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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

How the Mighty Are Fallen

So let’s talk about Egypt.

During the book of Exodus in the New Kingdom period, it was a military superpower. They

had made incredible tech advances that were years ahead of any of their neighbors.

This is the time of the two horse chariots were the atom-bomb of the day. They were fast and scary--just having them emerge on the battlefield was sometimes enough to turn the tide. These were elite troops with incredibly powerful re-curve bows that took two men to string.

This is the time of the khopesh, a fantastic military weapon that was light and agile and could pull down the shields of your enemies and open them up for quick attacks.

This is the advent of the state owned, professional military in the ancient world. These soldiers were highly trained, battle hardened and better than anyone else at what they did. Under Ramses II, the empire stretched from the nile to Sidon and parts of Syria. They fought the Hittites in battles that involved tens of thousands of soldiers, and un-herd of number at the time.

The Egyptian kingdom was enormous, ethnically unified, theologically supreme in their era, and governmentally and militarily superior to anyone else in the world.

And the Israelites needed to find a way to leave.

Luckily God has a plan for that.

In reality the plagues the meet Egypt are a systematic decimation of the Egyptian war machine as well as a deconstruction of their theological and governmental structure. The plagues are not an upping of the ante in response to Pharaoh's stubbornness. They are literally carving a path for exit through an implacably strong war nation.

But let’s get back to Pharaoh’s stubbornness.

If we recall the conversation that Moses and God have back at the burning bush, God knows what the outcome is going to be. “I will harden his heart” is more literally “I will strengthen his heart.” The Hebrew khä·zak' means a fortifying of sorts, the kind that we would regularly understand to be beneficial, the kind of thing we pray for in the midst of tragedy when we hear of brothers and sisters entering into hard times. I will pray for strength. That’s what God is doing for Pharaoh.

Because the plagues aren't a reaction they are a calculated military and spiritual move, he needs Pharaoh not to relent until the last plague has taken its toll, until the whole message has been heard. God is extricating his people from the people of Egypt and the message has to be clear.

Consider then the plagues.

The first plague creates thirst in all the land. Even wells that are dug are undrinkable. Salty, irony, and putrid bloody water. The maximum a human can go is about a week. That means conservative movement, no going out in the sun, and still getting some moisture from foods. Dehydration is serious and causes things like fainting, swollen joints, cramping, seizures and difficulty breathing. Imagine than any available moisture went to the ruling class and the army and that there was almost certainly not enough to go around. The first plague isn’t a magic show. It’s a death sentence.

So we see the plagues are not escalating as Pharaoh is made more stubborn. This isn’t a fight between the will of man and the will of God. God has already won at the first stroke. The plagues are filled with death at every moment and Pharaoh is given the strength by God to endure them. Because the message has to be finished.

People are hallucinating, recovering from nausea, vomiting, cramping, migraines, and this is as a nation. This was an epidemic. And just as there is some relief, there are hundreds of frogs everywhere.

To really get this plague you have been an Egyptian. There was a goddess in their pantheon, Heqet, who was frog headed. She was the goddess of fertility, as you can imagine, so named after seeing the yearly spawn of frogs erupt from the River Nile's banks. But now, frogs are everywhere. In the bread, in the beds, in the jars, in the wells, in the fields, in the barns... This is a theological attack. The Egyptian gods are breaking down. The natural theological expectation is being undone by this God of the Israelites. Because of the holy status of the frogs, they were not killed. But as they died, their corpses were heaped into sticky piles.

The government has been shut down. People have died by the droves. Nothing is getting done. Pharaoh relents for a time -- how could he not! But God fortifies him, and the Israelites are brought back. Because the message is not finished.

Then the bugs came. The Hebrew, ken, is a little vague on what exactly these bugs are. Some say lice, some say gnats, a better translation would be “the swarm.” The swarm in your face, in your hair, their larvae are in your food... And so again, no work can be done in the land.

Ever walk through a cloud of gnats? Imagine that all the time.

Fields are going fallow, there is no medical aide, no city works, no garbage collection, no couriers, no payments going out, more importantly - the war arm of the empire is not being taken care of. The highly technological bows that required almost daily care. Care which cannot be maintained. Not to mention that the army is suffering along with everyone else. Loss of life is everywhere.

