Pete continues his award-winning (his cat seems to like it) and mind-altering series on Exodus by diving into chapters 5-13: Moses and Aaron’s first confrontation with Pharaoh (which did and did not go well) and the story of the plagues, which are loaded with all sorts of symbolic, theological, and mythic meaning.
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements you can share.
- “There’s a theme here in Exodus – and this goes really throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments – is that the Creator is the redeemer.” @peteenns
- “I think that the Exodus story has a historical footing or grounding, but the story is not told in a way that simply preserves that. It’s told in ways that drives theology forward.” @peteenns
Mentioned in this episode:
- Article: “Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues” by Ziony Zevit
- Book: “The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son” by Jon D. Levinson
- Book: “How the Bible Actually Works” by Pete Enns
- Support: The Bible for Normal People Patreon
- Learn: The Bible for Normal People Courses
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty Intro Music]
Pete: Hey Folks. Welcome to Part 3 of Pete Ruins Exodus. We’re going to cover a lot today. We’re going to cover Chapters 5 to the middle of Chapter 13, which is 9 ½ chapters.
That’s okay. We’ve been taking our time the first four chapters. We had two separate episodes on those because that’s where a lot is set up here.
Now, we’re starting to get the meat of the book, at least, the meat of the first part of the book. I hope that will be clear by the time we get there. A battle’s gonna happen real soon.
I would divide these chapters into two parts. There’s the first part, which is 5 to about half-way through Chapter 7. That is, for a lack of a better way of putting it, a transitionary section. I really don’t like the term, because it sounds like it’s unimportant. Every chapter in Exodus is important. Every chapter, every paragraph, builds to something that the writer wants to say. Let’s not think of this as unimportant.
But it is a ramp to the plague stories, which is really a central point here in the first half of the book. This is where Yahweh shows Pharaoh who’s who. We’ll look at that, too, at some length, obviously.
These chapters (let’s stick with the first part here), verse 5 to the middle of Chapter 7. They bridge Moses’ call that we looked at in the early chapters. They bridge that to the big action, which is the deliverance from Egypt, which is the plagues and then also, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, popularly known as the Red Sea. But that’s not accurate. We’ll get to that too.
Just an overview here of this section. First, Moses and Aaron have their first confrontation with Pharaoh, which doesn’t go well, followed by God’s reassurance to Moses, followed by a genealogy stressing the priestly pedigree of Moses and Aaron. Where’s that coming from? There’s a lot happening in this section.
I just want to stick to some highlights here: my own selective thoughts and what I think are important. As far as I’m concerned, you really get the gist of this transitionary section in the first few verses of Chapter 5. A lot of things are laid out there.
First, Moses and Aaron, they go to Pharaoh, and they say, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” First of all, that gives us a sense as to what the purpose of the exodus is. It’s not simply freedom because they don’t say to Pharaoh, “Let my people so we can just do whatever.”
The purpose of this is to celebrate a festival, which is to worship and, in other words, there’s a reason for this. I know we touched on this way back on part one. It already comes up in chapter 1. One of the the big themes of this first part of the book until they cross the Red Sea is to whom do the Israelites belong? Do they serve Pharaoh as slaves or do they serve Yahweh as his worshippers? There’s a Hebrew word (it’s pronounced avad) which means “to serve” and it can have that double meaning.
One of the big questions is whom will Israel “avad”? Will they “avad” Pharaoh as slaves or will they “avad” Yahweh as worshippers. Here, they tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that (very important)—there’s a purpose—they might celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.”
What kind of a festival are we talking about? On Mount Sinai, they offer sacrifices when they get there. This is in Chapter 24, verse 5. It is what scholars call a “covenant meal.” They offer sacrifices. There’s eating involved. God eats. The people eat. That seems to be the fulfillment of this request, when they get to Mount Sinai.
Jumping ahead just a little bit, just to get our juices flowing here, don’t forget this famous golden calf episode, which is in Chapter 32. That is a festival to Yahweh. They just do it wrong. They worship Yahweh in the form a golden calf and that’s a no-no. You don’t worship God in images of anything in creation. God doesn’t have images.
This is a really touchy point in this story, this golden calf episode, which doesn’t happen for 20 chapters. It’s an anti-covenantal meal. It’s a meal. It’s a festival. It’s a worship service, but it goes awry and it’s just a horrible thing.
We’ll get to that. I don’t want to jump ahead too much. I think it’s worth highlighting where some of this stuff is going.
They ask Pharaoh to let them go and Pharaoh, of course, has a very understandable response. He says, “I don’t know Yahweh. I don’t who this god is that you’re talking about. No. I’m not going to let the people go.”
The plague story—those 10 plagues—can be understood, theologically should be understood, as the process by which Pharaoh gets acquainted with who Yahweh is.
That may be one reason why there are 10 of them and whey they’re so drawn out and why they take directions that they do, which we’ll get to a little bit later.
He doesn’t know who Yahweh is. Actually, I don’t blame him. I’m the king of Egypt and slaves say, “Our god wants us to go free to sacrifice to him.” “Well, no. What kind of a king would I be? What kind of gods would I have if I just let you do what your god says? That means your god is telling us what to do. That’s just not going to happen.”
It’s almost like picking a fight. That’s the way I look at this. It’s making a request that seems very unreasonable.
That’s Pharaoh’s response.
You have a second plea on the part of Moses and Aaron. They say, “Our God—our God told us to go on a three-day’s journey to sacrifice or what’s going to happen? Yahweh will fall on us with pestilence and sword. You don’t understand. We’re in deep, hot water here if you don’t let us go. We’re just going to go on a three-day’s journey to prevent God being angry with us.”
Which, by the way, is what’s going to happen to Egypt for not letting them go. That’s one of these nice ironies that happens in the book. One question to ask here “is this actually a truthful kind of plea on their part? Because a three-day’s journey? Really? Is that what this is about?
