The Once and Future People

By Pamela Lewis

A Reading from Exodus 10:21-11:8

21 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. 23 People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. 24 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.” 25 But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to sacrifice to the Lord our God. 26 Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the Lord our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the Lord until we arrive there.” 27 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. 28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” 29 Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”

11 The Lord said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. 2 Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.” 3 The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials and in the sight of the people.

4 Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5 Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 6 Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. 7 But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites — not at people, not at animals — so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. 8 Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.” And in hot anger he left Pharaoh.


What does darkness feel like? Not the darkness of our world, which even at night is so illuminated by bright lights that the stars are barely visible, but the plague of profound, three-days-long darkness Moses imposes on the Egyptians. And if one has never lost a child, especially a firstborn son, the pain of that loss is unknowable. The point in both events is to instill awe and fear.

With each successive plague that descends on them, the Egyptians realize that their gods are powerless to stop it. Whereas the God of the Hebrews is a living, personal Being, who has a relationship with his people, the Egyptian gods are distant and centered around images of nature, such as the sun or the river.

Pharaoh knows that he is losing against Moses and the Hebrews, yet is reluctant to free them, because he benefits from their free labor. But Moses has become a full leader, a different man from the unsure shepherd who used to tend his father-in-law’s flock. He is working with God, not gods, and from him he has the resolve to stand up to Pharaoh.

The plagues devastate Pharaoh and the Egyptians; but more troubling for Pharaoh is being told that God will make a distinction between these peoples by sparing the Hebrews’ firstborn sons. God has already formed this distinction in his mind, seeing the Hebrews as his chosen people. But it will take time for Moses to arrive at that understanding. The years that Moses and his people will spend in the desert learning God’s laws and values will make them a distinct people, who are no longer slaves. God sees what we will become and not just what we are at present.

Pamela A. Lewis taught French for 30 years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New YorkerEpiscopal Journal, and The Living Church.

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