I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the biblical story in Exodus of the 10 plagues that befell Egypt when its hard-hearted Pharaoh refused to treat the Israelites as the human beings they were.
I think there just may be a lesson in it for us today.
Pharaoh viewed the Israelites as aliens, outsiders who were risks to national security, even though they had lived peacefully in Egypt for generations and were a numerical minority that posed no danger to the state. So to keep them in line, he enslaved them and even ordered all their male infants slain. The great liberator Moses escaped this fate by the skin of his teeth.
Pharaoh also disdained the Israelites as slackers, even though they mixed, molded, stacked, and carried tons of bricks for the empire—bricks, I suppose, that built many a barrier wall. In his eyes, they were noxious drains on the system. The truth of the matter, of course, is that they contributed much more to the Egyptian economy than they ever took.
But never mind. When you despise a group of people simply because they don’t belong to your particular cultural, ethnic, or religious tribe—when you reduce them to subhuman status by denying them the basic rights with which all persons are endowed—facts tend to go limp and get replaced by “alternative” ones.
Exodus tells us that Yahweh took pity on the misery of the Israelites and anointed Moses to lead them out of bondage. Predictably, hard-hearted Pharaoh refused to let them go, whereupon plague after plague beset him and the entire land of Egypt until he finally relented—only to renounce his decision and, in what is certainly one of the most ill-advised moves a leader has ever made, pursued the Israelites into the Red Sea.
From our contemporary perspective, some of the plagues recorded in Exodus come across as more annoying than frightening. It’s a drag to be ankle-deep in frogs or bedeviled by head-circling gnats, but it’s hardly what you’d call out FEMA for. Subsequent plagues—painful boils, destroyed crops, diseased herds—were much more serious. And then, in a terrible crescendo of suffering, there was the final plague, the death of the firstborn in every Egyptian household, a tragedy that mirrored Pharaoh’s slaying of male Israelite infants.
Horrible as this final affliction was, it’s the ninth plague, the one immediately preceding the slaying of the firstborn, that haunts me. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt.”
Biblical commentators interested in finding natural causes for the Egyptian plagues are fond of saying that this one must’ve been a mighty sandstorm that blocked out the sun and was “felt” when it stung unprotected flesh. But to reduce the ninth plague to a mere sandstorm strikes me as an impoverished reading of it.
More fundamentally, the darkness that befell Pharaoh and his nation was a darkness of moral failing and spiritual corruption, not of wind and sand.
This is where the story becomes especially relevant for us today.
There are certain periods in human history when a moral darkness descends upon a land and its peoples, and its corrosive effects become palpable—a thick, cloying “darkness to be felt”—both personally and socially. These are the times in which we forget or, even worse, deliberately discard, common standards of decency that in better times we honored. We dim the light of reason and goodness, and stumble in the murk that spawns irrationality and cruelty.
Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are pretty clear about what those standards of decency are. They include hospitality to the stranger, compassion for society’s most vulnerable, avoidance of the pitfalls of greed, jealousy, anger, arrogance, and vituperation, an irenic spirit that seeks dialogue instead of conflict, brotherly and sisterly love, and respect for the God-implanted dignity of each and every human being.
Moral darkness descends upon a land when its rulers allow fear, prejudice, moral indifference, and self-centeredness to get the upper hand, and when the ruled either enthusiastically collaborate or timidly acquiesce. Once the darkness falls, it becomes progressively harder to recover one’s bearings and much easier to become so morally disoriented that conscience shuts down. As Proverbs says, where there is no vision—when a moral climate of fear and hatred blinds the heart’s eyes—the people perish.
Pharaoh and his people had lived in moral darkness for years by the time Yahweh called Moses to deliver the Israelites. Perhaps the ninth plague was a final push on God’s part to jolt Egypt into the recognition that for too long she had condoned oppression for the sake of national security and embraced a caste system that rejected “outsiders” as prima facie inferior and dangerous.
The darkness that began clouding this nation’s horizon during the late presidential campaign season, a darkness that made it acceptable to spew hatred and mockery, a darkness that beclouds the light with each new executive order that the American Pharaoh signs, is certainly the plague and hopefully the warning descending on us today.
Pharaoh was too far gone to heed the warning given him all those centuries ago, and his arrogance led him into a killing zone where he and his followers were crushed by a mountain of water.
Like I said: a lesson for us today.