Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 11:1-10
by Bill Sytsma
God will fight for his people.
Everybody loves a hero. Tales of individuals who will champion the cause of someone who is unjustly oppressed fascinate us.
True heroes, however, are hard to find. Most of us feel as though others are hardly interested in our struggles. Even if we find someone who is interested, they might not be willing to help. If they are willing to help, their assistance will often reach a limit before our circumstance is resolved.
In Exodus 11, God’s love and commitment to His people, the nation of Israel, is on display. Prior to this episode, God had heard Israel’s cry from their slavery, and He had been working through Moses and Aaron to secure Israel’s freedom. He had demonstrated His power through signs, but Pharaoh would not allow His people to go. He had sent plagues, but Pharaoh would not allow His people to go. Even though Pharaoh had shown a willingness to make some concessions by allowing the men to worship the Lord in the wilderness, or allowing the people to go while they left their cattle behind; he was not willing to submit to God’s demands.
If this were a normal negotiation, we would expect that God would speak through Moses and Aaron to reduce His demands for the people’s freedom. Perhaps He would be content with a partial compliance. Maybe He would have to tell the people of Israel that freedom was not going to happen, so they would have to settle for slightly improved conditions in their slavery. Sometimes, those who champion the cause of another will lower the expectations of the people they are fighting for.
But God is not interested in merely making the conditions of Israel’s slavery more tolerable. He is determined to answer their cry by freeing them so that they can become His people.
God is no ordinary hero. The common western hero storyline usually begins with the hero coming into town and being drawn into the plight of someone who needs to be rescued. Once the injustice has been set right, the hero rides off into the sunset.
Not God. He wants to make the nation of Israel His people. He is preparing to enter into a covenant relationship with them. He has made a distinction (see verse 7) between Israel and the Egyptians. He has taken up the cause of the Israelites against the Egyptians. He has chosen His people.
This distinction that God has made causes two polar-opposite consequences.
For Israel, God demonstrates His love by taking drastic measures to free them. While many people may advocate for another with words, advice, or even limited actions, God is willing to get involved in a terrible messy situation, and He takes the awful steps that are necessary to free His people
For Egypt, God acts in a way that causes terrible suffering. When Pharaoh repeatedly refused to acknowledge God’s power, God responds with an escalating series of plagues in order to demonstrate His power. Finally, God strikes an awful blow that will free His people.
If you are subject to God, He will fight for you. This episode demonstrates the measures God is willing to take to secure His plans and care for His people. However, if you stand against God, you have reason to be wary. Pharaoh’s refusal to submit to God resulted in the penalty of countless lives.
In Romans 8:31 we are asked, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The story of the tenth plague illustrates that there is a tremendous difference between have God for us or against us. Ironically, it is better to be a slave with God on your side, than to be a king who stands against God.
When we preach on the story of the 10th plague, we must understand that this account will draw a strong emotional response from contemporary hearers. To hear that God initiates a plan that results in the death of children seems awful. Those who hear this text might not be able to look past the brutality of this plague, and question God’s justice. When we preach on this text, we should be mindful that our congregants might feel some sympathy for the Egyptians who lose their children, and question whether God’s actions are too awful in this story. If we do not allow some time in the sermon to acknowledge the apparent awful nature of this plague, our hearers might not be able to follow the message of this text.
The following considerations are not meant to defend God’s actions, nor minimize the terrible nature of this plague. But allowing our hearers to ponder some of the circumstances will allow them time to understand the context of this terrible plague.
Poetic Justice: The book of Exodus begins with Pharaoh giving the order that all newborn Israelite boys should be thrown in the Nile. In the final plague that is described in Exodus 11, that terrible decree is turned around on them. This does not make the plague less terrible, but it allows us to see that God is not arbitrary in His actions.
God’s Escalating Warnings: The plague that brings the death of the firstborn does not happen in a vacuum. Throughout chapters 5-10, God repeatedly sends Moses to Pharaoh to demand that the Israelites be freed. In Exodus 5:2, Pharaoh asked, “Who is the Lord, that I obey Him and let Israel go?” The answer to his question is seen in God’s actions. God started with signs, but Pharaoh would not obey. God continued with escalating plagues that inflicted discomfort and hardship on all of Egypt, but Pharaoh would not obey. Finally, God is ready to end this standoff that could have been avoided if Pharaoh had acknowledged God.
Evil is Awful: The damage that sin has done to God’s creation cannot be easily undone. We would like to think that God’s power can easily change hearts and circumstances in our world, but undoing sin’s damage is not a simple matter. Sometimes God’s people are called into terrible circumstances that call for costly actions. In Isaiah 43:4, God tells His people, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give nations in exchange for you, and peoples in exchange for your life.” We see that happening in Exodus 11. It should also be noted that in the New Testament, we find that God does not only demand that others pay the price for his people, He Himself pays for His people with the life of His own son, Jesus.
A Lavish Departure: God tells Israel that they should prepare to leave, but they are not sneaking away unnoticed. His work will turn the situation around so that the Egyptians will be begging them to leave by offering them their silver and gold. God drastically overturns the circumstances of the Israelites by freeing them and providing resources. This act shows God’s favor on His people.
It is not common for slaves to be voluntarily paid by their masters to encourage them to leave. During the 19th century in America, numerous slaves were freed from their bondage, but the stories of gaining freedom are characterized by hiding, traveling at night, and the constant threat of being recaptured. The nature of the Israelite’s departure from slavery as an entire nation who would receive resources demonstrates a striking move by God.
The Distinction: When Moses is speaking to Pharaoh in (verse 7), he predicts that Pharaoh would learn “that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” God has drawn a line in the sand and recognizes Israel as His people. He is about to make sure that His people are removed from the nation of Egypt. Israel was not like the other nations. God selected them for a purpose.
In the next chapter, we see how God makes this distinction. He instructs Israel to take the blood of lambs and mark their doors on the night of the plague. God would pass over the houses that were marked with the blood. Centuries before Christ was born, God was already marking His people with the blood of the lamb.
Hardened Hearts: Pharaoh’s response to God is a tragic warning to those who are unwilling to submit to God and stand in the way of His plans. Pharaoh saw the signs, experienced the power of God, and even seemed to waver throughout the story of the plagues. But even when he was willing to entertain the idea of allowing Israel an opportunity to worship God, he insisted on altering God’s demands. Our desires to control our destiny and dictate plans to God can reap tragic results.
Rev. Bill Sytsma is the pastor of New Life Christian Reformed Church, Highland, Indiana.