6 November 2014Exodus 7:8-24
“Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (v. 13)
How strange is this Bible passage! It is exceptionally difficult for us to put ourselves into an ancient, pre-scientific world and make sense of what we read. But, granted that this writing belongs to a complex culture of long ago, we can admire the dramatic way the story unfolds. Today's passage comprises a prologue (verses 8-13) and the first of nine plagues, which will be capped by an appalling tragedy (the death of Egypt's firstborn children - Exodus 11-12) before the Hebrew slaves are liberated.
The prologue identifies the main challenge, namely Pharaoh's 'hardness of heart' (meaning his stubbornness and refusal to countenance suggestions or requests from sources he does not control). It also tells us in advance the nature of the struggle (the LORD's power over and against the magical arts of Egypt); and it indicates the outcome (God's power will prevail: Aaron's staff-turned-into-a-snake eats the Egyptian magicians' snakes).
The first plague, like the eight to follow, refers to natural phenomena in the Egyptian environment, but magnifies and interprets them in vivid storytelling. Each plague becomes the occasion of a "wonder" (v. 9) that God will perform, to strike at Pharaoh's hard heart.
In this case the water of the river Nile (and the water everywhere in Egypt) is turned to blood, depriving Egypt of two of its basics for sustaining life - clean water and fish. The story builds on the annual rhythm of the Nile waters in which, in the summer months, the water has a dirty red colour because of the silt carried down it.
All compelling storytelling in the ancient world appeals more to the imagination than to natural history. Our own imaginations (honed by our current knowledge but not constrained by it, and shaped by our faith) can perhaps glimpse the spiritual significance of what is so skilfully narrated in Exodus.
- The God of love and life whom Christians worship does not deprive people of what sustains life. So how do you make sense of the fact that millions of people in today's world struggle against hunger and unsafe or inadequate water supplies?
- Prejudice, religious extremism and uncritical devotion to an ideology are all resistant to reasoned argument. What in your experience is most likely to dent irrational certainties among those who will not share in sensible debate?
- How would you distinguish in yourself between a heart-felt conviction and hardness of heart?