Exodus 3:9-10; 5:1-2
Rev. Sandy Johnson
September 24, 2017
Click here for video, Part 1
Last week, we left Moses recovering from a close encounter with the burning bush. He had been given an assignment that I can say most of us would shy away from, if not just run as fast as we could in the opposite direction. I suspect Moses considered his options and we know from scripture that he ultimately did the right thing, albeit kicking and screaming.
Moses took his wife, Zipporah and their children and headed to Egypt. They reconnected with his biological bother Aaron and his sister Miriam and they began the process of preparing the Israelites for exodus. God was putting together his “God Squad” to revolt against Pharaoh. It’s good to know that when we are called, we rarely are called to go at it solo. God knows that what he requires is often difficult to carry out, so he pairs us up in teams to carry out his assignments.
“Nearly always in Scripture when God calls an individual to act, God also calls others to come alongside and help. Moses had Arron and Miriam. David had Jonathan, Joab, and a number of others at various times during his long life. Jesus had the twelve disciples. And when Jesus sent his followers out to minister to the multitudes, he sent them in pairs.” Thankfully we never have to take on an assignment alone. And to that I say, “thank you Jesus!!”
So, the team is in place and now all they have to do is convince the Israelites that they should listen to Moses and his team. Aaron brought the Elders of the Israelites and they shared what God had told Moses. When the performed signs that God had given him, they believed. They felt relief that God had heard their cry for help and was sending help to liberate them from the oppression of the Egyptians.
So, they went to begin the negotiations with the ruler of Egypt. Although scripture doesn’t specify, I imagine that Moses gained entry into Pharaoh’s palace because of his past connections to the royal family. He certainly would have known the best way to approach and to gain entry.
They began by asking for permission to hold a festival in the desert, (I think it was called “Burning Man,” no, that was something different). They just wanted to hold a festival, where they could worship God and offer sacrifices. Instead of honoring their request, Pharaoh reasoned that if they had so much time on their hands to think up a plan to go and spend an afternoon off from work, they obviously needed more work to do. Pharaoh punished them by creating a larger workload and made their lives miserable.
You see, the Israelites were making bricks out of mud and straw. Usually the materials were provided, but now the slave drivers and foremen were told to withhold the straw and make the slaves do the extra work of gathering their own straw. The quotas remained the same, but the amount of time it took to fulfill the orders greatly expanded, to the point that they were unable to meet their quotas and they were punished further.
I think Pharaoh was trying to undermine Moses. If he could increase the misery of the people, then they would turn against Moses and his ideas of liberation and continue to work as slaves for the Egyptians. I believe Pharaoh knew the gravity of the situation and wasn’t about to risk losing his workforce.
The Israelites became discouraged and angry, especially at Moses. I’m thinking with friends like Moses, who needs enemies! They didn’t like that he was making their lives miserable. I mean, it was bad before, but Moses had made it worse. They believed he had been sent to deliver them from their slavery and all that had happened was the conditions were suddenly made worse.
Moses returned to the Lord and cried out for direction, he was sure that God had called him to lead the Israelite people, however nothing was going according to plan. God assured Moses in Exodus 6:2-12:
“I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. 5 I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” 9 Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
10 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” 12 But Moses spoke to the Lord, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?”
Talk about being discouraged! They had barely begun their plan to free the slaves and already the people had turned against Moses and were so beaten down that they didn’t want to risk Moses doing anything further, for fear that their plight would be worsened.
But then, God assured Moses and Aaron that they would be successful against the Pharaoh and God gives Aaron permission to speak for Moses. Then he says something that baffles me! God tells Moses and Aaron that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he says, “I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” 6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.
Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? If God could harden Pharaoh’s heart, why not soften it? Why put the Israelites and the Egyptians through hell? There were no winners here. Everyone was to suffer as a result of the Pharaoh’s stubbornness, his hardness of heart.
Something interesting about us humans. We only value those things that we have to fight for, things we pay a high price for. Things that are easy or are given to us we throw away with yesterday’s trash. Perhaps God was making a statement that He was in control and when the time was right, God would lead his people to freedom.
And so, the plagues began, “the epic battle between the all-powerful Pharaoh and the shepherd Moses. But it was more than that. It was a battle between Yahweh, Israel’s God, and the entire pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses.”
