Plagues, and other signs and wonders: A story for our times

A story of plague, empire and pyramids is truly a story for our times. A reflection, followed by a congregational conversation. (Listen to the reflection part here.)

Once upon a time, long long ago, there was a nation whose gods shaped it into a pyramid of power. At the top was one man: Pharaoh: the semi-divine son of the sun god Ra. And as happens to everyone, Pharaoh was made in his god’s image. Dominating. Enslaving. Murderous. Turning the things of life—midwives, the Nile—into instruments of death.

Further down the pyramid were those who did the dirty work: the architects of Pharaoh’s grandiose monuments to himself; the overseers and slavedrivers; and, of course, the comfortable elite. At the base of the pyramid were the slaves. Exhausted, ragged, hungry, beaten; traumatized by the early deaths of their children; perpetually threatened by death themselves. At the bottom of the heap, life was cheap and hope non-existent.

But once upon a time, there was a new story: a story about a god who cares, and who sets the people at the bottom of the pyramid free. It happened like this:

Moses and his brother, Aaron, went to Pharaoh with a simple message: Let my people go! Now Pharaoh wasn’t used to people telling him what to do, and of the many gods in Egypt he had never heard of the god of Moses: so he demanded a sign. Aaron threw down his staff, and it turned into a snake: but Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same thing with their magic, and Pharaoh was not convinced.

So God told Moses and Aaron to stretch out their staff over the River Nile and say, ‘By this shall you know that I am the Lord. Look: I strike the waters of the Nile and they will be turned to blood. The fish will die and the water will stink, so that nobody may drink for seven days.’ And even the cups and bowls were filled with blood: and Egypt suffered terribly.

But after seven days had passed, Pharaoh still would not let the people go. And so God told Moses and Aaron to stretch out the staff again, and to bring up frogs onto the land. Frogs leapt and hopped and crawled out of all the creeks and waterways and billabongs, and the whole land was soon covered with their soft squishy bodies.

Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron to him, and told them that if they took away the frogs, he would let the people go. And so all the frogs died, and the Egyptians swept them up into stinking rotten heaps. But Pharaoh’s heart hardened once more, and he would not let the people go.

And so God sent more plagues, one after another: lice, flying insects, pestilence, boils, fire and hail, locusts, and darkness. Nine times, Pharaoh promised to let the people go; nine times, his heart hardened and he went back on his promise.

Finally, the tenth plague came. Every Egyptian firstborn child—human and animal—died; and God executed judgement on the gods of Egypt. And finally, finally, Pharaoh let the people go.

So that is how the people were set free. In other words, liberation was achieved through plagues, signs and wonders which should make us ask questions. Did the god of life really cause the plagues? Why was Pharaoh’s heart perpetually hardened? Why did innocent Egyptians and livestock suffer? Why did children die?

These are questions with no easy answers. Rabbis and sages and other faithful people have been wrestling with these questions over the centuries, and we should wrestle with them too. Here, I’ll offer my two cents’ worth, then draw out some questions for us to grapple with as a congregation.

To begin with, each of the plagues, signs and wonders can be interpreted as a show of power over an Egyptian god. The first sign is that the Nile turns red with blood: and so Hapi, the god of the Nile, is overmastered. Then comes a plague of frogs, showing power over Heqet, the frog goddess. Lice are raised up from dust, showing power over Geb, the god of dust and earth; and so it goes on to the ninth plague, when the land is plunged into darkness and Pharaoh’s personal god, the sun god Ra, is snuffed out.

The tenth plague is the most appalling, but let’s not shy away from it. It can be understood as a response to Cannibal’s Hymn, a religious song which tells of the Egyptian gods destroying their own children; and it’s also a response to Pharaoh, made in the image of these gods. For he told midwives to murder babies and, when that didn’t work, ordered every Israelite baby boy thrown into the source of Egyptian life, the Nile. People are made in the image of their gods, and they form their societies accordingly. Murderous gods create murderous people and nations with deadly hierarchies of power.

So, did the god of this new story actually cause all this suffering and murder the firstborn? For myself, I can’t believe it. For this god is the god of life, the god who tells Abraham not to sacrifice his son and who, in the Hebrew Bible, repeatedly condemns child sacrifice. More, in the person of Jesus Christ, this god chooses to suffer and die in order to reveal and heal human violence. Such a god does not cause the death of children.

What I can believe, however, is that suffering happened and people died, and that storytellers attributed it to god. Which is all very well, but what does it have to do with us?

