I. Read 6:2-13.
1. How interesting: Elohim says to Moses that he is HaShem! So, the God of justice says He is the God of mercy. What can this mean? And how do we square it with the name that was introduced to Moses in the last portion - I Shall Be What I Shall Be?
(Is it that the first instinct was strict justice? Could God have been upset with Moses' doubts and seeming lack of faith and almost impudence, but God showed mercy and compassion and support to Moses?
Given the people's subjugation and pain and obvious stunted faith, the enormity of the evil they faced and Moses' newness and weakness to the task, God chooses to show the face of compassion and mercy and do so from here on out. It's needed!
It may be, as we discussed last week, that this is the "Face" of God needed here by the people and Moses. In other words, this is the nature of God that God "shall be" at this time in these circumstances.)
2. How do we explain 3 - I am HaShem; I made myself known to the patriarchs but not as HaShem.? This does not seem true at least on the surface. The patriarchs had a sense of HaShem. Plus, if the people here were beginning to experience a God that had not known before, they likely wouldn't find meaning or truth in it. What is being said here?
(One possibility: Moses will require God's continuing support, more sustained, fuller than the patriarchs, thus meriting some new sort of quality and quantity of relationship than anything from the past. A sustained show of compassion, mercy, and intimate support.
Another: Moses will require full mercy to deal with the people and their plight against Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Another: HaShem became the principal notion of God in Exodus; though it emerged from Genesis, Elohim was the principal notion in Genesis.
Another: God was not known to the patriarchs through the intervention of signs and wonders, as will happen with Moses.
Another: God intends a deeper, fuller revelation than in the early days as will occur at Sinai, and yet a more intimate relationship with the people and with its leaders.
Finally, it could be that a different source was responsible for this text, one that didn't see an earlier understanding of HaShem by the patriarchs. Even if so, the "editor" saw fit to put the issue before us!)
2. Look at verse 6. God will free the people from the "labors of the Egyptians." What is the Hebrew for labors?
(Sivlot. This also could mean tolerance! Thus, an interesting other possible meaning: one must be freed first from one's own tolerance of 3. Note all the verbs of action the Lord promises: heard the moaning, remembered the covenant, free the people from the labors, deliver them from bondage, redeem them, take them to be My people and be their God, and bring them into the land. Any thoughts on the meaning of these verbs and their progression?
(They're various stages in a sustained process. "Deliver" might have a separate sense of transforming from psychological burden of slavery. "Redeem" could mean freeing, make the freed feel free, and holding the promise of even greater freedom in the future. "Take...to be my people" may include notion of the revelation and completion of the people's duty in the covenant just as "bringing to the land" is a sort of completion of God's part.
We celebrate each of the four phases with one glass of wine during the Passover service for freeing, delivering, redeeming, and taking unto peoplehood. The fifth for being brought into the land is the fifth for Elijah.)
4. What do you make of the people's continuing failure to listen to Moses?
(Spirit stunted or crushed by bondage. Gap between Moses and the people. The difficulty of leadership. Distance between the people and God. The absolute requirement that redemption from this condition can only be powered by God. How utterly difficult this process will be. Even a premonition that the first generation of this bunch will not make it to the Promised Land.)
II. Read 7:1-3, 11-13.
1. Let's focus here, as we will again later, on this matter of God toughening Pharaoh's heart or Pharaoh's heart simply toughening. Readers and sages have had difficulty with this notion since the very beginning of Biblical interpretation.
Why doesn't God soften Pharaoh's heart? Why toughen it? Shouldn't we want to have Pharaoh to soften to Moses' appeal and just let the people go? Isn't this cruel? If this is not "free choice" on Pharaoh's part, how can he be held culpable?
(God must deploy His great wonders and demonstrate that the redemption is God-caused and the defeat of material-governed tyranny must be complete and God-delivered. This sort of victory doesn't happen easily or quickly, or without pain, learning, change, re-orientation, commitment.
God is not after a short term "political victory." this text is not either. It's about a major intervention in history - one that drives our being, consciousness, and ethic to this day in our thought and ritual, and it, as a sign of God's sovereignty in the world, drives the thought and imagination and lives of all indeed.
Further, real transformation is essential and it doesn't take place with baby or incomplete steps.
****One important facet here is the degree to which this "toughening" actually fits Pharaoh's own nature and will. Many times his heart is toughened by himself or seemingly on its own. God's role may be to allow or make it such that Pharaoh lives true to his real instinct. Isn't this the case with real tyrants? They don't listen. They don't want to give any ground.
