Exodus 12: 3-14
Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lam] for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbour, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.
Our sermon this morning continues the story of Moses. The given title is Pharaoh, plagues and Passover. I want to spend about half of the time looking at the plagues and the other half on the Passover. Pharaoh is an ever present. Last week Dudley spoke to us about the calling of Moses to deliver the Jews from their slavery in Egypt. A dramatic calling, a burning bush that didn’t burn out. We are all called. We may just not have such drama. But we are called nevertheless
The Jews had been in Egypt since the time of Joseph. Either 200 years or 400 years; academics disagree. But they had increased hugely in number, as God had said they would in his promises to Abraham. And they had become slaves. Very badly treated slaves. The reason for Moses being put in a basket in the river was because Pharaoh had said that all Jewish boys should be killed at birth. Genocide. No other word for it. The Bible has horrific stories just as bad as recent history and today’s news.
Moses arrives at Pharaoh’s Palace hot foot from the burning bush and goes into Pharaoh and asks him to release the Jews. Let my people go. And Pharaoh defies Moses and says: who is the Lord that I should obey him.
In his defiance Pharaoh then makes it far worse for the Jews. Pharaoh decreed that the bricks they were making for the huge Egyptian constructions should be made without straw. I do not do DIY. But I understand that straw is added to clay to make bricks stronger and dry out more quickly. Without straw they would have had longer to do the same job and often the bricks would have disintegrated and they would have had to start again. Yet the targets demanded of them in the building works were the same. This was just torture and inhumane
I’ve just read a book about some Tasmanian soldiers during in the Second World War on the Burma railway construction. It was conditions we cannot comprehend. It was appalling. Death rate was high. Disease was everywhere. The targets for their work were unreasonable and ever being increased. The book carries on through their lives post war, for those who survived, and it was invariably tragic with shattered lives. This Burma railway was the experience of the Hebrews under Egyptian captivity.
And Pharaoh makes it clear to Moses he was more mighty and powerful than the Lord God. This occurs on a number of occasions in the old Testament. The stories of Elijah. Rulers and priests attempting to show they or their gods were greater, wiser, more resourceful than our God. Did that end with the old Testament? No. Many today live their lives with that challenge to God.
So there was a showdown. We have in Exodus 7-10 the first nine of the 10 plagues. And after each, Moses goes to Pharaoh and says let my people go. Sometimes he temporarily relents. But his response is always no. And so it is that Moses says that there will be these plagues. It’s only after the last one, the tenth that Pharaoh finally relents and even then changes his mind soon afterwards, leading to the race to the Red Sea and the parting of the waves, but that’s another part of the story.
I start with nine of the 10 plagues.
What I now say might be considered by you to be perhaps sacrilegious, perhaps not trusting sufficiently in miracles or perhaps downright unchristian. It’s not, at least it’s not intended. But in the context where we know the story, I want to look at perhaps what happened in the surrounding circumstances. Because I believe one of the messages which comes from the story of the plagues is that God can take ordinary or sometimes quite exceptional but nevertheless natural occurring circumstances and, in their timings, their literal coincidence with other things that are going on, make them fit in with his plans. Events are under his control management. He has the whole wide world in his hands. We live in a natural world with a supra-natural creator and loving God. Of course these things will occur. The story of the plagues is not that they occurred but they occurred against the backdrop of the Jews in slavery, crying to their God for freedom and Moses seeking their delivery otherwise events would occur and then did occur. These are the miraculous aspects. Not necessarily the events themselves. We need to distinguish this. The supernatural, miraculous intervention of God does not suddenly cease if modern man has a natural explanation for the plagues themselves.
