“He sent darkness and made it dark” (Psalm 105:28)
“The LORD is my light and my salvation.” (Psalm 27:1)
These two quotes seem at first glance contradictory. How can the LORD, in whom David trusted as his ‘light’ and ‘salvation’, be the same diety who sends darkness?
The passage in Psalm 105 is in reference to the plague of darkness in Egypt, the plague immediately preceding the death of the first born. Commonly, in the study of the sages of Israel over this passage and also in the critical source method of modern scholarship, it is questioned as to how the plague of darkness can represent itself properly in the plague narrative. After all, among the ever-increasing intensity of the plagues which precede it, the plague of darkness seems, by comparison, a mere inconvenience. A debilitating one, but certainly not a plague of suffering such as the outbreak of boils, for instance. Or is it?
One of the things which is not readily seen upon a cursory reading of the story, but which reveals itself when inspected more closely, is that the plague of darkness represents the first time that the Israelites had legitimate rest from their burdens. Not a Sabbath rest, mind you. This would come later. No, a legitimate physical respite from their physical burdens. Also, a chance to ready themselves for the Exodus ahead. This stark contrast of circumstance in the classic “light and darkness” motif, places this story into the apocalyptic. Pharaoh has been paralzyed by a darkness “which could be felt” (Ex.10:21). What does that mean? Most scholars have speculated that it represented a severe spring sandstorm, which can be considered common in that region. However, the text implies something more.
The darkness which is at play here, and symbolized in a powerful way by the physical darkness which afflicted Pharaoh and his servants, is a deep spiritual blindness; the kind of blindness which is always associated in the Bible with separation from the kingdom of God. It is associated with judgment upon sin. The great prophet Isaiah invokes this concept:
“For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the people; but the LORD will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising.” (Isaiah 60:2-3)
This is speaking of the Messianic age, and is contrasted in a powerful way during the passion of the Messiah, and the onset of exile:
“It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured, and the veil of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23:44-45)
The tearing of the veil, which concealed the Holy of Holies, is typically understood by a Christian perspective to represent the removal of the separation between God and the people, because of the sacrifice of Christ. Yet, in the context of the rest of scripture, this darkness which is associated with the tearing of the veil is not something to be celebrated. No, it is the onset of national exile, and the departure of the Divine Presence. A dire scene indeed. And a warning to those of us who feel secure in our creeds and dogma.
Like the passage in Exodus which portrays the light which shined upon the dwelling of God’s people in Goshen even as there is a terrifying and debilitating darkness which has settled upon the Egyptians, we see a similar contrast at the passion of the Christ: Even as atonement is made for the nation (and ultimately for all who draw near to the God of Israel through Christ), it reveals a terrible judgment upon sin and unbelief and apostasy, which is remedied only by judgment and exile. The question which can be asked is, ‘How did the people reach the place of darkness?‘
God sent the darkness, as we see confirmed by Moses’ narrative and also by the psalmist, but it was not a random, arbitrary act of sheer power and discrimination by the Almighty. No, it was in response to something. That something is baseless hatred. This is a wickedness which develops over time. How is this?
Contrary to the strange teachings of John Calvin, in Jewish and apostolic theology there is not the belief of the total depavity of man’s condition. The Bible teaches that man makes choices as to how to respond to his environment, since the ways of God “…are clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom.1:20)
This implies that even before the Law was given at Sinai, man had the ability to make moral choices in relation to what is good and right versus what is evil. Pharaoh is undeniably being judged according to this standard. Certainly the plagues represent a shaming of the false Gods of Egypt. But more, they represent a judgment upon the progressive evil of the reign of Egypt. They represent God being the ‘hero’ of His people, in retaliation to the unrestrained evil of a dictator who has profaned the very foundational ethics of morality. This profanity perhaps reached its apex when Pharaoh commanded the killing of all the male children of the Israelites, an act of slow genocide.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests in his own essay on this subject, “Heart of Darkness”, this falls under the category of the great “counter-narrative” of scripture. God, he suggests, is revealing Egypt’s failure to uphold even the basic “Noahide” commandments:
“He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” (Genesis 9:6)
God proclaims the root of His judgment on Egypt to Moses even before He sends His prophet to face the dictator:
“You shall say to Pharaoh; “This is what the LORD says; Israel is my son, my firstborn. I have told you let My son go, that he may worship Me. If you refuse to let him go, I will kill your own firstborn son.” (Exodus 4:22-23)
Pharaoh had profaned the basic laws of God by turning that which God had provided as a source of life (the Nile) into a source of death (commanding to cast the male Israelite children into the river). The first plague (the Nile turning to blood) can be seen symbolically as a judgment upon this sin of Pharaoh. But the final plague, the death of the firstborn, in undeniabaly the retributive justice of God being carried out, in the classic “measure-for-measure” style. But this judgment was not inevitable. Though God foreknew the choice that Pharaoh would make, He still gave him a choice and an opportunity to repent. The great darkness which settled over Egypt was the final warning of impending disaster, the great inhale before the stroke fell.
Before we walk proudly past our neighbor who is suffering, or commend ourselves for our successful life-management skills and financial acumen, have we considered the children among us who are being cast into the river of hopelessness by a system which cares only about how many bricks they might be able to bake? Have we left the downtrodden among us to fend for their own straw, while we arrogantly straighten our collars and recite our creeds?
We may find ourselves proclaiming our own righteousness even while we struggle to see the nose right below our eyes, for the imposing darkness which has settled over us…a darkness sent by God, but which we have brought upon ourselves by a hardness of heart.
Does our theology allow for those who disagree with us to experience the blessings of a God who rains “upon both the evil and the good”? Must we be right, meaning dead right? Will we suffer the death of others to defend our idealogy? Will we turn our backs on those who need light? This is at the heart of God’s distinction in the plague of darkness. Unable to defend themselves from the oppression of Pharaoh, God intervened. May our theology withstand the scrutiny of history when His light shines on our own affairs.