That You May Know

Plague of the Firstborn

by Lois Tverberg

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” Exodus 5:2

“For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.” Exodus 9:14

A key theme in the book of Exodus is “knowing” who the Lord is. When God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses seemed to be asking who God was when he asked for his name. Then, when Moses went to Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s response was that he did not “know the LORD,” so why should he obey him?

Plague of the FirstbornIt is important to understand that in Hebrew, the word for “know,” yada, is more broad than in English, describing personal experience, not just intellectual knowledge. To “know” God in this sense is not just to have heard a name, but having awe for him from encountering his power directly. Pharaoh had no fear of this God because he had never experienced God’s power.

Many places throughout Exodus God says that he would send his plagues and free his people so that both Egypt and Israel would know him:

Ex. 6:7 `Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians

Ex. 7:5 “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.”

Ex. 14:4 “Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.

Ex. 16:6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the sons of Israel, “At evening you will know that the LORD has brought you out of the land of Egypt; When Moses first came to Pharaoh, Pharaoh had no idea who the God of Israel was, and he could only find out from his own personal experience of the power of this God.

Do you know who the LORD is, that you should obey his voice?

Photo: Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Time for a Change

by Lois Tverberg

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Exodus 12:1-2

Egyptian CalendarThe very first instruction that God gave the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt was to establish a new calendar that was utterly unlike the Egyptian calendar. This may not seem significant to us, but how we measure time is fundamental for how we look at life. Our calendars define the importance of the day to the entire culture, saying whether we should work, rest or worship, or think about some great event in our past.

This was especially critical as the Israelites left the powerful nation of Egypt, which had strongly influenced their thinking while they lived there. Egypt had a twelve-month solar calendar that was entirely organized around the veneration of their gods. Their year started in late June when the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, arose, about the time of the flooding of the Nile. They spent five days in feasting and worship beforehand, pleading with their gods for a good flood of the Nile and good harvest for that year. Each of the 36 ten-day weeks of the year was dedicated to a different god.

In contrast, God instructed Israel to mark time by remembering their redemption from Egypt. Their calendar no longer focused on idolatrous gods, but on permanently remembering the true God that loved them so much that he freed them from slavery. Every aspect of their calendar repeated this motif. The other major feast of the year, the feast of booths (Sukkot), also focused on reliving their time in the wilderness after God brought them out of Egypt. Even the seven-day week was founded on remembering how God had granted them rest from slavery:

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day. Deut. 5:15


Also, the law to celebrate the fiftieth year as a Year of Jubilee was also founded on the idea that they set free those who are in debt, just as God set them free.

If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Lev. 25:39-41

All of their worship and time focused on remembering how God saved them and took them to be their people. In the same way, we as Christians should continually remind ourselves of our redemption in Christ, the Passover Lamb, by his death for our sins. Every day of our lives should revolve around living out of this truth.

Photo: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) and Edward Poynter

Plagues from the God of Nature

by Lois Tverberg

Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.” Moses replied, “When I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the LORD. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. – Exodus 9:28-29

HorusAs the passage above says, God unleashed the powerful forces of nature in the plague of hail to show that he was the true ruler over the earth, not the hundreds of “gods” that the Egyptians worshipped. It was clear that God was in control of other aspects of nature when locusts and diseases destroy the crops and livestock at Moses’ command.

It may surprise you that most of the plagues could be describing natural events that were known to occur in Egypt. The Nile turning to blood may describe the red tide, a type of algae that kills fish when it overgrows, or an excessive reddish silt washed down from the mountains during an abnormally strong annual flood. The frogs might have bred in the stagnant water left behind from the flooding.

Even the “darkness that can be felt” seems to be a description of a dusty sandstorm that comes from the hamsim, strong east winds that blow in from the Sahara Desert that blot out the sun, which can make it as dark as night. (The dust storms during the Dust Bowl in 1930’s were described this same way.)

The thought that the plagues could have had natural causes initially feels disturbing because we assume that God must show his supremacy by turning nature on its head. But what showed God’s power is not the unearthliness of the plagues, but God’s sovereignty over their timing and who they afflicted. They began exactly as Moses announced them, and some did not strike Goshen, where the Israelites lived. While they might have been events of nature, they clearly were controlled by God’s will.

