Exodus: Battle of the Gods

The liberation of Israel hangs on a duel between two gods.

The Pharaoh Rameses II in battle.

As we read Exodus’ account of the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, we need to keep in mind that we are reading an account of a titanic struggle between two gods. On the one hand, there is Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Egyptian royal ideology regarded Pharaoh as the incarnation of the god Horus. It was through Pharaoh that Horus governed the welfare of Egypt and its people.*

On the other hand, we have the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who has revealed himself as the I AM to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Each of these two gods claims exclusive possession of the people of Israel. In the narrative of the ten plagues and the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 5-15), the issue is whose claim will be sustained. 

The God of Israel will win. But we should never think that that victory involved anything less than a titanic struggle. Pharaoh proves a formidable opponent. He employs trickery, delay tactics, deceit, brutality, sarcasm, and resolute obstinance in his refusal to let the people of Israel go free. 

The text repeats over and over again that Pharaoh’s heart is hard, and it get harder and harder with each succeeding plague. In the end even the death of his first-born son only temporarily softens his resolution. It takes the catastrophic overthrow of his army in the Red Sea to finally bring the battle to a decisive conclusion.

As I think of another literary character that matches Pharaoh in his steely obstinance, I find myself turning to the figure of Satan in John Milton’s great epic poem, Paradise Lost. Satan is resolutely determined to assault heaven and challenge the lordship of God. He uses every tactic in his arsenal, ranging from deceitful rhetoric to outright armed violence, to do so. His attitude is expressed in the line: Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (Paradise Lost, Book I).

One can imagine Pharaoh saying something similar. And in the end, his opposition to the demands of Moses turn the land of Egypt into a kind of hell. Pharaoh maintains his supremacy by bringing havoc upon his people and ecological disaster upon the land. 

A Basic Principle in Politics

What the Exodus account also demonstrates is a basic principle of politics. Entrenched power does not easily yield to demands to share or mitigate that power. Persuasive rhetoric and rational, humane pleas seldom move entrenched power. Only irresistible countervailing power will force concessions. 

At the burning bush on Sinai, Moses had shown great anxiety that he did not have the eloquence and rhetorical power needed to move Pharaoh into some arena of negotiation. He was right to have that anxiety. It is not, after all, Moses’ strength of speech that turns the political situation around. His speeches strike a wall of granite. What finally exacts concessions from Pharaoh is the cumulative effect of the powerful plagues that threaten the health, wealth, and social stability of Egypt as well as Pharaoh’s own personal interests.

I think this is one of the lessons that the Exodus account has to teach to anyone who wants to launch a liberation movement. We see a good example in the development of the Indian independence movement in the first half of the 20thcentury, led by Mohandas Gandhi. Rhetoric was not what won that independence. It was all the tactics of power, even if non-violent power, like strikes, boycotts, protest marches, and civil disorder that finally wore down British resolve to hold onto its Indian empire. 

We are seeing this truth demonstrated again in the current Black Lives Matter movement to challenge the deep-seated racism in American culture. The inspiring rhetoric of someone like Congressman John Lewis is needed to raise the spirits and hopes of all who desire a fundamental restructuring of American society and of American consciousness. 

…in the end our exercise of power may involve us in the paradoxical power of suffering.

But I am convinced that it is not that rhetoric alone or moving statements of solidarity which will bring the fundamental change our country needs. It is the protest marches which in part will begin to motivate the needed shifts. So will strikes and boycotts. They wield a form of power in opposition to power.

But most important is the resolute and consistent application of our desire for change when American citizens step into their voting booths. If we seek lasting change, we must ensure that we elect candidates who will bring all the tools of power into our legislative assemblies, into our governing councils and bureaucratic offices, into our courts of justice and into the ranks of law enforcement. There is good reason why entrenched power does all it can to suppress voting rights. In the American system, power comes from the vote.

In the Exodus story, the battle between Pharaoh and God is not a civil negotiation. It is a raw battle of wills. In the end neither Pharaoh or God is nice to each other. The death of the first-born in the tenth plague is not a nice act. It is a brutal expression of power, provoked by the obstinate refusal of Pharaoh to entertain any concession to the demands of Moses and God. And we see that reflected in the rising vehemence of Moses’ own speeches to Pharaoh. 

What decides the battle is which god exercises the greater power. And this should sober us if we think, as many Christians do today, that the essence of the Christian morality of love is being nice to everyone. The morality of love is far more robust. Its ultimate object is the welfare of all humanity and of all creation. And when that welfare is threatened, our response may call us to an exercise of power. But if we take the example of Jesus as definitive for Christian behavior, that exercise of power must always be non-violent and motivated and shaped by compassion. That may mean that in the end our exercise of power may involve us in the paradoxical power of suffering. 

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* The building of the pyramids seems to have been one expression of that ideology. The pyramid became a fortress tomb that ensured that Pharaoh, when he died, could enter into the world of the gods and continue to exercise his divine guardianship over the welfare of the land.