If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
8 March. Wisdom chapters 16-19
These four chapters concluding the book are all about the Plagues of Eqypt and the beginning of the Exodus. The story is re-told in vivid poetic language as the writer imagines what it was like for the Egyptians to feel God’s displeasure and suffer the many effects of the plagues, while the people of Israel were unaffected. Indeed they were particularly blessed: protected from the venom of snakes by the bronze serpent on a pole (later understood as representing the healing power of Christ); protected from the destroying angel (here identified as the Word of God, 18:15, again a name for Christ); given a pillar of fire to lead them while the Egyptians had been terrified by darkness; and fed manna and quail in the desert while the Egyptians went hungry.
Interestingly, the writer imagines not so much physical suffering as psychological trauma, as they become terrified of the darkness by day, and mourn for their firstborn sons and the drowned army. When disaster strikes and the natural reaction is fear, he says, it quickly becomes apparent who is trusting in God (and can therefore face these things calmly) and who does not (and quickly panics when their means of psychological support is taken away) – “Fear is nothing other than the abandonment of reason; the less you rely within yourself on these, the more alarming it is not to know the cause of your suffering” (17:11-12).
Of course nothing is so clear-cut in real life: some people with strong faith in God may still be of a nervous disposition, and vice-versa. But one of the themes running through the Bible, and this book in particular, is that God is the rock, the fortress, the solid and dependable support in all circumstan
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20/21 January. Exodus chapters 7-12
These chapters cover the plagues of Egypt, in which God, through the prophesies spoken by Aaron and the symbolic actions of Moses, brought one disaster after another on the Egyptians, initially sparing the political leaders but increasingly affecting them too. But each time Pharaoh either refused the request to let the Hebrews go, or else reneged on his promise. Only the last and most dreadful plague – the death of every firstborn child and animal – persuaded Pharaoh to agree to the ‘repatriation’ request. This has echoes for me of two contemporary situations:
Firstly, the increase of negative attitudes or even hostility towards immigrants in Britain, especially since the Brexit vote. Not only illegal immigrants, but those who have come legally from within or without the EU to work, and those born here of foreign parents, find themselves the subject of hate, discrimination or even violence. That of course is incompatible with a Christian understanding of equality and love of neighbour. But what strikes me is the contrast between those in the UK who want immigrants to “go home” even when they are working and living peacefully here, and pharaoh who refused to let an increasingly troublesome immigrant group leave the country when they wanted to! It seems that actually he valued and needed their labour to keep the economy going. Presumably they were doing the jobs that Egyptians would not do – making bricks, rearing sheep and goats, and probably many other back-breaking or dirty jobs. And they were indispensable (though underpaid). Whereas the immigrants who do such jobs in our country – also often underpaid and living in poor conditions and sometimes even as slaves – are regarded with scorn. If they do leave (willingly or otherwise) who will do their jobs? And whose side will God be on?
The other aspect of the story is Pharaoh who saw the plagues and knew that the Hebrews (or their god) were causing them, and yet refused to acknowledge the damage the plagues were causing to his people – water pollution, infestations, disease, extreme weather, crop failure and increased mortality – until they hit his own family directly. This week the new president of the USA is a known ‘climate change denier’ who has appointed another such man to head the Environment Protection Agency. What will it take for these people to acknowledge the impact that mankind’s activities are having on our fellow humans and the wider environment? Will it take the death of their own children? I hope not. But change they must.