Exodus: Plagues and prohibitions

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The second book of the bible launches into the story of Moses. It very quickly bridges the gap between the story as we left it at the end of Genesis, (with the favoured Israelites living in the nicest part of Egypt) and the point where the story of Moses begins (with the descendants of those Israelites all fully enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh).

We begin with Moses’ birth. The story of the midwives is a masterpiece of subversive humour as the slave-race outwits the master-race (a similar sly humour pervades the story of the plagues). From there the text skips through his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household, to the story of his first attempt to take action in favour of his birth nation. Attempting to defend a fellow-Israelite, he kills an Egyptian, then flees in fear for his life. In the desert he encounters God in a burning bush1 and receives the commission to lead Israel out of slavery from Egypt to a distant promised land.

Ivan Aivazovsky Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea via Wikimedia Commons

Initially reluctant, Moses returns to Egypt, accompanied by Aaron.2 The narrative becomes an extended account of ten plagues, visited on Egypt in order of increasing severity, before Pharaoh agrees to let the Hebrew slaves go. This should probably be read like a black comedy with a very dark ending: Moses and Aaron call a plague of frogs on the land. The Egyptian magicians say, “We can do that too” and bring even more plagues of frogs on the land. Various kinds of literature telling the story of oppressed people work by poking fun at the oppressors.

Moses leads the people out through the sea,3 and the pursuing charioteers are drowned. As we have it, there are at least two, and probably three versions combined in our bible. In one version, the sea is driven back by a strong wind all night (e.g. Exodus 14:21). We only see occasional traces of that version. In the more famous and dominant version, Moses parts the sea to create a corridor of dry land with walls of water either side of it. Then there is a poetic version as the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, which emphasises God’s action even more strongly.

This is a key story that is read especially at Easter. Christian tradition has rather minimised the violence portrayed in it (the climax of this narrative of liberation), by reading it as a foreshadowing of the cross and resurrection. This is captured most strongly in the baptism liturgy, such as these words from the Anglican blessing of the water of baptism for Eastertide.

We thank you that through the waters of the Red Sea
you led your people out of slavery
to freedom in the Promised Land.
We thank you that through the deep waters of death
you brought your Son,
and raised him to life in triumph

Seasonal blessing for Easter: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/christian-initiation/baptism-and-confirmation#mm031

Putting the two together highlights Easter as a moment of liberation, not from Egyptians, but from sin and death. It is our sins which are drowned, not Egyptian chariots. Christian imagery in worship often works like this, directing attention away from any literal or historical reference, to a spiritual meaning. Given the many pages some scholars have devoted to working out what, if any, historical event lies behind the developed stories, that may be just as well. Christian spiritual reading and liturgical use is not tied to any particular historical reconstruction.

Then, in the desert, the Israelites eventually camp at Mt Sinai. Moses goes up and meets with God, receives the laws the people are to live by, with the ten commandments prominent among them, comes down, and is horrified by what he finds. In his absence, the people have invented their own version of the story, and represented God by the statue of a bull, a relatively common symbol of divine power. By contrast, the God of Moses cannot be represented by carved images. This will become the most distinctive feature of Jewish worship.

In horror, Moses breaks the stones on which the law is written. Then having prayed for the people that God will give them a second chance, he returns up the mountain to get the ten commandments4 (or ten words, the Decalogue, as the text describes them – Exodus 34:28) written out on new stone tablets. Finally, according to the instructions God has given, they set up a temple under “canvas”5: the Tent of Meeting, and worship God according to the newly given law.

Various parts of this story occur as readings in the lectionary. It helps both to have an outline of how they fit into this rather lengthy narrative, and also an awareness that quite a lot of law has been collected together into this story.

At the heart of it is a pattern we see repeatedly in the scriptures. God acts on his people’s behalf, which is usually referred to as God’s grace. God then expects his people to respond in obedience. They fail, and the covenant needs to be restored; God’s grace is then experienced as forgiveness. This is a pattern shared by both Jew and Christian in scripture and in tradition, and articulated in our liturgies.


  1. This is a very important story in which Moses is given God’s name. I will write a separate post on it at the start of next week.
  2. It seems to be another sign of the way the editors collected different traditions and wove them together, that Aaron appears, without explanation, as Moses’ brother in the land of Midian, despite Moses’ family being part of the enslaved Hebrews population of Egypt.
  3. Exactly which body of water the story has in mind is not entirely clear. The traditional translation of “Red Sea” is misleading in that it doesn’t refer to what we call the Red Sea today. It might, as many translations indicate in footnotes, be translated Reed Sea – the sea where the reeds are abundant.
  4. In fact, it’s rather difficult to divide the commandments into ten. The churches of the Reformation follow Jewish numbering, which treats the commandment to have no other gods as one, and that to have no carved images as two. The Roman Catholic church, following St Augustine, treats those as one single commandment, and takes the commandment(s) on not coveting as the ninth and tenth commandments. See, for example, the Anglican and Roman Catholic versions.
  5. Canvas is of course our material for tents. Exactly what material the Israelites used is not fully clear. In Exodus 36 some tent-hangings are made of linen (v8) some of goats’ hair (v14), and some of leather (v19).

One thought on “Exodus: Plagues and prohibitions

  1. Pingback: When people called God by name – Liturgica

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