We saw this in Chapter 3, verse 18, where, likewise, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh. Just say, “We’re gonna go on a three-day trip.” Does that mean a big trip and they’re gonna come back after those three days? Is that what’s implied here? Is that just left open?
It’s hard to know whether this request is completely above board. It may be, “Listen, all we want to do is have a weekend away to worship our god, because we can’t sacrifice to God on this foreign soil. We just can’t. It’s been so long since we worshipped God correctly. We need to do this now. You need to let us go.”
It may just be the minimalist request, that even this, Pharaoh is not willing to do. That’s a possible way of reading this.
I wonder, too, if the whole thing about, “Listen, if you don’t let us go, God’s gonna punish us, if we don’t sacrifice to him.” I don’t think that’s implied anywhere in this story up to this point.
This may just be rhetorical flourish. You’re confronting the king and you have to tell this story. Maybe exaggerate things a little bit. It’s not exactly what God says to say. The reader’s left to try to make some sense of this. It’s not entirely clear. I think it’s not really clear, just what the point of this second request is, other than it seems like a minimalist request, as far as I’m concerned.
Pharaoh is digging his heels in. This is just going to go bad for him, because he’s really stubborn. He has a hard heart. We’re going to see that a lot in this story.
Notice, too, what Pharaoh’s response is here. We’re still in the opening verses of Chapter 5, 1-5. Pharaoh’s response to this second plea is –well, it’s two-fold. He says, “First of all, there are so many of you.” That’s in verse five, and that echoes what we saw back in Chapter 1. The whole reason for enslaving them was that there are so many of them.
The second part of Pharaoh’s response is, “Here’s the problem. You guys are lazy. That’s what you are. You’re just lazy, lazy people. From now on, here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna have to gather your own straw to make your bricks.” The mud is kept together by fibrous straw and that makes the bricks stay firm and last forever. They’re going to have to gather their own straw. It’s not going to be given to them.
This is how this opens up. This pits Pharaoh against Yahweh. Remember, we saw early in the first episode, first part, how the main characters of this story are really Yahweh, Israel’s god, and the gods of Egypt and their power that are mediated through this Pharaoh figure.
Here you have Pharaoh digging his heels and saying, “I don’t know who Yahweh is. I’m not letting you go. In fact, I’m going to make it harder on you. I don’t care if your gods are going to be angry with you. I’m not going to let you go. You’re staying here.”
Of course, the response here—poor Moses. His earlier fears are realized. Remember, one of the excuses he gave, and a pretty good one frankly, is if goes and tries to convince the people, they’re not going to believe him and this is not going to go well for him.
It doesn’t go well for him. The people grumble, which is the first grumbling against Moses that we see in other places in the Pentateuch. It’s a theme of the Pentateuch. The people grumble against Moses.
They accuse Moses of making their situation worse. “I told you so, Moses.” Actually, it’s Moses saying that to God, isn’t it? “Listen. I’m being rejected by these people you told me deliver. Thanks. I warned you this was going to happen.”
As a result of that, Chapter 6 then follows with Yahweh’s assurance that Moses will indeed deliver the Israelites. We’re not going to get into this whole thing, because we can’t do everything. If you look at the first 13 verses of Chapter 6, this is Yahweh assuring Moses. It’s a reiteration of the whole conversation in Chapters 3 and 4. They repeat a lot of the same language.
It’s going back. “It’s okay. I know it didn’t go well, but let me repeat what I said before. It’s going to be fine.”
Also, the genealogy in Chapter 6, verses 14-27—it’s a genealogy of Moses and Aaron—but really focusing on Aaron, because it goes to Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who is a figure who pops up in the book of Numbers.
This is the weird thing. Why interrupt a story like this by giving a list of names that don’t seem to feed directly into the flow of the story. In fact, this doesn’t. This genealogy of Moses and Aaron right here in the Exodus story, it goes back to the Patriarchal Period, one of the sons of Jacob, Levi and the priests will come from the tribe of Levi and from one of the Levites, Aaron, will be descended all the high priests. That’s what the deal is.
This, of course, anticipates the future, because we’re already bringing Phineas into this. He doesn’t even show up until the book of Numbers. It’s tying this moment in.
Remember where this story began way back in Genesis and where it’s going. We have an important moment here of establishing Aaron as a Levite, a chosen intermediary between God and the people.
It may be the case that one of the purposes of this genealogy is simply to establish Aaron as a worthy partner. Another possibility, and this is where modern scholarship typically goes, and this has always been convincing to me (I think it makes a lot of sense)—this insertion here of the Levitical pedigree of these two important people and especially Aaron, the first High Priest, is a back referencing of the later priesthood here into this ancient story.
As we looked briefly in the first part of this series, the book of Exodus wasn’t written by Moses. It wasn’t written five minutes after Moses. The book of Exodus has a long history of development and of traditions, of editing that probably didn’t see their final phase of editing until a thousand years or so after Moses would have lived, which is around 1300 BCE and the exile is in the Sixth Century, that’s 700 years or so, 800 years, and probably even after the return from exile. This is when these books, like the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, which includes the book of Exodus, this is when they would have taken their final form.
What you have, then, by that point, is a very well-established Israelite worship system which scholars call a cult, a cultic system, which has nothing to do with drinking Kool-Aid. It’s just a fancy word that has anything to do with worship like priests and temples and sacrifices.
The Israelites have a well-developed and clear identity as Israelites and what it means to worship God. These stories are brought back into the distant past and given a hook into these foundational times and events of the people.
Of course, we don’t know that. It does make a certain degree of sense when here you have something that already anticipates a priesthood that involves Phineas who shows up a few books later. In and of itself, it may not be convincing to think like this, but there are so many instances in the Pentateuch itself where this sort of thing seems to be happening. If I start on examples of that, it’s going to take us so far afield. But Genesis seems to have so many anticipations of the later monarchic period that suggest that Genesis was edited during the monarchic period to take into account current political and religious realities.
