Divine Purpose

Explore the Bible Series

March 14, 2010


Background Passage: Exodus 5:1-10:29

Lesson Passage: Exodus 5:1-3; 6:6-8; 7:1-5




Our study this week (and next) will consider one of the most noteworthy stories in ancient literature.  The tale pits the forces of good and evil, and, in our case, even provides a great “cliff-hanger” (which we will study next week).  Furthermore, the saga revolves around an oppressive monarch, a hero filled with self-doubt, an enslaved people, and astonishing miraculous events.  Who wouldn’t find this story fascinating?


Let’s begin the lesson, however, with some honesty about the nature of the account.  If I read this story in any place other than the Bible, I don’t think I would believe the miraculous elements that permeate the narrative; in fact, I feel quite certain that it would never occur to me that such a tale could be historically true: a river turning to blood, recurrent swarms of vermin (frogs, gnats, flies, locusts), hail and fire, boils, three days of darkness, and a death angel killing thousands of people.  My upbringing taught me to embrace this story without critical reflection, but I do not study the Bible, in that manner, anymore. Intellectual honesty, for me, demands a different approach to the Bible.


Is it reasonable for thoughtful, modern people to take seriously these miraculous accounts from the Book of Exodus?  Do I really believe, for instance, that God turned the Nile River to blood?  The text does not allow for a naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon.  Some, for example, claim that heavy silt content caused the water to turn red; thus, these commentators suggest, the river only appeared to transform into blood.  The text, however, won’t permit this view.  Ancient people knew the difference between silt-laden water and blood, and the passage emphasizes the awful smell of the river, an odor unexplained by a merely natural phenomenon. The passage is clear, and you either accept this as historically true or not.


Belief in supernatural miracles, it seems to me, must affirm two premises.  One, the world operates according to natural laws, and these laws make it possible for humans to function in a predictable, reliable fashion.  It seems reasonable that any rational person would question claims that someone has defied these laws of nature.  Two, God, as he sees fit, may overrule or supersede natural laws.  If we accept the rationality of a Creator who established, natural principles, it also seems logical that this Creator could suspend the laws he instituted.  Ultimately, this issue turns on the reasonability of belief in the existence of God.  I fully agree with the observation of Francis Collins, “’Is there a God?’ has to be the most central and profound question humans ask” (See Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith).


I am not a stranger to the temptation to atheism; indeed, I have invested a great deal of time and energy in examining the claims of the so-called New-Atheists, over the last three or four years.  In addition, I have sought the wisdom of classical and contemporary theists to help answer the questions that, at times, arise in my thoughts (Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Francis Collins, Peter Kreeft, and others).  I cannot indisputably prove the existence of God, but the clues, in my judgment, seem to affirm the reasonability of faith.  If God exists, he certainly possesses the power and will to reveal himself through miraculous action.  It simply won’t do to attribute, for instance, these supernatural plagues to natural forces.  The text demands that readers see these events as historical occurrences, and Bible students must either thoughtfully affirm or deny the reality of the miraculous.


As stated above, the lesson passage reads like straightforward historical narrative; therefore, producing a formal outline proves difficult.  Hence, the “outline” will consist of brief summaries of the various episodes that make up the story line.


Lesson Outline:


I.       The Hardships of the Israelites (5:1-6:1): The text does not explain why Moses and Aaron gained easy access to Pharaoh’s court, but they personally made request for the monarch to allow the Hebrews to journey three days into the wilderness for a religious observance.  The subterfuge of Moses and Aaron seems problematic.  Clearly they aimed at a permanent deliverance from Pharaoh’s hand, but the initial request focused only on a three-day reprieve from the tyrant.  The request angered Pharaoh, and he increased the burden of the Hebrews by refusing to provide straw for brick-making.  Consequently, some of the slaves were forced to fetch straw, and this distraction, of course, impeded brick production.  The people, understandably irritated by the increased burden of work, heaped harsh criticism on Moses and Aaron.  The two baffled leaders took the complaint to the Lord, and God assured them that his design remained in tact, despite the callous response of Pharaoh.


Personal note: The chapter breaks seem very odd to me, at this point in the story.  Bear with the outline as I attempt to preserve the flow of the narrative.