In the next plague the animals suffer and die. In a lot of depictions we see cows and goats laying down. And that’s true, but usually we do not see the most important aspect to this plague. The horses. The highly trained and prized Egyptian thoroughbreds. The chariot pullers. The integral piece of the war machine. All dying by the hundreds.

Never mind the effect of the rest of these plagues on the general public, think of the effect on the troops. Boils means your skin is scarred and raw so that no armor will be worn. Hail means that all of your fields, the fruit trees and vines for wine and vinegar, the herbs are broken and destroyed. Wine was taken as a preservative along with vinegar on long campaigns, and herbs were the source of Egyptian medicines. So that means no long campaigns which would need medics. No healthcare system for anyone at all.

Locusts eat the last of the food, and the production system is already decimated. The army faces starvation. They can’t grow their own food, they are professional soldiers. Those who are supposed to be growing it on their behalf are almost completely wiped out.

The comes the darkness. Egyptians had gods for everything, and they have been failing with each plague that came along, but now. the last and most powerful god Ra has lost. The eternal Ra, the sun God, the place from which the Pharaoh's power comes. Defeated in utter darkness. Obliterated.

And finally Death. This last plague is clear. The time of Egypt is over. Your heirs are no more. There is nothing left for you, once great nation of this world. In under a year, this power that has lasted for thousands of years was essentially over. Only God’s people have a future.

Egypt never recovers.

History shows the following years would be ones of constant war, with a newly arisen “Sea People” who mercilessly exhausted Egypt's troops, and after they were repelled finally by Ramses III, old enemies and internal conflict finished killing the Egyptian Empire. It lay basically in its death throws until the Romans came to put them out of their misery ages later.

The plagues were a systematic destruction of everything the Egyptians thought to be true.

The scene at the red sea should take a different tone, In light of the plagues.

This is not the Egyptian war machine come to get the Israelites back under their thumb thundering down from the mountains. These are the last living troops. The remnant. They are starving. They have no medicine. No horses. No armor. Their health is gone. Their robustness has evaporated. their faith is shaky. Their lineage is cut off. They are soldiers without peace. They are grey headed, sunken eyed, echoes of the men they once were. Who have watched their sons and neighbors dies by the hundreds. They are weeping and weak. Egypt is destroyed before they ever even try and follow Israel across the sea.

Fifteen percent of the entire book of Exodus is devoted to the plagues. Somehow this is important to the theology that these new believers in God almighty are meant to take with them. Could you imagine witnessing this tragedy unharmed for almost a year? God took care of these wayward children like no other point in history. God destroys a nation to provide for their escape, God leads them with fire and cloud, parts the sea for them, feeds them daily, and sprigs fresh water from the desert rocks. God provides for their every need and protection. How did this affect their expectation of God? How did this insert itself into their understanding of who God is?

Do you think the Israelites were surprised when they were later defeated and exiled by the Babylonians and the Persians?

Yet, we have this same sense don’t we? That we, the chosen people are going to exist outside of the land of plagues and dwell only in the land of Goshen. A place free of blood and flies, where our animals are healthy and our children surround us in perfect peace. That we as Christians are surely more blessed, and should be more blessed than non-believers, that we as Christians should be the most powerful people. Some Christians do think we should be the most wealthy people, and perhaps the best looking people on the face of the earth. We expect that. We do, and I know it because of the initial disbelief with which we meet our tragedy.

“Uh! My car got hit with a grocery cart!”

“Uh! My house was flooded!”

“Uh! My spouse was diagnosed with cancer.”

There is a sense that we can’t believe it could happen to us. From the silly to the honestly tragic, we have this hubris in us. Born out of an expectation of blessing.

We might expect to live in Goshen, but that is not our reality.

Our reality is that we, like the later Israelites, exist in the time of captivity and plague. Of sickness and death. Of persecution and injustice.

I don’t deal well with tragedy. Honestly. I expect a life in Goshen like it’s some kind of deal that God and I have worked out ahead of time. Something like, I will work eagerly and diligently for God’s will and justice in this world, and I get to cruise through sheltered and taken care of and mostly joyful. But there is no such deal.