That sort of thing does not stop with the book of Exodus. We seem to have an example of it here, with this genealogy.
Moving on. We’re getting to the end of this transitionary period, from 6:28, after this genealogy ends, to 7:13. This last part of this transitionary section of Exodus largely repeats and reiterates the gist of Chapters 3 to 4. Here’s Moses and he says, “This is a disaster. Send someone else. I can’t talk.” Remember that? “I’m not eloquent enough. I’m not a public speaker.”
Then God says, “Listen, Aaron will speak for you.” A reiteration of what He said before. Then He says, “Now go confront Pharaoh.”
Moses’ inability, but then highlighting Aaron’s ability to speak for him, might be why you have that genealogy here, to establish Aaron’s worth and his high pedigree as someone who is worthy to stand next to Moses and to be, in essence, a co-deliverer of God’s people from Egypt. That’s one explanation.
But genealogies pop up. They pop up because they meant a lot in antiquity. To establish a pedigree was a very important thing, before DNA tests and all stuff like that. You have to establish your family and your right to perform certain roles and certain functions.
Back to this very last section. Starting in 6:2 and going to 7:13, if you have a chance look at some of this stuff at some point with a Bible open, 6:2 to 7:13, the last chapter and a half of this transitionary section, may be a parallel and alternate tradition of Moses’ call that we see in Chapters 3 to 5.
One reason why scholars say that is because it includes two announcements of Yahweh’s name. We saw one of them in Part 2, because it’s in Chapter 3, verse 15. We see another one here in Chapter 6, verse 3.
This suggests that we’re dealing here again with multiple traditions that are brought together. For example (let me just flip to 3:15 just to refresh our memories), in 3:15, we read—this is, of course, God announcing his name to Moses—“God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob has sent me to you. This is my name forever. And this is my title for all generations.’”
It sounds like there’s some sort of an announcement there of Moses’ name. But if you go to Chapter 6 and verse 3, you see here—I’ll start in verse 2—“God also spoke to Moses’ and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty.’” Which, by the way, to El Shaddai in Hebrew.
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but by My name, Yahweh, I did not make myself known to them.”
It’s interesting. In verse 3, Israel’s god was not known beforehand as Yahweh, which in English Bibles is the “Lord.” That’s how that divine name is handled in English Bibles.
“I wasn’t known beforehand as Yahweh, but I was known as El Shaddai.” An example of that is in the story of Abraham, Abraham refers to him as El Shaddai.
Here’s the problem, though. Yahweh, that name, has been used all over the place prior to this story ever since Genesis Chapter 2, which is one of the key moments in the history of biblical scholarship that alerted scholars to the possibility that we’re dealing here with—in Genesis and Exodus and the books that follow—we’re dealing with an editing together of different traditions. I know I’ve just said that. But I think it’s important.
Part of what we’re doing here in this podcast is looking at little things that have inspired thinkers and careful readers of these texts to ask questions like, “Where did this come from? Why do Chapter 3 and Chapter 6 look so similar? Why do we have these things that seem to be very repetitive and because they’re repetitive, they almost seem to contradict themselves?”
You have different traditions that are brought together by later editors, woven together, put into place and all for the purpose of preserving the ancient traditions of the people, about their deliverance from Egypt by God’s hand. These traditions that are woven together like this that have been active for a very long time. Maybe by the time this was written down, hundreds of years, even handed down orally or in writing from different traditions. Different parts of Israel may have written down different traditions and told the stories a little bit differently. There are no libraries. There’s no checking of documents on the internet, obviously. I’m not trying to be funny.
You have to think of it like an ancient person. Not everybody reads first of all. Things were handed down orally. They’re handed in writing, but people who are living way in the North don’t know what people way in the South are saying. It may be not until certain times when—let’s say when the North falls in 722 BCE that the North and the South really start talking to each other, because priests from the North came down to the South.
They said, “Here’s our version.”
“That’s pretty cool. Ours is way different.”
“I know. Let’s put them together.”
That is a “tweet” version of what scholars basically think happened that resulted in books like Exodus that have these different traditions. There you have it.
In fact, getting back to this last chapter and a half, starting in 6:2, this whole section of 6:2 to 7:13 feels like an interruption to the story. If you look at 7:14—this is a little bit too much detail if you’re listening in the car so don’t sweat it—7:14 picks up on the action where 6:1 left off, about Pharaoh’s hard heart.
Sometime, sit down and when you have a moment, skip from 6:1 to 7:14 and you might say, “This makes sense together and all this stuff in between seems to be an interruption into the flow of the story.”
Now the editor didn’t really think of it as an interruption. He thought of it as, “I’m just going to put this here because I think it’s meaningful and it needs to be said and I have to put it somewhere.”
Don’t think of it as an intrusion into the story, but it’s taking a break almost, a commercial break before getting back to—“well, we’re back. Let’s talk about Pharaoh’s hardened heart,” in 7:14.
This is the Bible for Normal People and I’m not going to make apologies for looking at things like this because part of what we want to do is engage and bring to the surface that the Biblical scholars talk about that I think some of you find very helpful. Hopefully, some of you also feel very challenging and maybe, enlightening, taking the scales off and saying, “I’ve always wondered why this stuff looks the way it does in the Bible.”
All this for me is an interesting and almost inevitable comment on the composition of the Bible. How it was written. Maybe who. Maybe when. All that sort of stuff, which is what modem Biblical scholarship is trying to do.
