Why do bad things happen to innocent people?
I was reading a commentary from Rabbi Jill Jacobs who writes that many contemporary Jews (and I am sure Catholics as well) “are bothered by what seems to be excessive and perhaps needless suffering on the part of the Egyptian population for the sins of its leader.”
Are we also bothered because, deep down, we fear that such bad things could happen to us as well? The fact is that bad stuff happens to us anyway. Nevertheless, there might be good reason for looking at the bad stuff and see what’s being said to us by God. (See Romans 8:18 & 28)
God does not punish Pharaoh primarily for enslaving the Israelite people, but rather for dismissing God and ignoring God’s divine command to allow his people to go out and worship him. Through Moses and Aaron, God asks Pharaoh again and again, “Let them go and worship me; Let them go and worship me; Let them go and worship me!” But he ignores God’s command. Pharaoh doesn’t believe in the power of this god. Pharaoh believes that HE is God and that there are other gods as well. Thus Pharaoh ignores the command.
So God calls his bluff. “”You won’t listen to me? Ok. I’ll just knock off each and every one of your gods!” God uses the plagues to accomplish this.
There is a Hebrew word used in the interpretation of these stories from Exodus: “l’hotzi,” “which means, “to bring out.” The primary goal of the plagues, according to rabbinic sources, is not to punish the Egyptians but to demonstrate God’s unparalleled power, to “bring out” from them both individual and a collective contemplation about what is happening, showing them who really is in charge, and steering them away from their false gods to the One True God:
The Plagues of Egypt The Gods of Egypt
Nile turned to Blood Defeats Hapi, god of the Nile, fertility
Frogs Defeats Heket, frog goddess of fruitfulness
Gnats Defeats Kepher, beetle god
Cattle Defeats Amon and Hathor, (male/female cow-gods)
Boils Defeats Sekhmet, goddess of healing
Hail (kills remainder of crops) Defeats Nut, sky-goddess fails
Locusts Defeats Serapia, protector from locusts
Darkness Defeats Re the Sun god
The final plague, the killing of the firstborn, targets both the people and their idolatry towards their most visible god–Pharaoh –who also loses his oldest son, the successor to the throne and the successor to the divine kingdom.
Thus the story forces us to “ look at” and “bring out” into the open those things in our hearts: idols, addictions, afflictions, sinful habits that hold us back, that mar our relationship with God, that “plague” us. The washing of feet and celebration of the Eucharist then offers us an opportunity to reinterpret the plagues to reflect on our current condition, the need for Christ’s “redeeming sacrifice” at the “Table of the Lamb”, and to expand the list of plagues in order to draw attention to all of the parts of our life, and from a social justice point of view, those parts of society and the world that remain in need of liberation.
Audio version of the homily here: