God’s magician: the story of Moses

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the first from the book of Exodus.

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Exodus picks up after Joseph and his brothers are dead. The children of Abraham are more than just a family now; they’re a nation. The land of Egypt is “filled with” Hebrews.

Pharaoh tries various means of population control to deal with this growing nation-within-a-nation. Each attempt backfires.

At one point, Pharaoh orders all newborn Hebrew males to be cast into the Nile, most likely to stop Israel from becoming a military threat. His callous action foreshadows his own fate; after delivering the Hebrews from bondage, God will cast Pharaoh and his army into the watery depths.

Pharaoh’s attempted genocide also sets the stage for Israel’s deliverance. Pharaoh tries to eliminate the Hebrew “problem” by casting them into the Nile. Meanwhile, Moses — God’s answer to his people’s Egyptian problem — is drawn out of the Nile.

Moses the misfit

At first, Moses doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. He’s adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, sparing him the hardship of his people. But he doesn’t seem to be at home in the Egyptian royal court. He’d rather see himself as his people’s deliverer, but his own people don’t want anything to do with him.

One day Moses visits the Hebrews and kills an Egyptian for beating one of them. Next he tries to settle a dispute between two Hebrews, but they’re not having it. In the eyes of his countrymen, Moses is more Egyptian than Hebrew. He hasn’t borne their suffering. He’s “watched them at their hard labor,” but he hasn’t done a day of it himself.

God gets a name

Moses goes into hiding, taking refuge in the wilderness. (Can you say, “preview of coming attractions”?) God appears to Moses through a burning bush and declares that Moses will, in fact, deliver his people — but on God’s terms, not his.

God tells Moses to go back to his people and tell them the God of their fathers is about to rescue them. To which Moses says, in effect, “And which God is that?” Apparently they haven’t been on speaking terms lately.

God reveals himself as the “I AM,” a term which in Hebrew sounds a bit like another name God uses for himself here:

Yahweh.

Yahweh, God says, “is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

It’s a name that emphasizes God’s imminence — his closeness — more than his transcendence. A name that depicts God as entering into the story and walking alongside his people.

It’s ironic that the name God used to reveal his closeness was eventually deemed unspeakable by the Jewish tradition.

God’s magician

Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh culminates in ten deadly plagues. But this is not just a power struggle between two leaders. It’s a cosmic confrontation between the magic of Egypt and the power of God — between Pharaoh’s sorcerers and God’s magician, Moses.

The plague narrative has to be read against the backdrop of Egypt’s ancient traditions of magic. Pharaoh was surrounded by magical advisors who were apparently capable of doing extraordinary feats.

Earlier, God had given Moses a magician’s staff with which to “perform signs” of his own. In Pharaoh’s presence, Moses and Aaron turned their staff into a snake, just as God instructed. What makes the story so unsettling is that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same with their staffs.

But then, Aaron’s staff swallowed up the staffs belonging to Pharaoh’s magicians. In Egyptian magic, to swallow something was to absorb its power. Pharaoh’s magicians aren’t merely deprived of power to work wonders; their power is coopted to serve God’s purposes.

When God turns the Nile to blood and unleashes a plague of frogs, the magicians try to discredit Moses and Aaron by performing signs of their own. Ironically, their magic only exacerbates the situation. They can only do “the same thing” as Moses and Aaron, turning more water into blood, unleashing more pestilent frogs — which only makes things worse for Egypt.

And after the first two plagues, they can’t even imitate Moses and Aaron any longer.

Both Pharaoh and God have their magic, but God’s magic is of a fundamentally different order. Which may help in explaining Moses’ apparent speech impediment. At the burning bush, Moses asks God to send someone else to deliver the Hebrews because, as he puts it, “I have never been eloquent.”

Later, Moses repeats his concern: “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” At which point God tells Moses he’s made him “like God to Pharaoh.”

In Egyptian tradition, the power of speech was vital to the ability to perform magic. Moses’ statement that he’s never been “eloquent” might actually be a confession that he’s never been able to do magic.

But it’s also a sign of misplaced faith, which might explain God’s irritated response:

Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, Yahweh? Now go; I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say.

God is angry with Moses because Moses is still looking within himself for the power to confront Pharaoh — just as he was doing when he killed that Egyptian for beating a Hebrew.

God himself will be Moses’ power.

Happy new year

Finally, as the Hebrews prepare to leave, God institutes the Passover, a festival by which they are to commemorate their miraculous deliverance from Egypt. The exodus was the central redemptive event of Israel’s story — just as the story of Jesus is for his followers.

The exodus changed everything for Israel. It gave them a new start, a new life, a new identity. So it’s fitting that Passover came to mark start of a new year for them. “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year,” God said to them.

Similarly, Advent (the season of Christ’s appearance) marks the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. Because redemption — the arrival of our deliverance — changes everything. It even changes how we mark the time.

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