The plagues contrast the power of the God of Israel with the Egyptian gods. The plagues and the deliverance from slavery are to be a witness to the Egyptians. But more. As the Jews leave and move into what is now Israel, the remembrance and retelling of the plagues acts as a witness of the power of God in their new land. There is reference to the Philistines, many years later, referring to the Jews as the people who were serving the God who brought about the plagues. A powerful and interventionalist God, whose wonderful actions are remembered and worshipped for millennia to come
After Moses had asked for their freedom which was refused, Moses said that he would strike the Nile with his staff and it would be changed into blood. The fish would die and the river would stink and the Egyptians unable to drink from it. All very dramatic. There is strong suggestion that a change in the climate, rising temperatures and drought -like conditions, turned the Nile into a slow-moving muddy water course, favourable for the spread of toxic freshwater algae. When that dies, the water turns red in a phenomenon known as burgundy blood. Certain bacteria thrive and the water would be stagnant and oxygen deprived. The fish die. We have all smelt rotting seaweed. But what is crucial is it occurred when Moses said it would.
Seven days later when Pharaoh still didn’t relent, Moses said the land would be filled with frogs. Any blight in the river water which killed the fish would cause the frogs to leave the river and invade the homes and palaces. Unused to these conditions, the frogs died in huge numbers.
The third and fourth plagues were biting insects, gnats and lice, followed by a swarm of wild animals. The lack of frogs in the river would have allowed the insect populations, normally kept in check by the frogs, to increase massively, both on the river and on the shore. It’s not clear what is the reference to wild animals. Some translations refer to flies. It might also include snakes and scorpions. They would have been attracted to the rotting corpses of fish and frogs. But it was all very unpleasant for the Egyptians.
The fifth and sixth plagues are disease of the livestock and an outbreak of boils. If there were a sudden increase in the number of biting flies in the region, they are likely to transmit diseases to livestock. So livestock would be sick and die. When reaching the human population, it would cause boils and other skin infections. Not nice
The seventh plague is fiery hail storm. Moses gives a description of thunder and lightning, incredible storms which beat down on everyone and destroyed the crops which were then in late springtime bloom. This is less clear but academics suggest it is a volcanic eruption resulting in showers of rock and fire. Records show that there was one in North West Egypt about 650 miles away at about that time.
The eighth plague is a swarm of locusts, devouring what was left after the hailstorm and previous plagues. I’m sure we have read of locusts swarming in parts of the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says on its website that when they get hungry, a one ton swarm of locusts can eat the same amount of food in one day as 2500 people. Locust storms happen. The miracle is that it happened at this time when Moses said it would.
The ninth plague, racking up in intensity, is darkness throughout Egypt for three days. This may have been the consequence of the volcanic eruption. It’s more likely to be a south or south-west wind coming up from the Sahara full of sand and dust which blows about the time of the spring equinox, giving poor visibility
And each time Moses forecasts it. Each time Pharaoh refuses to let the Jews go and the plague occurs. Of course you can say that Moses knew the signs of nature. This fits the explanation. But all of these? In a moderately short period of time? At exactly the time when the Jews were crying out for deliverance and Moses had been told to go back to Egypt to secure their release. Understanding what might have been natural causes does not detract from God’s intervention, his signs of power and his ability to deliver his people. Natural events will occur to us in our lives. Accidents, ill-health, bad setbacks, unexpected events. The message of the plagues is that God is over and above all such unexpected adverse events in our lives. He continues to care for us and fundamentally he delivers us through them and despite them. He demonstrates his almighty power and dominion by being greater than them. As it says in Romans 8.39, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
And so we come to the 10th plague which was to define the Jewish people and is still celebrated as one of the primary annual Jewish festivals to this day.
The tenth plague. More fearful and dreadful than the others. The death of every firstborn. Human and livestock. But not the Jews who had put markings on the outside of their door. Moses said to Pharaoh: At midnight the Lord God would go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt would die, from the son of Pharaoh to the son of the slave girl. And firstborn cattle as well.
