Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
Objections and Questions About God, Part Two

Another objection that might be raised against the biblical account of the Ten Plagues is the apparent infliction of suffering by God. The same objection is raised with respect to other events depicted in the Bible, for example, the Flood or warfare against the various enemies of Israel.

Setting aside for now the question of whether the Plagues constitute a "judgment" or "punishment" upon Egypt, or are merely an occasion for God to demonstrate His supremacy over the false gods of Egypt --

Should we be bothered or scandalized by God inflicting hardship and suffering on the people? Is God being unfair or unjust with respect to everyday Egyptians, who were innocent and had nothing to do with enslaving the Israelites or with Pharaoh's refusal to let them go? Or is whatever God does "just," no matter how unjust in human terms, because God is by definition all-good and just? Should God’s actions in Egypt lead us to alter our conception of what “God is Love” means?

Similarly, when God acts, it is the entirety of the Trinity who acts, such that Jesus Himself was involved in the infliction of the Plagues. But how can we reconcile that with our understanding of Jesus as the epitome of love?

Taking a closer look, can we really say that God is being unfair or unjust with respect to everyday Egyptians when they essentially acquiesced and joined in Pharaoh’s obstinate sin by not overthrowing him? Did they not also share in the fruits of the slave labor of the Israelites? By their eating that poisoned fruit and their failure to do the right thing and free the Israelites, do they not share in Pharaoh’s guilt?

Even if they were “innocent” bystanders, setting aside the final Plague, were the other Plagues so harsh and so excessive so as to be an injustice by God? Or is the fact that they were consistent with other naturally-occurring disasters mean that, although imposed by God, they were in line with what might be deemed to be reasonable punishment or chastisement?

And do not the repeated warnings that God gave before the coming of a given Plague eliminate any reasonable claim of injustice by God?

Besides, God showed that He was willing to save those who are not His people, including those who were officials of Pharaoh, if they began to believe in Him, as in the case of the Plague of hail. (Exodus 9:19-20) Moreover, when, at Pharaoh's request, Moses prays to God to lift a given plague, God does so.

While pondering the accusation of unjust infliction of suffering by God, which admittedly might be supported by a superficial reading of the text, let us ask this as well:

Why did God not simply destroy Egypt? Why did He not simply wipe everyone out at the very beginning, so that the Israelites could leisurely walk out of Egypt?

Compare God’s approach concerning Pharaoh and Egypt with His approach concerning the Amalekites, the arch-enemies of Israel, who sought to prevent the Israelites from entering the Promised Land, thus incurring “God’s wrath” and His command to exterminate them. Is it because Amalek is an outright barrier to the salvation of God’s people, while Pharaoh is merely an oppressor and obstinate sinner?

Take note that Egypt was a provider of refuge for Abraham and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Consequently, would not God be favorably disposed toward Egypt? Is the lesson to be learned that God does not merely want to destroy the oppressor, but to convert him, giving him many opportunities to do so?

Moses and Aaron and the Israelites are the People of God. But we would do well to remember that Pharaoh and the Egyptians -- indeed, all the oppressors of the world -- are God's children too. As His children, He loves them too. Just as He gives us many, many opportunities to repent, so to did He give Pharaoh many chances to do the right thing. God did not strike him down immediately, He did not destroy Egypt with one blow the first time, but only upon the tenth time.

Taking all of the above into consideration, rather than concluding that God unjustly inflicted disproportionate suffering on innocent people, is not the better reading of the text that God instead dealt with Pharaoh patiently and treated Egypt mercifully?

Jesus said to pray for those who persecute you. Do we not see this with Moses praying on behalf of Pharoah to lift the plagues?

Jesus said to love your enemies. Taking a deeper look at the scriptural passages on the Ten Plagues -- which show God being patient, giving opportunities to convert, and mostly inflicting hardships that are consistent with nature -- do not these passages demonstrate that God did exactly that, love the Egyptians, the enemy of the Israelites?

If we satisfy ourselves with a superficial reading of scripture, merely taking the text at face-value, we run the risk of making a grievously wrong interpretation. But if we poke and prod and ask questions, seeking a deeper understanding, an understanding consistent with the Love and Truth of God, then we will discover the true and proper meaning.

Next: Was God dishonest? Did He have Moses lie to Pharaoh?

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