Formations 02.16.2020: What God Thinks of Injustice

Benjamin West, Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, 18th century

Exodus 7:14-25

Some of us have had our fill of biblical stories in which God uses divine power to punish humans. We’ve heard one (or a dozen) too many sermons about God smiting the ungodly, often delivered with barely disguised glee. Or maybe we’ve just heard one too many comments about lightning bolts, earthquakes, or other tragedies as being God’s judgment—no doubt on activities or political stances with which the commenter takes issue.

Yet stories like the plagues of Egypt are still in our Bibles. In today’s passage, God liberates the Israelites through a series of miraculous displays of power and judgment against the Egyptians. The first of these plagues involved turning the Nile River—the source of the country’s agricultural bounty—to blood. The rest of the plagues only heap further catastrophes upon the Egyptians: frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils…leading eventually to the death of Egypt’s firstborn.

Let me suggest an exercise. It may still leave us with reservations about images of a wrathful God; we can’t reach thoughtful theological nuance in the limited space of a weekly blog post, after all. But try this on for size. What if the point of the plagues is not to tell us what God thinks of sinners (namely, people like you and me) but what God thinks of injustice.

What if the blood, the frogs, and the rest—phenomena that brought the life and economy of Egypt to a grinding halt—were God’s judgment against a society that grew to greatness on the backs of its most vulnerable members? What if it is a commentary on how seriously God takes justice and liberation for the oppressed?

If that’s the case, then maybe despite our modern sensibilities this story tells us something vital about the God we serve: what this God’s plans for the world might be, and which side of history we should strive to be on.

And maybe it compels us to wrestle with questions of justice and injustice today.

Discussion

• Have you ever tried to sympathize with the average Egyptian in this story? If so, what insights did you gain?
• What does “justice” look like for the oppressed? What does it look like for the privileged?
• How does Pharaoh’s hardness of heart (vv. 14, 22) play into this unfolding story?
• What notes of grace and salvation do you hear in this story?

Reference Shelf

Moses as Wonderworker

Moses was no magician for he lacked the ability to manipulate his surroundings, but he initiated miracles and performed signs that revealed the presence of a powerful God, Yahweh. Before he returned to Egypt, he expressed hesitancy about his credibility before the Israelites. Yahweh fitted him with three wonders—turning his rod into a serpent, altering his hand to one beset by leprosy, and changing some water from the Nile into blood—to testify to Moses’ authenticity. When the Egyptian ruler proved obdurate, Yahweh authorized Moses to introduce a series of plagues in order to break Pharaoh’s will. The eventual pressure of the first nine plagues, and the overwhelming sorrow caused by the last plague, broke the Pharaoh’s resolve to retain these Hebrew slaves. Yet Moses managed one final miracle, the crossing of the Red Sea, as he raised his hands to cause the sea to recede so the deliverance “by Yahweh’s uplifted hand” could be consummated. On another occasion, Moses would watch another army defeated as he held his arms aloft with the help of Aaron and Hur (Exod 17). Throughout the wilderness sojourn, Moses performed necessary wonders to assure the continued well-being of the people. Yet, all these miracles, with Moses as the agent of their occurrence, pointed to the power and beneficence of Yahweh, the God who claimed that he would be with his people and watch over them.

Russel I. Gregory, “Moses,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 585.

God’s Power to Compel and Convince

Exodus 7:8–11:10 intertwines two accounts of the plagues that YHWH sends upon the Egyptians and two sets of reasons for sending the plagues. In the older version (D), the purpose of the plagues is compulsion: to force Pharaoh to set the Israelites free from the illegal chattel slavery to which he has subjected them for generations. The Israelites’ destiny is to enter into the service of YHWH, their covenant partner. In the later edition (P), the purpose of the plagues is demonstration: to show that YHWH, the creator, possesses cosmic power that extends even into Egypt and exposes the powerlessness of Pharaoh and his gods. Israel’s destiny is to live in accordance with the Torah that YHWH will reveal in its fullness at Sinai.

William Johnstone, Exodus 1–19, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014).

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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