Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.
Exodus 11:5-6 (NRSVCE)
The past few months of COVID shut-downs have been strange on a number of levels. For being non-athletic, creative types, Wendy and I both enjoy watching and avidly following certain sports and teams. We also have the shows we avidly watch. It’s been strange to have so little to watch. Not necessarily bad, mind you. I confess we’ve gotten a lot of things done that have been on the task list for way too long. I’m just recognizing how often we look forward to certain games or new episodes of a certain series.
Game of Thrones was a series to which I was late to the party. Wendy had no interest and I didn’t want to pay for HBO or for each year’s series on DVD. It was a ridiculous Black Friday deal for all but the last season on DVD that gave me many wonderful months of binging while on the road for work.
One of the hallmarks of the Game of Thrones series was the quality of the villains. I can’t think of another series with more despicable characters whom I wanted to get their just desserts and (I confess) die in despicable ways. The writers knew how to create characters I loved to hate, and how to keep me as an audience member passionately desiring a villain’s demise so for so long that when the climax finally arrived it was oddly satisfying in somewhat creepy ways.
Today’s chapter is a climactic point in the Exodus story, though I find it easy to lose sight of this fact. I think that it’s a combination of breaking up the narrative in small daily chunks, translating it into English from an ancient language, and the fact that the ancients weren’t exactly George Martin or Stephen King when it comes to crafting the narrative.
The final plague on Pharaoh and Egypt is the death of every Egyptian first-born, which feels rather heinous on the surface of things as we read with the eyes of 21st-century mindset. There are a couple of important parallels in this story which, I can’t allow myself to forget this, is at its heart about an enslaved, oppressed people being freed from their chains.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians have all the earthly power. They have the absolute authority, socio-economic status, and a system completely rigged in their favor. The Hebrews have one respected leader (Moses, who was raised an Egyptian member of Pharaoh’s household) and this mysterious God who has come out of a burning bush to reveal Himself as the One underdog champion of the oppressed Hebrews against over 1500 Egyptian deities.
[cue: Rocky’s Theme]
Pharaoh has just threatened Moses with death, but Moses informs his nemesis that it is his first-born son (always the favored-one in ancient Patriarchal systems) who will die. I believe most parents would say that losing a child is worse than dying yourself. Pharaoh and the God of Moses have already gone nine exhausting rounds. This plague is the knockout punch. At the very beginning of the story, it was established that the Hebrew slaves cried out in their suffering, and God heard their cries. Now, God proclaims through Moses, it will be Pharaoh and the Egyptian oppressors who will “cry out” in their suffering.
In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about my African-American brothers and sisters. Historically, it’s easy to see why the Exodus story has always resonated with African-Americans. Wendy and I just watched the movie Harriett a few weeks ago. “Grandma Moses” led her people to freedom. The heinous videos of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd (a brother in Christ) haunt me. The Moses story will always be relevant in a fallen world where broken earthly systems favor some people and not others.
As I meditate on these things, Jesus’ first recorded message echoes in my spirit:
[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Some mornings my soul is overwhelmed with questions. Like Jacob, I find myself wrestling with God.