The significance of the plagues in the narrative of Exodus
My evaluation will be divided into three parts. First we must study Exodus as a whole in order to discover its main concern. Then we will examine the plagues in order to describe their purpose. By relating these two parts together we will be able to evaluate the significance of the plagues.
The title of the book suggests that its theme is the escape from Egypt, but there is more to Exodus than just redemption. Much of the book is taken up with the Tabernacle which is "no meaningless cultic digression". Splitting it into two we could say that it is about "being saved by God, in order to worship God" but this would not take into account other important themes.
Fretheim avers that Exodus is "shaped in a decisive way by a creation theology". This illuminates a vital connection with the early chapters of Genesis. Durham has also organised his commentary around a central principle, that of Yahweh's Presence. Presence is a key theme in the text at vital moments. Occasionally however, the material is stretched to fit these theories. Knight suggests "revelation" as the theme and Alexander, "knowing God through personal experience." These statements take into account the multivalence of the book and are able to absorb important sub-themes.
The vital clue however comes from Clines: Exodus is concerned with the relationship aspect of the Patriarchal promises. Exodus does not stand alone but within the canonical context of the Pentateuch. It develops the relationship through which God will achieve his creation (or covenantal) purposes. “Included within the comprehensive category of "relationship"," says Clines, "are several kinds of formulation... sometimes the relationship is expressed as a blessing, sometimes as a "being with" or guidance, sometimes as a continuance of God's relationship with former Patriarchs." Exodus 19:3-8 (a key text however one sees the book as a whole) brings out this theme very clearly.
Therefore, my contention is that the narrative of Exodus (and of the whole book, including its other genres) is primarily concerned with the development of God's relationship with his people, through whom he plans to achieve his creation purposes.
Selected references to the concept of a God-Israel relationship in Exodus:
Blessing 1:7; 3:21; 20:24; 23:25; 32:29
Presence/Guidance 3:12; 13:17-22; 24:10; 33:14; 40:34
Knowing/Fearing God 6:7; 10:2; 14:31; 16:12; 29:46
Covenant/Continuance of Patriarchal relationship 2:24; 4:5; 24:8; 34:27
Worshipping 4:31; 7:16; 12:27; 23:25; 33:10
Israel are God's people 3:7; 7:4; 18:1; 22:25; 33:13
References are scattered over all the major divisions of the text, demonstrating that relationship is a dominant concept. Achieving God's creation plans (which were frustrated by humanity’s rebellion) is the purpose of the covenant, but the world-wide concern of God is explicit in 9:16 and 19:5-6.
Signs & Wonders
In the prologue to the plagues, which introduces and interprets them, the plagues are termed "miraculous signs and wonders." This does not mean that they are simply amazing miracles: "the purpose of the sign was to impart knowledge" and a wonder "basically points to something extraordinary... the purpose of which is the mediation of a certain message." The plagues are not simply acts of judgment, but have a "peculiar ability to point beyond themselves and instruct." This designation for the plagues establishes a basic biblical category, so it is vital to understand exactly what is meant by it. Signs/wonders are not just punishments; judgment is to follow the signs according to 7:3-4 and is not mentioned again until 12:12. Judgment and instruction are not, however, mutually exclusive. There is an element of judgment to the signs, but this lies in the fact that as Pharaoh reflects on them he should "ascertain the frailty of his own power and his own peril."
Signs/wonders are indicators of a greater judgment to come, intended to provoke a response before that greater use of power becomes necessary. The plagues evoke that climax (chapter 14) for the reader in subtle ways. But because they are more than judgments, they fail to actually secure Israel's release. As signs they are intended to convey knowledge. Repeated throughout the narrative is the phrase, "you will know that I am Yahweh" (7:5; 8:10; 8:22 etc.). In answer to Pharaoh's question in 5:2, "Who is Yahweh?", the plagues teach him about this unknown God and reveal his nature. Nowhere is this clearer than 9:16 - Pharaoh is still alive and the plagues continue so that God can show his power and so that his name (character) may be proclaimed. The plagues did indeed achieve this purpose of revealing his power and name (to Egypt, 14:25; to Jethro, 18:1; to the Philistines, 1 Samuel 4:8). God establishes his reputation and renown, and a response of obedience and fear, merited by his power, is achieved to some extent (9:20; 11:3; 14:25; 18:9). Pharaoh's culpable obstinacy is therefore clearly revealed when he refuses to obey.
The text of the plagues itself has a narrower purpose. It is written "from faith to faith": it was written to convey a knowledge of God to future generations of Israelites (10:2). The contemporary generation were prompted by the signs/wonders to respond in obedience, faith and hope (12:28; 14:31), but Moses is told to pass on the story so that future generations may respond to God in the same way. Later biblical writers also saw in the signs a call to response.
So the signs/wonders reveal God's character: he is the all-powerful God, unique, incomparable and, importantly, at work in the heart of Egypt itself. In the context of Moses’ prophetic utterances, they also reveal God's plans. The repeated demand, "Let my people go so they may worship me" reveals his intention to constitute a liberated worshipping community in the wilderness. That he intends to take Israel's side against their masters is clear from the distinctions he makes in the application of his power. It is also clear that he intends to judge sin. All human endeavours and negotiations fail to release Israel, but the plagues assure them that God, who alone can overcome Pharaoh's resistance, is mighty to save.