But what about the Jews? God told Moses to tell the Israelites to take the blood of a lamb sacrificed at twilight in their house and put some blood on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they then ate the roasted lamb. They were told to eat it with their cloaks tucked into their belt, sandals on their feet and the staff in their hand. To eat in haste. To eat in readiness for a quick departure. My bags are packed and I am ready to go.
And this dreadful event occurred. All firstborn died. And as it had been forecast, there was wailing and distress, understandably, at what had occurred. Moses went back to Pharaoh who was now worried that he would be next to die. He now said go. And they did at great speed being already prepared. But as before, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army to bring them back but that is for next week.
Let me briefly get out of the way what is said about the reason for this event. Food would have been polluted as a consequence of the locusts or the insects or the mould in the river. When the people emerged from the three days of darkness, the firstborn would be given priority, given the available food and would be the most likely affected by any toxin or disease. But the Israelites had been told only to consume certain foods, with the lamb roasted and specifically not to be eaten raw or boiled. They would have unlikely to be contaminated. But all academics admit this doesn’t explain the firstborn of the cattle also perishing. There is no explanation. Give up. It’s a miracle of God. This was God powerfully at work in a situation where his will was being resisted.
The Passover is remembered in a major feast in the Jewish calendar. Throughout the time in the wilderness, in the promised land and then throughout history including in times of persecution. They remember when they were treated as special by God. There are rituals including a very important family Passover meal. Jesus and his disciples celebrated this. In the early church the holy Communion, the Lord’s supper, acted as a direct replacement in circumstances where many of the early Christians were from the Jewish community.
There is much in the old Testament which is a direct message, event, analogy or symbolism for us living in new Testament times and later in the new creation church. The Passover, the very heart of what it means to be set apart as Jewish, is the heart of what it means to be saved as a Christian. On the day of reckoning, the day of judgement or however one understands it, Christians believe all will be judged. How have we, everyone on our planet and throughout time, responded to the claims and the calls of Christ on our lives? The Bible tells us that we will all be found failing and will be adversely judged.
But there is an exception. When God Almighty looks at us on the day of judgement, when he comes to our house, he will see the blood of the lamb on our doorway and pass on by. There will be no death. There will be no adverse judgement. We are saved by the blood of the lamb, the death of Christ for us, as our substitute and our saviour. The technical word is propitiation. When we accept Christ as our saviour, we are placing reliance on Christ in his life and his death and his resurrection. It is his blood that causes judgement to Pass over us. He is the Passover lamb, sacrificed so that his blood prevents death and judgement on us.
Do we need to understand complex theology to be a Christian and grow in the love and grace of Christ? No. But in having this understanding do we become stronger, more appreciative and more loving Christians? Yes. When we know more about what Christ has done for us in his death on the cross, in saving us and giving us new life, then we will love him more and worship more.
One day a Jewish father, preparing for Passover that evening, asked his eldest son to remember the ancient Egyptian ritual. He gave him a pot of washable red paint and asked him to daub the lintel and the sides of the door entrance as they had in Egypt many years later. He went off to work. The boy did so vigourously with broad brush strokes. Up and down. Across each side. The father came home. He was astonished. He was very angry. He took his son and the family to the door and said, what have you done?
Because when painting the sides of the door, the boy had not bothered to open the door. It had remained shut, on its hinges. And what presented itself to the family on the door was a huge red cross. The Christian cross. From the height of the door, the lintel all the way down. From the sides of the door and across. The Christian cross outside the household. Unintentionally this boy had explained the underlying message of the symbolism of the Passover. Yes it was to make sure that the firstborn child in the homes of the Jews were safeguarded and delivered. But it was to highlight that there is another Passing over, where the symbolism is that of the cross, where the reliance on the cross means judgement and everlasting death is passed over. God our Creator and God our judge sees the cross of Christ and the sacrificial blood of Christ and passes over and saves us.
May we put our trust in the passing over God, in Christ’s life and his death for us, knowing that whatever the eventualities in life, he will deliver us and he will bring us free and complete as his people.