Proper 18A/Ordinary 23A/Pentecost +12
September 4, 2011
Exodus (8-11), 12:1-14
I remember my first Reconstructionist Seder. The children gleefully plunged into a “Box of Plagues” to commemorate the 10 Plagues sent by God upon the Egyptians. When it came time for the Plague of Flies, the children rambunctiously buzzed around the room with plastic flies from the box. When it came time for the Plague of the Livestock, the children ceremoniously set up several plastic cows and sheep … and knocked them all over. When it came time for the Plague of Frogs, the children threw handfuls of rubber frogs around the room, yelling “Ribbit! Ribbit!” The room was filled with laughter and celebration.
Plagues in the modern world, however, are no laughing matter. When massive environmental or health catastrophes occur, the understandable first question that people ask is “Why?” The answer in the Hebrew Biblical context was fairly clear: the Biblical Plagues were sent in response to Pharoah’s “hardness of heart” in refusing to let the Israelite people (whom they had enslaved) go. The plagues were a Divine response to social and economic injustice. The causes of modern plagues are not quite as straightforward, but they still stem from decades of collective decisions that involve implicitly Pharaoh-like attitudes.
Let’s take a look at modern parallels for two of the Exodus plagues: the Plague of Blood and the Plague of the Livestock.
For the first of the Ten Plagues, the Lord commands Moses:
“Thus says the Lord, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord.’ See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile” (Exod. 7:17-18).
The Plague of Blood was not merely for visual effect – it was seen as a total ecological catastrophe. The story goes on to say, “And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river” (vv.24). The Nile, for the Egyptians, was the source of life – and now it was turned into a stinking river of death.
On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, owned by BP petroleum, killed 11 men and led to the biggest oil spill in US history. The deep-water pipe gushed for three months, releasing 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. By July 9, 2011, roughly 491 miles of coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida remained contaminated by BP oil, according to a NOAA spokesperson. The blown well created an 80-mile “kill zone” in its immediate vicinity, and as of November 2, 2010, 6,814 dead animals have been collected, including 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles, 100 dolphins and other mammals. As of June 21, 2010, the area closed to fishing encompassed 86,985 square miles, or about 36% of Gulf of Mexico federal waters. In January 2011 the White House oil spill commission released its final report on the causes of the oil spill. They blamed BP and its partners for making a series of cost-cutting decisions and the lack of a system to ensure well safety. They also concluded that the spill was not an isolated incident caused by “rogue industry or government officials”, but that “The root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur”. In this modern plague, the waters have turned red – not due to the hand of God – but due to the natural consequences of industries and governments behaving as money-minded Pharaohs toward God’s good creation in the name of satisfying our never-ending love-affair with gas-guzzling cars.
For the Fifth Plague, the Lord commanded Moses to say to Pharaoh, “For if you refuse to let [the Israelites] go and still hold them, the hand of the Lord will strike with a
deadly pestilence your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (Exod.8:2-3). The story continues, “And on the next day the Lord did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died” (vv.6). In the time of the ancient Israelites, livestock were not just an industry, but a daily necessity. They provided food, wool, transportation and a means of barter. To have all one’s livestock die of illness would bring the local economy to its knees, as well as compromise the food security of the region.
In the mid-1980s, a new disease seemed to be affecting the cows in Britain. They began acting erratically, stumbling, staggering, and eventually could not even walk. They died slowly and terribly. In 1986, the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or “Mad Cow Disease” was officially diagnosed in Britain, signaling the beginning of a major crisis that would spread to the entire European Union, Asia, Canada and the United States. By the end of the 1990s, millions of cattle had to be slaughtered throughout Europe to attempt to halt the spread of the disease – but an estimated 460,000 and 482,000 BSE-infected animals had already entered the commercial food chain before tight controls were establish in 1989.
BSE results from the ingestion of prions – mutated proteins – which slowly deteriorate nerve and brain tissue. Prions are concentrated in nerve and brain tissue, but can be found anywhere in the body. BSE in cattle was contracted because of the common practice of feeding cattle – herbivores– feed which was intentionally mixed with the cooked remains of other cattle (including the cadavers of sick animals) as a “protein supplement”. Cows are still commonly fed a diet spiked with dozens of additives, including antibiotics and hormones. BSE was, of
course, eventually passed on to humans (as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) who unknowingly ate the tainted meat and began displaying Alzheimer’s Disease-like symptoms. 165 people in Brtain have since died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. In the United States, there is still serious concern about the standards of the beef industry – which vary greatly by state – and the first case of Mad Cow Disease was discovered in the US in 2003.
In this case, the Plague of the Livestock was again a natural consequence of humanity’s Pharaonic greed and carelessness with God’s good creation. When animals that are herbivores are force-fed the remains of their brother animals by the hundreds of thousands, in factory-based “farms” where they are kept in tiny pens the majority of their lives, the result can only be catastrophe. We sentence ourselves to these plagues when we tacitly decide that clean water and untainted food are commodities to be sold to the highest bidder, not human rights granted by our Abba God. Will we wait until the next catastrophe to decide that we need to exercise prudence and caution in all our dealings with the environment? Will it take the waters turning to blood and the cows going mad yet again to hold industry accountable and to create better, more humane ways of living that respect the environment? The Epistle for this week states it best: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:11-12). Time to wake up.