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Shemot/Exodus 8:3 And the magicians did the same with their incantations: they brought frogs upon the land of Egypt.
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This is the start of the second plague, the plague of frogs. The text has already told us that Pharaoh's court magicians had been able to track both Aharon's staff turning into a serpent - although his serpent ate all theirs - and turning water into blood. By duplicatingHaShem's miracles they were saying, "Hey, this isn't such a big deal, we can do this too!" thus giving Pharaoh confidence and permission to ignore them and the request to let the Israelites go. As Walter Brueggemann points out, "the Egyptian technicians match the 'wonder'. Powerful gestures of freedom are matched, so that the regime does not yet perceive itself as being under serious threat, certainly not anything that requires a review or adjustment of oppressive policy."1
Why frogs - why was this the second plague? Because, according to Gunther Plaut, "in Egyptian mythology they were considered to have life-giving powers." Apparently, 'Heqet', an Egyptian goddess of fertility, was represented in the form of a frog and the Egyptians saw the frog as an ancient symbol of fertility, related to the annual flooding of the Nile. By generating a plague of frogs, HaShem ridicules the supposed power or influence of the Egyptian goddess.
The classic Jewish commentators make a number of points about the magicians' efforts. TheSforno suggests that the frogs that magicians produced were infertile, "they could not reproduce, for sorcerers are incapable of producing an authentically living creature." Ibn Ezra says that the magicians were limited to working with "a small amount of water. Hence Pharaoh saw that what the magicians could do was only a pale imitation of what Aharon did, and that they could only make more frogs, not eliminate them." Rabbi Hirsch is puzzled at what the magicians were trying to do: "Surely, the magicians would be trying to get rid of the frogs, not make more. Pharaoh realised the ridiculous impotency of his magicians, who, with their magic only provoked the very opposite of what they were trying to achieve." The magicians may have boasted about being able to mimic Moshe and Aharon, Umberto Cassuto points out, "but without doubt Pharaoh was not pleased with his magicians; he was not asking for a supplementary plague, but a cure for the affliction, But this was not within their power."2
Can you see what was happening? Terence Fretheim explains: "As before, the magicians duplicate the effort. Irony and humour pervade the scene. Twice the number of frogs! Pharaoh's own servants make an already unpleasant situation that much worse. In an effort to make a point against Israel and its G-d, Pharaoh doubles the trouble."3 Here's the point: more of the same won't work. In fact, more of the same makes things worse. In this case, this hardens the heart of Pharaoh and adds to his determination not to accede to the freedom request. What was needed - in order to break the spiral of escalation and brinkmanship - was for Pharaoh to have humbled himself sufficiently to have let the people go at this point. This would have been radically new thinking, especially for an autocratic ruler who presented himself to the people as a god, but it would have solved the problem instantly. He would have saved eight plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian economy, the loss of a generation, possibly even his own name and reputation.
Let's take the principle of thinking outside the box a few steps further and see how we can apply it today. While Qohelet offers the gloomy outlook that "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV), even going as far to ask, "Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'?" before decrying, no, "it has been already in the ages before us" (v. 10, ESV), this is not what HaShem explicitly says. Twice in the book of Isaiah, HaShem says that He is speaking and doing new things; in the first one the prophet says, "Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them" (Isaiah 42:9, ESV). Here the old things have come to an end and G-d is moving on; declaring new things, speaking them out and, by His speech act, creating them so that they spring forth. The second occasion is even more marked: "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (43:18-19, ESV). We are not to remember or even think about the old things; they are gone and like Lot's wife, we should not look back lest we be turned into pillar of salt (B'resheet 19:6) or by looking back from the plough show that we are not "fit for the kingdom of G-d" (Luke 9:62, ESV). How should we understand these verses for our modern contexts?
Evidence has been coming in for several years that the current models used for 'doing church' - at any rate, in the west, in the first world - are no longer working. While there have, of course Baruch HaShem, been some spectacular points of success, outreach and revival, the overall statistics show the relentless decline in congregation attendance - across the whole spectrum of congregations and denominations. Whether the researched statistics for the USA from the Barna group, testimony from Alan Hirsch for Australia, the UK, USA and Europe, or academic work by folk like Steven Aisthorpe, the evidence is that people are voting with their feet. Churches and synagogues are closing, their buildings sold and re-purposed and people are disappearing - particularly, though not exclusively, in the younger age groups.
Alan Hirsch, in his book "The Forgotten Ways", points out that two key components of the model followed by most churches and synagogues are failing in the post-Christendom age. The first is known as "attraction" and is based upon the idea that people will be attracted to and join (or subscribe to) a religious organisation based on the services it offers. Be that seeker-friendly meetings, child-care programmes, quality classes, exciting worship, traditional prayers, these all amount to the same thing: religious products for potential consumers and competition against other 'vendors' to keep your market share otherwise people will choose to shop elsewhere. Like a narcotic habit, whether it is the slickness of the worship, the volume of the PA system or the edgyness of the sermons, the audience demand to stay on the cutting edge so the pressure is on for constant innovation and change just to stand still. Fail to meet that challenge and people drift away.
The second failing component is "performance". In the mediaeval church, mass was celebrated by the priest in the chancel and everyone was kept at a distance, watching through the screen or listening for the bell that told them when the host had been consecrated. Today's liturgical churches preserve something of the same holy performance; the ancient Israelite rituals in the Tabernacle and the Temple formed the template. Today non-liturgical worship spaces are designed like auditoria or theatres: tiered seating arranged in an arc around a stage, multi-media systems, sometimes with more attention to video production than worship ambience. Worship bands with celebrity worship leaders produce worship performances and preachers deliver catchy, motivational sermons beamed out to the Internet and satellite churches. But it's a constant struggle to stay ahead of the game and keep delivering week after week. People, particularly younger people, are not interested in attending a religious performance; they are looking for authenticity.
The usual response to plateauing or falling numbers is to do more of the same, drawing on the same tool-kit of parts and pieces: add a service, change the style of worship songs, bring in some new speakers or subjects, turn up the volume or import some new technology. But, just like Pharaoh's magicians, more of the same doesn't work. The same old, same old doesn't satisfy or touch the heart. Radical re-thinking and seeking G-d for the new thing that He wants to do is the only way forward. We may find that the 'new' is actually something old, a practice or a discipline from the ancient synagogue or the early church, or it may be something that doesn't look like church at all but is still a vibrant expression of the kingdom of G-d.
In a modern dysfunctional world, people are looking for community and relationship: a relationship with G-d that really means something and will stand the test of time; and relationship with each other, building community, that is deeply committed to sharing life and being there for the neighbour even (or especially) when it hurts. This means putting Yeshua's sacrifice for us into practice, sacrificing ourselves for others to meet their needs, to bind up their wounds and to heal their hearts as the Spirit leads. We need to repent of our failure to meet the real need of the people and communities where G-d has placed us and our selfish focus on the feelings of our own personal relationships with G-d.
If we are to see an end to the plague of frogs upon our land, we need to stop copying other people and being content with a "we can do that too" attitude. We need to hear Yeshua calling us to "Follow Me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:22, ESV). As the days grow short before Yeshua's return, we must be prepared to leave our established trade, deny ourselves and be guided by the Spirit of the Living G-d.
1. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 332.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 102.
3. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 116.
Further Study: Matthew 13:52; Luke 5:36-39; Philippians 3:13-16
Application: How can you break the mold of tradition and be a channel for new and refreshing water, water that brings life and vitality, the living water that Yeshua promised, into your congregation or fellowship today? How can you help people to think differently and be open to recognising that the old model is broken but that G-d wants to move forward into the new things that He is creating.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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