Genesis/Exodus Week 12
“From the Frying Pan Into the Fire”: Exodus 11:1–15:27
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Exodus 11:1–15:27
EnlargeThe Final Plague
We have come to the final plague with which God afflicts Egypt. This one, too, is reflective of divine sovereignty. This time around, according to the Lord, the result will be Pharaoh’s release of Israel (11:1). But with this plague there is a twist. Before the Israelites depart, they are to ask their Egyptian neighbors for their silver and gold jewelry.
This seems preposterous. Why would Egyptians hand over their jewels to slaves? The answer is that God will make the Egyptians view the Israelites favorably. In addition, Moses will gain a stellar reputation (11:2–3). Again, this is bizarre. Despised slaves are about to walk off with Egyptian treasure, and the man who has been in the forefront of these ruinous plagues is to be esteemed in the land he has helped to destroy. This comes under the category of God making sport of the Egyptians!
The final plague will be the ultimate display of divine sovereignty. Every human and animal firstborn is destined for death. This is no random epidemic with a high death toll. This is a move calculated to demonstrate divine purpose. As harsh as it appears, it leaves nothing to chance. By taking every Egyptian firstborn, whether human or animal, and by sparing every Israelite — among whom a dog will not so much as growl — God will manifest a sovereign, irresistible will (11:4–8). In spite of this dreadful prospect, Pharaoh is not quite ready to relent (11:9–10).
The Passover Lamb
The purposeful nature of what God is in the process of doing with all the plagues and most especially with this final one is amply illustrated when we are given the provisions of a most important ritual celebration: Passover. Israel’s subsequent worship life is to include this holy high holiday as a reminder of the people’s relationship with the Lord and the kind of deity the Lord is. Passover will be central to Israel’s liturgical practice.
Passover will be celebrated at a certain time (12:1–3). Likewise, the manner of its celebration is to be carefully observed, particularly with regard to the animal that is to be central to its practice: an unblemished lamb (12:3–6).
The lamb has two functions. One, its blood is to be smeared on the doorposts and lintels to mark Israelite occupation. Two, the animal is to be consumed as a hasty final meal prior to departure from Egypt. This explains why the Israelites are to eat the meal outfitted with traveling clothes (12:7–11). This ritual action on Israel’s part takes place in the context of the death of Egypt’s firstborn, which is the Lord’s judgment against Egypt and its gods (12:12). The blood of the lamb on Israelite doorposts and lintels will mark the Israelites as exempt from this terrible divine judgment (12:13).
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this holy feast, which God’s people are to celebrate in perpetuity (12:14). Every feature of the celebration and all the details that pertain to it are designed to engrain in Israel’s heart and soul the significance of deliverance from Egyptian power and oppression (12:15–20). If Israel ever forgets Passover, it will forget who it is as God’s elect people. Thus, Moses instructs the elders according to the stipulations he received from the Lord. Appropriately, when the instructions are supplied, the people bow and worship (12:21–27). Just as appropriately, the instructions are carried out to the last detail (12:28).
Jesus: Our Passover Lamb
From the point of view of the whole of Christian Scripture, it will not be lost on us how important the Passover is to Christian thought and worship as well. Jesus’ own celebration of Passover with his disciples on the eve of his death — when he became the Paschal (Passover) lamb which was slain — was later transformed by the Church into the Last Supper, or Eucharist, which is at the heart of Christian worship and theology. This worshipful act celebrates not only release from Egyptian bondage, but the subsequent release from every sort of bondage, including the bondage of sin and death. This, too, is to be a perpetual, central celebration.
When the plague afflicting the firstborn takes place, Egypt is spent. At long last, we observe Pharaoh at the end of his rope. He tells Israel to go. Poignantly, his last words are: “bless me also” (12:29–32). Pharaoh has come full circle. He now seeks a blessing from a deity whose name he did not know, whose power he did not previously recognize, and whose very existence he doubted.
A Hasty Departure
This all happens so fast that Israel leaves Egypt without the time to leaven their bread. But they get out of Egypt with more than unleavened bread. According to plan, they also leave with borrowed Egyptian silver and gold jewelry, not to mention clothing. Egypt’s humiliation is all but complete: they have been despoiled (12:33–36). A country once the quintessential expression of human power and achievement has been humbled and impoverished beyond compare. Who would have bet that this strange God identified with marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed state slaves would end up the victor? This is among the great reversals of the Bible.
Upon Israel’s departure, we are informed about Israel’s numbers, the very thing Egypt had attempted to reduce from the beginning (12:37–38). Before Israel repairs into the wilderness, the Lord outlines a few more regulations regarding the Passover celebration. These pertain to those eligible for the sacramental meal. Mostly, this involves membership in the elect people of Israel, whether via a direct or indirect route (12:40–49). Again, happily, the people obey (12:50).
Another section of the text puts into bold relief how very important it is not only for Israel to remember what God has done on their behalf and for the ultimate divine mission, but for the memory process to be ritualized. God makes clear to Moses that this celebration is to be a regular feature of Israelite life when the Promised Land is reached (13:1–10).
As a corollary, in Canaan, Israel is to dedicate all its firstborn to the Lord (13:11–16). This is the opposite of what happened to Egypt’s firstborn. Israel’s setting apart of the firstborn is an act of obedience that acknowledges God and God’s work. What happened to Egypt’s firstborn was a function of disobedience, arrogance, and outright rejection of God’s agenda.
Heading Toward Canaan
Though there is a reference to Israel’s leaving Egypt armed for battle, God deliberately leads them in a direction that will avoid military confrontation (13:17–18). Again, this is no conventional slaves’ revolt. God leads the people toward the Yam Suph, conventionally translated as the Red Sea. Honoring Joseph’s prior wishes, Israel leaves with his remains (Genesis 50:25). In addition, on their journey, Israel is led by God in the pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:19–22). The God who saved them will now be the God who leads them. Israel’s story has turned a page.
