—•—What did the first nine plagues ever do for us?—•—
Preparing to come out of bondage and into an inheritance is no easy step. We should not underestimate the effect of the first nine plagues in preparing the way for the exodus. It is quite obvious that those plagues had the beneficial effect, as far as the Israelites were concerned of softening up the Egyptians. Yes, Pharaoh’s heart was still hard but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptian people were as resolute or as strong after nine plagues as they were at the beginning of them. The picture the Bible gives us is of a nation ruined by what the plagues had wrought on them.
We don’t need to look any further than the complete and utter freedom that the Israelites enjoyed to keep the first Passover to see how much had changed during the course of the nine plagues. How, during the bricks-without-straw era, would the Israelites have been able to stage such an act? The Egyptians would have been down on them like the oppressor nation that they were but not any more.
Psalm 76:5 ‘The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep;
all the men of war were unable to use their hands.’
Egypt still had the power to keep the Israelites there and the power to destroy but the power to enforce labour from them had been destroyed and it had been destroyed by the first nine plagues. However, only looking at one side of this equation will miss a very important lesson. The first nine plagues had an effect on the Israelites as well.
Just consider what the Israelites were like before the nine plagues, during the time of bricks-without-straw. A more pathetic people can hardly be imagined than those in Exodus 6:9 who ‘…did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery’ who complained that Moses and Aaron were the cause of their troubles. On the eve of the nine plagues there was not a sign that these slaves were about to be transformed into a martial nation. It isn’t that the people who left Egypt after the tenth plague were a fully-formed army but nonetheless, contrast those who ate the Passover with their belts fastened ready for action with their former selves when crushed under the weight of bondage and you get a glimpse of what the nine plagues did for Israel.
It is important to know that the Israelites did not start the period of bondage as unwilling to be led, unable to imagine things getting better and thoroughly demoralized. In fact when we consider the generation before Moses’s generation we find a very different picture is presented to us by the resistance that the Israelite women showed to Pharaoh. First of all we have the story of the Hebrew midwives and that contains the essence of the story of the other Israelite women within it.
15 • Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives,
one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
16 • “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women
and see them on the birthstool,
if it is a son, you shall kill him,
but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
17 • But the midwives feared God
and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them,
but let the male children live.
18 • So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them,
“Why have you done this, and let the male children live?”
19 • The midwives said to Pharaoh,
“Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,
for they are vigorous
and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
20 • So God dealt well with the midwives.
• And the people multiplied and grew very strong.
21 • And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
22 • Then Pharaoh commanded all his people,
“Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile,
but you shall let every daughter live.”
We generally concentrate on what the Hebrew midwives do in this story and the summary of our thinking is pretty much that God rewarded the midwives for disobeying Pharaoh and in spite of them deceiving Pharaoh. Now, since the disobedience and the deception are pretty much of a muchness, we are probably giving too much weight to our nice little equation that a lie is a lie is a lie and it is tempting just to defend the midwives as doing the best they were able in impossible circumstances — breaking the commandment, of course, but doing so legitimately because they were doing so not to lie for lying’s sake but to save lives. Put it this way, Pharaoh was a mortal enemy in the full meaning of the word ‘mortal’. His desire was to have rid of the Hebrew identity by eliminating all the male children at birth and it is perfectly righteous to deceive a mortal enemy.
Pharaoh was incredibly arrogant in his mortal oppression of the Hebrews. For a start he did not seem to see that he was attacking the whole reason for existence for the midwives but more than that, he doesn’t seem to get it that in attempting to kill the Hebrew sons he was attacking Hebrew motherhood. His total disregard for women was at the root of the downfall of his dynasty because he did not take notice of a very fundamental linkage — that it would be, to put it in archetypal terms, the seed of the woman who would bruise the serpent’s head.
The midwives seem to have deduced, quite correctly, that the disdain that Pharaoh had towards their womanhood was derived from a disdain that he had for women in general so that, when they said, ‘the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.’ he was set up to believe them. It was entirely in character for Pharaoh to extend his genocidal plan to make it an obligation for all his people to drown the Hebrew boys. As soon as he did this, of course, it made his entire people the mortal enemies of the Hebrews and legitimately liable to deception.
