“Traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that, in some sense, happened once, but which also happens all the time.” Karen Armstrong, Recovering the Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. (Image: Google images)
Apocalyptic fires, erupting volcanoes, killer storms, devastating floods, voracious locust hordes, powerful earthquakes, mass animal extinctions, and a killer pandemic claiming more victims by the day… It’s as if we’re back in Egypt in the days of Pharaoh as the famous series of catastrophic plagues unfolds, ravages Egyptian society, and leads to its ruin. It seems a good time to ask whether the plague narrative has anything to say about why they occurred.
First, a brief look at those plagues. In the first one, found in chapter seven of the book of Exodus, the water of the Nile is turned to blood. All the marine life dies, and the stench of blood and rotting fish fill the air. You may remember that eight decades prior, at the time of the birth of Moses, then-Pharaoh ordered all the male Hebrew babies to be killed. They were cast into the Nile and drowned. Those sins are now catching up with Egypt. The water they depend on for life turns to blood, as with the blood of the murdered infants. This first plague heralds the start of a series of catastrophes that leads to the collapse of Egyptian society.
As the plagues unfold from blood to frogs to gnats to flies to the death of livestock, hail, locusts, and finally darkness, and the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh’s heart is repeatedly hardened – most of the time by Pharaoh himself, and three times by God. At each instance, Pharaoh persists in his refusal to set the Israelite slaves free. As a result, he brings disaster upon himself and his society. As this repeated hardening against what are essentially opportunities for mercy unfolds, Egyptian society and the creation itself – the land, the water, the air, and the animals – reap the bitter consequences of sin and evil. Could this be what is happening in our natural world today? Are the systems that sustain life collapsing under the weight of evil and unbridled human self-indulgence? Are the catastrophic weather and geological events, the apocalyptic natural disasters, the mass extinctions and epidemics symptoms of the creation staggering under the weight of humanity’s accumulated sin?
The Scriptures indicate that the creation indeed suffers as a result of human sin. How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away laments the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12.4). Another Old Testament prophet, Hosea, says the same thing, that the disappearance of the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and of the fish of the sea occurs a direct consequence of sin and evil (Hosea 4.3). Jeremiah continues: they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me (Jeremiah 12.11). The Creator hears the cries of his creatures and his creation as it suffers under the burden of humanity’s sin. And in the book of Leviticus we’re told what happens when a society’s sins reach their culmination: the land “vomits out” its inhabitants (Leviticus 18.25).
Throughout biblical history there are examples of civilizations collapsing, getting “vomited out”, their empires rendered desolate – human society before the Flood, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Medes & Persians, the Romans, the Jews – as all these people groups, in their free will, choose to defy the laws set in place by the Creator for the flourishing of life, and instead set their own course. Is this to be our fate as well?
The plague sequence in the book of Exodus mirrors the creation sequence of the first book of Genesis. Both of them unfold in patterns of threes. This is not simply random trivia. It demonstrates that the way we choose to live has a profound impact on the course of the creation – which is precisely what happens in the case of the Egyptians and the plagues.
In the creation account in Genesis 1, God declares a realm into existence – for example, “Let there be light.” He splits it into two realms – day and night. Then he fills each realm – the day with the sun and the night with the moon and the luminaries of the heavens. He proceeds in the same manner – one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three – as if composing a grand cosmic symphony, as he creates the heavens, the earth, the land, the sea, and all that fills them. It’s a cycle of ever abounding and flourishing life.
In the account of the plagues we see this same structure based on threes, marked by whether the plague in question is initiated by Aaron’s staff or Moses’s staff (three times each), whether a warning is given at all (no warning with three of the plagues), or whether the warning is given at the Palace or at the Nile (three times each). In the case of the plagues, instead of a life-abounding spiral, however, it’s a spiral of self-destruction. Creation collapses in upon itself in a domino effect, in a process theologians call “de-creation”. Rather than a cycle of ever-abounding life, we find an ominous symphony that ends in darkness and death.
What is amazing is that we, mere creatures of dust, have a repeated and sustained impact on the grand cosmic processes that affect the entire creation. The choices we make determine whether the creation flourishes or collapses. Ultimately, the creation comes to collect on every debt we incur against it. We can recognize the error of our ways, repent, and change course. Or, like Pharaoh, we can double down in our intransigence, deny our transgressions, and force the entire creation to reap the consequences. The choice is ours.
Updated February 3, 2020. An earlier version of this article was re-blogged on Clarion Journal of Spirituality & Justice on February 1, 2020.