In this week’s readings (Exodus 5-14), God plays hardball with Egypt and the Pharoah, by unveiling a horrendous series of plagues upon the country, to culminate in the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn sons and livestock. Then, Pharoah’s charioteers drown while pursuing the Israelites through the parted Red Sea. Modern sensibilities revolt at the idea that all these innocent people and animals would suffer for the hard-heartedness of one man, the Pharoah. Well, there are also the advisers, magicians, generals, officials, priests, priestesses, business leaders and others for whose interests the Pharoah serves as the figure-head, who seemed to have backed him up and urged him on in his stubborn refusal to let God’s people go. But more importantly, all throughout the Old Testament we are encountering a worldview in which the solidarity of tribes, generations and communities ties everyone into a web of interdependence, accountability and responsibility above and beyond what our individualistic culture understands. So Abraham can feel blessed by the numbers and prosperity of his descendants. And Abraham’s descendants are responsible for, and blessed by, God’s covenant with their ancestor, as though they were there, making that covenant themselves. As we in Minnesota approach the 150th anniversary of statehood, we would do well to consider our connection and responsibility in relation to the trauma of native peoples who greeted many of our ancestors here a century and a half ago. We benefit still from that encounter.

This is yet a world in which the decisions of leaders have huge impacts upon millions of people they will never know or even see. Whether that is fair or not, it is unarguably the case. Millions of people, Germans included, died for the paranoid megalomania of Adolf Hitler. Millions more subjects of the Soviet Union died for the ideologically-obsessive brutality of Stalin. When it came to the Egyptian charioteers, let their fate educate us as citizens, and encourage us to take responsibility for when we will say Yes or No to our leaders. Because there is One who rules even over them. What if there had been a mutiny on the shores of the Red Sea, when Pharoah said, “Push on?” They may still have died, as will we. But would we rather die as cowards, collaborators or conscientious objectors? Well, which Ruler will we answer to last?

But what about God hardening Pharoah’s heart, so that God could then display his power over and against imperial Egypt? Again, let this serve as a divine warning, ringing through the ages, against the arrogance and pretensions of empire and emperors, a warning that what they see as their great power and divine blessing might really be bondage and a divine curse. Some light may be shed on this in the New Testament, in Romans 1: 24”Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts….and 1: 26: “God gave them over to shameful lusts….” Though Paul immediately links that to disordered sexual desires, he also links that “giving over” to other sinful desires and shameful lusts, such as greed, hatred, murder, envy, contempt and injustice, in effect, the every day policies of imperial courts. If the plagues weren’t scary enough, this is the scariest form that God’s judgment takes: letting us have what we want, and letting those desires and cravings shape and enslave us. That, in itself, is hell. Its all the more scary because it looks, from the world’s point of view, like freedom, or liberty. From God’s point of view, its bondage. So, if Pharoah and his court really wanted most to keep the Israelites in perpetual slavery and oppression, all the while hoping and gambling that the most recent plague was the worst and the last (the kind of wishful, magical thinking that gets us into war and keeps us there), then God “gave them over” to this wishful, magical thinking, with all its devastating consequences. That there were devastating consequences for the innocent people and creatures they were supposed to protect is not only par for the course in this world, it is all the more revealing and damning of the arrogance and pretensions of so many empires and emperors.

Jesus is Lord.


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