Death of Firstborn

Even the last plague, the death of the firstborn may have had a semi-natural origin. During the Dust Bowl, many succumbed to “dust pneumonia” because inhaling large amounts of dust can cause severe lung inflammation and even death. But the fact that every firstborn succumbed to the illness all on the same night was profoundly supernatural. While God was working through nature, his timing showed that he was utterly in control.

When you think about it, God working through nature is really the most appropriate display of his power, because he is the creator and sustainer of all things. You can see this in that the point at which the magicians realized that their gods were defeated was a seemingly mild plague, that of the gnats. (Ex. 8:18-19) Why? Because God is the creator, not Satan. God’s creation of the tiny gnat was too much for Satan to imitate. It was the God of Israel who held the life of every creature in his hands.


Send Someone Else!

by Lois Tverberg

Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The LORD said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” But Moses said, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.”
– Exodus 4:10-12

When God first appeared to Moses and told him to go to Pharaoh, Moses had the chutzpah to say to God, “Please send someone else!” We are amazed at Moses’ repeated refusal to do what God asked. How could that be?

The text says that Moses doubted his own abilities. Perhaps he was thinking that God was asking Moses Burning Bushhim to somehow go convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery all on his own. What an impossibility that a stuttering 80-year old shepherd could do such a thing! Perhaps he imagined that God was telling him to raise up a rebellion who could demand release from Pharaoh. In his younger days when he was passionate for justice, maybe he could have done it, but not now. Surely God couldn’t use him.
Maybe part of Moses’ response was because he had forgotten his people’s sufferings, feeling that he had left his people behind when he fled to the desert forty years ago. When he was a younger man, his anger at his people’s misery caused him to kill, but maybe now he felt differently after finding a peaceful life in another land. Wasn’t their bondage someone else’s problem? Certainly someone should do something about it, but why should he be the one to take on such a difficult, dangerous mission?

Or, perhaps he doubted God. No one had heard anything from this God in four hundred years, and in Egypt, Moses learned that there were many small gods that shared power with others. How could this one defeat the many gods that ruled over Egypt, who had made it a super-power of the ancient world? This god was unknown – only the private god of his family, not of a mighty nation. God certainly was no match for the powers of Egypt.

Whenever any of us feel God is calling us to serve him, these are all typical human responses – either to doubt ourselves or how much God will help us, or how much God is even capable of doing. And we might even secretly say to ourselves, “Yes, someone needs to do something, but why should it be me?” We can learn a lesson from knowing that despite Moses’ doubts in himself and in God, God refused to change his mind about using him. We can all be encouraged that God never gives up on us. With our willingness, God will not fail at all that he has appointed us to do.

Photocred: Nheyob

Why All Ten Plagues?

by Lois Tverberg

ThPlagues of Egypte LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. – Exodus 4:21

It seems odd that God would tell Moses from the very beginning that it would take many plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Why couldn’t God have freed them with one spectacular display of power? Why couldn’t God have skipped the milder plagues if he knew he’d send the more powerful ones later?

One reason was that the purpose of the plagues wasn’t just to convince Pharaoh to free the Sun God RaIsraelites, but to declare that God was supreme over the many “gods” that Egypt worshipped (Ex.
12:12). God was communicating this to Pharaoh, and also to his own people who very likely believed in them after four hundred years in that land. Each of the plagues was a defeat of one or more of the gods that the Egyptians worshipped – the Nile god, the Sun god, the Frog god, the animal gods

Another reason could have been mercy. God didn’t simply come in and destroy the oppressor of his people, Pharaoh, before giving him a chance to let them go on his own. God gave him many chances that he rejected, and only after several times did God harden him from further repentance.

Finally, perhaps it was simply that God realized that after four hundred years of not knowing him, his people had to experience his power firsthand many, many times. He knew that they would soon be in the desert facing trials, and would lose faith quickly enough. He knew they would be there for forty years before reaching the Promised Land, and they needed strong memories to sustain them. He also knew that humans often think they’ve learned a lesson when they need to repeat it many times. He was instilling in his people a sense of his power that would sustain them for the millennia ahead.

