Then the LORD Said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt.” So they took soot from the kiln, and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses threw it in the air, and it caused festering boils on humans and animals. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians. But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to Moses.
~ Exodus 9:8-12
Our passage in Exodus 9 calls us to listen to the history given by a people who suffered the injustice of oppression, yet who also found the One God to be present in their midst. Today’s reader of Exodus 9 might believe that they find cause to question the character of God. How could a good God who longs for the salvation of everyone, intentionally harden a ruler’s heart? This, however, was not the question of the people of Israel who suffered from Egyptian bondage. The plagues visited upon Egypt, in this passage, represent for the Israelite captives, the presence of Yahweh among those who suffer oppression. 400 years of pain. 400 years of oppression. 400 years of death. 400 years, but now they see the presence of the One! 400 years and now the One God is audible through Moses. The One God is tangible in the dust from the ground. The One God is visible in the cowering of Egypt’s religious leaders. In the midst of fear, death and oppression the One God IS.
We are going on our third month. COVID-19 has worried, confused, frustrated and held the people of the world in bondage. In fact, some might say COVID-19 is a form of oppression. If we are frustrated in our third month of oppression, try imagining the 400th year of the patient Isrealites. The Israelites knew a thing or two about deadly, life-altering oppression. Yahweh spoke and people complained. Yahweh moved and people griped. But WE can read the end of the story and know that in the middle of a pandemic of slavery for the Israelite people, the One God was present. May the text call us to search for the presence of the One God today.
—Zachary Parks, MDiv Student
The disgrace of stubbornness and unawareness serves injustice as much as indiscriminate suffering. A multitude of people in ancient Egypt remained unaware of the danger that the invisible and deadly soot carried as it lingered all around. Living their own lives completely bias towards a lived normality. But nothing was normal anymore, the air was not the same anymore. Intoxicated by self-interests we, today, remain exposed to danger much longer than we could imagine, in our hopes of keeping normality: as we know it.
Big shifts shake our plans on their foundations. We do not want to lose what we have. Thus, we keep expecting that the changes will not touch our dreams. Yet, many (who had no causal relation to the COVID disaster) were fatally affected by it. They lived a normality: hugging, kissing, touching and unknowingly contaminating others in the silence and by the silence of others. Unawareness can be fatally deceitful. Injustice may be contagious. And so often, self-interest is our longingly-craved-for blindfold.
All this situation can be highly aggravated and spread injustice all the more when leaders refuse to listen to patient reason. When they stubbornly seek their own interests, i.e., economic, political, social, and religious interest, they may prove to present an even more deadly outcome, than the deceitfulness that comes with unawareness. Stubborn resistance against the change that has come upon us is foolhardy. Stubborn self-interest is the definition of a harden heart. This is the path to deny the undeniable. Pharaoh had no chance against God, the evidence was everywhere, but alas, he stood in opposition.
Once again, in human history we are confronted with the shaking call to take the blindfold from our eyes and see the needs of the other. That will defy injustice.
—Diego Barreto, MTS Student
The plagues on Egypt testify to the power of God. Yet within that testament, there is this accusation against the divine acts. How can pain and suffering for everyone (children, visitors, middle-class Egyptians, …) be justified in these supernatural events? While the previous plagues (bloody water, frogs, gnats, flies, dead livestock) caused damage and stress, the plague in chapter 9:8ff. attacks the physical health of every non-Israelite without restraint.
Perhaps we can learn from those ashes spreading “like fine dust over the whole land of Egypt.” I am reminded of the biblical posture of mourning, of wearing torn sackcloth, and of an unkept face, topped with a healthy dose of ashes. This outer posture represents the inner repentant and sorrowful heart’s decision: I can use this time to practice disciplines that can change my heart. Pharaoh refuses to change, selfishly focused on maintaining his power. The nation mourns, but Pharaoh’s heart is hard.
As Egypt mourned through the pain of boils, and as the blood of the innocent boiled from the injustice of their suffering, we too mourn separation, loss of life, disappearing finances, and uncertain futures. The ashes now cover the whole land; that is, the world. Perhaps mourning together can shape repentant and kind hearts. A prophet from the people oppressed by Egyptian bondage later wrote, “The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them” (Isaiah 19:22).
The suffering together of this time too might aid us in this COVID pandemic, but to what end? Why suffer through this when another pandemic may be well around the corner (chapter 9 of Exodus begins plague 6 of 10!). As some local health orders are rescinded, it would be all in vain, if we like Pharaoh have hearts unwilling to change. We have experienced the outside ashes and pain, the boils of this COVID-19, but have we experienced a softening on the inside? Can time riddled with injustice bring about hearts full of mercy and love?
—Mark Ricalde, MDiv Student
A month removed from the Passover Celebration (April 8-16) of our Jewish brothers and sisters, we find ourselves in a situation peculiarly similar to our Israelite ancestors. There is no blood on our doorposts, as we shelter in place, but we do wear masks that cover us as our major defense against the COVID-19 “angel of death.” Who has reached into this furnace? Who has sprinkled these ashes towards heaven? Who was patient zero? Who was on those flights out of the epicenter? These and many other questions may go unanswered, but it is clear that the affliction has spread across the land.
We do not find ourselves in the bondage of a hard-hearted Pharaoh, but an indiscriminate illness has placed most of us in a self-isolated lockdown. Without warning, the viral dust cloud has covered the land. This has placed us under a darkened atmosphere of human experience. Where is our Moses? Where is our Exodus? Where is our healing? Where is our freedom from isolation.
As Moses stood before the Pharaoh, an agent of the great Exodus of God’s people, our current situation provides us with an opportunity to stand before affliction and proclaim a freedom that is yet to come, a freedom that God has promised. Unlike Pharaoh’s magicians, we can stand before the Lord; not ashamed of judgement, but assured of justification. By God’s grace, we can intercede for others, as Moses did for the Israelites, with the hope that this too shall pass. While we shelter in place, lift up prayers toward heaven, refuse to let hardship harden our hearts, and find our refuge in the Body of that One who was the lamb without boil, spot, or blemish, Jesus Christ.
—Paul DeShield, MDiv Student
May you never lose sight of God’s grace and love!
HMS Richards Divinity School