Abide: Exodus 7-13
God delivers us. That’s one of the central takeaways of Exodus’s story. But what do we do to ensure that we remember that takeaway? In this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast, we discuss what it means to hold on in the face of adversity, to remember the actions that ensure our temporal and spiritual salvation, and much more.
God delivers us. That’s one of the essential takeaways of Exodus’s story. But what do we do to ensure that we will remember that take away? In this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast we discuss what it means to hold on in the face of adversity, to remember the actions that ensure our temporal and spiritual salvation, and much more. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the institute and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are joined by one of our research assistants, Joanna Olsen, a Pre-Business Major here at BYU from Fort Collins, Colorado. After Joanna graduates she plans to go to grad school to go into Medical Administration.
Joseph Stuart: Welcome to the podcast, Joanna.
Joanna Olsen: Thank you.
Joseph Stuart: We are so glad that you’re here. Krisitan, we are discussing Exodus chapters 7-13 today. What’s going on in this block of scripture?
Kristian Heal: So up to this point, Moses’s first attempts to convince Pharaoh to let Israel go have failed. Now in these chapters, God plans to send plagues upon Egypt until Pharaoh is convinced to let Israel leave. After the tenth and most terrible plague, Pharaoh finally sends Israel away. Scholars see within this story a composite of Exodus narratives. The story is certainly carefully constructed with the plagues organized in triplets, each including certain elements such as God sending Moses to Pharaoh early in the morning to announce the first plague, and each triplet God informing Moses of the lesson to be learned, and warnings to Pharaoh before the first two plagues in each set. With each set of plagues, the needle of belief moves a little. After the second plague, Pharaoh concedes but changes his mind. After the third plague, the magicians declare, “This is the finger of God.” After the fourth, Pharaoh again concedes to let the people go and worship, and again reneges on his offer, a pattern that is repeated again and again. As we read these chapters it’s important to bear in mind that the request to Pharaoh is to let the people go all together with their flocks to worship God in the wilderness three days away from Egypt, not to leave Egypt all together. Pharaoh seems justifiably concerned in his responses, and in his attempt to renegotiate the terms of the demand, that this is just an excuse for Israel to leave permanently. God seems to be acting with some of the trickery of the patriarchs and their wives here. There is also the interesting element of Israel borrowing precious things from the Egyptians, which Joanna is going to speak to us about later in the episode. There are curious elements in the story to be sure. The message however, is clear. God is about to deliver his people by an outstretched arm and awesome power and by signs of importance. The terrible slaughter of the first-born Egyptians that finally precipitated the departure of Israel from Egypt seems, in part at least, to serve the same function as Moses killing the Egyptian overseer. After that, there is no going back to Egypt.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for sharing that Kristian. While you were going over that summary it made me think about how hard it can be to let go of the narratives that have defined us for a very long time. So for instance, for Latter-day Saints we continue to think about Pioneer Day and when pioneer settlers came into the Salt Lake Valley. Or thinking about moments of persecution, as well like Hawn’s Mill in Missouri or just Missouri in general. And so I’m curious, for these ancient Israelites, why is it so hard to let go?
Kristian Heal: I really was struck by this question too actually, in looking at this particular narrative. And came across this wonderful quotation from John Maynard Keynes, which is in the preface to his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. It seems like an unlikely place to come across a quotation that can help us understand Exodus, but in it he observes an important general truth. He says, “The composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle of escape, and so must the reading of it be for most readers if the author’s assault upon them is to be successful. A struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression. The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously, are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones which have been ramified, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” So the story of the Exodus from Egypt is not simply a story of physical departure, but of the ability and inability to escape from old ideas. Some things are just too hard to let go of, and so we get caught like the monkey in the proverbial monkey trap. Because we cannot let go of bad ideas, habits, prejudices, ways of living, we get stuck, unable to escape. And this, it seems to me, is what is meant by the frequent use of the stubbornness, the heard heartedness, the stiffening of Pharaoh’s heart in these chapters in the book of Exodus. Pharaoh was caught in the monkey trap, which is the image of a monkey with its hand in a cut out coconut shell or something that grabs the thing that it wants and then cannot leave without letting go of the thing that it has. So Pharaoh is caught in this monkey trap with his hand around the people of Israel, unable to let them go, why? Well the text suggests that one of the reasons he’s unable to let them go is because of the way of life enabled by their abundance of cheap labor. Or maybe it was a misplaced belief in his own authority or in the power of his God. We don’t know exactly why he wasn’t able to let them go. But each time a plague would strike, his grip would loosen a little bit, but as the old ideas would take hold of him again, he would close his grip. “The difficulty lies,” said Keynes, “…not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”
Joseph Stuart: In this idea of the monkey trap, the monkey can see that if it would just let the object in its hand, often it’s a piece of food, that it could remove its hand so that it can get away and do whatever it needed to to survive. But in these experiments, these animals with their hands in the trap and lose their lives because they refuse to let go of that thing that they think they want more than anything else. It just seems really important to me that they can see what they’re doing is wrong, and yet they continue to do it.
Kristian Heal: J.B. Halls, who’s a professor here in Church History and Doctrine, gave a talk recently in which he posed the question, why do we not believe the things we can see? It’s a lovely variation on the ideas of faith, believing the things we can’t see. But it seems, like these monkeys, that we often have an inability to believe the things that we can actually see. So initially, Pharaoh simply did not believe that the plagues came from God. His magicians could do the same things. But when they sort of petered out in their capacity to do those things, it became clear that something divine, out of this world was acting in his country. So he saw, but he did not believe what he saw because he couldn’t escape from his old ideas. He could not embrace the new idea of a world in which divinely originated plagues were happening. So again and again, God acted in the world in order to teach a specific lesson to Pharaoh and Egypt. And again and again, they refused to believe what they saw. They refused to accept the new idea that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was present in the world and acting with unmatched power on behalf of his people.
Joseph Stuart: I think also too, we can read this narrative and think “oh Pharaoh, so shortsided, can’t understand what’s going on,” we need to learn to read against the grain or to say what is it like to learn from the other person’s perspective, to liken that part of the scriptures to ourselves because we scoff at Pharaoh and later the ancient Israelites for ignoring the miracles that are happening before them but we’re not really so different than they are.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, it’s true.
Joanna Olsen: I think that one of the key parts to this is that any sort of change is going to require some level of discomfort. And so for Pharaoh, he could keep living the way he has lived for so long, and keep the Israelites working for him. But going against that would require some level of discomfort and that would require trusting in God. So whenever we are asked to give up something, we can expect a little level of discomfort, but we need to trust that God knows better and that God will do what’s best for us.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think that you’re right there Joanna, this idea of not being able to accept the discomfort that comes from change. We see this in ancient Israel. As soon as there is some discomfort they immediately want to rush back to Egypt. Let’s just go back there, at least there was food there, at least there was water there. And so even though there was this series of miracles with food appearing miraculously, water springing from rocks, a staff that could cure these venomous snakes bites. It was difficult for Israel even to let go of their old ways and difficult for them to grab hold of something else. This line from Keynes just keeps going through my mind, “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” I certainly feel that in my own life that this is one of the reasons I struggle so often to believe what I can see and to let go of my old ideas and submit wholeheartedly to God.
Joseph Stuart: I think what goes along with this is the act of remembering, which also includes the act of forgetting. What do we choose to remember in the narratives that we tell about ourselves and what do we choose to forget. For instance, a lot of folk including myself will say “oh, what about the good ol’ times when this was happening,” forgetting all of the bad things that were happening. It’s a form of nostalgia to look at the past and say oh, things were so much better then, not recognizing all of the difficulty that went with it. This is something that historians of memory speak about all the time, including our friend, Steve Harper in his book on the First Vision, or another friend of the institute, Rachel Gross, who speaks about creating a memory of nostalgia for American Jews in the 20th century. What does it mean to remember the Exodus narrative for us and for the ancient Israelites at that time?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s really a great way to frame that question because we do have a sense that there are things that we find easy to remember and things that we find difficult to remember. And one of the things that God does in this narrative, it imposes right on the ancient Israelites in this moment, is a way to commemorate his great act of deliverance. And so the tenth plague that’s going to precipitate their freedom is framed by this sacrificial banquet because we think of this primarily in terms of the blood that’s put on the door post, which is a sign to mark the destroying angel would pass the Israelites by. But something else is happening here, something really important. And what is happening is God is instituting a way to memorialize this action in the life of Israel. Zakor et yom, remember this day, Moses said to the people of Israel. So from this point forward, remembering actually becomes a sacred element of Jewish life and ritual. Particularly, remembering the moment of Exodus which actually marks the beginning of an entirely new way of imagining the year. This becomes the beginning of the new liturgical year, or way of reimagining time and space for Israel from this point forward.