However, no matter how great the temptation to use the Hebrew midwives as an example of the righteousness of deceiving a mortal enemy, there remains the difficulty that the vigour of the Hebrew women was an actual reality. If Pharaoh had checked he would have no doubt discovered that many of the Hebrew women were being delivered without the midwife being in attendance. The decadence of Egyptian womanhood was evident away back in the days when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph whereas these Hebrew women, including the midwives, looked back to Sarah who gave birth to the patriarch Isaac when she was in her nineties.
Now, it is a still a temptation to dwell now on the truthfulness of what the midwives said to Pharaoh, and draw out the lesson that when we are deceiving a mortal enemy, it is generally a good rule to be as truthful as possible in what we say to deceive. It isn’t that the midwives never assisted at the birth of a baby boy but when they gave a reason for their general inability to comply with Pharaoh’s demand they were demonstrating why there were many little Hebrew boys out there. With regard to the fact that they had, out of reverence for God, never killed a baby boy was a truth with which they were economical. In their reply to Pharaoh they used as much of the truth as they could in order to deceive him utterly.
No, the lesson we take from the incident of the Hebrew midwives is that that generation of women could be favorably contrasted not only with their Egyptian contemporaries but also with their own sons on the eve of the plagues. Shiphrah and Puah were representatives of a galaxy of strong mothers-in-Israel in a day when they were called upon to be the first line of resistance to an attack on the very existence of Israel’s children.
One more name from that generation needs to be singled out. She was the daughter of one of the twelve sons of Jacob but born when he was old. Here is her generation as we find it recorded in Exodus 06[14-20]
14 • These are the heads of their fathers’ houses:
the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel:
Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi;
these are the clans of Reuben.
15 • The sons of Simeon:
Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar,
• and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman;
these are the clans of Simeon.
16 • These are the names of the sons of Levi
according to their generations:
Gershon, Kohath, and Merari,
the years of the life of Levi being 137 years.
17 The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, by their clans.
18 • The sons of Kohath:
Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel,
the years of the life of Kohath being 133 years.
19 • The sons of Merari:
Mahli and Mushi.
These are the clans of the Levites according to their generations.
20 • Amram took as his wife Jochebed his father’s sister,
• and she bore him Aaron and Moses,
• the years of the life of Amram being 137 years.
Note how the families of tribes of Reuben and Simeon are passed over quickly save that it is mentioned that Shaul was son of Simeon and ‘of a Canaanite woman.’ The families of the tribe of Levi are drawn out for one more generation to establish the families and, to give a rough chronology, three ages at death are given. The captivity in Egypt was long but the startling evidence of this text is that Jochebed the mother of Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, was the granddaughter of Jacob. It is difficult to make the figures add up precisely since we do not have ages of fathers at the birth of their sons to put beside their ages at death but however we stack the figures up it seems necessary for us to recognise that Jochebed was older than normal childbearing age when her children were born.
However it was that she got to take a place among the lively Hebrew women of Shiphrah’s and Puah’s generation, Jochebed was called on to give birth to her youngest child during the time when Pharaoh had given up on the midwives being able to dispatch the Hebrew boys and was calling on the Egyptians to do it. Let’s look at the strength of her resolve when her son was born:
1 • Now a man from the house of Levi went
and took as his wife a Levite woman.
2 The woman conceived and bore a son,
and when she saw that he was a fine child,
she hid him three months.
3 • When she could hide him no longer,
she took for him a basket made of bulrushes
and daubed it with bitumen and pitch.
• She put the child in it
and placed it among the reeds by the river bank.
4 And his sister stood at a distance
to know what would be done to him.
5 • Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river,
while her young women walked beside the river.
• She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman,
and she took it.
6 • When she opened it,
she saw the child,
and behold, the baby was crying.
She took pity on him and said,
“This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 • Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter,
“Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women
to nurse the child for you?”
8 • And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.”
• So the girl went and called the child’s mother.