Photocred: J. M. W. Turner and Riccadov

The Hardening Heart

by Lois Tverberg

The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said. – Exodus 8:19

Pharaoh StatueMany of us struggle with the fact that God said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that God could bring all ten plagues on Egypt before he finally would free the Israelites. It seems like Pharaoh might be innocent pawn which God callously manipulates.

It helps to examine the story more closely. The idea of “hardening the heart” is mentioned twenty times in the Exodus story. The text says ten times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and ten times that God hardened it. The first time that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was in the sixth plague, after Pharaoh had already had five chances to change his mind. With each plague that Pharaoh ignored, it showed that he cruelly cared nothing of the misery of his subjects.

After the third plague, Pharaoh’s magicians declared that the plague of gnats were the “finger of God” – meaning that they were up against something mightier than anything they’d ever known. But in spite of the fact that it was irrational to think that he could defeat this God, Pharaoh refused to yield. At this point, it seems to have become a test of wills between Pharaoh, who considered himself a god, and the real God. Because Pharaoh was understood to be a god himself, his will was absolutely supreme. All decisions of his were uncontested because he held all authority. The fact that God was in control over his power of decision showed that God was ultimately supreme even over him.

We can learn a valuable lesson from this too. When we fall into sin, God is generous with his offers to repent, but at a certain point, our hearts become hardened because of our own desires. As the rabbis used to say, “When sin starts out, it is weak like a spider’s web, but then it becomes as strong as an iron chain.” We should examine ourselves and repent before sin has hardened our wills to the point where we can no longer turn back.

Photocred: Captmondo

The Finger of God

by Lois Tverberg

But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. And the gnats were on men and animals. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” …. Exodus 8:18-19

When Pharaoh’s magicians convincingly imitated the first two plagues of turning the Nile to blood and producing frogs, Pharaoh had reason to be confident that he could defeat the God who produced these signs. But at the third plague, the magicians were confounded when they saw gnats created from the dust. They declared. “This is the finger of God!”

Plagues of EgyptThey meant that this was the sign of a power far, far greater than they could conjure up. Often God’s power or intervention is described metaphorically by using words like God’s “arm” or God’s “hand.” God’s “finger” also refers to his power or intervention. God is so mighty that all he had to use was his littlest finger to defeat the powers of the magicians in Egypt!

Interestingly, this phrase also comes up in the life of Jesus, and it is in a similar context. Jesus was being challenged by what means he was casting out demons, with the accusation that he was using satanic powers to do so. He replied:

…But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils. Luke 11:21-22

Why did he use the phrase “finger of God”? The situation here is similar to that in Exodus. Moses was in a battle against the gods of Egypt and they were defeated by the “finger of God.” Similarly, Jesus was in a battle with the powers of darkness and was defeating them by God’s power. God’s kingdom was arriving with such great power that with its littlest finger it could vanquish Satan and set people free.

Artist of photo: John Martin

Starting Out Small

by Lois Tverberg

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said. – Exodus 7:10-13

It is fascinating that the first sign that God gave Moses to show Pharaoh God’s power is so weak as to be almost humorous. Pharaoh had imagined that the God of Israel was one of the small gods of other nations, and assumed his powerful gods could easily defeat him. This first story sounds like that is the impression that God wants him to start off with, too, initially.

Egyptian DeathmaskGod told Aaron to throw down his staff so that it changed into a snake, fully knowing that the Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same thing. They must have smirked when they saw it, recognizing it from their bag of standard warm-up stunts and laughing to themselves at how easy it would be to replicate. It’s like God was lobbing a slow pitch over the plate for an easy swing – something to draw the attention of the spiritual powers that there was a new “god” in town who
had wandered into their territory.

Interestingly, the word to describe the snake is different that what one would expect. The typical word for snake was nahash (nah-HAHSH), but this was a tanin, (tah-NEEN) a larger reptile, possibly describing the hooded cobra of the Nile. The cobra is the snake-god associated with Pharaoh’s powers as king, the one seen in the golden headdress and masks of Pharaohs in Egypt. The magicians were able to produce it too, either by sleight of hand or by some occult powers.

It is interesting that when God interacts with humans, even his enemies, he starts out in such a humble way, like a baby laid in a manger. He begins by looking a lot like what was around, like one teacher among many, one Galilean carpenter in the crowd. Only later will his full power be displayed.

Photocred: Erik Hooymans

A Bridegroom of Blood

by Lois Tverberg

But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched [Moses’] feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) – Exodus 4:25-26

One of the strangest stories in the Bible is when Moses and his wife and son return to Egypt after God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go. The original Hebrew text is difficult to interpret, and it is not clear whether Moses’ life or his son’s life was in danger, and who was touched with the blood. Commentators believe that this may have been part of a longer story handed down orally that the ancient audience was assumed to know.

A few keys can help us see the point of the story, though. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the visible mark of the commitment between the people of Israel and God. God seems to require this sign before fulfilling covenantal promises. With Abraham, even though God appeared to him years before he was called to circumcise his family, it was only after he did so that Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, the promised son. Similarly, God had called Moses at the bush, but now before God can use him to fulfill his covenant, he must come under the covenant himself.

A new understanding of the word translated “bridegroom” also clarifies the passage. In Hebrew, the word hatan commonly means “bridegroom.” But in Akkadian and Arabic, two closely-related languages to Hebrew, the word means “protected” or “circumcised.” This passage may have been using a less common definition of hatan, so Zipporah would have said “You are protected by blood,” instead of “a bridegroom of blood.” (1)

The surrounding text also gives some insight. Immediately before this story are the words that God gave Moses for Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.” (Ex. 4:22-23) This is a prophecy of the coming of the plague of the death of the firstborn that will allow the Israelites to go free. The Israelites were protected from judgment by the blood of the lamb daubed on their doorposts. This story seems to be a foreshadowing of that event, showing that Moses’ own son was protected by blood as well. The word for “touched” is the same as that used for daubing the blood of the lambs on the doorposts, suggesting that this is the case.

All this points to the idea that in ancient ways of thinking, God was communicating that salvation from judgment only comes from being protected by blood. Through this strange story, we can see into the future, to the need for the shedding of the blood of Jesus as well.

(1) Sarna, N., The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 26.

Known By What I Do

by Lois Tverberg

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites … and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am – This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” Exodus 3:13-14

Burning BushWhen God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and Moses asked his name, God revealed many things about his nature through what he said. His answer likely was not what Moses expected, because God is so utterly unlike the gods that Moses had encountered. Other gods had names that were nouns, like “Molech” (actually Melech, meaning “King”) or “Baal,” meaning “Master,” or perhaps descriptive names like “Lucifer” meaning, “Light Bearer,” or “Baal Zebul” meaning “Exalted Lord.”

God didn’t use an adjective to describe himself, or a noun to represent himself, the usual ways to make a name. Instead, he used a future-oriented verb phrase that literally reads, “am that am” or “will be that will be.” Then he says that Moses should tell the people, literally, that “will be” has sent him, and proclaims that “will be” is his name forever. (The pronoun “I,” ani or anochi, is not actually present, but the verb is the conjugation for the first person, so the “I” is inferred.)

Why in the world would God use this name to describe himself? A number of observations can be made. One is that the very form of the name shows how very much unlike God is from any other god humans have ever known. Other gods liken themselves to human kings or lords, but this God does not – he is incomprehensible and indescribable. Just as his sanctuary was devoid of images or idols, his name also does not offer a likeness for us to describe him.

The verb that he uses, “to be,” has several significant aspects. It doesn’t just describe something existent, but can be more active, as if to say “I cause,” meaning, “I am your cause” or “I cause you to exist.” It is also likely a reminder of the reassurance that God gave Moses when he was going to Pharaoh – “I will be with you.” God is the God who will be with his people. This is ultimately God’s goal – to dwell among his people forever.

One other way of reading his name seems to be especially significant. It could be read as “I will be known by what I do,” and this is really what seems to be most fitting for how God reveals himself to us. He didn’t just describe himself to Moses, or appear in a big cloud to impress his people. Instead he redeemed his people from slavery, fed them daily, protected them from enemies, and brought them to the promised land. One day he will most fully reveal himself when he redeems the world through the death and resurrection of Christ on the cross.

Photocred: Itai