Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Finger of God

The magicians said to Pharaoh, “It is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted. – Exodus 8:19 (NET)

As we read this verse, we find ourselves in the midst of the plagues that came upon Egypt prior to Israel’s exodus. The statement above, in regards to the finger of God, was made in relation to the plague of gnats. With this plague, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron, “Extend your staff and strike the dust of the ground, and it will become gnats throughout all the land of Egypt”.’ They did so” (8:16-17a). As we would expect, this is what happened, as gnats did indeed come upon the land. To that point, each time there had been a miraculous demonstration of power, be it the turning of a staff into a serpent, the conversion of water into blood, or the bringing of frogs on the land, we are told that the magicians of Egypt were able to accomplish the same by their secret arts. Likewise, when it came to the production of gnats, though it is difficult to understand why they would want to continue to follow suit, “When the magicians attempted to bring forth gnats by their secret arts, they could not” (8:18a). Finally, a point had been reached where they could no longer go point for point against God, and they came to realize that they were dealing with a power that was beyond them. This elicited the cry of “It is the finger of God!” However, even with these words from his magicians, Pharaoh did not listen, thus again fulfilling God’s prediction that “although I will multiply My signs and My wonder in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you” (7:3b-4a).

The term “finger of God” is used elsewhere in Scripture. We actually find it on the lips of Jesus, in the eleventh chapter of Luke. Jesus had cast out a demon, and some of the witnesses of this event attempted to explain this occurrence by saying “By the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, He casts out demons” (11:15). Jesus responded with an indication that this made no sense, saying “So if Satan too is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (11:18a) It is logical to ask why in the world Satan would go about casting out Satan (himself). Going further, Jesus says, “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you” (11:20).

As we peruse the pages of the Bibles, we will find “finger of God” used four times, two of which we have already seen. The other two are Exodus 31:18, where Moses recounts that the tablets of stone that he received on Mount Sinai had been “written by the finger of God;” and in Deuteronomy 9:10, where, recounting the events first recorded in Exodus, Moses speaks again about the tablets that were “written by the very finger of God.” Three of the usages of the term are explicitly connected with the exodus of Israel, with two of them being found in the book of Exodus itself. Therefore, because we know that Jesus would have chosen His words quite carefully and purposefully, it is reasonable to conclude that when Jesus uses the phrase, and Luke reports Jesus using the phrase, that it is meant to be a reminder of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the power of God that was on display in that exodus, and the deliverance of Israel. The exodus from Egypt is a constantly recurring theme throughout the whole of the Old Testament, so it would make sense for it to be a theme in Jesus’ ministry as well, especially as the exodus was the act and is a picture of God’s rescue, redemption, salvation, and deliverance of His people, according to His covenant faithfulness.

So is it reasonable to hear echoes of Exodus here in Jesus’ words? Let’s examine what follows so as to be able to find out. Jesus says, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are safe” (11:21). Reflecting on Pharaoh, we could certainly understand him to be a strong man, fully armed, guarding his palace and his possessions (the enslaved Israelites). Continuing on from there, Jesus says, “But when a stronger man attacks and conquers him, he takes away the first man’s armor on which the man relied and divides up his plunder” (11:22). Because the plagues were the result of Pharaoh’s stubbornness, they were primarily directed towards him so as to influence his thought and actions, though they dramatically affected his people as well. Clearly, we are able to see Israel’s God as the stronger man attacking and conquering him. Initially, Pharaoh had the armor of his magicians being able to match the displays of power, which allowed for a hardness of heart, but that armor was eventually removed. Furthermore, when the point is reached that Israel is going to be released from its bondage, we find that “The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and they gave them whatever they wanted, and so they plundered Egypt” (Exodus 12:26).

This use of exodus language was readily connected to thoughts about Israel’s messiah and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Just as God worked on behalf of His people to deliver them from the oppression of Egypt and bring them into their promised land, so there was an expectation that their messiah, God’s representative, would deliver them from the subjugation of foreign rule and deliver Israel’s land back to them as their own sovereign possession. So with these echoes of Exodus, we can understand Jesus making a messianic claim for Himself, when He concludes His thoughts in connection with the finger of God and the kingdom of God, by saying, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters” (11:23). Jesus’ hearers, if they were making the exodus connections, would likely hear Him talking about God being the stronger man that would attack and plunder the Romans. However, Jesus had a greater enemy in mind, with that enemy being death.

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