Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 15, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Exodus 7-8
Did you ever have something confiscated from you? When I was a kid, and we were driving somewhere in the car with the family, it was usually our Game Boy®. I played many games of Tetris® on that Game Boy. It's a portable gaming system. One of the first of its kind. Played many games of Tetris on that thing. And I would have played more, had not my mother confiscated it so often.
We'd be driving along in the car, and my brother and I, we'd be fighting like brothers in the backseat. And my mom would turn around, and she would say, "Give me that silly game." She would confiscate it because we had places to go together, and she wasn't going to let some Game Boy stand in the way.
Confiscation is a staple on the menu of punishment set before parents and guardians. Now I suppose that's one advantage of kids having more stuff these days is that there's more stuff to take away. Confiscation in the case of adults, however, is a more serious matter. A parent might have the right to confiscate a cell phone from their child. But when can an authority confiscate something from another adult?
You've probably had something confiscated from you. Maybe at the TSA security check in the airport—pocket knife, a bottle of water, shampoo. Now that seems justified for public safety, even if it is annoying. Confiscation sends a message. Confiscation puts you in your place. Now if you're a child living at home on the goodness and grace of your parents, then that's just a part of life. Like my mom says, "A Game Boy is a privilege not a right, young man."
But if you're an adult, sequestering someone's property is a different matter. Civilizations in modern times have taken measures to protect people against unreasonable confiscations: the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, for example. Nobody likes confiscation when it happens to them. And yet we still see the need for confiscation.
If someone's using their property to commit a crime, to do harm, to diminish the dignity of another human being, then maybe a confiscation is warranted. Who has the authority to decide? That's the question, isn't it? Who has the authority to give and to take away? This question of who can give and who can take away, it animates the first half of the second book of the Bible, the book of Exodus, which we've been listening to on this program.
In the book of Exodus, we meet Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Now Pharaoh, he believes that he is the incarnate son of the supreme being of the son of sun god, Amun Ra. And he believes that he is the ultimate authority in the land. He has the authority to give and to take away. He can give like his forefather gave this land of Goshen to these Hebrew immigrants long ago. And he believes that he has the authority to take away like his forefather took away their freedom and enslaved them—like he took away their baby boys and had them thrown in the river.
Unfortunately for him, one of those baby boys slipped through the reeds of the Nile River and now, 80 years later, he's come back to lead these Hebrew immigrants. Moses. And Moses claims to speak for the God of the Hebrews. The God who goes by the Name, "I am who I am."
And Pharaoh hears that this foreign Deity wants to confiscate his property: his slaves. And Pharaoh more or less says, "Ha! I'd like to see You try." And so begins one of the most talked about contests of wills in human history.
And the story picks up in Exodus 7.
"The Lord said to Moses, 'When Pharaoh tells you to perform a miraculous sign, you tell Aaron, "Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake."' So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord commanded them. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants. And it became a snake. But Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers and they, the magicians of Egypt, they did the same thing by their secret arts. Each one of them threw down his staff. And it became a snake. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh's heart was stubborn. And he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.
"And the Lord said to Moses, 'Pharaoh's heart is resistant, and he refuses to send the people out. Go to Pharaoh in the morning. As he's going out to the water, you take your stand on the bank of the Nile River and meet him there. And the staff, the one that was changed into a snake, take it in your hand. And you tell Pharaoh, "The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to tell you, send My people out, and they will serve Me in the wilderness.' But so far, you have not listened and so this is what the Lord says, 'By this you will know that I am who I am. Look with this staff in my hand, I will strike the water of the river Nile, and the water of the river will be turned to blood. The fish in the Nile will die. The river will stink, and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water. ... Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in the wooden buckets and the stone vessels.' And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord commanded. He raised up his staff in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants, and he struck the water of the river. And it turned to blood.
"But the magicians of Egypt, they did the same thing. By their secret arts. And so Pharaoh's heart was stubborn, and he did not listen to them just as the Lord had said. He turned and went back into his house. And did not take even this to heart. And the Egyptians, they dug along the river to get water for drinking, because they couldn't drink water from the river. Seven days passed after the Lord had struck the Nile. And the Lord said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh and say to him, "Send My people out, and they will serve Me. Should you refuse to send them out, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs, and they will come up into your house, into your bedroom, and onto your bed. They will go into the houses of your servants and your people. They will go into your ovens and your mixing bowls. They will hop up onto you and your people and all your servants."
