The eighty-year-old Moses was charged with the task of persuading the pharaoh to ‘let my people go’. Personally, he was, remarkably un-selfconfident for a national liberation leader and by his own account a very poor speaker; but he trusted and did what he was told by the Lord. His show of magical powers – turning a rod into snakes – did not impress the Egyptians who could do the same. A lesson in religious competitiveness. The ten plagues that the Lord then brought on Egypt varied from turning the Nile into blood, to a plague of lice, another of flies and finally, most horrifically, the death of every first-born child. Finally the pharaoh relented and let them go; then he repented of his decision and tried to bring them back but as a consequence suffered the loss of his army in the Red Sea. This the founding myth of Israel was constructed – a combination of persecution and reaction and bad relations with all their neighbours.
It is neither, at first, very edifying nor very historical. There is no record of this event in contemporary sources. Most modern people, unaccustomed to the mythical and allegorical way of reading ‘history’ find this representation of God either disturbing or absurd. It is not easy to defend except as part of an evolving discovery of the nature of God that takes place throughout the Bible. In Jewish faith this culminates in the prophets (they met a God of peace and justice who says “what I want is mercy not sacrifice”). For the Christian it culminates in Jesus, the prophet who in all ways unites God and humanity.
As long as we feel dis-united from God we will be victims of our own imagination. Bad events will be interpreted as punishment for crimes – consciously or unconsciously committed. Good events will be seen as rewards and signs that we are more favoured than others. Either of these responses is disastrous to our relationship with God (‘relationship’ should also be seen as a metaphor) and our relationships with others – especially those who hold beliefs different from our own.
So we need to read Exodus with a contemplative mind, feeling our way below the surface to the deeper, subcutaneous level of meaning and its interaction with our own experience. Then the plagues might appear less as cruel punishments of an angry God and more as illustrations of the sufferings in life that form part of our awakening and liberation. Maybe the secret of the story – yet to be realised in Middle-Eastern politics – is that both sides in this story of human hostility are in fact, in relation to God, on the same side and that each has a lot to learn.