In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
In short, from a narrative perspective, today’s passage serves as an introduction to the subsequent passages – those chapters recounting the ten plagues.
Now the book of Exodus tends to stand out in the Christian and Jewish corpus (of scripture) because it’s an extremely dramatic book. Not only do we get the plagues of Egypt, but there’s also the parting of the Red Sea, God leading Israel from a pillar of fire, quail falling from the skies, and many other miraculous acts. It’s a book full of signs and wonders. Apart from the miracles of Jesus recounted in the four Gospels, nowhere else do we see God doing so much of what we expect God is supposed to do – miraculous, wondrous things.
Our passage today, similar to the passage last week, likely serves as both introduction and summary. In last week’s passage, we saw a summary (of sorts) of God’s call to Moses or, probably more accurately, God’s mission in the deliverance of Egypt. Our passage today is likewise summative in regards to the plagues. So our passage introduces us to several of the themes that we’re going to see throughout (or that we need to keep in mind in) the plagues account.
8 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”
10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12 Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.
One of the first things that we see is essentially a reiteration of one of the elements we talked about last week. That is to say that what is going on here is not just Israel vs. Egypt, or Moses vs. Pharaoh. Rather, what we are seeing is a cosmic battle. As we pointed out last week, Pharaoh is not just Pharaoh and Egypt is not just Egypt. Rather, though we are dealing with historical characters, here Pharaoh and Egypt are representative of all that which is not-God. In other words, redemption is not merely a local activity.
At one level, we understand that God is working to deliver His people out of Egypt. The one standing in His way is Pharaoh, king of Egypt. As king of Egypt, Pharaoh represents Egypt. And Egypt, the primary power in the Ancient Near East, represents the world.
In other words, what we are witnessing is not just a political conflict or a geographic relocation. We are reminded that what’s going on here is the continuation of the story of God’s redemption of His people – and by extension, His redemption of creation.
It’s important to remember that what is going on here – the story of Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites – is that this is part of God’s on-going work, the continuing story of, the redemption of creation. What this means for us is that this is not, at its heart, a story about improving our circumstances. It’s easy to think that’s what “being a Christian” is about. And it’s easy to think that’s what God’s “job” is – to make our lives better.
And I would suggest that this is true – so long as our idea of what constitutes “life” is aligned with what God means and intends. But inasmuch as we simply think that being a Christian is about making my life better, by which we mean that we think God’s job is to make my life easier and more comfortable and more pleasant, we are missing what God is actually doing.
Naturally, as God works throughout the story to overthrow the kingdoms of the world (Pharaoh) and restore the kingdom of God, Pharaoh is going to resist. As Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, and as they present the sign that God has given them, Pharaoh’s response is to bring in his magicians who, by their “secret arts” duplicate the miracle. Despite the signs, Pharaoh is simply not willing to give up what he has, the kingdom that he has built up for himself.
One of the repeated motifs that we see throughout the plagues account is that, in spite of God’s many acts of power, Pharaoh continues to resist God and refuse His commands.
I don’t want to over-interpret what’s going on here – and I try not to read into the story what I want to see there. But it seems to me that often, we human beings tend to negotiate with God – we tend to hold back our faith, our willingness to believe and put our trust in God – on the basis of His “proving” Himself to us.
In other words, we tend to do or say, “If God would only prove Himself…”; “If God would only show Himself…”; “If God would only give me this or do that, then I could believe.” It’s not just unbelievers who do this – Christians all do this all the time.
What we see throughout the Exodus story, the account of the plagues, is – in my opinion – a pretty accurate account of how we would actually respond. God demonstrates His power, His authority, His sovereignty over and over and Pharaoh still refuses to believe, to submit.
Because the question is often not, “is God real?” but rather, “what do I have to give up?” Or, in other words, can I still be my own god?
Again, it’s not just unbelievers who do this. Believers do this all the time. We think we know what God is supposed to do and are confused or surprised when God doesn’t meet our expectations. We think we know how Christians are supposed to behave and are indignant when God doesn’t back us up. We have simply replaced God with religion and call ourselves devout. But in truth, God is nowhere in the picture.
We see this struggle with the Israelites, even after they’ve seen the power of God, as they wander in the wilderness. It’s the reason for the complaining, the whining, the golden calf, and the rebellion. Because, even still, we don’t really want God to be our God.
We see this struggle with the religious leaders in Jesus’ ministry. They repeatedly ask for a sign, even in the face of Jesus’ many miracles, but in truth what they were looking for was affirmation of their convictions – a continuation of their kingdoms – rather than being willing to bow before the kingdom of God in their midst.
Now, as we well know, when Pharaoh resists God, resists the messengers of God and the signs they bring, it does not end well. Again, Aaron’s snake swallowing up the snakes of the magicians foreshadows what will ultimately happen in the course of the plagues. Though they resist, God will ultimately be victorious (even if Pharaoh doesn’t know it yet, and even though he will continue to deny it).
This, ultimately, is our hope and our promise. That even though the world struggles and we struggle with the coming redemption, regardless of how pig-headed we might be or how proud or even how strong, ultimately God will be victorious.
Now we’ll probably spend a couple of weeks on the plagues, just to fill out a little bit more what’s going on. And as we do, and as we read through the rest of the book of Exodus, these themes that we’ve been talking about in the book of Exodus are worth paying attention to. Mostly, what we want to pay attention to is that there’s more going on than what might appear on the surface (especially in a cursory reading). Because God is doing something bigger than we think. God is moving in a way, bigger than we think. Redemption and salvation is bigger than we think. So I urge us all, as we have been trying to do, to pay attention to and get in on what God is doing.