"And the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell Aaron, stretch out your hand with your staff over the streams and the canals and the ponds and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.' So Aaron stretched out his staff over the waters of Egypt, and frogs came up on the land. And the magicians, they did the same thing by their secret arts, they made frogs, more frogs come on the land. So Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'Pray to the Lord to take these frogs away from me and from my people, and I will send your people out to offer sacrifices to the Lord.' And Moses answered, 'I leave you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your people and your servants so that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for the those that remain in the Nile.'
"And Pharaoh said, 'Tomorrow.' And Moses answered, 'It will be as you say so that you may know that there is no one like Lord our God.' And after Moses and Aaron left Pharaoh, Moses cried out to the Lord about the frogs that he had sent on Pharaoh. And the Lord did what Moses asked. The frogs died. They died in the houses and in the courtyards and in the fields, and they heaped them up in pile after pile so that the land reeked of them.
"But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he made his heart resistant and he did not listen to Moses and Aaron just as the Lord had said. Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell Aaron, stretch out your hand with your staff and strike the ground. And the dust of the ground will become a swarm of gnats in all the land of Egypt.' They did this. ... And the magicians, they tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could not. And the gnats were on man and animal and the magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.' But Pharaoh's heart was stubborn, and he would not listen just as the Lord had said."
The Word of the Lord, Exodus 7-8.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the U.S. Federal Government passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which declared that the Union had the right to seize the property of the Confederacy. About a month later, the State of Virginia responded in kind, and they declared that any northerner who owned property in Virginia must come down and pledge allegiance to the Southern Confederacy or else their property would be confiscated.
It was a contest of wills culminating in war. It was a question of authority. Who has the right and to take away? It's a question as relevant today as it was in the Civil War, as it was 3,500 years ago in Middle Kingdom Egypt. It's a question that's relevant for you. Because you also, like Pharaoh, in some ways are confronted with the God of the Hebrews.
The one true God. The God of Abraham. The God and Father of Jesus. The God who created all things, you are confronted with this God. And this God will confiscate some of the blessings that He had formerly given you. That's what these plagues in the book of Exodus are about. God gave all these blessings to Egypt, and now He's taking some of them away. He is taking them away because Pharaoh is standing in the way of the place God wants to bring His creation. And God is so stubbornly committed to the goodness of His creation that He won't let anyone or anything stand in the way.
When God confiscates something He once gave to you, how do you respond? Maybe you react negatively to His authority. And if you do, I'm sure you have your reasons. But I hope that those reasons are not based on a misunderstanding of God's authority. There is no limit to God's authority over your life, but His authority is shaped by a certain kind of relationship. It's not like the authority of the TSA agent. The TSA agent's relationship with you is very limited. She's there to prevent harm to the passengers. That's it. And if she confiscates your stuff, she doesn't have the authority or the responsibility to help you after that.
Now it's different when my mom confiscates my Game Boy. It's not totally different because my mom also uses her authority to protect the safety of the passengers and make sure we get to the destination. But it is different because my mom's relationship to me and to my brother goes beyond the act of confiscation. Confiscation is just one small, short-term part of her larger lifelong relationship to us. And this is how you should understand God's authority to give and to take away.
Some people misunderstand what the Bible says about God's authority. And if all you heard was this brief showdown between God and Pharaoh, you might think that God sounds more like a TSA agent. That God's only there to take away your stuff if you break the rules. Now make no mistake, God reserves the right to do that. He's very concerned about the well-being of the passengers and getting them safely to their destination. He has reserved the right to confiscate anything that threatens that.
But His relationship to you, His relationship to me, His relationship even to Pharaoh doesn't stop there. Again and again, throughout the book of Exodus, we hear God state the purpose of the plagues so that you will know that "I am who I am." So that Pharaoh will know. So that the Egyptians will know. So that the children of Israel will know and future of generations of the children of Israel will know. So that the world will know. So that you will know that "I am who I am." So that you will know the One who knows you. So that you will know, even as you are fully known. That's relationship language. And confiscation is just one small, short-term part of a much larger, deeper, eternal relationship that God wants to have with you.
Through the gift of your father and your mother, God created you. He gives you everything that you have. And He gives and He takes away, not to show off His authority. He gives and He takes away because He loves you. God created you to be adopted into His family through Jesus. God has pulled off His rescue plan for the world. Pharaoh couldn't stop Him. No one can stop Him. God's people have places to go. From those Hebrew slaves that He rescued out of Egypt, He brought forth the Messiah, Jesus. And by faith in Jesus, you also belong.
No matter what gets confiscated from you. If God takes something from you, in faith you can say, maybe cautiously at first, maybe timidly, "God took that away because it stands in the way of where He wants to bring me." Now that's difficult to accept. When God takes something from you that you love—or someone.
