Why did God choose plagues? In Exodus chapters 7-10, we read about liquid plagues, hopping plagues, flying plagues, buzzing plagues, animal dying plagues, skin plagues, weather plagues, lighting plagues, and finally, the straw that broke the Pharaoh’s back, people dying plagues.
But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it. [Exodus 7:3-5]
A cursory look at some commentaries indicates that many of the ten plagues appear to correspond with a particular “god” the Egyptians worshiped and in this way, Yahweh was demonstrating superiority over these gods. And certainly, if these miraculous plagues were intended to make a point, an indelible memory, they certainly did that. Although we may not remember all of the types of plagues or how many there were, most people have visceral reaction to one or more of the manifestations. (I’m glad he didn’t choose rats or spiders as I would be forever frozen at the thought of a teeming swarm of either. I barely recovered from the story of the Pied Piper as a child.)
But perhaps the most important aspect of these plagues to point out is that the plagues were explicitly devised to change the mind of Pharaoh and extract repentance. In this case, it took ten times.
How many times does God act to change me, to draw my attention to poor and selfish thinking, inappropriate behaviors, or simply, to sin? Am I equally stubborn?
In Pharaoh’s case, the letting go of the Israelites would alter Egypt’s way of life dramatically because slaves were cheap labor and there was plenty of it, in essence, the bedrock of that economy. He wasn’t just resisting God’s will, he was resisting change.
I just want to pay attention, that’s all. I don’t want to be a hard heart.
Plus, a hard heart can have collateral damage. In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, during the course of the two families bickering and fighting, it is Mercutio who is mortally wounded:
No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but ’tis enough,’twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I
am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’
both your houses! ‘Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I
was hurt under your arm. [Mercutio, Act 3, Scene 1]
Such family quarrels continue in our modern world and who suffers? Stubbornness has no victor.
In Shakespeare’s tale, many more die, but in particular, both Romeo and Juliet lose their lives, choosing out of misplaced loyalty, somehow taught by their feuding families. In Pharaoh’s time, he lost his firstborn son, before he let go. But even that, was not the end of his stubborn, single-minded story.
God works in mysterious ways to bend the earth and its peoples to God’s will. For the best. And unfortunately, it appears we, as a human race, are feeling some of those plagues today. How many more tragedies and how many more deaths will we endure before we respond humanely to one another? Or will we continue to blame one another because of the color of our skin or history of our faiths or the geography of our land?