Getting Pharaohs attention – all sorts of plagues.
We’re now at the point in the Exodus story where the plagues and disasters that God brings against Egypt and Pharaoh are about to reach their climax. The sequence of events that include the plagues and disasters are known as the ‘mighty acts’ – indicating and affirming that God’s hand was behind them.
Once again we see a pattern repeated; the Lord commands Moses to make a symbolic action which brings about a mighty act of God. In the face of yet another calamity Pharaoh gives Moses permission to leave, albeit with a condition attached. Moses refuses the condition, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he changes his mind.
At first glance it may seem as though Pharaoh and his advisors change very little during the formulaic exchanges with Moses, but despite the pattern being repeated Pharaoh’s response does indeed change.
By the time the 8th mighty act has taken place the frequency and severity of the disasters has increased and Pharaoh and his advisors have lost some of their initial cocky arrogance. It is perhaps becoming clear to them that the Patience of Moses, and his God is wearing thin. Throughout the exchange Pharaoh’s resistance has moved from proud and resolute leadership, to courageous perseverance, to petulant stubbornness, and finally to a terrible denial and obstinacy. The confrontation has gone beyond the point of no return, and there is little doubt about who will emerge victorious.
The pattern of conversation between Pharaoh and Moses as God’s agent is familiar to us, both in this story, but also perhaps as a picture of our own conversations with God. Perhaps the feeling of saying a conditional ‘yes’ to God is familiar, or maybe we’re aware of times in which we’ve made the move from opposition, to stubbornness, to denial, in our dealings with God.
Darkness and the end of negotiations
Each of the previous 8 might acts has come with a warning, ‘if you (Pharaoh) do not let us go…then mighty act X will happen’ – but the ninth mighty act has no such warning. It is the most frightening and terrible of all the divine interventions so far and it comes upon the Egyptian people suddenly and brings terror. In the Exodus account the darkness is described as ‘a darkness that can be felt’ or ‘a darkness that can be touched’. It’s not just that the light has gone, an eerie darkness heavy with impending calamity has descended and it’s so ‘thick’ as to be almost tangible.
Reflect: There are numerous references to this sort of ‘divine darkness’ in scripture. It’s usually associated with the ‘day of Yahweh’ and the only ones to have ‘light’ are God’s people. Why not look up and reflect on some of the other passages that speak of ‘divine darkness’: Isa 8:22, Isa 58:10, Isa 59:9, Joel 2:1, Zeph 1:15, Amos 5:20. What do these passage say and how does this relate to our life of faith?
The blotting out of the sun was of special significance to the Egyptian people. For many thousands of years the Egyptians worshipped the sun as the divine source of creative energy and life. As far as they were concerned the eternally rising sun could never be blotted out – such was the belief of the people and such was the belief of the supposedly divine Pharaoh – but the God of the Hebrews says otherwise. In doing so, not only is Yahweh demonstrating his essential divinity, but he’s making the point, very forcefully, that even the god of the Egyptians must bow to him.
In response to the terrifying darkness, the eclipsing of the great Sun God, Pharaoh tells Moses that the Hebrew people will be permitted to leave, but with one condition. They must leave their livestock behind. For Moses this condition is un-acceptable because the animals for sacrifice must be chosen from among those owned by the Hebrew people. This may seem overly fussy, a bit like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, but it is of spiritual significance.
It would have been possible for the Hebrews to find cattle and animals or sacrifice on their pilgrimage / exodus. Animals roamed freely and not all were the property of individuals. But to sacrifice an animal that had been found on the way would have cost the Hebrew people nothing. It was important that the sacrifice was just that, a sacrifice, and that meant giving to God something of value from one’s personal possessions.
Reflect: In one form or another Gods people have always been required to make sacrifice to and for God. As Christians we don’t believe that the sacrifices we make to and for God in and of themselves earn our salvation or appease God, but we do believe that part of the response of faith entails a willingness to give things over to God. In doing so we place the desires of God above our own and we affirm the notion that all things belong to God, whether material or not.
Has God called you to make a costly sacrifice on his behalf? Has he called you to lay down before him something of value or importance? What effect has this had on your life as a disciple of Jesus? Is there anything that you think God may be calling you to bring before him as a sacrifice at the moment?
The conversation ends abruptly in verse 28 with Pharaoh ordering Moses to leave his presence once and for all. If he returns and troubles Pharaoh again Moses will pay for it with his life. This final closing of negotiations is the precursor to the final and most terrible of all the mighty acts of God.
The final mighty act
The dream of freedom lies smashed on the floor. The Hebrews are no nearer to freedom than they were at the start, and now Moses negotiations with Pharaoh have been brought to an abrupt end. Can even Yahweh redeem the situation? His mediator Moses is struggling to rescue himself let alone the whole of Gods people! God may have revealed his presence but so far nothing has come of it…
Reflect: The last statement above gives voice to a common Christian dilemma. God’s presence is known, but he doesn’t actually seem to be doing anything – at some time or another we’ve all experienced this, more or less frequently. This experience is clearly not new, and has infact has always been part of the experience of Gods people.
When did you last have to face a situation in which God seemingly revealed his presence, but in which it was difficult to discern him actually at work? As you reflect back on this what are your observations? Was God at work in ways which were unseen? Did the presence of God sustain you in a time of waiting? Are you still waiting?
And so the scene is set for the 10th and final might act of God against Egypt. In this act God will cause Pharaoh to ‘compel’ the Hebrews to leave Egypt. So terrible will the act be that Pharaoh will drive the people out, and this time there will be no conditions. Its interesting to note that Pharaohs new reasonableness is attributed to God and is seen as being divinely prompted. Up until this point, when Pharaoh has come round prematurely God has hardened his heart.
God will demonstrate his complete control of the situation by causing the Egyptian people who have longed to expel the Hebrews, to have favour towards them, and Pharaoh who has long wanted to keep them enslaved, to want to get rid of them. As Gods people go, they will take from the Egyptians all sorts of valuable goods and possessions.
It is in this final and terrible act that God’s power will be revealed, and his people freed. And so the stage is set, the warning is given to Pharaoh by Moses, who having issued the warning storms out of Pharaohs presence in a rage.
And so the Hebrews prepare for the final mighty act, the Death of the Firstborn - the very act that will make the promised exodus possible and which will be remembered each year as the Passover is celebrated.
In the next session we’ll move on to the exodus itself as the Hebrews finally leave Egypt and more directions concerning the Passover are given.