When presented with the opportunity to consider possible meanings and purposes of the plagues of Exodus for RLN, how could one refuse? The narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures are full of twists, turns, power plays, love, betrayal and more; and these ten plagues do not disappoint. But what can be discovered reading this dramatic text in the midst of a pandemic? What can we learn now that we know something of the uncertainty, the unknown, the suspense of living with a plague? With a deep breath, we turn to the story first.
The Hebrews have been enslaved in Egypt for generations and the situation is only getting worse. Pharaoh, fearing their growing number, responds with impossible expectations for work and production. (Is this a forewarning of racial capitalism? A solidifying of the relationship between harm to racialized bodies and the economic benefit of those in power?) God hears the cries of the Israelites for relief and tells Moses: “Say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through miracles’” (lit., “great judgements”). Ostensibly, one people’s miracle is another people’s plague, and is another God’s judgement. Thus, the contest begins between the power and sovereignty of the newly named deity and the power and sovereignty of the vaguely named Pharaoh/Powers That Be.
Note 1: There is a relationship among hierarchical power, economics, bodies, and oppression.
A series of plagues commences, from bloody water to frogs to boils to family death. With each plague, the Pharaoh buckles from the discomfort then rallies once the discomfort is gone as his heart is “hardened”, a change of mind that is increasingly attributed to God’s doing. This standoff for power and control includes a more personal challenge to the sovereignty of the Pharaoh; that he, in the end, not only has less agency as sovereign, but has less agency over his own emotions and, therefore, of his thoughts and desires.
Note 2: What can be learned from discomfort? Be wary of choices when the discomfort is gone.
‘Who is Moses?’ is a complicated question. The initially reluctant leader, Moses has a chaotic back story: threatened at birth, set sail in a basket on the great Nile, miraculously saved…by the Princess no less, raised in the palace as Pharaoh’s family, then has an apparent identity crisis, becomes overwhelmed by anti-Hebrew violence, kills an Egyptian overseer, runs as a fugitive, marries the knowledgeable Zipporah, hears a divine calling, rejects it, agrees to it, then confronts his royal family who eventually threatens him with death. What kind of God does Moses find and hear? One who speaks, one who vies for power, one who experiences emotion. At first glance, Moses’ God seems to be much like him.
Note 3: ‘What do we love when we love our God?’ (Augustine, Confessions)
As the tenth plague—the most devastating—approaches, we learn the details of the preparation along with the exhausted, nearly overcome Israelites. Choose the perfect lamb, paint the blood over the door, eat all the lamb, keep your shoes on even while you eat, hope and pray your house will be //passed over//. So your son will not die, so your father will not die, so your beloved brother will not die.
In the description of this final plague in Egypt, the death of the first-born, the stakes for who has authority are raised higher as we hear this phrase written in the voice of the Divine: “…and on all the Gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Ex. 12.12). Some biblical interpreters see the choice of plague as directly related to Egyptian deities. For instance, the first plague that turns the Nile River to blood is against the River God, “Nilas”; the second plague of frogs is against the Goddess Hathor, symbolized by a frog and representing fertility; the ninth plague of darkness overpowers the Sun God Ra. Plagues call for discernment about that which we hold most sacred. Which Gods will win out over other Gods? Plagues indeed call us to ask, //what do we love when we love our God?//
For this last plague, the one that will finally convince the most powerful person in the land change the story of the entire economic production of Egypt the Pharaoh receives no warning. It is only when grief is felt in every household that the Pharaoh finally realizes what is at stake, what he thought he loved to this point.
What are the purposes of plagues?
Here are a few attempts at identifying possible purposes of plagues. Our hopes and fears come together in discovering meaning in chaos. With another deep breath, let’s consider what plagues do.
- Plagues destabilize the world as we know it, revealing reality in new ways that challenge oppression. This is nothing less than revelation itself. The Exodus plagues unveiled oppression and led to destruction and dislocation, freedom, and disruption. Were the plagues means of political prophecy?
- Plagues displace people and challenge relationships. Because plagues have a destabilizing impact, in our thinking and in our bodies and in our sense of location, plagues require a reimagining that also destabilizes authority and can move us toward social and political reform. What powers need destabilizing?
- Plagues ask us: What does it take to convince us to let go? What does it take to leave what is familiar when that familiar thing is harming us or others.
- Plagues remind us to resist the temptation to return, geographically or psychologically, to the site of our bondage. It didn’t take long for the newly freed Hebrews to begin missing Egypt, to try to recreate what they had known and the God/golden calf they had known in Egypt.
In the article “Miracles and Plagues: Plague Discourse as Political Thought,” Graham Hammill documents the history of how plagues have repeatedly led to new imaginings of community and politics, identifying the close relationship between plague and protest. Throughout history, plagues became fertile ground for seeding revolution. And like Pharaoh, governments have taken the opportunity to oppress harder, tighten control, and respond out of fear.
Appeals to divine authority as the cause of the plague meant a break between political sovereignty and a claim to divine sanction of the current political power. Naming plagues as divine judgment in the biblical text and in later eras recast the current political power as vulnerable and temporary. This change in understanding—that the current government no longer had divine approval and authority—could then transform the idea of power and agency itself into something revolutionary. In some ways, such a transformation negates the contest between sovereign (government, corporate, dominant) power and divine power as the revolution occurs at the social/communal level. In other words, whether a plague is understood to be God’s will or not, the experience of a shared vision seeds and nurtures revolution. Perhaps such shared justice-making is what we can love when we love our God.
Reading the stories of the plagues in Egypt, we can situate ourselves in the story where we choose; whether after the plagues and the escape to the desert, generations later in Jerusalem, or from our place now in the 21st century in Treaty 1 territory. With the plagues in existence today—poverty, oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and many more inequities that plague us, or a pandemic that further reveals hierarchies of suffering—we find ourselves located somewhere on this side of the moment of transformation. As those who have come before us, we are in the midst of change, and of hope.
Janet Ross works at the Canadian Centre for Christian Studies. Her areas of interest focus on religion and social change, and she is also a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).