They're willing to have their people and their world destroyed (including themselves!) rather than lose their evil and insidious dream of glory. All that orientation and behavior surely are signs of a "toughened heart," no?
In a sense, as one's evil compounds, his freedom to choose to turn is constricted. This reality in nature is perhaps what is meant by "God's hardening of the heart." Note that Pharaoh's heart strengthens on its own after the early plagues. God's "role" occurs only after the last plagues. This suggests that Pharaoh had time through the first plagues to change, and it was only after "he was in so deep" that God said and acted as if, in effect, it's irrevocably deep.
One can strengthen one's heart to overcome fear. One works to pay no heed. One turns away. One does not reflect. Often when we fail to contemplate what is done or its consequences one becomes unable to do so. This is the effect of a strengthened heart, too. This is precisely how we are NOT to live.
Let's look at 7:14. The heart of pharaoh was strengthened. God said to Moses that Pharaoh was stubborn. The Hebrew word is kaved, which means liver, the "seat of anger," foolish. This is a condition that makes one hard to seeing, understanding, and doing the right thing.
This word is close to kavod, suggesting honored or glorified, thus suggesting an arrogance impervious to God, competitive in honor with the Divine.
OR does someone have another explanation? God as demon? The puppeteer God?
2. Quickly - Read 10-13 again. What does the little story in 10-13 remind you of?
(A rod swallowing other rods sounds a little like cows swallowing up other cows, no? One pharaoh had wisdom to sense a problem and a need for a solution; this one's heart is hardened, thus leading to conflict and loss, instead of solution and gain.)
III. The Plagues - there is a vast and magnificent architecture to the account of the plagues. We will not endeavor to explore it in the detail that we could. Perhaps another time. Rather we'll look at them, focusing on a few, for certain important lessons and insights.
Before we get to the first plague, let's look first at 7:16. Read it. What is significant here? What would be surprising to many in our broader culture if they were to read the entire verse? People go. But that's NOT the message in the text. It's: let my people go THAT they they may worship ME. We think about the freedom part, but we forget the new yoke, the commitment to God. In Judaism, we see the interest in Passover but not as much in Shavuot. In politics, we see the interest in rights, but not responsibility.)
B. Read 7:17- 24.
What's the significance of this first plague?
(It strikes at the heart of Egyptian life. It attacks them at their power. The Nile was at the heart of life, god-like features. They sorta worship the river. It was the "life blood". It also was the place where the first born were killed. So, there was justice. Odd that, even with the serious damage, because the magicians could replicate the act the Pharaoh didn't take it seriously.
C. Let's think briefly about the nature and order of the next several plagues.
2. Frogs. What strikes you about this one?
(From the same water where the first born Hebrew boys were killed. More measure for measure? Pharaoh asks for relief, for though his magicians could do this, too, they could not get rid of them. Perhaps so many cold-blooded creatures were uniquely threatening to his culture/theology. A beginning of cumulative effect.)
3. Lice - How does this plague extend the confrontation?
(Here we get to something the magicians couldn't reproduce, thus provoking even greater concern.)
4. Swarms of insects - How does this plague extend the confrontation?
(This now affects only Egyptians, ratcheting up the impact. Pharaoh asks for relief and offers a partial but inadequate concession to Moses, but gets stubborn again when relief is given.)
Plagues 5, 6, and 7. Strike the livestock, boils, and hail - these finally get Pharaoh to acknowledge God, yet, again, he grows stubborn again when relief is given. As to the boils, they come without warning and afflict explicitly the magicians along with others. Also, with the boils, it is here with the first of the last five plagues that God begins to toughen the heart of Pharaoh.
As to the hail, God gives explicit room for protection for Egypt's courtiers who fear God. Now Pharaoh admits God is right and he and his people are wrong and that the people can go.
Yet, once the plague stopped, he grew stubborn again.
Let's consider what we think about these signs and wonders. Real? Fable? Legend? Metaphorical? As people of faith, does it matter that we have an answer? If not, what do we make of this story? It's amazing how powerful the story is for all of us, for various traditions, in history. Why?
To spark your thought further, here's what the great Jewish thinker, theologian, and philosopher, Martin Buber had to say: "The real miracle means that in the astonishing experience of the event the current system of cause and effect becomes transparent and permits a glimpse in which a sole power, not restricted by any other, is at work. To live with the miracle means to recognize this power on every given occasion as the effecting one. That is the religion of Moses, the man...who saw how all the gods of Egypt vanished at the blows of the One; and that is religion generally, as far as it is reality."