I am so juvenile. One of oremus’ headers for this chapter was “Aaron’s Miraculous Rod,” and I totally giggled. When will I ever grow up?
Allow me some levity (however crude) since this is where we start the Ten Plagues. As I think back, both The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt slide over the plagues as much as they can, save for the last one which is unavoidable (and most morally problematic). I think part of this is because they’d get very repetitive very fast, but part of it also the issue of God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” whenever it seems like he’s about to give up, as though God isn’t satisfied until he gets to show everything he’s capable of in terms of disasters. That’s an unsettling way to think of God, since it makes him either a show-off or a bully. But I’ll be going through all ten without compressing them into a musical montage (no matter how impressive it might be).
Making this difficult will be the Japanese translation of “plague” as wazawai. To understand why, you should know that every year they pick a character that represents the mood of the year in Japan. The one that won in 2011 was 絆 kizuna, bonds, as in the ties between people. The runner up was 災 wazawai, “disaster.” Which means that, as I read this, I will unavoidably be thinking about the March 11th earthquake in Touhoku and the ensuing nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima.
The first plague is fairly awful, since it affects everyone in Egypt, causing them to have to dig wells rather than turn to the Nile, their life in the desert. That the pharaoh doesn’t care about this simply because his magicians are able to do the same thing (more in a second) means he’s kind of a dick. So it’s not surprising that the next plague, frogs, goes directly to his palace, seeming to affect no one else.
But back to the magicians: how are they able to do things like make their staffs turn into snakes, or turn water into blood, or summon up frogs? Did the authors of the Bible believe that their “secret arts” were just trickery? Or did they actually believe some miracles could be duplicated by a real kind of magic? In which case, how did the magic work?
Are we seeing the kind of henotheist stage that the Bible went through, where the Egyptians gods might exist, and help magicians, but weren’t as mighty as the God of the Hebrews? While the “it’s just trickery” idea isn’t out of the question, it’s entirely possible the latter was also a possibility for the initial tellers of this tale. Later theologians and poets frequently got around this by saying that the Egyptian “gods” were really demons (see Paradise Lost). With me, personally, I’m okay with just thinking that the early Biblical writers were wrong on some things theologically… though I am well aware that idea is not okay in some Christian circles…
The Japanese: kanmei “obstinate” (v 14), myouchou “tomorrow morning” (v 15), akushuu “stench” (v 18), kasen “river,” suiro “canal,” mizutamari “puddle,” hitaru “to flood, to soak” (v 19), kamado “overn,” konebachi “kneading bowl” (v 28).
Note that the NRSV doesn’t have a verse 28, stopping after verse 25. The NCT again follows the Hebrew verse numbering and continues on through the start of the second plague (frogs) to 8:4 in the NRSV. This means that next chapter my verse numbering will once again be off, so bear that in mind.