The bottom line is that the storyline is clear enough. Once you begin reading closely and you notice 6:3, when you just read 3:15, you notice a lot of Chapter 6 seems to repeat things you just already saw, and other things in Chapters 3, 4 and 5. You notice oddities that the curious mind requires some explanation. There have been curious minds thinking about this stuff for hundreds of years. We’re doing it on a podcast. There you have it.
One more very quick point about this section. This is the last part of this transitionary section. Chapter 7, verses 8 to 13. The battling staffs.
We were alerted to this back in Chapter 4, verses 1 to 5. This is one of the signs that God said Moses was to perform. Here you have this really interesting incident. If you’ve ever watched the movie, “The Ten Commandments, with Charleton Heston, this is a rather memorable moment, because of the really cheesy graphics they have when they do this.
Aaron is told to throw down his staff and it changes into a snake. Let’s call it a serpent. Pharaoh’s magicians do the same thing. Uh-oh. They’re able to do this. This isn’t such a big deal. “Moses, what kind of a god do you have with these little magician’s tricks?”
“We can do this. We also have access to the supernatural. We can make our staff turn to snakes.”
But of course, Aaron’s staff swallows them whole. I’m sure we talked about this back in Part 1 of this series. This is rather significant here because it’s highly symbolic. This is the staff of Aaron being thrown down and turned into a serpent, which then swallows the serpents of the magicians.
Serpents are symbols of Egyptian power, government, the Pharaoh. If you’ve ever seen Pharaoh’s hat, his headdress—not all the time, but at certain times in Egypt’s history—it’s got those big fan-looking things off the side that look like a cobra when it’s got its neck all puffed up and scaring the daylights out of you because it’s about to bite you. It’s a menacing figure.
For the staff of Aaron to swallow up the staffs-turned-snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians, basically it’s already telling us where this story is going to end. “Your power means nothing. Yahweh will squelch everything. He’ll eat you up and spit you out. Guys, you know you might want to quit while you’re ahead. Do we really have to go on with the ten plagues?”
“Yeah. Because Pharaoh’s heart is hard. He doesn’t get it.”
Again, I can’t blame him. He is a king. He can’t just cave. The way the story is told, Pharaoh is becoming a rather ridiculous and stubborn figure and you’re really rooting for him to get what’s coming to him, at least if you’re pro-Israelite. You are doing that.
The question is: Whose power is stronger? The rest of the story is going to make that very clear, plague after plague after plague. Whose power is stronger? It’s not going to go well for Egypt.
So much for this transitionary section of Chapters 5 through the middle of Chapter 7.
Now, we’re going to hit the plagues, which will take us through Chapter 13, in the middle of that, which is verse 16. Here’s what we’re going to do.
We’re not going to go through each one. You can’t have a 10,000-week series. There’s so much interesting stuff in this plague narrative. What we’re going to do is we’re going to be content with the big picture.
I’ve got five big picture points that I think will help. If you ever want to read these stories, these might be things to hold on to as you’re reading through them that help orient us toward what’s happening in this section and how do we understand it and what’s the point of it all.
Big picture point #1:
When you read the plague story, all those 10 plagues, don’t seek naturalistic explanations. That’s really common. I shouldn’t limit this to the evangelical world, because that’s really not fair. I’ve seen this in non-evangelical scholarship. I just don’t get it. There always seems to be some attempt to say, “Well, listen. All these things happened. We can try to document them historically. Maybe the Nile turning to blood is red silt coming down from the mountains or it’s a special kind of algae or this or that.”
I think we will miss the point of this because this story—in the logic of the story—remember, just to back up for a second, I said back in Part 1 that I think that the Exodus story has a historical footing or grounding.
But the story is not told in a way that simply preserves that. It’s told in ways that drives theology forward. The theology of the plague narrative is that these are acts of God. From a theological point-of-view, I want to take that very seriously. I just want to read this story with the intention that I think that the Biblical writer’s themselves have.
We talked about history and the problem of history and historicity, that fancy word that just means “did something happen or not happen?” With the Exodus story, it’s difficult. You can’t really know exactly what happened, what didn’t happen. But one thing that scholars agree on—and I mean across the spectrum, including most every evangelical scholar that I know of—they’re very quick to say, “We’re not getting a video tape presentation here. There’s something else going on here.”
The term that I’ve used before, and I like and it makes a tremendous amount of sense to me and we talked about it in Part 1, is mythicized history. You have a historical foundation or basis or kernel or something like that, that gave rise to this story. Something that involved Egypt and escape and deliverance of slaves that eventually became the nation of Israel. Fine.
But the story is told using mythological categories. It’s really hard to deny that. What you have here is mythicized history.
I talk about that in a little bit more length back in Part 1, so I’m not going to do that here.
You have the plagues. Don’t look for naturalistic explanations. Rather, let the story take it where it wants to take you. A moment that really shows us this is Chapter 12, verse 12. This is in the middle of the Passover section.
You have here that Yahweh is about to pronounce judgment, Chapter 12, verse 12, on all the gods of Egypt. Then the verse ends, “I am Yahweh.”
The plague narratives have something to do with what I like to call a battle of the gods, a cosmic battle between the god of Israel and the gods of Egypt. Which god is going to come out on top? Is it the god who can’t even rescue his people from slavery? They’ve been there for 400 years. Or is it going to be the gods of the superpower, Egypt? Who’s going to win? Is it the god of slaves that Pharaoh doesn’t even know who he is? Never heard of the guy. Or is it going to be this pantheon, this menagerie of gods from ancient Egypt who are clearly superior because Egypt runs things? They enslave people. The Israelites don’t.
This is really, in my opinion, the point of the plague narratives. Don’t look for historical explanations, but the mythological thing hit you because the point of this is going to be lost if we don’t. This is about which god is superior, the god of slaves or the gods of Egypt?
You can see this, and I’ve gotten this from a scholar named Ziony Zevit. I forgot the name of the article. It’s been so long since I’ve engaged it. It’s 30 years old. Google it.