Joseph Stuart: This is something that ritual studies scholars like Katherine Bell speak about as well, and J.Z. Smith, which is to think about how creating rituals, especially around time, not only allow us to remember the good things in this case, God’s deliverance of ancient Israelites, but also to forget that they had been enslaved, that they were a free people loved and protected by the Lord.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, and the way that they did that here is to commemorate, retell, and reenact the story and create a ritual that allowed them to do that. And in the post-Biblical period what happened is the development of the Seder meal with a narrative that accompanied it, and that narrative came down to us what as known as the Passover Haggadah. This is a liturgical text used at this seder to remember this defining event. And it’s a wonderful and rich text containing narrative, instruction, and commentary, and the potency of it is the way that the Passover Haggadah is the way that it personalizes the narrative. It personalizes the story. This is not about something remote. This is not an event which is simply in the past. This becomes an event which is about us, in terms of Jews of successive generations. At the end of the recitation of the story of Exodus, in the Passover Haggadah, it reads as follows, “In every generation, one is required to see oneself as if he or she had gone out of Egypt. As it is said, it is because of what Adonni did for me when I went free from Egypt. Not only our ancestors were redeemed by the Holy One, blessed be he, but we were also redeemed by him.” So this sense of living into these events in successive generations is part of the way that this story becomes a mechanism for identity formation for becoming a part of this people. We see the same thing in the Torah, towards the end in Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are again admonished to remember. And this passage, which is part of the festival of weeks from Deuteronomy 26:5-9, is also incorporated in the Passover Haggadah and it reads, “My father was a fugitive Aramean,” talking about Abraham, “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there but there, he became a very great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us. They imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression, the Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power and by signs importance bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” So immediately notice here the first person pronouns. My father dealt harshly with us, oppressed us, imposed heavy labor upon us, our plea, our plight, our misery. This history, this memory becomes present and personal in the retelling. “In every generation one is required to see oneself as if he or she had gone out of Israel.” I think this is why Exodus is the defining event in Jewish history and the defining event in Jewish identity.
Joseph Stuart: Well, so how as we as Latter-day Saints read this then? Because we always want to be respectful of other people’s stories, of other people’s traditions. We can’t always just read ourselves into the narratives. What should we do there?
Kristian Heal: Well I agree. I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to claim someone else’s stories or especially, their rituals. But, we can read them with respect, and their potency can infuse our stories and identities. So as Latter-day Saints we can do this in two ways. First, we commemorate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ each week in our sacrament meetings. So this is the passover event that we remember, and it’s the one that as we remember it, can shape our identity. I think the other way we do this is by focusing on our family’s history, our individual family histories. Why is this so important? It’s certainly good to remember our ancestors and vitally, we do this to offer them the benefits of saving ordinances through vicarious rituals. But perhaps, more importantly in the act of remembering our ancestors we get to live multiple lives as memories of our family’s past become part of our present and help shape our identity for the future. Their blessings become our blessings. Their deliverances, our deliverances. Their faith, our faith. I think this is one of the messages and the lessons we can learn from the Jewish experience of remembering.
Joseph Stuart: As the Israelites are planning to leave Egypt when Pharaoh finally lets the people go, they have to leave with something, they are an enslaved people. How does the Lord provide for them as they exit Egypt?