However, it turns out we are mistaken if we think God is done with Egypt. The ultimate symbol of Egyptian power — its army — is about to enter center stage. The Lord tells Moses to have Israel turn back and encamp between Migdol and the Sea. In this way, Pharaoh will surmise that Israel is trapped. When that happens, God will once more harden Pharaoh’s heart, which will lead him to go after Israel with the full complement of his military might.
In turn, that will give the Lord the opportunity to respond so that the Egyptians will know beyond a shadow of a doubt the nature of Israel’s God (14:1–4). The plagues ended with the taking of Egypt’s firstborn, but the Lord has one more action in mind against Egypt and what it represents.
EnlargePharaoh Pursues the Israelites
As the Lord predicted, once the Pharaoh learned of Israel’s location, he and his servants changed their collective mind. Lamenting the loss of the free labor they once had, Egypt deploys a massive army. In no time, this impressive force traps Israel against the sea (14:5–9). The Lord has set Egypt up, though they have no clue.
Even Israel remains ignorant of the Lord’s plan. They cower in fear at the sight of the approaching troops. Indeed, Israel is so worried that they excoriate Moses for getting them into this predicament. By their lights, it would have been better to remain living slaves in Egypt than to perish ignominiously in the wilderness (14:10–12). Israel’s lack of faith after witnessing all the previous plagues is astonishing. As for Moses, he encourages the people to stand firm and watch the Lord’s salvation unfold. This will be the last time Egypt poses a problem.
The Lord intrudes at this point and orders Moses to get the people moving. Moses is also to use his rod to divide the sea so that Israel may pass through on dry ground. Then for the last time the Lord will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they foolishly continue their pursuit. When this superior military force is destroyed the Egyptians will have no lingering misgivings about God’s greater power (14:13–18).
Crossing the Red Sea
As the day of reckoning for Egypt approaches, Israel is completely protected by divine agency (14:19–20). Moses then does his part by gesturing over the sea, while the Lord divides the waters with a strong wind. Israel is thus enabled to pass through on dry ground. Egypt has no chance when they pursue Israel, as the Lord disables their chariots’ wheels.
When Egypt attempts to escape the trap, it is too late. Another gesture from Moses results in the waters engulfing the whole Egyptian army, so that nothing remains. Once Israel sees this display, they appropriately fear the Lord, and believe both in the Lord and in Moses (14:21–31). The Exodus is complete.
We should not be the least bit surprised that the Lord’s last decisive act against Egypt would engender a hymn of praise. Moses and the people sing together (15:1). Appropriate to a hymn, God is extolled throughout. There is virtually no reference to human merit or effort. The Lord is both object and subject of the sacred song (15:2–3). The central section does mention human beings, but only to accent the Lord’s victory over the ephemeral power exercised by Egypt (15:4–10).
Toward the conclusion, the Lord’s incomparability is stressed (15:11). As well, the hymn speaks to the fact that from now on other rival sovereignties have taken notice. If Egypt could not stand before God, what chance do lesser powers have (15:14–16)? Of course, the Lord’s victory over Egypt also benefits God’s elect people (15:13, 16–18).
For good measure, this hymn is followed by another, this time sung as a solo by Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses (15:19–21). Though this is a mini-version of the much longer hymn sung by all the people, it is a fitting conclusion in that the women who were prominent when this whole adventure began — Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother and sister (Miriam?), Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zipporah — are now represented, so to speak, by yet one more woman.
Water at Marah
After this wonderful expression of praise to their redeemer, Israel almost immediately suffers a kind of spiritual amnesia. Three days into the wilderness, Israel finds itself with no source of water. At Marah they do find water, but it is undrinkable. Instead of imploring God, or asking Moses to intercede for them, or waiting patiently for the deity to meet their needs, they simply complain to Moses: “What shall we drink?” (15:22–24).
So Moses cries out to God, who shows him a tree. Moses casts the tree into the water, thus rendering it sweet. The tree was a life-giver and a life-saver (15:25). Already, we witnessed a tree of life in the garden (Genesis 2:9; 3:22). Here is another sort of tree of life. In Christian imagery, the ultimate tree of life is the cross on which Christ was crucified. We are not surprised to see the tree of life made accessible when all things are finally reconciled (Revelation 22:1–2). The tree in the desert is in good company!
This episode concludes when Moses admonishes Israel to do right by the Lord. If they are obedient, they will suffer none of the diseases with which the Lord afflicted the Egyptians. That is an enormous promise, which makes Israel’s puny faith over the lack of water seem pathetic. Ironically, at the very next stop on their journey, they come to Elim, which boasts of 12 springs (one for each segment of Israel?) and 70 palm trees (Exodus 15:26–27). This was a veritable oasis. How silly must their murmuring have seemed while camping by this abundant supply of life-giving water.
Questions for Further Reflection: Exodus 11:1–15:27
- Many interpreters have suggested that the plagues in Exodus were natural disasters in which the miraculous element was the timing. Does that make sense in light of the death of all the firstborn of Egypt? Is this plague and the others equally a function of exclusive divine activity?
- Why is ritualizing and memorializing the Passover so important? Why do some Christian churches celebrate the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper regularly whereas others do so much less frequently?
- What does it say that, after all the plagues, the Israelites completely lost confidence when they found no water? Is Israel here being depicted as especially faithless, or is this also characteristic of contemporary communities of faith?
- Are there any present manifestations of divine judgment that are parallel to what God did to Egypt? Is it even appropriate to look for such comparisons?
- What are the implications of the hymn of praise in Exodus 15 for the music traditions of the Church? What should we make of the fact that special mention seems to be made of Miriam’s song?
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