The story of the plagues leaves us an unexpected hope: that in the midst of these natural evils, God brings it about that we “shall know that I am the LORD.”
On December 6, 1666, in the wake of an outbreak of the Black Death that killed 15% of England’s population, the Rev. Josiah Hunter of York preached a sermon titled “The Dreadfulness of the Plague.” His encouraging thesis on the subject was: “That the Plague is a dreadful judgment, a sign of Gods great wrath.”
Divine wrath and biblical plagues are unexpectedly topical news. Each day’s paper reads like an updated list of what God unloaded on Pharoah: massive shortages of household goods, universal quarantine, present and impending economic collapse, every church in America changed into a Zoom staging ground, and all the rest. And to top it all off, the peak of infection and mortality in parts of the U.S. is predicted to hit over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. So one could be forgiven for feeling like one of the Egyptians whom the Angel of Death didn’t pass over.
But we read our own situation—and the Egyptian plagues—too simplistically if we jump straight to divine wrath as an explanation, as tempting as it may be to lay the blame at the feet of our favorite ecclesial, social, and moral ills. Psalm 136 offers a jarringly different perspective on what happened in Egypt and how it relates to our own experience: “The firstborn of the Egyptians he smote, for his mercy endures forever.” For the psalmist, the litany of plagues against Pharaoh, even its disastrous climax, is somehow a revelation of God’s mercy.
To see what that could mean, we have to go back to the pages of Exodus and look at the plagues themselves. Before the plagues begin, God explains what is about to happen and why: God will “multiply” his “signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Ex 7:3,5). In other words, the purpose of the plagues is not to blast, punish, and smite Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Their purpose is to make God known, and to reveal how the created world relates to God.
Over and over again the narrative of the plagues hearkens back to an unexpected text: Genesis 1. As the biblical translator Robert Alter points out, the plagues are not a random series of unfortunate events, but a broadly imagined inversion of God’s creation of the world. Where the first chapter of Genesis marks each new category of creation with the solemn declaration that God saw it and it was good, the plague chapters of Exodus present those same realities in a shockingly marred and altered form, where blessing has become curse and well-ordered creation has become a chaotic whirl of destruction.
The living things that in Genesis are to “swarm” and “multiply” to show God’s great abundance appear in Exodus as the frogs pouring out of the limits of the waters, the gnats and flies that corrupt the sky and the land, the pestilence that devours the once-abundant herds, and the locusts that obliterate even the green things of the earth. Genesis’ separation of the waters upon and over the earth, which makes space for living creatures to thrive, becomes in Exodus the savagely destructive storm of hail and fire, and even the essential promise that water is good and brings forth life is seemingly undone when the waters of the land become death-dealing blood. The earth bestirs itself to its own undoing when its dust becomes burning boils that make life on the land unbearable. And God’s first great word into the abyss—“Let there be light”—is suddenly withdrawn, leaving only a darkness as thick and cold as the void itself. And at the end of the torrent of unmaking comes the uncreating of the human being, the terrible culmination that inverts the pinnacle of the creation story: “Let us make man in our image.”
What went wrong? How is it possible that all the good things God made could become so corrupted, so that what God made for welfare has become a source of woe? The answer lies a bit further along in the book of Genesis. After the fall, God tells Adam: “cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen 3:17), and explains to Adam and Eve how their disobedience has created a rupture between them and God, which necessarily ripples out into the world that God made for them to live in. All the creatures that God made for Adam and Eve to be masters of now resist their dominion; all that was freely given in peace is now taken in theft and violence; all that was made for life becomes subject to death.
The plagues, in other words, force us to confront that the fall of the human being corrupted the world that God made perfect. The sin of our first parents could not destroy the goodness that God made, but it has left us and the world deeply scarred, desperate for a healing that the natural powers of the world cannot bring. As St. Paul puts it, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8:22). And creation’s travail is, all too often and all too tragically, our own as well.
The world we live in is brittle. Its goodness is real, but the disordering effects of sin are so powerful that we no longer live in harmony with the world around us. Landslides sweep away towns. Tsunamis overwhelm islands. Earthquakes bring cities hurtling to the ground. And viruses rage across the globe.
No one’s wickedness causes these things. But the story of the plagues leaves us an unexpected hope: that in the midst of these natural evils, God brings it about that we “shall know that I am the LORD.”
The genuine miracle of the plagues of Egypt is not that God brought them about: our own experiences give us ample evidence that chaos and death are never more than a moment away. The breathtaking wonder of the plagues is that they came to an end. God used the plagues not merely to teach that the world is imperfect and groaning in travail. He used them above all to teach us that chaos does not rule the world, that the sting of death has been drawn away, that God is the Lord of our life, our history, and our death, and that he is merciful.
The coronavirus is not “a dreadful judgment, a sign of Gods great wrath.” But it does unsettle our blithe, natural desire to trust in the world’s self-sufficiency, in our own achievements, in economic, psychological, and physical well-being. The crises of Egypt and of our time remind us that creation cannot satisfy us. It cannot keep us safe. The world is waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” so that by our transformation in the redemption of Christ, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:19,21).