He has this great article where he connects, as others have, the plagues with the Egyptian gods. For example, the first two and the last two, because I think it will make the point. They are much clearer in the beginning and at the end than they are in the middle. For example, the first plague is turning the water, especially the Nile, and other waters as well, into blood. That is seen by this scholar, Ziony Zevit, as an attack on the god, Hapi, who is in charge of the Nile River and the yearly inundation of the Nile.
When the Nile floods, it spills over to the banks and it goes on and on. That’s what allows the Egyptians to grow things and not die. Without this god, Hapi, and the Nile doing what it does, Egypt doesn’t exist.
This first plague is an attack on the whole existence of Egypt as a people. God will turn the Nile and the waters into blood, which you can even say—you can think of that as the god Hapi’s being slain or at least wounded, because then God turns it all back again.
Interestingly enough, the Egyptian magicians are able to duplicate this, which is weird, because why would they want to. Again, thinking of the logic of the story—I’m not talking historically here—just the logic of the story—why would they want to do that. If all the waters turned to blood, there’s no water left for them to turn. It’s a little bit of a confusing section. But the point is that both are able to do it, but only one is able to undo it. That’s a really important point we’ll get back to in a second.
36:50 [Producers Group Endorsement]
The second plague is the multiplication of frogs. In the Egyptian pantheon, at least at one point in its history, the goddess of fertility, Heket, had the head of a frog. The question here is who controls fertility? No small thing in the ancient world, folks. Controlling water—first plague. Controlling fertility—second plague. Also, water is controlled in the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.
Controlling those things is what the high gods do. The god worth worshipping is the one who can control water, to give life. Not too much water, because that will drown you. Also, to control fertility. Who controls fertility? Even in Egypt, it’s Yahweh.
This is Yahweh stepping into Egyptian territory and basically doing what he wants.
Again, oddly enough, the magicians can replicate this, but it’s only Yahweh who is able to get rid of it.
Right at the surface, but just not named—and I’ve talked about this in podcasts before and in books that I’ve written because I think it’s such an important point—the whole theological oomph of the book of Exodus presumes the existence of other gods and Yahweh’s greater than they are.
Go back to Exodus 12:12. “I’m passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I’m Yahweh. I’m the best.” That is a term that usually is called monolatry. Mono (one) and latry (from a Greek root that means to worship). The idea is that the Israelites believed that many gods existed, but only their god is worthy of worship. They’re monolatrists. They’re not monotheists. They don’t believe that there is only one god that exists and all other gods are just made up.
You get to a point in Israel’s history where they do believe that. Not here.
This whole story moves theologically because Yahweh is showing His might, His superiority over the gods, even of Egypt, even where the people, the Israelites were enslaved. God is marching onto Egyptian territory. The god of slaves, whose been a no-show, shows up and marches onto Egyptian territory and basically smacks them around.
I talked about the first two plagues: the Nile and fertility.
The last two are interesting as well. The ninth plague is the plague of darkness where the sun is blotted out. It happens that the sun god, Ra, is the main buddy of Pharaoh. That’s Pharaoh’s patron god, the sun god. By blotting out the sun, these aren’t just tricks. They’re meant to communicate something of political and religious significance to the people, that God can just blot out the sun, the high god of the Egyptian pantheon, and just bring the sun back when he wants to.
The last plague is a plague of death. Who controls death? It’s not Osiris, the god of the dead. It’s, you guessed it, Yahweh. Yahweh controls the dead. This is what makes these stories go. It’s the mythological content of it, which would have spoken so loudly to an ancient people.
Remember, these are modern scientists or historians or anything like that. Frankly, I don’t always think that modern history or science can get at deeper realities or deeper truths. I think myth does a really good job at that. That’s what we have here.
We don’t have a videotaped recording of events. We have the expression of people’s faith in who Yahweh is and what Yahweh does for them. They talk about it in ways that would have made perfect sense and did make perfect sense back then. We just have to try to recover what that sense is.
Second point is the creation theme. This is a theme that runs through Exodus. I mentioned it back in the introductory podcast, Part 1. It also runs through Genesis and so much of the Bible.
The plagues, think of them as participating in this theme of the forces of creation. The plagues are reversals of creation. They are the introduction of disorder, where Genesis 1, God put everything in order. Things are where they are. They are where they belong. Here the plagues are a disruption of that. It’s introducing a little pocket of chaos. Little pockets of chaos that was tamed back in Genesis 1 and everything is where it belongs and does what it has to do. Everything is perfect. It’s laid out. It’s neat. No mess. No ambiguity. It’s all there.
Here, the creation that was ordered is being disordered in little pockets. When God is finished, after a couple of days, he restores the order. The question here is who controls order and chaos? This is a mythic creation theme of the ancient world. The Israelites participate in it. The gods didn’t create out of nothing. They established order in the cosmos. They made things livable and habitable and they put things where they belong. That’s an ancient way of conceiving of the actions of the gods. You see that in Genesis Chapter 1.
The flood story, right? Don’t forget the flood story. It’s not a bad rainstorm. It is the waters of chaos that were kept separate in Genesis Chapter 1 that allowed life in the air and life on the oceans and life on the land to be created by God. It created a space for living things.
In the flood story, that vault, that dome overhead, gave way to these chaos waters that God had tamed, that God had kept at a safe distance from the people. Don’t be afraid to think here of the crossing of the Red Sea story, because here you have very much a very clear replay of the way, of the waters of chaos crashing down on the bad guys, just like you did in the flood story.
Noah is saved. Moses is going to be saved. All this kind of stuff. We’ll get to that. The point is that the plague narratives are part of this messing with creation that only God can do. The magicians can do the first two, but after that, they’re done. They can’t reproduce any of the others. By the third plague, they’re done. They’re saying, “Pharaoh, can you please let these people get the heck out of here? We can’t compete with this god.”
Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.
It’s this creation theme that is very prominent here. Who benefits from God playing and toying with creation? Of course, it’s His people. It’s the Israelites. That’s what you see in these plagues. A few of them, let’s say, a distinction was made between Israel and Egypt. A distinction is made. Israel’s not affected, but Egypt is. The good guys are not affected, but the bad guys are.
Just like the flood. Creation goes berserk. There’s a distinction made between Noah and his family and everybody else. You don’t have to be afraid of the creator God going ballistic with creation because you’re safe. Everyone else is going to suffer.
The plagues are part of this large creation theme. Again, you see this in the Red Sea. A distinction is made. Who dies? Not the good guys. The bad guys. From water.
Another aspect of this creation theme that I think is so important, which is three podcasts in and of itself, but I’ll mention it here, is how there’s a theme here in the Exodus, and this goes throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is that the creator is the redeemer. That’s the theme.
The creator is the redeemer. What I mean by that is when God redeems people in the Bible, it’s often spoken of in language that echoes the language of creation.
Here you have the Israelites delivered. They’re being given a new birth coming out of the Red Sea. You have the redeemer, God, who redeems the people from Egypt, saves them, delivers them from Egypt. But doing that involved creation. When God saves the people, creation gets involved somehow. It’s a new start. It’s a new beginning.
Paul says that in 2 Corinthians. “That if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come.” Being redeemed, being saved, being delivered is like being created again. Paul uses languages more often of “being raised from the dead.” It’s a new start. Peter or John will use the language of “born again” or a “new birth” or a “birth from above.”
My point is that when the creator saves, it’s an act of creation. Something new is happening. You get to the book of Revelation at the end, where everything is created anew. Theologically speaking, in the Bible, that is actually is the goal of all this: new creation. When God delivers people, it’s a mini-act of creation happening that anticipates the big act of re-creation.
If anything, there’s just so much happening in these stories that have theological echoes throughout the Bible. We’re gonna get back to this creation theme because as I hinted already back in Part 1, the tabernacle itself is big-time, major creation overtones. So much of Genesis is wrapped up Exodus. So much of Exodus is wrapped up in Genesis.
A third point. More mundane, perhaps, than a creation theme. There are ten plagues. There are other plague sequences in the Old Testament, namely in Psalm 78 and in Psalm 105. Depending on how you count them, seven or eight plagues and they are in a different order. This is the theme in scholarship: the ten plagues of Exodus might not be the original form, but might be a later literary product. There is clearly plague traditions in ancient Israel and they come up differently in different places. The ten (the nice round number in 10) might be more of a stylized, highly literary way of looking at this.
I think that’s really interesting, but more than just that, we’re looking at the plagues as literature. They’re spoken of and written about in ways that show us that literary thoughtfulness on the part of the writer. For example, you’ve got 10 plagues. The tenth plague is the big one. We’ll get to that in a second. The other nine are very clearly divided into three sections of three. In other words, three series of three plagues.
One, two, three. Four, five, six. Seven, eight, nine.
The first one of each of series—one, four and seven—they’re presented from a literary point-of-view in a very similar way. There’s always a forewarning given about what’s going to happen. Even the time of the warning is in the morning.
There’s an instruction given by God. “Station yourself or go stand before Pharaoh.” That’s one, four and seven.
The next ones in each sequence—two, five and eight—they have their own. They have their own way of introducing those plagues.
The last plague of each series—three, six and nine—is the shortest. There are no introductions to it. No talking to Moses or Aaron. It just happens by God.
Each of the three have their own way of talking, their own way of expressing. This is clearly a literary device, the purpose of which who knows. I have no idea. Can’t ask anybody.
The purpose of having this three groups of three that are so clearly identical in how they’re presented is, if anything, just evidence of literary intentionality on the part of the writer. They’re not saying, “Let’s write history here. Let’s just lay out there the way things happened.” They’re not doing that. They’re telling a story and part of it is just literary artifice, literary beauty, just intentionality, thoughtfulness. These weren’t people just throwing stuff out there and saying, “I hope this works.” They’re actually writing something with literary intentionality.
That affects the degree of history that you find here. If you start playing with literary presentation, you’re clearly not focused on simply reproducing the facts. If that troubles you, that’s fine. It shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter if it troubles me or you, because that’s how the Bible’s working. That’s how the Bible actually works, to quote a book title. There you have it. We just have to deal with it and try to put the pieces together, which might take time. Something you have to think about. Don’t lose sleep over it.
The plague of death, which is the last plague, that’s the crescendo. That’s the crowning plague. That’s the one that results in the Israelites being released from Egyptian slavery. The first nine get you to the tenth. Those three groups are presented the way they are. Then you get to the last one. There’s literary intentionality.
You also have a progression, at least some see this and I think there’s something to this, in severity. When you get to the plague of boils, which is the sixth plague, this is the first that actually affects humans. Up until then, it’s indirectly. But this one actually physically affects humans. Job had boils and things like that. The end of it is people die.
You have a progression in severity. I’m not sure if I think’s really helpful. I’m just throwing it out there, because a lot of people say this. I think the first one is pretty severe, at least in its symbolic value: the Nile turning to blood. That goes away after three days.
The last plague. The plague of death. That doesn’t go away after three days. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Even back in biblical days.
Those are three—that’s a third of the big picture points.
Here’s the fourth. It has to do with something that students ask me when we talk about Exodus all the time. It’s the whole idea of God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, specifically in the last three plagues, eight, nine and ten.
This brings together something that we looked at briefly in Part 2 of the podcast: 3:19, where God says, “I’m going to send Moses. I’m going to send you to them. But you know what? Pharaoh’s not going to listen to you unless you perform all these wonders and signs.”
