The low-hanging fruit in this chapter is a lesson about delegation. Moses is running himself ragged adjudicating on behalf of every single Israelite with an issue, so his father-in-law Jethro advises him: get other folks to handle the little cases. There’s also a bit of “if you teach a man to fish,” as Jethro also has Moses start teaching God’s statutes and laws to the people in order to curb the case-overload problem. So: delegation is good, instilling independence is good, but far be it from us to take the low-hanging fruit, right? Let’s hit up some weird spots.
I suppose it’s time for me to start thinking of the passages surrounding Exodus 16 as Complaint Central. Previously, it hadn’t really clicked for me that the Israelites begin griping almost as soon as Moses and Miriam have finished leading the people in their triumphant Song of the Sea. Nor had it registered that manna, the magic sky bread, came as God’s response to more griping. Then, in today’s chapter, Israel continues griping. There’s something about writing about these passages, not just reading them or even merely reflecting on them, that draws one’s attention to these patterns. So: welcome to our last stop at Complaint Central, at least for the time being.
Happy Magic Bread Day! This is the chapter with the manna, and so many things about it seem foreign to me in so many different ways. I have no clue what it’s like to travel in the desert or to travel long distances on foot. I don’t know a whole lot about what’s normal for storing food without refrigeration or sealed packaging. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it said that someone “grumbled against” someone else outside of the Bible. But there’s one thing here that I’ve got half a clue on, and that’s people being people.
So, I was googling around for information on the song in Exodus 15, trying to think up an introduction for today’s post, when I happened to play the song “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt. I suddenly found myself crying over the song’s duet and its picture of faith. Twenty years ago, I loved the song, but considered its contrast between faith and rationality overwrought; now, I’ve kind of come around to it. Trust in God doesn’t always make sense to us, yet here I am, like Miriam and Zipporah, seeking faith and speaking words I never thought I’d say. And as I listened to the song and read the Hebrew lyrics of the bridge, taken from Exodus 15, I laughed out loud through my tears. Of course they didn’t include lines like “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea” (15:4) and “You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff!” (15:7) Can you imagine a DreamWorks movie with such a celebration of–to put it as tactfully as possible–retributive justice? Now that would be a real miracle.
Today’s chapter details Pharaoh’s greatest mistake. The disgusting discomforts of the bloody Nile, the frogs, the gnats, and the swarms weren’t enough. Neither were the livestock diseases, the skin inflammations, the hailstorms, locusts, and darkness. And it looked for a moment like the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn might be enough, but then Pharaoh changed his mind and wanted his slaves back. So, today he and his chariots come after Israel in hot pursuit. Throughout the book of Exodus, but especially here, Pharaoh is the picture of anti-repentance.
I feel like we’ve got a lot to remember these days. Step by step, all through the day, I try to finish the task right in front of me so that I won’t have to remember it. And if I get interrupted, or have to set a task aside until something else happens, or think of something else I need to do next but might forget it, I write the task down. All throughout my house, you can find piles of to-do lists from months ago, full of obsolete items that I’ve already done or that don’t matter anymore. And sometimes I carry an object with me to remind me what I need to do next, which ensures that I’ll actually do the task when I run out of hands. And for all the things I couldn’t possibly hold in my brain all at once, I outsource my remembering to computers.
The Pentateuch is weird. Genesis is mostly narrative with periodic genealogies. Exodus, too, consists of sizeable portions of narrative containing occasional genealogies, but here in Exodus 12, we see detailed instructions for observing Passover woven into the story. The ancient Hebrews had no problem deriving what ought to be from what is, because in their view, a moral God had created a moral universe, and he had told them how things should be in it. The bulk of the chapter consists of God issuing Passover norms to Moses and Aaron. But you can set those aside for the moment, because I want to talk about that narrative portion in the middle where God does what he’s been saying he’s going to do, namely, killing the firstborn of Egypt.