Well, we are made in the image of our gods: and we still live in a world which is a pyramid. We’re not at the top: we’re not hobnobbing with the Murdochs and the Trumps and the Bezoses of this world; but nor are we anywhere near the bottom. On a global scale, most of us are in the top ten percent*: the wealthy elite which for the most part regrets how things are but which takes for granted that things can never really change.

And I wonder whether one day people will tell a new story, a story which once again reveals the god of life, a god who cares about the ninety percent, and who heals hearts, liberates people and transforms history once again. In such a story, there might be plagues, signs and wonders: and perhaps they would look like this:

  1. Rivers dry up and people are left without a drop to drink.
  2. Mass fish deaths occur and stink up the major waterways.
  3. Fertile land turns saline, and crops will grow no more.
  4. Countless bees and other pollinating insects mysteriously sicken and die.
  5. Flocks and herds develop species-to-species transmissible diseases, and all must be destroyed.
  6. A novel coronavirus rips around the globe leaving a trail of sickness, suffering and death.
  7. Intense hurricanes batter coastal cities and render them uninhabitable.
  8. Vast locust swarms devastate crops from New South Wales to East Africa.
  9. Bushfires rage out-of-control, destroying plants, animals, people and communities and blotting out the sun.

Let’s pause there, and wonder: What if these things happened because our world worships the gods of private wealth and free movement of capital and unlimited economic growth? What if they happened because we worship the gods of personal rights without communal responsibility; the gods which place the desires of the ten percent above the needs of the many; the gods which show contempt for trees and land and water and people?

Could we tell a new story in which the god of life uses such plagues, signs and wonders to warn of impending disaster? And, if we turn to this god and humble ourselves and seek to live in this god’s ways, could healing happen and this god prevail?

Once upon a time, this god said to Solomon: ‘When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send plague among the people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:13-14)

All around us we see plagues, signs and wonders. Every vested interest, every major political party, has hardened its heart. We’re told these things are not happening, or are natural and unavoidable; we’re told real change isn’t possible.

Yet what if, between each of these signs, there is an opportunity for hearts to soften; a chance for repentance; an opening for justice and communal liberation and life-giving change?

Last week, a teenager in our congregation prayerfully reminded us that global emissions have dropped since shutdown; and scientists are begging us to use this window for urgent drastic salvific action.

My friends, the tenth plague is not yet upon us. We don’t know what it will look like; but we do know it will be terrible, indeed. And we are in the window for repentance.

What, then, does repentance look like?

And how are we called to act?

From here we moved into a time of congregational discussion; this is what emerged:

  • Someone told us they had realised lately that to care for the planet means working less paid hours: because permaculture, cooking, and other simple earth-loving work take lots of time in themselves.
  • Someone realised that we Westerners are more like the Egyptians than the Israelites: and that was a shock and something to think and pray about.
  • Someone observed that shutdown has given us an opportunity to create the world that we want. For example, medical professionals have been trying to get telehealth off the ground for two decades, and have been told repeatedly it’s impossible. Yet with shutdown, it became possible in 48 hours: What else is changing? What else can be done?
  • Someone suggested we need to choose our own suffering: even it’s a plague of simple living and home cooked meals!
  • A teenager was moved by the lengths God was prepared to go to set people free from slavery and oppression.
  • Someone felt encouraged to reflect once again on manna: there is enough for all, but not if people hoard. What is enough, he wondered, and how can we achieve that mindset?
  • Someone reflected on the need for corporate solutions and a community to engage in these problems: for they cannot be solved by individuals.
  • Someone pondered our need for repentance over and over and over again. The pressures around us mean we lose clarity and courage; we need to be constantly re-energised. They gave an example of their (very large) workplace. Formerly, employees could only use two superannuation funds; and they settled for that for a while. But eventually, she and others began to agitate for ethical super (which does NOT invest in extractive industries); and this is now an option for all staff. Yay!
  • Someone said how important it is to also recognize when we have done enough for now: that we can’t do everything at once, and that sometimes we cannot go further than where we are now.
  • In our prayers, someone asked the Holy Spirit to be with us all and guide us beyond human solutions, and towards god-solutions. Amen! Ω

*If you don’t believe me, check out the Credit Suisse Global Wealth databook 2019. On the global wealth pyramid, if you can sell your house and walk away with $AUD 140,000 per adult in the household, you are in the top ten percent of global wealth. Find the pyramid here.

Sanctuary wrestled with Exodus 12:1-14 (and preceding chapters) on 13 September 2020 (Year A Proper 18, one week late) © Sanctuary, 2020. Image credit: Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash.

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