Exodus 5-12 is nothing short of a cosmic contest to see who is really Lord over all of creation. The contenders for this title are Pharaoh and Yahweh. But, of course, this can be no real contest, right? On the one hand you have Pharaoh with his magicians, armies, wealth, and vast empire. Pharaoh has all the power one could ever hope to have. Yahweh, on the other hand, is the invisible so-called god of an invisible and marginalized slave people. Pharaoh will surely win. After all, if this Yahweh is really even the least bit powerful, how is it that he allowed his people to end up enslaved in the first place? Pharaoh sums it up quite well in Exodus 5:2. When Moses and Aaron repeat God's command to let the people go, Pharaoh responds by saying " Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go." If Yahweh is a god at all, he is such an insignificant god that Pharaoh has never heard of him. Why would the mighty Pharaoh bother with the god of his own slaves? In fact, Pharaoh will demonstrate his absolute control by forcing these slaves to now find their own straw to make their quota of bricks rather than providing the straw for their slave labor. The revolution is over before it has even begun.
This seemingly insignificant god, Yahweh, sends Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh again to make the same demand. This time Yahweh commands them to accompany their message with a sign. Aaron casts down his staff and it turns into a snake. Unimpressed, Pharaoh call's the imperial magicians and they do the same. As a sign of what is to come, Aaron's snake-staff swallows those of the magicians but it will take much more than this to stir Pharaoh.
So Yahweh sends Moses to the Nile. More than just a river, this is the very life source of Egypt, not only because of the water it supplies but also because of the nourishing silt it brings to surrounding farm land with its annual flooding. It is also this river which was meant to be the death of Moses. As such, it is also a symbol of Pharaoh's control. Without the Nile, Egypt and therefore, Pharaoh, would be nothing. With just the touch of Aaron's staff, this mighty river is turned to blood, perhaps a way of showing its "true colors" as a life giving river which has been turned into a bloody tool of oppression. Pharaoh's magicians again replicate this sign although they are unable to reverse it and so Pharaoh's heart also will not be reversed even as the poor and powerful alike are forced to dig along the Nile to find water.
Next, frogs swarm the land of Egypt. Again, Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate this work but the reality is they are only able to add to the problem. In an empire over run with frogs they are only able to produce more frogs.
Pharaoh's continued intransigence now leads to a plague of gnats. We are told that "All the dust of the earth became gnats in the land of Egypt" and "there were gnats on man and beast." The very dust from which humanity was created now becomes a plague on humanity. This is the first sign the magicians can not replicate. In fact, they call it "the finger of God". Pharaoh's own officials now are beginning to wonder exactly what they are up against but Pharaoh himself remains unmoved.
The flies follow the gnats. In order to make this portent more potent, God now makes a distinction. The flies appear only on the Egyptians while the land of Goshen, where the Israelites live, is spared so that Pharaoh "may know that I am the Lord." Pharaoh now does what must be humiliating for him; he asks Moses to plead for him to Yahweh. However, as soon as Pharaoh finds relief, he again refuses to let the people go.
The plagues now come in rapid succession. After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had been give the chance to repent but now the plague against livestock and the plagues of boils and hail are simply announced without any opportunity for Pharaoh to do anything about it. He has now lost what little bit of control he hoped to yield through his conversations with Moses. He is even losing control over his own people for when they hear about the plague of hail many of them fear the word of Moses more than possible repercussions from Pharaoh and choose to take shelter accordingly. Yahweh proclaims that he could have simply destroyed Pharaoh but that he has been raised up for the purpose of displaying Yahweh's complete lordship over all of creation.
Now Yahweh asks Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron "How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?" But Pharaoh still will not confess the Lordship of Yahweh. This brings the locusts which will eat what little of the crop was not already destroyed by the hail storm. At this point Pharaoh's own servants began to plead with him "How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?" It seems everyone is ready to confess that Yahweh is Lord and Pharaoh is not except Pharaoh himself.
Now comes the darkness. This is not simply the darkness that comes with the sun being on the other side of the Earth. Exodus 10:21 says this is a darkness that could be felt. It is as if God has undone creation to the point that it is beginning to revert to that earth that was without form and void where darkness was over the face of the deep - except in Goshen, where the Israelites live. There, God's well ordered creation remains. But within the realm of Pharaoh's so-called power, creation itself is falling apart.
Finally, the most terrible plague of all will come. Every firstborn in Egypt will die. This all started with Israel crying out as their babies were tossed in the river. Now it ends with a "great cry" in Egypt because of the loss of their own children. Only now that the kind of tragedy which Pharaoh himself imposed has struck Pharaoh's own house will he let these people go.
This plague is different though, not only in its awfulness but also because it is combined with a meal. Whereas in some of the previous plagues God had set his people apart now Yahweh instructs them to set themselves apart by spreading the blood of a lamb over their doorposts and by participating in this Passover meal. This meal is often spoken of as one of remembrance and it is that but it is also more than that for it by this meal that Israel is marked off as the people to be delivered. It is not only an ordinance that Israel will continue to celebrate as remembrance of past deliverance. It is by this meal that Israel marks itself off as the people who are presently participating in God's work of liberation.
It is to this meal that Jesus turned to communicate to his disciples the significance of his death. This meal that encapsulates the salvation of Israel and is the apex of God's cosmic battle with Pharaoh is the one in which Jesus says "This is my body" and "This is my blood of the covenant...". In doing so, Jesus said to them and to us "That creation-wide, cosmos-altering kind of salvation with which you are familiar in the exodus is now taking place in my body, through my death and resurrection, and you mark yourselves off as the people participating in that liberating work of God by participating in this meal with me."
Too often salvation is pared down to the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus which will bring us some measure of comfort in this life and the ultimate comfort after this life. Its not that such a description of salvation is untrue. Its just that it is a description of salvation that is so woefully inadequate that it is doing a disservice to the mighty work of God in Jesus Christ to constantly describe it that way. The salvation we proclaim is so much bigger than us, so much bigger than our church, and the paltry little concerns that tend to occupy our conversations and committee meetings. This salvation is the victory that has been and is being won in the cosmic battle against all the Pharaoh-like forces of evil and oppression in our world. It is the proclamation that the kingdom of God is near and that God has called us to participate in the liberating work of that kingdom.