The first plague was let loose, a plague of blood. When the Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, Aaron took his staff and stretch it out over the waters of Egypt and all of the streams and canals, ponds and reservoirs turned to blood.
The fish died. The smell was atrocious and there was no water to drink. But the Pharaoh had his magicians do the same trick as Moses. Pharaoh didn’t believe that the plague of blood had come from God, after all his own sorcerers had been able to duplicate the trick. Seven days passed and then came the plague of frogs. It turned out no different than the plague of blood. Aaron stretched out his hand over all the waters of Egypt and the frogs came up and covered the land. Frogs were everywhere. But Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing by their secret art.
The Pharaoh was not amused so he summoned Moses and Aaron implored them to pray that the frogs would be taken away. He made a deal and agreed to let the people go to offer sacrifices to the Lord. But as soon as the frogs were cleaned up and the crisis abated, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened again.
And then came the gnats and the flies and the plague on the livestock. It seemed the plagues kept coming, one after another, a different epidemic was sent on the people and Pharaoh begged to make it go away. He lied and said he would let them go, but he didn’t.
Plague after plague, Moses and Aaron did what God called them to do, only to have Pharaoh rebuke and lie to them and force God to continue to come up with a worse plague than the one before until finally, with no other choice, God authorizes the plague on the first born.
“The climax of this epic battle, in which God’s judgement would be poured upon Egypt, and God would deliver Israel from death, oppression, and slavery. In delivering the Israelites, God would make them his covenant people and lead them to the Promised Land.”
God instructed the Israelites to prepare for the final plague by marking their homes so that when the angel of death came over Egypt the angel would “Passover” the homes of the Israelites, if there was a mark of lamb’s blood above the doorpost. Those Egyptian households would bear the brunt of God’s final wrath.
29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said.”
Finally, the Israelites are victorious, but at what cost? I have to admit that this story disturbs me. “God sent an angel of death to slaughter infants, children, and any who were firstborn, including “the oldest child of the servant woman by the millstones, and all the first offspring of the animals” (Exodus 11:5) – over one hundred thousand people and thousands of animals. This action seems inconsistent with a God who is “compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).”
How do we balance or make sense of this moral tension? Can we simply file it away as an epic story with some lesson for us to learn? Or do we read it as a historical record of genocide? Can we justify the deaths, as the author of Exodus does, understanding that “the death of the Egyptian firstborn was the just judgement of God upon the Egyptians?”
We can argue that if Pharaoh had acquiesced earlier, maybe on the second or third plague, there would have been no need to escalate the battle. All this is Pharaoh’s fault. But we also know that God hardened his heart. The answer eludes me, but the tension remains there. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by his own will and also by God’s. And ultimately God used his hard heart to demonstrate his power in a way that finally Pharaoh understood.
The Israelites fled and ultimately were delivered through the sea with Pharaoh’s army on right their heels. God intervened again and brought his people finally to safety, obliterating the Egyptian army in the waters of the Red Sea. Phew! Epic story, right?!
Following God’s call is never easy. If it was easy then everyone would be doing it. Often things get more difficult before they get better. Our church has been working hard to expand our ministry and God’s love and influence in our community. There are some folks who have worked super hard and are tired. They may feel like giving up, but they persevere. They are dedicated and determined to follow God and when they feel like giving up, they dig deep and find what they need to move ahead, to follow God and to reach others with the love and grace of God.
We have worked hard the past few years to do this and I can guarantee that while we will continue to work hard, there will be roadblocks, there will be plagues of one kind or another – negative or pessimistic attitudes, financial stress, disagreements over policy or vision; but what I can tell you is that we will never give up. We have worked so hard to bring Christ to our community and our work is having positive results, lives are transformed, we have become a part of something bigger than ourselves. We have fought the inclination to be mediocre, or selfish and uncaring about our world. We have crossed over from slavery to self, to victory in Jesus.
God hears and answers our plea, just as he did the Israelites. And like our ancient sisters and brothers, we will respond with the same dedication and determination they did, because we too have been set free!
Gracious Lord God, Precious Jesus, Spirit who lives within us, we thank you for the story of Moses and his example of working with God for God’s purposes. When we feel like quitting, remind us again that you are with us, leading and guiding, and providing what we need for the work in your kingdom. Amen.