Today’s biblical text begins with the 10th and final plague on Egypt. Because of COVID, I have some new questions about this scripture. What does it take to recognize a plague is a real threat? What did the average Egyptian think as Moses and Pharaoh dueled over the fate of the Hebrew slaves? First, the water turned red. That is a real thing. Plankton can create a bioluminescent red tide, so that could have been a natural occurrence. Then came the frogs. At first, the kids ran in the streets trying to catch them. Frogs are cute, think Kermit. But at night, it gets pretty loud. Then came the annoying gnats, the pesky flies. I was once swarmed on a trail and any exposed flesh was attacked. Flies draw blood and we ran for 10 minutes back to our car and shut ourselves inside. I would have been done in Egypt at the plague of flies.
But not Pharaoh. It took hail and boils covering everyone’s bodies, and locusts eating everything in sight and even a three-day solar eclipse, living in total darkness. We have it easy, just wear a mask and keep a physical distance. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened. Were common Egyptians stoic like my Iowa forebearers who farmed through flood, drought, and pestilence? What was Sphinx News saying about these odd and devastating hardships? Was it the judgment of God, or “fake news?” Did they blame on the Hebrew virus? Did the experts say it would be gone in a few weeks, and a few deaths are better than tanking the economy?
Which plague leads to the closing of the restaurants? What did they do about school for their children? Were people unhappy with Pharaoh and wanted him gone, or did they stick with him because the temple priests of Ra, the Sun God, said he was the chosen one. They liked the pyramids, and besides, the only thing worse than a series of plagues was a slave revolt. That would certainly bring down the Cairo 500 index and ruin everyone’s retirement.
What did people think when they heard stories of the terrible working conditions and hardships of the slaves? Did the human suffering break their hearts or did they think, well Hebrews had it worse back in their country? We are doing them a favor. How many Egyptians worked as guards and taskmasters? When a slave was whipped to death, did anyone hold the guard accountable? Or did people say, you know most of the guards are really good people? There are a few bad apples, but most are fair, my cousin or my neighbor works at the pyramids and he is a great Dad. Besides, most of those Hebrews are criminals and violent by nature. We need law and order.
Is it fair to ask these questions of a historical text, questions more about the present than ancient Egypt? If the past constantly impacts the present, then the answer is “yes.” Especially since the Exodus story is central to our tradition, enough to be a Hollywood epic three different times. I’ve seen the 10 Commandments by Cecile B. DeMille with Charlton Heston, and Disney produced the animated “The Prince of Egypt.” Maybe you saw “God’s and Kings” and it was odd to see one more white guy play Moses, but especially to see Batman as Moses.
None of these movies brought home the central point of the drama. What is God doing in human life amidst injustice? How should we respond to the work of God today? For example, Cecile B. DeMille called his version of Exodus “The 10 Commandments.” Why didn’t he simply leave the biblical name of Exodus? Were the 10 commandments the point of Exodus? I ask because in 1860, many copies of “The Slave Bible” were produced. It was a brief version of the Bible, with passages to help the slaves learn the Christian faith, with specific uplifting passages about obeying masters and keeping your mind on good things. The only part of Exodus in the Slave Bible was the 10 Commandments. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, (and master) were fine. But don’t get any ideas about an escape to the Promised Land up North. If we don’t deal with the central message of Exodus and Passover, the liberation from oppression, then we aren’t reading the whole Bible.
So let’s get to the core challenge. What do the plagues and Passover mean for us right now, especially since we might just feel amid multiple plagues? The author of Exodus saw the frogs, flies, and blood in the water as the work of God to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from slavery. How do we understand COVID, and the derecho hurricane-like winds in Iowa, and California wildfires, and continued tropical storms along the Gulf Coast? Is God trying to tell us something? Is our nation being punished for our sins?
The mind of God is above my pay grade. I stick to Personnel, not the management of creation. I’m reluctant to say that God uses storms and plagues to tell us when we are sinful because I’ve have seen much harm done with bad theology. It’s too easy to combine your pet issue with the most recent disaster and say this is God’s judgment for X. Too often the X factor is prejudice against being gay, or pro-choice, and prayer in public schools. (I can guarantee there will be a lot of praying happening in schools this year.) How are we to tell if a hurricane striking the port of Galveston, Texas is God’s judgment for not believing biblical literalism or a judgment on the fossil fuel industry covering its shores?
Here is how I understand God’s spirit in times of storms and plagues. When disaster strikes, pay attention to who is affected and how we deal with it. Disaster reveals the flaws and short-comings within human community. The poorest neighborhoods are always located on the flood plain, next to the toxic factory, lacking in the facilities for clean drinking water. Studies even show that poor neighborhoods are hotter than wealthy neighborhoods because of the lack of green spaces and trees. People of color and poor people are more affected by COVID because of less access to health care, and more likely to have risk factors like asthma due to poor air quality.
While God may not be speaking through COVID or sending hurricanes, God does speak to us through human suffering. If we shut it out, ignore it and keep delaying the problems, they don’t just get better on their own. I was struck when re-reading the text that Pharaoh kept agreeing to do what Moses asked, and then going back on his promises. Several times Pharaoh agrees to let the slaves go. Moses even prays and the locusts disappear, but when things are safe again, it is right back to business as usual, injustice as usual.