The Ten Plagues

September 10, 2017      Proper 23

Exodus 12:1-14

We have just heard again the story of the Passover, that core story of the Jewish faith. It is a story of oppression and liberation, the story of the arrogance of power and the vindication of the underdog, the story of the birth of a nation. We have heard it as it is written in the Bible, but of course it is a story to be told aloud. For millennia Jews have told this story at the Seder supper; and long before it was written down, it was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. I imagine it is the kind of story that would have been told around the campfire at that quiet moment in the evening when all our attention is focussed on the telling of a story. In fact, I had the opportunity to tell this story in precisely this way a couple of years back at St. Anne’s Camp; so I thought I would share that with you this morning, if you would like to gather mentally around the campfire.

Once upon a time, the people of Israel lived far away, in Egypt. Egypt is a very different place, a place filled with great cities with stone palaces and monuments and storehouses, and great pyramids where the dead Pharaohs were buried. Our people built those cities; they built them by the sweat of their brow and by their straining aching muscles. They were Pharaoh’s slaves, and they suffered mistreatment and backbreaking toil, and they longed for their freedom and their dignity.

And God heard the cries of his people, and sent Moses and his brother Aaron, sent them to Pharaoh with the demand: Let my people go. But Pharaoh refused: I will not let the people go, I need them to build my cities, and that work is the most important thing of all. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, he would not listen.

And so began the plagues of Egypt. It began with the water: the water of the Nile grew dirty, choked up with toxic run-off, and the algae turned the water red as blood; the fish died, and the animals who drank the water, and the sedge withered and turned black. And Moses said to Pharaoh, Thus says the Lord, let my people go. Pharaoh called in his experts, and they told him, we know what is poisoning the water, everything is under control. So Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he told them, No, I must build my cities.

The second plague was the frogs. They left the Nile and its poisoned water by the millions; their environment had been destroyed, and they sought a place to live. They filled the cities and the homes and the palaces. Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. And Pharaoh’s experts said, Moses has brought on these frogs by magic; but we know the trick, we can do the same. And Pharaoh said, the frogs don’t matter, and the wetlands where they make their home. What matters is economic progress; the cities must be built. And the frogs died, and rotted in the streets.

And there arose in the land gnats, tiny biting insects, almost too small to see, and they tormented the people and the animals with their painful bites. There were no frogs to eat them, and the bat population had collapsed, so the gnats grew out of control. Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. But Pharaoh’s experts said, we can fix this, we have the technology. They sprayed the land with insecticide, and poisoned the waters still more, but they could not control the gnats. Yet still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

And there arose swarms of flies, and all kinds of noxious insects, emerging from the stinking carcasses of the frogs, and the fetid water of the Nile. And they spread disease among the people and the livestock. Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. And Pharaoh began to waver, and said, I will give you a holiday to go and worship your God. But Pharaoh’s experts told him, these flies are just part of the natural cycle, they will pass as well. Then his heart was hardened again, and he said: my cities must be built at all costs.

And then the livestock of Egypt began to sicken and die. The flies brought disease; and try as they could to treat the disease, they could not keep on top of it. New strains of sickness arose, which resisted their antibiotics, Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. But Pharaoh’s experts told him: the market will adjust for this. Meat and milk will go up in price; that’s the beauty of the market, it will adjust for everything. The important thing is to protect the conditions for economic growth; you must keep your workforce building the cities. So Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

And the sickness grew among the people: boils, and rashes, asthma and breathing problems, allergies. New and aggressive cancers became more common. Even the Pharaoh’s experts grew sick; but they did not waver in their conviction that the cities needed to be built to make the economy grow. So when Moses came to Pharaoh and said: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go – Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen.

Even the weather began to change. There was hail that flattened the crops in the field. There were storms such as had never been seen, hurricanes that destroyed whole cities, and floods; and then there were more prolonged heat waves and droughts. Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. But Pharaoh’s experts insisted that this was all part of the natural cycle of weather, that it had nothing to do with the building of the cities. So Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

And there came upon Egypt a great plague of locusts, stirred up by the floods and the drought, driven from the desert to look for food in Egypt. And the locusts ate everything in their path, and the people of Egypt went hungry. Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. And still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, still he insisted, my cities must be built.

And as nature continued to spin out of control, the very air grew thick. The forests burned, dried to tinder by the drought, and the smoke covered the land, and mixed with the smog that poured out of Pharaoh’s factories. And the whole country grew dark, and the sun shone red and angry through the thick haze, and the country continued to bake. Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. But still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened: I will not let you go, I will not change my plans. My factories produce wealth, they must continue to run, my cities must be built.

It was then that the last and most terrible plague came upon the Egyptians. When the water was poisoned, the animals died, the flies and gnats and locusts swarmed; when the climate itself was out of control, and the storms and the floods and the drought and the wildfires came; when the people themselves grew sick from their lifestyle – none of this could change Pharaoh’s mind, none of this could shake his faith in the economy he was building. And then came the last plague of all: the children began to die. Their future had long ago been mortgaged, the earth they inherited had been poisoned and exploited, their health had been compromised – and so the children of the Egyptians died. And it was then, only then, that Pharaoh relented from his madness. When Moses said to Pharaoh: Thus says the Lord, Let my people go. He said, go now, leave us.

And so it was that a nation was born, a nation of freed slaves, a people delivered from the madness of empire, and people called to a Promised Land, to live in harmony with creation. That is the story of the Jewish faith; that is the origin of our faith.

Now it may be that in telling the story I got some of the details a bit mixed up. It may be that I confused this story with another story. But that is how the Bible works. It is always at one and the same time a story about a distant people long ago, and yet also our own story. And the question it often asks us is: can we learn from this ancient story? Can we heed the warning it has for us – or are we doomed to live this story out right to the bitter end?

Somebody throw another log on the fire.