So how in the world do we live without hubris and expectation and still find hope enough to live each day?

Paul tells us that the whole world, every part of creation joins us in life on the other side of Goshen. We are all, every fiber and atom of the created universe groaning out in pain at what the universe is. And this pain, this Greek word synodino, is a pain that all share. If you are a good Presbyterian you may hear a familiar word buried in that, Synod, our word for the collection of presbyteries, which is simply Greek for assembly, or meeting. It shares a root to this word and is being used in regard to they type of pain that Paul expresses as a “pain for the assembly.” All who are here. Together we feel this. And that’s where Paul finds hope that Egypt never had.

Though Egypt was unified as a culture and as a people, they were not unified in their theology. New gods came and went, old gods were blended into new ones, temples rose and were rededicated, and the whims of the Gods seemed to shine favor and take it away arbitrarily. The ruling classes were under no compunction to share power, or initiate a sense of justice, and the suffering of one population in their group was not felt by the others. The Israelites issues as slaves went uncared for by the Egyptians. They were a people, each of them, alone.

These new people in Acts and reading Paul’s letters, these Christians, have a different take. We are together. We bear the pain of one another, we feel the suffering together and even beyond that all of God’s creation is in line with us. We are joined together as brothers and sisters, and creation and created beings, in an unbroken and expectant movement that waits in our suffering for liberation.

That is the power of God’s people. That is the power we have to see beyond the present tragedy and into a hopeful future. Not by having singular strength. But by sharing the pain together.

We read this passage in Romans wrong I think, we read that Paul doesn’t want to complain about the world's current woes, because he compares them to the world to come. We take that to mean that we should grit our teeth and muscle through the current pains in our lives and just keep hanging on until the wonderfulness of the world to come arrives.

That’s not what Paul actually says. In our desperation for the personal independence of American self made strength, we read right over this wonderful beautiful plural first person objective pronoun: us. In Greek hēmas. We together, us, all of us, are going to manifest this Glory. Hemas is the direct object of that phrase, so this isn’t heaven that Paul is talking about. It’s us. You and me, brothers and sisters, all of creation. It’s groaning. Waiting desperately for us to adopt each other.

We have to move beyond asking for strength to whether this life of plague and tragedy that is our reality. Being strong enough to go through something isn’t enough, and apparently, according to Pharaoh it can have a dark side. God can make us strong. But Paul is seeing a new way in Romans. He is encouraging us into a better mode, a mode that has weakness and not strength at its core. a way of being that shares our strife, that feels the pain of this world together and in that, in that sharing in that togetherness, in that glorious us we find a hope heretofore unrevealed in the world.

God destroys a nation to convey something. God does it to convey the very thing that Paul is talking about here in his letter to the Romans. This word. Hope. In the Greek elpitzo. And beyond hope, as we hear it translated here, it has another meaning. Trust. In Exodus God is making introductions to the children of Israel, and the first thing God shows them is how far God will go to earn their trust. Almost a year dismantling the most powerful force on earth. Another generation caring for them and watching over them in the wilderness. This message. Trust me. Set your hope on me. And Paul, who knows this Exodus lesson, is saying that we find this hope in one another.

We are in fact saved by this hope. We are saved from a life of solitude, and perhaps a life of singular strength that serves only to isolate us. We are saved from a life of singular pain and are instead living a life of hope in the midst of this place of plagues. The epidemic of life that we are called to live, not as singular people but as a people of faith together.

And that changes our hubris. It changes our expectations and our entitlement as Christians.

My husband has cancer, my daughter died, my baby isn’t safe here, my sister won’t stop drinking.

Our response changes from one of indignation to one that expects tragedy, shares this pain, and finds a saving hope. Something that Paul admits can be elusive. His encouragement is not something that he says we already possess. But something that we pursue, and that we expect fully (apekdechomai) to come to pass. We are called, in the midst of this plague ridden world to form a place of hope and trust together. Not a place that exists without hurt or pain, but a place where we together are adopted into each other's lives. Not as something that we will continually already have, but as something we will faithfully work for and fully expect to come to pass in the future.

That place that is only found together, that place of hope and trust in God which is the glory that is revealed in us. Only together can we get there. Only together do we survive the plague.

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