go to great lengths to free us. Instead of unyielding production, God asks for balance – work and rest (including time for worship and prayer). Creation would sure benefit if we could strike the right balance. Instead of economic disparity, God asks for equity and justice – a world where everyone has enough, and no one is without. Humanity would sure benefit if we could find a way to get that one right.
This is the vision of God’s Reign put forth in the story of Exodus. And it is this vision of God’s Reign that was picked up and carried forward by the generations that followed – by the prophets, by Jesus, by countless ordinary folks who were moved, inspired, and convicted by this story and this call to liberation…. carried forward by those who said yes – by those who were not satisfied with injustice and the status quo – by those who called their own people out on their misdeeds and called them to a better way – by those who refused a hard-hearted approach to life in this world – by those who put their very lives on the line to make the world a better place for all.
One of those people was Harriet Tubman. I’ve been thinking a lot about her recently since I watched the movie, Harriet, a few weeks ago. The movie is really good, by the way; I recommend it if you haven’t seen it.
One of Harriet’s nicknames was Moses. And boy, did she earn that name. Unlike Moses, she was not born into privilege. She was born into slavery in Maryland (just barely south of the Mason-Dixon line). But eventually she became one of the most well-known “conductors” of the underground railroad who went into slave-owning states and helped people escape. She’s famous because she led at least seventy people to freedom from slavery during that time. In addition to doing that very serious and very dangerous work, she was also an activist for both the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage.
And she did all of this while enduring chronic symptoms that resulted from a traumatic brain injury at age thirteen. Her injury was a result of a slave owner’s violent outburst at another slave. He threw a heavy weight at that man and hit her instead.
I’m sure her condition caused problems and suffering for her. But she also began having vivid dreams and visions which she interpreted as divinely inspired. She was deeply religious. She listened for God’s call to her. And when she experienced that call, she responded, acted, and followed where it led. And she, like Moses, knew that God was on the side of liberation.
I don’t know if she ever experienced any of the self-doubt Moses did. Probably. We all do. She was human. But it never stopped her.
It took two attempts for her to escape from slavery. The first time she went with her brothers and they decided to turn back. The second time, she went by herself. After she made it to Philadelphia, she returned to Maryland thirteen times to rescue family members and others.
Later on, during the Civil War, she assisted those who had escaped slavery and found their way to Union Camps. She nursed the wounded. She was a scout and a spy for the Union Army. And she led an armed mission into Confederate territory.
Late in life she bought a home in New York and with the help of a local AME church opened up a home for poor elderly Black people who were in need of care.
What a woman! And I keep thinking about her because I find her so incredibly inspiring. And truthfully, I think we would all do well to regularly listen to the voices, witness, and work of Black women and follow their leadership.
But this history also fills me with such grief and remorse. When will we learn? When we will collectively learn that enslavement, oppression, and systemic racism are not the way of our God of liberation?
Thousands of years after the story of Moses and people who claimed to know that story and follow the God of Moses, the God of Jesus, still participated in the institution of slavery for their own gain. They took on the role of Pharaoh, rather than the role of Moses. And we’re still dealing with the repercussions.
It’s exhausting and discouraging. And it can be tempting to give in and give up sometimes.
One of the scenes of the film that has stuck with me is when Harriet Tubman is gathered with other abolitionists and folks who worked for the underground railroad. The fugitive slave act had just been passed by congress which now allowed slave owners to pursue and capture those who had escaped and run away to other states. The northern states could no longer protect them. If they are to save anyone now, they have to get them not just to Pennsylvania, but all the way to Canada. This makes their rescue attempts much more difficult and much more dangerous.
So, several people want to stop. They don’t want to give up on abolition. But they don’t want to risk their lives on these rescue missions. But not Harriet. She won’t stop. And she points out that many among her peers in that room have not personally borne the burden of slavery. They are compassionate, yes. But they don’t know personally what it is like. And so, she pushes them (successfully) to not give up.
We also can’t give up on the way of liberation. And we won’t. God is still calling to us. In order to abolish slavery, it took people like Harriet Tubman to challenge the Pharaohs of their time, to say to them, “let my people go!”
And now it is our turn to take up their call and their cause as our own, in our time. For God’s people still need release. And God’s liberating Spirit is still at work.
“Let my people go!” Said Moses. Said Harriet.
May it be so.