Exodus 8 Through 12 - Let My People Go

The narrative of Moses going before Pharaoh to demand release of his people is perhaps the most central part of the Old Testament biblical narrative and one of the most influential stories ever. The debate as to whether it actually happened exactly as told is intense. There is little if any supplementary historical data to support it but the memory of it in the history of the Jewish people is also so intense and important that it is hard to believe it has NO basis is fact. It is the memory of it and the meaningfulness of it that give it its very real historical significance. It is particularly significant to me as an American who lived through the civil rights era when Martin Luther King, Jr. employed it as a vital non-violent "weapon" in his battle to liberate his people from their hundreds of years of slavery. 


I would be interested to hear from people why this narrative - this Bible - is so incredibly central to them as people of faith. It fascinates me that I myself find it central. I wasn't born into a Bible oriented family. My parents were atheists. I didn't go to church a lot when I was really little, but I was drawn to it. I guess I noticed my grandmother reading it when I visited her. I asked for one for my birthday when I was about 15 and read a lot of it through as if it were just another story to read. But even in high school I remember feeling that if I was marooned on a deserted island somewhere with only one book I could have, I would choose to make it the Bible because it seemed to me to have been the most important book to people throughout the history I was aware of. Since then, I have tried some of the other "big ones" out there - the Tao, the Gita, the Koran. But nothing does it the way this one does - gives me the tools to articulate even a little about deeply spiritual things, things I know I can never KNOW, but things that nevertheless seem vitally important to me. Anyway, here's the story.


Exod 8 – The plague of frogs is brought about by Aaron stretching out the staff over the streams, canals and pools of Egypt.  The Egyptian magicians match him in this one too.  Pharaoh at first tells them he will let the people go, but he reneges (8:11).


Then Aaron stretches out his staff and turns dust into gnats – the third plague.  This the magicians cannot match, but Pharaoh is not moved.


Then the Lord tells Moses to threaten swarms of flies as the fourth plague—but he promises he will not afflict the people in Goshen, thus distinguishing between them and the Egyptians for the first time. Pharaoh is willing to let them sacrifice to their God in Egypt, but not in the wilderness outside of Egypt. Moses insists they must go on a journey of three days—to be out from under the strictures against such worship in Egypt. Pharaoh promises but again reneges (8:28).


Exod 9 – The fifth plague - the Lord brings about a severe pestilence among the livestock of Egypt, but the Pharaoh is not convinced. The Lord tells Moses to take soot from a furnace and scatter it toward the sky so that it turns into a fine dust, a dust that will cause boils on man and beast – the sixth plague.  These boils also afflict the Egyptian magicians. Still Pharaoh is unmoved. Then the hail hits – the seventh plague, but again to no effect.


Exod 10 – The Lord says that the obstinacy of the Pharaoh and his servants is designed to make the signs and wonders of the Lord more glorious and memorable (10:1). The next plague, the eighth, is locusts. By now Pharaoh’s servants are begging him to let the Hebrews go.  So Pharaoh tries to limit the number who go.  He especially does not want to let the children go, just the men.  So at dawn, the east wind brings locusts, covering the land “till it was black with them” (10:15). Again the Pharaoh seems to cave to God’s power. The locusts are swept away by a west wind, and blown into the Sea of Reeds.  Schocken sees the references in these verses as foreshadowing of the mysterious deliverance the people of Israel will experience via this same passage, also with the aid of fierce winds—see Exod.14:21.


The next plague, the ninth, is a “darkness [so] intense. . .that one can feel it” (10:21), a darkness that lasts for three days.  This time Pharaoh says everyone may go, but cattle and other livestock must remain. Moses refuses these terms.  Pharaoh sends him away.


Exod 11 – The final plague, the tenth, will cause Pharaoh to drive them out.  At midnight, the Lord will go forth through Egypt and every first-born will die—not only of man but of beast as well.  Moses is really angry when he leaves Pharaoh’s presence (11:8).


Exod 12 – The month of Passover shall be reckoned the first month of the year for Jews.  On the tenth, every family must get a lamb (or join with a neighbor and get one)—sheep or goat—keep it till the fourteenth and then slaughter it in the evening.  Some of its blood shall be applied to the doorposts and lintel of every house partaking of that lamb, and that night they shall roast it whole and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.


They must eat it dressed to escape.  This Passover shall be celebrated “with pilgrimage” as a perpetual institution. A period of seven days is added (from fourteenth day to twenty-first) on which no unleavened bread shall be eaten and with sacred assemblies on the first and seventh days of the observance (12:15-16). The rite is an occasion for children to be instructed in the history of their people.


Death hits in the middle of the night (12:12:29). Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and they are told to leave.  Not counting children there are 600,000—a crowd of mixed ancestry (12:38) with livestock.  We are told that 430 years had been the full term of their presence in Egypt. 



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Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 31, 2011 at 11:54am

This story probably was a retelling of the story of the Levites (who I'm told were the one tribe who favored Egyptian names) with geography changed to fit the world as it was when it was first written down..


We continue to tell it because something in us knows that God don't hold with slavery. The slaves got it right away; their masters took longer and may not have it entirely even yet!


But the question that resonates from Torah study: Why does God keep hardening Pharaoh's heart?

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 3, 2011 at 10:09am

It comes to me this morning: The Levites were enslaved by the Egyptians somewhere, and were awestruck by the marvelous ways God worked to help free them. Then they met other Palestinian tribes, who liked their story. "This is so true! This is our story, too!"


And then Christians from other nations. Later, many Africans enslaved in this country (enslaved by Christians who'd stopped hearing what this story meant.)


And people go on becoming the stories we like... (Why do Americans like such ghastly stories, anyway?)


And why has God hardened our hearts?

Comment by Bruce R. Arnold on 11th mo. 5, 2011 at 5:54pm
There is that side of the story which has to do with slavery in and of itself. But the Exodus story speaks to prisoner-ship of all kinds. A person who has no choice but to work in dangerous or exploitative conditions is a prisoner of a sort. A person who is degraded for being of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed is a prisoner of a sort. Someone who is bound up in frantic materialism is a prisoner of a sort. We all yearn for freedom from the limitations of our lives, and faith in God offers that freedom. Naturally the Exodus story has a powerful appeal.


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