II.    The Renewal of God’s Promise to Moses (6:2-13): God gave Moses two grounds for his faithfulness to his promise: (1) Jehovah had not forgotten his covenant with the Patriarchs, a promise that centered on giving Canaan to Abraham’s descendants; (2) God had heard the cries for deliverance from his people.  Deliverance from Egyptian bondage would issue in a renewal of the Abrahamic Covenant; that is, Jehovah would take Israel as his special people.  Sadly, the broken, dispirited Hebrews did not believe the testimony of Moses and Aaron.


III. The Genealogy of Moses and Aaron (6:14-27): The author interrupts the narrative, at this point, with a summary of Moses’ lineage.  At first glance, this seems an odd insertion into the text; indeed, some scholars have concluded that an editor redacted this section into the text.  Perhaps the author intended to establish the Levitical line of Moses and Aaron as a foreshadowing of the priestly caste emerging from the descendants of Aaron.  The abbreviated genealogy contains an odd assertion: Moses’ father, Amram, married his paternal aunt, Jochebed.  Later, the Mosaic Law would forbid such marriages (See Leviticus 18:12).  More than one commentator has pointed out that this “abnormality” in Moses’ lineage serves as a token of authenticity to the story.  No Jewish redactor would manufacture a story that included such an unorthodox marriage arrangement by the parents of Moses and Aaron.


IV.       Moses’ Second Appearance before Pharaoh (6:28-7:13): A disheartened Moses made another attempt to withdraw from this spiritual battle, and, again, he affirmed his poor speech as an excuse.  The Lord affirmed that he would orchestrate this entire story; however, to reassure Moses, god reminded the reluctant leader of the “signs” made available to authenticate his message from Jehovah.  The two brothers, both in the eighties, approached Pharaoh’s throne, armed with the mysterious rod, a rod that turned, according to the story, into a serpent.  Pharaoh’s magicians replicated the feat, but Aaron’s serpent consumed the serpents of the conjurers.  The passage indicates that the magicians’ slight-of-hand could not stand up to the manifestation of God’s power.


V.    The Plagues of Egypt (7:14-10:29): Our lesson covers nine plagues, reserving the killing of the first-born until next week.  This wise allotment of the lesson materials will highlight the climactic role of the final plague, and pave the way for understanding Pharaoh’s decision finally to release Israel from slavery.

A.    Turning the Nile to blood (7:14-25): The Bible indicates that God began his judgment of Pharaoh by turning the Nile River, and all its tributaries, into blood.  This verdict was grounded in the obstinance of Pharaoh, an obstinance that eventually led to God hardening the king’s heart (note this progression as you read the lesson text).  According to Exodus, these horrific conditions continued for an entire week.   

B.     The infestation of frogs (8:1-15): In the aftermath of the first plague, the land was infested with frogs.  The Egyptians worshipped a false god called Heqt, a fertility deity, and this plague seems aimed at mocking idolatry. 

C.     The swarms of gnats (8:16-19): Some Bible versions translate this word “lice”, but the Hebrew term describes a small, flying insect similar to the American gnat. 

D.    The swarms of flies (8:20-32): These insects bred prolifically in animal manure, and posed a serious health threat, in addition to the general nuisance of the swarms. 

E.     The plague among the livestock (9:1-7): Dr. F.B. Huey believed the animals were struck by anthrax.  The Bible says that all the Egyptian livestock died, but the animals belonging to the Hebrews survived.

F.      The plague of boils (9:8-12): An inflamed swelling on the skin, the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary identifies this disease as cutaneous anthrax, a malady that plagued animals and humans.  The passage claims that the animals suffered from these boils, but this seems difficult to reconcile with the previous plague that killed all the animals. 

G.    The hail and fire (9:13-34): This frightful hail storm was accompanied by thunder and lightening, and, apparently, the lightening ignited devastating fires. The storms devastated the barley and flax harvests.  

H.    The swarm of locusts (10:1-20): Locust infestations occasionally troubled people in the ancient Middle East, and, under the right circumstances, the devastation to crops and other vegetation could prove catastrophic. In this case, locusts destroyed the remaining vegetation (left after the hail storms)

I.       The darkness over the land (10:21-29): The chief Egyptian god, Re, was worshipped as the master of the sun, and, again, this plague aimed at ridicule of the nation’s idolatry. The Bible offers no explanation concerning the source of this darkness.