This post is a chapter excerpted from my upcoming book, “Gory Stories of the Bible.”
Many Bible stories don’t land on us with the shock that they should. After all, we’re used to them. We’ve grown up with them. We’ve seen animated versions of them. And so, in their familiarity, they’ve lost some of their outrage factor.
The story of the Exodus out of Egypt has plenty of outrage to go around. First, consider the heavy-handed brutality of Pharaoh. He’s one of the Bible’s ultimate villains, and yet we often focus more on the heroics of Moses than the evil of Pharaoh. But don’t skip too quickly over the slaughter in the first chapter of Exodus. Linger here, and let your imagination marinate in the horror.
“Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile.” The decree from the throne is carried out by soldiers with brutal efficiency. Infant sons are ripped from the arms of nursing mothers. Guards stalk the Hebrew midwives like dark, brooding specters, intervening every time a boy is born. Over and over again, cries of labor turn to screams of panic and pleading. Fathers try to protect their wives and children, but are no match against the heavily armored might of Pharaoh’s death squads. New lives, full of hope and promise, are repeatedly snuffed out by darkness.
Baby after baby is mercilessly tossed in the river, like so much human garbage. Archaeologists uncovering homes believed to belong to the Israelites during this time period have discovered a sudden spike in male infant mortality—graves upon graves of baby boys. This discovery not only adds credence to the historical truth of the biblical narrative, but also shines a somber light on a silent human suffering in this story. The existence of graves for these murdered infants means that their bodies must have been recovered from the river. Picture the banks of the Nile littered with the washed-up corpses of Hebrew babies. And now picture mothers and fathers frantically searching through the reeds at the edge of the water in grief-stricken desperation to find the bodies of their children.
We’re not sure how long this holocaust went on, but the biblical account makes it clear that this was not a single decree from Pharaoh, a one-time purge of his enemies. No, this was a long-term, well-conceived strategy of systematic extermination. Long before Hitler conceived of the “Final Solution” to his “Jewish problem,” Pharaoh conceived of a solution to his.
Into this darkness, the words of Exodus 3:24-25 pierce like a ray of light:
Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
God heard their cries. God remembered his people (not in the sense of having forgotten, but in the sense of rousing himself to fulfill his covenantal obligations). God saw their suffering. And God knew.
God’s response to Pharaoh’s holocaust was to unleash a holocaust of his own. This brings us to the second potential object of outrage in this story: God himself. The Exodus is one of many Old Testament narratives frequently attacked by skeptics as depicting a violent, vengeful God. Indeed, believers who stop to think through the story are often unsettled by the implications as well.
Consider the final and most terrible plague that God unleashes on Egypt: the death of the firstborn sons. The angel of the Lord moves through the land of Egypt striking down every firstborn—from the son of Pharaoh to the son of the lowest slave woman. Exodus 12:31 captures the widespread grief: “And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead.” What kind of god would kill innocent Egyptian children?
But understanding the cruelty of Pharaoh helps us make sense of God’s response. The death of the firstborn which the angel of the Lord visited on the Egyptians wasn’t capricious or random. This wasn’t an angry god lashing out at those who annoyed him. It was a measured and proportional retaliatory strike, which only came after multiplied urgent warnings. God doesn’t sit back and do nothing while his people are slaughtered. That would not be loving. No, love rises to their defense by turning Pharaoh’s violence back on his own family and nation.
Throughout the Bible, God’s preferred method of judgment is to impale evil on its own sword and then use that sword to set his people free. God’s judgment and God’s salvation are two sides of the same coin—God rising in defense of his people by making evil serve its own self-destruction. So Pharaoh’s murder of Israelite sons is turned into the death of Egyptian sons and salvation for Israel. And the murder of God’s Son is turned into the death of sin and the salvation of the world.
Yes, it’s a bloody way to save the world. But don’t miss the grace amidst the gore. God is on a rescue mission; it’s going to get messy. In a violent world, we need a violent grace.