Contradiction in the Sources?
Source criticism indicates that “P” sees the plagues more in terms of judgment (knowledge of God being conveyed only at the Red Sea). The Yahwist apparently uses "knowledge" language throughout. The canonical redactor has juxtaposed these (supposed) sources so there is a process of revelation occurring in the plagues, which culminates in chapter 14. This is not a weak compromise conjured up by the redactor(s) in a theologically eirenic mood: they simply did not see signs and judgments as totally incompatible categories. Only this perspective has stood the test of time.
I therefore contend that the purpose of the plagues narrative is to convey knowledge of God's nature (especially his power) and his plans (especially to judge Egypt and save Israel). That knowledge is to be revealed to Israel, the world and the future, in order to elicit a response to God.
Having considered the book of Exodus, and significant aspects of the plagues, we are in a position to relate the two.
The Plagues & The Theme Of Exodus
The plagues are not alien to the thrust of Exodus; indeed they contribute directly to its theme. The God-Israel relationship is deepened by this revelation of Yahweh's nature. "The identity of Yahweh, not very clear at the beginning of the narrative, achieves a depth and clarity as the narrative progresses" and the plagues are a vital part of that process. If the narrative is indeed driving towards the "credal" statement of 34:6-7 then the plagues contribute to it the idea of a God "slow to anger... maintaining love to thousands" whilst not leaving the guilty unpunished. We learn of God's supremacy, his presence in Egypt and his incomparability in each successive triplet of mighty acts. There is no other God before him! Whilst seemingly failing to achieve anything for Israel's liberation, the plagues do actually achieve God's purpose - to make himself increasingly known to his people, with whom he desires a relationship. The resistance and unbelief which God's initial revelations of his name met are shattered. Israel is now convinced into believing and obeying, even if Pharaoh is not.
God's creation-wide concern is explicit in the plagues as is his ability to act even in the middle of "enemy territory". Although "Yahweh is using Pharaoh... as a teaching tool for Israel" his wider concerns do not disappear. Pharaoh and the world will want to forget what they learn of God here, but Israel will not, and they can proclaim the name and power of the God of the plagues to the nations. The mighty-acts are significant therefore in that they highlight and develop God's relationship with Israel whilst simultaneously keeping the whole creation in view.
The Plagues & Other Exodus Themes
The plagues narrative is also important for the way in which it develops other themes in the book. In the later historical books, signs/wonders function to confirm and authenticate the divine word and the prophet who delivers it. This is also their (secondary) purpose here. Moses' and Aaron's commission to lead Israel out of bondage is confirmed. Moses' role as the mediator of God's word is demonstrated beyond all doubt, to resurface again particularly in chapters 21-23 (cf. 20:19) and 25-31. His role in prayer (by which some plagues were halted: eg. 9:33) also resurfaces, in chapter 15-17 and 32-34. Moses is seen as a man who can prevail with God, the Israelite par excellence with a special relationship to Yahweh. He is also the man of action, whose rod/staff is key not only in the plagues but at the Red Sea (14:16) and at Rephidim (17:9). His critical role in the God-Israel relationship is definitively established and attested during the plagues.
The theme of worship/service of God is also important in Exodus, especially in the Tabernacle chapters. Again, this takes its rise in the mighty-acts sequence, with the repeated demand, "Let my people go, so they may worship me." Although Yahweh's presence with Israel is established in the Tabernacle, the plagues remind us that he can be present even in Egypt (8:22). Indeed, "the earth is Yahweh's" (9:29), an assertion which helps define Israel's special place within that world in 19:5.
Literary, Doctrinal, Ethical and Biblical Contributions
Another way of assessing the significance of these chapters is to ask what we would lose if they had not made it into the canon. The literary form of Exodus requires an answer to Pharaoh's question in 5:2 : the plagues provide it. They also serve to highlight the tension of the story by evoking its climax at the Red Sea. Jumping from chapter 6 to chapter 12 would make Exodus significantly less dramatic. Ethically, the plagues reveal that God is patient, willing to give Pharaoh a chance to repent. They also reveal Pharaoh's own responsibility for his fate: after his behaviour during the plagues his stupidity in chasing after Israel seems "in character" and prepares us for the inevitability of his end.
Doctrinally, this focus on Pharaoh is vital: as so often in the Old Testament we have a powerful narrative illustration of propositional doctrine taught elsewhere. Calvin is not the only commentator who discusses the antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility whilst expounding the plagues (or vice- versa, like Paul in Romans 9:17-18). Biblically, this "hard heart" motif, as well as the signs/wonders vocabulary, will resurface in exhortations to Israel not to imitate Pharaoh's folly (eg. Deuteronomy 28:46; Psalm 95:8). The apostle John uses signs in a similar way in his gospel, but they also constitute one of the biblical foundations for Revelation 15-16. All this would lose depth and strength of appeal if Exodus 7-11 were missing, which makes them significant chapters indeed.
The plagues narrative, therefore, is significant in several ways: it fits in with and develops the main thrust of Exodus; it gives us a valuable ethical apologetic, a doctrinal illustration, literary satisfaction and biblical categories of understanding; and in this narrative several Exodus themes surface to be built upon later. Our understanding of this book, of the other Scriptures, and of the Lord our powerful God, owes much to these significant chapters.