By Joseph Mangina
If the book of Genesis is all about life — creation, fecundity, promise, blessing — then the book of Exodus is all about death. Or a great deal of it is, anyway. Already in chapter one, we learn of Pharaoh’s threat to kill off the Israelite males — a plot fortunately thwarted by the clever midwives. Moses too is a death-shadowed figure. Drawn out of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, he grows up to become a murderer, and is forced to flee Egypt for Midian. There he becomes acquainted with the Lord, who speaks to him out of a burning bush and summons him to deliver Israel out of bondage in Egypt. But being the Lord’s prophet is apparently a dangerous thing: “At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death,” surely one of the most mysterious verses in all of Scripture. Once again, Moses is spared, if by very odd means (4:24-26); but the reader is put on alert that the God of life and blessing can also deal death when such is required.
The account of the ten plagues of Egypt continues this strange interplay of death and life. The first plague, the turning of the Nile into blood, sets the tone for all the rest. The Nile was and is the source of life for the Egyptian nation. The reddening of its waters is an evil omen, hinting that the line that separates life from death is thin indeed. The second plague, that of frogs, continues the Nile theme, this time in the key of the comic grotesque. Through Moses, the Lord announces to Pharaoh that if he does not free the Israelites “I will plague all your country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs that shall come up into your house and into your bedroom and on your bed and into the houses of your servants and your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls” (8:1-3). It is a risible image, if also rather terrifying.
The third and fourth plagues resemble the second in being about swarms of living things; in this case, gnats and flies (translators differ on how to translate the insect names). It is as if these plagues display a death-dealing excess of life, fecundity gone wrong, or life in the wrong places. Nature itself has turned against the Egyptians. In the fifth and sixth plagues, the Lord’s judgment literally gets under the skin of the Egyptians: cattle in the first instance (pestilence), joined by human beings in the second (boils). The seventh plague announces the divine sovereignty over matters meteorological: an unnatural, fiery hail pours down from the heavens, destroying the crops essential to the nation’s survival. What plant life is not damaged by the hail finally succumbs to locusts, another event of “swarming,” but with even more catastrophic results: the locusts “covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened, and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field, through all the land of Egypt” (10:15).
In the ninth plague, darkness covers the whole land, a darkness so thick one can actually feel it (10:21). This event is a fitting prelude to the terrible final plague, the death of the firstborn, when the Destroyer comes to visit the houses of the Egyptians, but spares the Israelites, who have sprinkled the blood of the paschal lamb on their doorposts.
What shall we make of these strange tales? At its heart, the narrative of the plagues of Egypt is a story about difference — or in more theological terms, about election. As the plagues unfold, we see how the Israelites are spared the worst consequences of the doom that falls on the Egyptians. The plague of flies descends on the land of Egypt, but not on Goshen where the Israelites live. The pestilence afflicts the Egyptian cattle, but not the cattle of Israel, and so forth. It is as if the very powers of nature themselves are being summoned to testify to Israel’s distinctiveness from all other nations, and so to the Lord’s otherness from all other gods. As the Lord says to Moses, in the lead-up to the plague of locusts:
Go to Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart… in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them — so that you may know that I am the Lord. (10:1-2)
The plagues are, in the end, good news for the Israelites, but they are rather tough on the Egyptians. In the recitation of the ten plagues that accompanies the Jewish Passover Seder, a drop of wine is spilled at mention of each of the plagues, as an acknowledgment of the suffering they brought on the Egyptian people (Joseph Telushkin, An Encyclopedia of Jewish Literacy, p. 34). Insistence on Israel’s election doesn’t mean that the nations have no role to play in the world’s redemption, only that none of theirs can be Israel’s role.
A Christian reading of Exodus might want to push this point even further. The Book of Revelation tells of a series of plagues, even more terrible than those of Exodus, that God visits on the world in preparation for its final judgment. So awful are these events that we might well wonder if God is finally the world’s Creator and Lover or its Enemy. Here some reflections of Jacques Ellul may be apposite. In his extraordinary commentary on the Apocalypse, he writes that everything that happens in the events of the seals, the trumpets, the bowls must be “situated in the cross of Jesus Christ, … these texts must not be read in themselves but only by relation to that love which sacrifices itself for those who hate it” (Ellul, Revelation, p. 123). Death stands in the service of life; but only because the Lord of life is willing to take our death on himself. These are good thoughts to end on, as we look ahead to the climactic events of the Passover narrative.