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God vs. Pharaoh

I know a number of you are reading the Bible through this year according the plan I shared at the start of the New Year. If you are then you started in Exodus (we will read Genesis during Great Lent). Exodus is a great story! Perhaps you have never read it before, even if you are familiar with the story from DeMille’s famous film The Ten Commandments. Even from the movie a number of the key themes of Exodus are clear, but reading the biblical narrative makes these and many others stand out even more clearly.

One of these themes is the battle between God - the Lord - and Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. You are probably aware that in the ancient world is was common for kings to be considered divine - gods - in some sense of the term. So when Moses comes from his encounter with the Lord at the burning bush to give the word of the Lord to Pharaoh that he must let the Israelites go into the wilderness to keep feast with God, the battle lines are set. Pharaoh does not know this strange wilderness God of the Hebrews and he is not inclined to heed his word. In fact, after the first meeting with Moses Pharaoh tells his advisers to ignore Moses’ word and to make the Hebrew slaves work even more arduous: “Let the tasks of these people be made heavy, and let them be preoccupied with these things and let them not be preoccupied by empty words.”

Here, right here, is Pharaoh’s problem: he believes the words of Moses - which is the word of the Lord - to be “empty words.” They are, he believes, words without content, words without force, words that are simply a sound in the air.

But nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, one of the major theological truths of the Bible from beginning to end is precisely that the word of the Lord is powerful, that it is full of force and divine action, and that what the Lord says is, to put it simply, the way things really are. These are no mere human words, spoken perhaps as a mere wish or hope or even a falsehood (which is, by the way, why lying is a sin, because it is a dis-junction between a word and the intention behind it; a falsehood, an untruth). What the Lord says is how things truly and really are. The word of the Lord is, then, quite simply, Truth and Life.

Consider the creation in Genesis. The Lord speaks and what he speaks is. Likewise, the commandments of God are not simply suggestions or helpful moral or spiritual prescriptions that persons might follow if they are so inclined, but rather they indicate what is truth, how God is and how we are to be to align ourselves with Truth. And thus to deviate from the word of the Lord is not simply to break a rule or even a divine law but to depart into falsehood and to live a lie. And this lie is always the beginning of death.

So when Pharaoh calls the word of the Lord empty, he quite simply has aligned himself with the lie and with death. His kingdom, likewise, is built upon the lie that he is a god and that his word is final. But as he will learn (unfortunately the hard way) this is terribly wrong. For this unknown Hebrew God is, as it turns out, not just another god of some strange wilderness locale, but He is rather the one, true, and living God, maker of heaven and earth. And when Pharaoh goes to war against him he is pitting himself, not merely against some other god of some other place, but against the One whom no one, no evil, no power, can finally withstand.

It is interesting that we are reading Exodus right now, because Pharaoh reminds us of another ruler that we heard about at Nativity, Herod. Like Pharaoh, Herod was threatened by the birth of a baby. Pharaoh rejected the word of the Lord and Herod, when he was told from the scriptures of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, again like Pharaoh went so far as to kill a whole host of male children.

Both of these rulers typify what we read in Psalm 2:

Why have the heathen raged,

and the peoples meditated empty things?

The kings of the earth were aroused,

and the rulers were assembled together,

against the Lord, and against His Christ.

“Let us break their bonds asunder,

and let us cast away their yoke from us.

”Both of them would have done better had they heeded the final words of the psalm:

And now, O ye kings, understand;

be instructed, all ye that judge the earth.

Serve ye the Lord with fear,

and rejoice in Him with trembling.

Lay hold of instruction,

lest at any time the Lord be angry,

and ye perish from the righteous way.

When quickly His wrath be kindled,

blessed are all that have put their trust in Him.

Brothers and sisters, let us not join with Pharaoh and Herod, making war against the Lord, insisting on our own way and path. Rather, let us “lay hold of instruction” - aligning our hearts and our whole lives with the word of the Lord - Truth and Life-, walking in his commandments all the days of our life.

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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