Joanna Olsen: The Lord, through Moses, gave very specific and intentional instructions to the children of Israel as they were leaving Egypt. Part of these instructions given after the tenth plague was for the Israelites to borrow clothing, which was very valuable at the time, as well as jewels of gold and silver from the Egyptians. When the Israelites did as they were commanded, the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they went unto them such things as they were required and they spoiled the Egyptians. This is another miracle that allowed the children of Israel to leave Egypt, but what was the purpose of this? Why did the Egyptians comply? And furthermore, was it just to take from the Egyptians? There are many different explanations as to why the Israelites would be commanded to do such a thing. One of such explanations is that the Egyptians had used their riches for evil. So the Lord deemed that it would be best used in the service of truth. Ancient Christian commentary reads, “Why will ye leave to the Egyptians and to the power of your adversaries that which they have gained by wickedness and will spend with yet greater wickedness? It does not belong to them.” In short the Egyptians supplied the treasures that they were not using properly. An alternate theory is that it was needed to provide materials for the tabernacle. Another reason was for the Lord to show his complete solidarity to the children of Israel. Not only did he deliver Israel, but he also plundered Egypt. Due to the ambiguity of the wording in the Bible, it is unclear as to what the real reasoning for the Egyptians to give over their treasure is. In the Bible it reads that, “The children of Israel shall all treasures from the Egyptians.” But in Hebrew, the word used could mean borrow or ask. It is unclear as to whether the children of Israel asked the Egyptians and they complied on their own, or if the children of Israel were compelled to borrow the riches without asking. Furthermore the Egyptians could have other motives for giving their riches to the children of Israel. It could have been that they had neighborly feelings toward old acquaintances. Fear could also be a motivating factor as getting the children of Israel what they wanted would speed up their departure from Egypt, and thus end any future plague. Another interpretation is that the hearts of the Egyptians were changed by God and the giving was because God has supernaturally caused the Egyptians to think collectively along these lines, causing them to give willingly even though it was not what they would normally do.
Joseph Stuart: So that’s a lot of theories and I’m really glad that you ran that through for us that we can think so creatively when we’re reading the scriptures to try and anticipate why something might have happened. That sense of sacred imagination is more than just putting ourselves in the ancient Israelites shoes, but in flipping the narrative and trying to understand what the Egyptians may have been thinking as well.
Joanna Olsen: I love that. That’s been something that has been running through my mind actually a lot lately. I think of the song, Consider the Lilies of the Field, and how I can apply that in my own life. I find that in one of my classes I’m taking we learned about how among all the enclaves of people, the Latter-day Saint enclave is one of the most happy and satisfied in life, but also one of the most stressed of all the enclaves. And I found that super interesting. So when I think about my own life, I know that I hold a lot of stress that is not necessary. So this year I’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on trusting the Lord in my own life. Specifically, putting him first. In previous years, I’ve sort of let fear take precedence in my life. If there’s something, a person to be served or loved, that came second after my assignments and after my work, but I’ve learned that as I’ve put God first and put other people first, God finds a way and everything works out.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you for sharing that. I’m also struck by the idea that the Israelites are taking gold from the Egyptians, and one of the next golden things mentioned in Exodus is the golden calf. Do you think that there’s anything to that?
Joanna Olsen: Yeah, so if we follow the story, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and then built this golden calf. So just by logic, it must have been the same gold that they had taken from the Egyptians. And as we know, later in the story as they build this calf, Moses goes to Mt. Sinai and he comes back down and they’ve built this golden calf as something tangible to worship, which goes against everything that God had wanted from them. With the golden calf, it’s evident that the people fell back to their old ways. Fear got a hold of them, and rather than trusting in God and changing themselves, they felt that discomfort and they fell right back to their old ways. When Moses came back down from Mt. Sinai, his reaction to the misuse of these riches makes sense. Because God is a God of justice, he is consistent. When the Egyptians used their riches for bad, they were given to his chosen people, the Israelites. When the Israelites used the riches for evil, he was consistent and Moses destroyed the calf and made them drink it. While God had chosen the Israelites, this shows that they are not exempt from punishment. The pattern is evident throughout Exodus, when riches are used for evil, people lose them.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end. Have a blessed week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)