Pharaoh’s disdain for women rises up to bite him once more in this story. We are presented with the story of three women here and we know the names of two of them from later on in the account. Jochebed and Miriam her daughter were beneath Pharaoh’s attention as Hebrew women, although it is possible that they were notable simply because of seniority in a major family. On the other hand, although Pharaoh’s daughter would have been known to him, we never know her name although she is responsible for naming Moses and for taking him into Pharaoh’s household. It is inconceivable that a son of Pharaoh’s would have been able to do this but an insignificant daughter was allowed to bring the one who would become the nemesis of the entire dynasty into the palace and sponsor his growing up there. What did it matter to Pharaoh if the Hebrew girls were allowed to live and what did it matter to him that his daughter wanted to amuse herself in this way?
If Pharaoh was aware that Moses was a Hebrew, it is fairly certain that he never entertained the thought that anyone would choose to align himself with a group of slaves when he had a place in the palace. Jochebed knew better and her choice of method to save the boy’s life shows that her trust was placed entirely in the God of history. Pharaoh wouldn’t even acknowledge the recent history of the salvation of his nation at the hand of the Hebrew slave, Joseph, but Jochebed’s preparation of the bulrush basket covered in tar shows a knowledge of the way that God preserved the human family, eight strong in the Ark, through the flood. The means that would have been used to destroy Moses was thus transformed into the means of his survival and the crying that would have given him away during the first three months of his existence now stirred up maternal instincts in Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses might have been called ‘the son of Pharaoh’s daughter’ but Jochebed knew — by the recognition that first saw that ‘he was a fine child’, by his preservation in the basket and by the answer to her prayers that he was returned to her to nurse — Jochebed knew that God had a purpose for Moses. How great her vision was we do not know but her struggle to preserve her son’s life is representative of the struggles of a whole generation. Their vigour, fear of God and resistance to the mortal enemy of their people would have had poor reward if the preserved generation had continued to be the beaten and ground-down bunch of slaves that wouldn’t listen to Moses eighty years later. But just as God provided the idea of the basket to Jochebed and the opportunity for Miriam to suggest to Pharaoh’s daughter that she fetch ‘a nurse from the Hebrew women,’ he also sent the nine plagues to strengthen Israel in the measure that they weakened Egypt.
Moses himself honored his mother with another mention of her name:
52 • The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
53 • “Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance
according to the number of names.
54 • To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance,
and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance;
every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its list.
55 • But the land shall be divided by lot.
• According to the names of the tribes of their fathers
they shall inherit.
56 • Their inheritance shall be divided
according to lot between the larger and the smaller.”
57 • This was the list of the Levites according to their clans:
of Gershon, the clan of the Gershonites;
of Kohath, the clan of the Kohathites;
of Merari, the clan of the Merarites.
58 • These are the clans of Levi:
the clan of the Libnites,
the clan of the Hebronites,
the clan of the Mahlites,
the clan of the Mushites,
the clan of the Korahites.
• And Kohath was the father of Amram.
59 The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed the daughter of Levi,
who was born to Levi in Egypt.
And she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister.
It tells us three things about Jochebed, that she was the daughter of Levi, that she was born in Egypt and that she bore her husband, Amram, three children. The first two facts make explicit what is implied elsewhere but note that the context here is all about inheritance. Inheritance is about patrimony and size, but we see here that it isn’t only about patrimony and size. Two things are very relevant. 1) God would control the lot that would select which tribe and family would inherit where and 2) mothers are important in sonship as well as fathers.
God gave the mothers in their tenacity the means to preserve their sons and he gave the nine plagues to turn these sons back into the sort of men that their mothers had wanted them to be. He uses means to guard his inheritance and to bring us into ours. These mothers-in-Israel were stirred up to do whatever it took to preserve life and bring their sons to the inheritance in the land that they, true daughters of Abraham, were looking for. We should not be surprised that God chose a mother, Mary, to bring a special child into the world and fight for his preservation, and that that son then did what it took to claim the inheritance on our behalf and bring many sons to glory.