The purpose of the plagues is that they will convince Pharaoh to let the people go. The next chapter, 4:21, God says, “I’m going to send you there. But I’m going to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he doesn’t let you go.”
In the first one, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. It needs to be softened by the plagues. But here, in 4:21, it’s “I’m going to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he doesn’t let the people go.” That is seen by some as a contradiction. It’s definitely not.
The whole point of this is that God’s not done with Pharaoh yet. You’ve got these ten plagues and by the time it’s plagues three and four, you have a Pharaoh (already in the second plague, the plague of frogs) who begs Moses, “Can you just lay off here?” Then he hardens his heart in the third plague. He begs and then he hardens his own heart.
He hardens his own heart again with the plague of the livestock, which is the fifth plague. He hardens his own heart and his heart becomes hardened. But God’s not doing it. Pharaoh freaks out after the second plague and says, “Okay. Listen. Can you just get out of here?” But then he hardens his own heart. This is the thing. This is 3:19. He needs to have his heart softened. The plagues are going to do it. You wonder when is this going to finally happen.
It happens finally in the plague of locusts, which is eight. The plague of darkness, which is nine. Then the plague, the death of the firstborn, which is the tenth plague. Here you have Pharaoh begging Moses to talk to God and say, “Relent and just leave. I can’t do this anymore.” He’s finally and completely had it.
Here, unlike before, Pharaoh doesn’t harden his own heart, or his heart doesn’t just become hard. Here, it’s God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Both those things are contradictory in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. They’re just two different parts of the story. The first seven plagues, you have what 3:19 says. Pharaoh is going to need to be convinced. 4:21: “but even after he’s convinced, I’m going to harden Pharaoh’s heart.”
It sounds really unfair. Why would God do that to people? Don’t forget this is a story. Number One. Number Two. How God here acts towards Pharaoh theologically has nothing to do with how he acts toward you or anybody else. This is part of the story where God is playing a cat-and-mouse game with Pharaoh.
If you’ve ever seen a cat, and we’ve seen this more than once—a cat catches a mouse and it plays with it and then it revives it so it can keep playing with it. Then eventually, it kills it. You see here this idea of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart as simply an indication that Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt by extension are Yahweh’s plaything. “Hey Pharaoh. You had trouble knowing who I was earlier. Do you know me now? Who’s your daddy?” That’s how I read this last sequence of plagues, these last three plagues.
Perhaps, and again I’m thinking here of the composition of the book and how so much of this has to do with Israel and the land and keeping the land and what to do with foreign people, maybe this drawing out of this story over ten plagues like this is an object lesson for the Israelites for their life in the land in the land of Canaan, where the temptation is what? It’s always to worship the gods of Canaan.
You can always look at this story and say, “Remember our past and how patiently God dealt with us and how God drew out this dissemination of the Egyptian pantheon. It’s the same God we’re dealing with here today.” It could act as an object lesson. I think it probably does.
In any event, here is Israel’s god defeating the gods of Egypt, playing with them, toying with them and the bottom line is really this: it’s monolatry. Israel’s god alone is worthy or worship. The other gods, by comparison, are ridiculous. That’s what this fourth big picture point, that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. I think that’s what it’s getting across.
I don’t think it should cause a major theological crisis. Why would God harden people who are repenting? He’s not repenting. This is not a Christian story. This isn’t about accepting Jesus and all that. This is not about becoming an Israelite. This is an ancient Israelite story of a people group, a geopolitical reality, the Israelites, vis a vis the other nations in the context of a hostile, violent, tribalistic world-view.
This god is all about protecting his people. That’s what he does. That’s why he’s worthy of worship.
Last one. Last big picture point is the long Passover section. It starts in 11:1 and it goes to the end of this section, 13:16. Three and a half chapters. Dealing with this is a separate episode, folks. It really is. If we really want to. Maybe one day, we will. I will come back to it.
For the purposes of this podcast series, we don’t have to talk about everything, but just to notice how long this Passover section is. The Passover is obviously the focus. It’s the focus of this section. Wedged into this discussion is where you find you find the tenth plague. It’s Chapter 11, verses 1 to 10 and then Chapter 12, verse 29 to 32. You have a little bit of here’s the tenth plague, a little bit of action, tenth plague, little Passover. Back and forth.
It’s a real complex section here of the book of Exodus, historically complex, weaving together three (or some scholars think as many as four) separate traditions coming together here that results in some oddities that, if we start talking about them, we’d be here for another five hours. I just don’t want to do that here. But it results in some oddities that just make you notice. This section’s a little bit inconsistent. I’m not sure what’s going on here.
That’s not the point. The point is that you have the focus of the Passover and there are three or four traditions that are all getting involved in this, because the Passover was a major, major moment in Israelite worship and Israelite identity.
Passover is the focus of this section, 11 to 13, verse 16. The other stuff, like the tenth plague and the departure from Egypt, in 12:33-42. Those things are woven into that. The star of this section is Passover. It’s not the tenth plague. The tenth plague serves the Passover. The departure serves the Passover. The Passover is the thing.
It is establishing—this section—a ritual festival. What I said earlier holds here too. It may be (this is my opinion) that this section of Exodus is really back referencing later Israelite cultic worship realities that revolve around festivals like the Passover Festival.
Later realities affect how this story of Exodus is written. Exodus is written with the monarchy already in the past, written with the Babylonian captivity already in the past. Not made up at that point in time. I’ve said this before. It’s not like the Exodus story is made up in the 6th Century. There are traditions. We have multiple traditions, but they’re ironed out. They’re put together here.
The way the story of Exodus is told with elaborate preparations for festivals that have some tensions between them in various parts of this section. It suggests that this story in Exodus reflects later realities. It’s actually what I’m getting at.
