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The Plague of Pharoah

Exodus 5:1-22
David A. Davis
October 6, 2019
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This Sunday, and for the next month of Sundays or so, we will be turning together to the Book of Exodus. The Book of Exodus will be our focus here in our shared preaching life, and in the Adult Education hour with Drs. Lapsley and Stewart, and in a portion of our fall small groups as well. “Wilderness Formation” is our theme: the formation of God, God’s people, and the relationship of God to God’s people in the wilderness as told in the Book of Exodus.

The Book of Exodus begins after the death of Joseph and with a new king coming to power in Egypt. Joseph, the “dreamer son” of Jacob had risen to a position of power and authority in Egypt sharing wisdom and advice with Pharaoh when a season of drought was tormenting the land. But Joseph had died and a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. Things changed quickly and dramatically for the Israelite people under the new king, the new Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s evil and sinful intentions are revealed right away and before the bible says anything about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh told the people there were too many Israelites in the land and that they were a threat. He stoked fear among the people. As recorded in Exodus, Pharaoh says “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase, and in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escaped from the land.” The plan was to set up taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them into forced labor. The Israelite population continued to grow. So the Egyptians “became ruthless in imposing tasks”. Ruthless is repeated twice there in the first chapter and the narrator tells that the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service”.

Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all the newborn boys. But two of them, Shiprah and Puah,  feared God and refused to do what the king commanded.  A male child was born to a Levite couple and when his mother could hide him no longer she sent him out on the river in a life-saving ark of a basket that was then discovered by Pharoah’s daughter. She saved the child, took him as her son and named him Moses. You will remember that Moses witnessed an Egyptian man beating an Israelite. In response, Moses killed the attacker and word spread all the way back to Pharaoh who then determined to kill Moses in return. Moses fled, married Zipporah, and was out keeping her father’s flock when God came calling from the burning bush. After a lengthy negotiation and more than a few attempts at excuses by Moses, God sends Moses back to Egypt. God warns Moses that it will not be easy with Pharaoh. “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”, God says. “Tell him Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go so that they might worship me. If you refuse, I will kill your firstborn.”  God then sends Aaron and he meets up with Moses “in the wilderness”. Moses fills him in. Together they fill the people in, that the Lord had heard the people’s cry. That God had seen their misery. And the people of Israel bowed down and they worshiped.

Which brings us to our text, the chapter for the morning. It is the account of that first conversation Moses and Aaron had with Pharaoh.

Exodus 5:1-9

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.”

Moses and Aaron and their first chat with Pharaoh. Yeah, it didn’t go very well. “I don’t know the Lord”, Pharaoh said. “Your people are lazy and lying. There are more of them then there are of us and you want them to take a break from working for us? Working for me?”. He orders the straw to be taken away so the people have to work harder to make the same number of bricks. The next part of the story tells of how Pharaoh used the Israelite supervisors to rachet up the work, the pressure, the suffering of their own people. When the supervisors saw what was happening to the people, when they saw all the suffering, they tried to plead with Pharaoh. But he reacted the same way. He told them they were lazy too and they should just go back and make bricks. At this point, according to the text “The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told “you shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’” Biblical scholars point out that the word for “in trouble” is a form of the word for evil. They realized they were dealing with evil. So they went right to Moses and Aaron.

Exodus 5:21

They said to them, “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated these people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated these people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

God answers Moses and Aaron at the beginning of chapter 6. “Now you will see what I will do with a mighty hand.” And God recounts the covenant God made with Abraham and tells them “I have heard the groaning of my people. Go and tell them that I am the Lord and I will free them with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will bring you into the land I promised. Moses did tell the people what God had said, and as recorded here in the sacred text “they would not listen to Moses because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”

Everyone has pretty much heard about what comes next in Exodus: the Nile turns to blood, the swarm of frogs, the gnats, the flies, the fatal disease to the livestock, boils to the skin, hail, thunder and rain, locusts, total darkness, and then death to the firstborn child. The plagues. Ten of them. Everybody remembers the plagues. Few remember the unimaginable suffering of the people at the hands of Pharaoh. The complete disregard for the Lord. The complete disregard for the dignity of the other. The planned, systematic, repugnant oppression of a people. The absolute depth of human cruelty. The abhorrent existence of the cruel institution of slavery. The shameful yet timeless ability of the privileged to prey on the most vulnerable. The sinful, pervasive yet timeless use of fear to gain power, to keep power, to wield power. The wicked yet timeless clinging to and spreading the never-ending myth that the poor are just lazy. Few remember how Exodus tells of the people of God absolutely broken by the evil of Pharaoh. Yes, the Ten Plagues spice up the story a bit. But before the ten, there was one. It was the plague of Pharaoh. And the evil of Pharaoh in the world never seems to go away.

To stop and remember the plague of Pharaoh, is to remember again that the God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, the God of Ishmael, Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, that the God of the Exodus does not accept Pharaoh’s evil and instead sides with the suffering and oppressed. To stop and remember the plague of Pharaoh is to remember again and again that God will always side with the suffering, the oppressed, the outcast, the poor, and the most vulnerable. To stop and remember the plague of Pharaoh is to remember that God’s people should never stop serving, helping, advocating, speaking for those who have so little, who bear the brunt of another’s evil ways, who have been systematically put down and kept down. To stop and remember the plague of Pharaoh is to confront the reality that Pharaoh never goes away. And that hardness of heart? The hardness of heart is a haunting, lingering sign that forever points to how unbearably difficult it is to alleviate suffering and end poverty and set God’s people free. It will never come quickly and is unbearably difficult because of the reality of sin, the presence of evil in the world, and the just, plain as day reality that people like us so easily forget what side God has always been on. So easy to forget what side God has always been on and so easy to forget that hard-hearted Pharaohs never go away.

Jesus knew it. Jesus lived it. Like those Israelite supervisors, Jesus knew “he was in trouble.” Jesus knew he was dealing with evil. The absolute depth of human cruelty. Jesus must have remembered the plague of Pharaoh. His life, his suffering, his death, his resurrection; it was a confrontation with the reality of human sin and evil. Rather than inviting the disciples to grapple with a theological mind bender of why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart or leaving them with another unanswerable question like why didn’t God set the people free….sooner. Rather than jumping into a mind-numbing ageless debate on the problem of evil, Jesus sent the disciples to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner. Jesus telling those who would follow him to never forget what side God is on and how to live, move and have your being when the Pharaohs never go away.

That night in the Garden of Gethsemane, it seems to me that Jesus was all but broken. His spirit was all but broken like the Israelites who were broken by the cruelty of slavery and their own confrontation with evil. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” In the Garden, in the betrayal, in the trial, in the torture, in being crucified, in death, Jesus experienced unimaginable suffering at the hands of others. Whenever we gather here at this table we remember. Body of Christ broken for you. Blood of Christ shed for you. We remember all that Jesus taught, all that Jesus did. But we also remember his suffering. It is the very suffering of God. And we remember that our suffering God will always be on the side of those who suffer.

Christ’s invitation for us to share this meal, and today to share it with the followers of Jesus around the world, is an invitation to never forget what side God is on. And with the invitation comes the nourishment, the very bread of life filling us, sending us, pleading with us, to live, move, and have our being. Lives working for and serving God’s justice, God’s righteousness, God’s kingdom. Because the Pharaoh’s never go away.