If you’ve read some of my books or are familiar with biblical scholarship or if you’ve even heard podcasts here, this is not a daring conclusion to come to. You have a history of development of these texts and what we have is not the original version of anything. It’s a later, edited version on the part of the people of Judah, who returned from exile from Babylon.
When that started to click with me, a lot of things fell into place.
What is Passover mean? To pass over probably means “to protect” and not from the angel of death. You see this in 12:23. This is not the angel of death. Later Israelite theology has an angel that’s responsible for death, but this is not here. The Hebrew says he’s a “destroyer.” We don’t know what this is. But we do know that later in the story, in Chapter 12, this destroyer’s equated with Yahweh.
I’m always thinking of the Ten Commandments movie with Charleton Heston, where it’s an angel of death. There’s no angel of death. It’s basically Yahweh doing the destroying.
I have to be careful here, because in Psalm 78, which talks about the plagues, it refers to a “destroying” or “bad angels.” You see, it’s another tradition. That’s my point. You’ve got a destroying angel or angels in Psalm 78 and you have a destroyer who’s Yahweh here. Which is it?
I don’t know. In the logic of the story, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the Bible preserves multiple traditions, multiple interpretations of these pivotal moments in Israel’s life. I just don’t feel it’s my business to try to even them out. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business to even them out. They are just there.
Of course, as you probably know, the Passover, the actual sign of the Passover that will tell the destroyer to bypass a house is if you put the blood of the lamb on the lintel and then on the doorposts and I want to echo here that there are other signs in the Bible. There seems to be a lot of signs that indicate that you’re in.
The other big one in the Old Testament is circumcision. Circumcision is a sign that you’re an insider, not an outsider. Here, when death is on the line, the sign that you’re an insider and not an outsider is blood around your home. The destroyer will pass by. I think jumping to Jesus in the New Testament—the sign that you’re in is you identify with the blood of the lamb. That is your sign that you’re an insider to this gospel, to this kingdom of heaven that Jesus built.
Passover is very much used in the New Testament. For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Last Supper is the Passover meal. For John, he has a different take on the Passover and on the Last Supper. In those three gospels, the Jesus thing, the crucifixion is tied very much to the Passover meal. For obvious reasons, theologically, the shedding of blood and the efficacy of that shed blood. I don’t want to say it’s to shield us from God killing us in the New Testament. I think it does take on a different significance. But again, that’s another 17 podcasts. We won’t do all that here.
One last point about the Passover. This is a little bit off the beaten path. I’ll be rather brief about this. In the Old Testament, God has a right to the firstborn. The firstborn belonged to him. You see this in this section. If you read Chapters 12 and 13, the “firstborn belonged to Me.” You can substitute something for that firstborn.
For example, can you can substitute a sheep or something. You can substitute another animal for the firstborn. The firstborn belongs to Me, including the firstborn human, the firstborn of your own family belongs to Me. God has a right to that firstborn. But God accepts substitutes.
That really strikes me because one way of looking at the plague of death is God just exercising his right to the firstborn. That includes the Egyptian firstborn. They belong to him too. That’s the point. The firstborn belongs to God.
This is not uncommon in the ancient world. The prized elder children, they belong to God. The prized of the flock, they belong to God.
Think, for example, of the binding of Isaac back in Genesis 22. God tells Abraham, “take your son and sacrifice him to Me.” God is claiming his right on the firstborn. Abraham does not say, “You can’t do that. You’re God. You would never ask me to do that.” But he does.
It’s even assumed in the story there in Genesis that this is a viable option because God’s going to test Abraham to see if he really means it and Abraham just goes right along with it.
It’s this whole idea here of God has a right to the firstborn. They belong to him and he can require them if he wants to. I got this from John Levinson years and years ago. He’s got this great book on the resurrection of the beloved son. He was a podcast guest a couple of years ago and we didn’t talk about this, but this idea that in the New Testament (this is a Jewish scholar by the way)—in the New Testament, in the gospel, the sacrifice of Jesus, God actually went through with it. God actually claimed the firstborn, but it was his own. It wasn’t yours.
It’s a reversal of this theme where God talks something of value to Himself and, to use New Testament language that some authors use, sacrificed him for the good of the whole. It’s a reversal. It’s not God taking your firstborn. It’s God giving up his own firstborn son.
You get things like “God gave his own begotten son.” That’s not just sentimental. That is a reversal of an Old Testament theme that you see here in the Exodus story.
The Exodus isn’t just previewing the gospel. The gospel, actually, takes parts of this Exodus story and turns it on its head, which is a lot of what the New Testament does.
I’ve had fun. Listen, we’re going to come to an end here. We’ve covered a lot of ground and the next episode, we’ll look at the trek to Sinai, which starts in chapter 14 and the actual departure from Egypt. We’ll talk about that. This actually begins in the second half of 13 and through 14 and 15 and then through 19, this movement, this trek from Egyptian slavery to the foot of Mount Sinai.
In the rest of the podcasts, we’ll look at the second half of the book, Chapters 20 to 40, which really are about two things. They’re about laws for how to behave and laws for how to worship. Interrupting that, which I mentioned earlier, is the golden calf episode, which is a pivotal moment in this story and almost derails everything were it not for Moses’ quick thinking and convincing God to go through with delivering the and bringing them to the promised land.
Interestingly enough, just as God had convinced Moses earlier on, “Come along, do this,” now Moses is in the position later on in the book of Exodus to say, “No. You’re going to go through with this. You didn’t drag me out here just to leave me hanging. We’re going to do this the way you said.” It’s an interesting relationship between God and Moses.
That’s for the weeks to come. We’ll see when this ends. But I’m anticipating a few more episodes here talking about Exodus.
Thanks for listening. As always, we deeply appreciate you listening to the podcast and being patrons on our Patreon page and for all the other things that you do to make this so pleasurable for me and more Jared. We just have a great time. Thank you and until next time, blessings.