In that case, all I can say is look to the cross of Jesus. That's where the Father took everything away from His Son. But it was only temporary. By the power of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, God gives everything back and more. The cross was just a part of the Father's relationship to Jesus. And so Jesus was free to give everything over to His father. What do you call confiscation if someone gives it over freely?
You can call that sacrificial love. That's what Jesus did for you. And the sacrifice of Jesus reveals that everything belonging to this mortal life ultimately stands in the way of true life. This life, compared to true life, is like slavery compared to the land of milk of honey. And so God is taking it all away so that He can give you true life in Jesus. In Jesus, you already have everything. In Him, there is no more confiscation. There is only love—love of the Father.
When my mother confiscated my Game Boy, it was an act of grace because it happened within a larger relationship. We're driving along and my dad, he's at the wheel. My brother and I, we're fighting in the backseat. Mom turns around and she says, "Boys, give me that silly game!" She confiscates it. And then what does she do? She turns and she says, "All right, Matt and Michael, let's play a game. Let's play the alphabet game." And Matt and I, we're pouting at first and we say, "I don't want to play the alphabet game. I want to play Tetris." But mom, she keeps after us and she ... we're driving along, and she leads the way and she calls out the A in Arby's. And before we know it, we're all hunting for the Q in Dairy Queen. And we've forgotten all about this silly Game Boy because we belong, and we have places to go. And we might even stop for milkshakes along the way.
If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Dear Father, You give and You take away. Blessed be Your Name. Through Jesus Christ, Your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for March 15, 2020
Title: Gracious Confiscation
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For information about the program and its speakers, archived audio, our mobile app, and free online resources, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I have joining me today in the studio Dr. Tom Egger, serves as a professor of Old Testament or First Testament. What do you prefer, Old Testament or First Testament?
Tom Egger: Well, they're both just fine, but it's just the Old Testament is the most familiar term.
Mike Zeigler: Okay, very good. So I have heard you say in a different context that Exodus is history told in a very artful way. What did you mean by that?
Tom Egger: The book of Exodus, it's a well-known account, it's a vibrant account with a lot of action, especially in the first half of the book, and it's a historical record of what God did in bringing His people out of Egypt and then giving them laws from Sinai and setting up the tabernacle. But one thing I think that we don't always pay a lot of attention to is just the artistry with which the story is told, and I've heard it said that if you really want to hear clearly what the Bible is saying, it's also important to listen to how it's saying it. So how is the story told? In other words, what kinds of literary devices are in play? What's the structure of the narrative?
Just one example that I always think is interesting is in the opening of the book, he mentions in chapter one that Pharaoh has them doing hard labor. He enslaved, he's shrewdly enslaved the descendants of Jacob, the people of Israel who are living in Egypt, and he's having them do hard labor. And it says they're building storehouses for Pharaoh, and that word for storehouses in Hebrew is very similar. It sounds almost exactly the same with just one letter difference, but they sound almost identical when they're pronounced, almost the same word as "mishkan"—tabernacle—that they're going to be building for the Lord at the end of the book.
Mike Zeigler: Really?
Tom Egger: So, I'm sure there are different words, different terms, that he could have chosen for the structures that they were building. But he chose the one, the word to describe what they were building, that has a wordplay, so that there's this picture of them in bitter labor under a tyrant king in the first half of the book, building his "mishkahnot," his storehouses. But at the last half of the book, they're now freed and under a much better Lord who graciously provides more than they need for the building project and gives them this blessed service to do for Him in the building of "mishkan," the tabernacle.
Mike Zeigler: So Exodus is history, but not merely just like an almanac. It's told in an artistic way with literary devices, and that's part of the message.
Tom Egger: Yeah, exactly. Some of these little literary twists or flares with which Moses tells the story actually are a part of the message and have theological significance.
Mike Zeigler: So building on that, why is this ancient book, part of the Old Testament, why is it important today for the followers of Jesus?
Tom Egger: We really need to look at the whole sweep of Scripture, so not just the book of Exodus, but moving backwards to God as the Creator of the whole world and the Lord of all the families of the earth. And yet all the families of the earth have fallen into sin and are now subject to death and are estranged from the Creator and in rebellion against the Creator, but God has chosen one family in the world, of all the human families, He's chosen Abraham and his descendants to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. And it's through His work in this one family that He's going to restore the creation and reconcile humankind to Himself. And that's what we see playing out then on the pages of Exodus is the Creator God who loves all is working in mighty, special ways in history to reclaim this one people group out of bondage in Egypt and to lead them up to the land of promise. And in redeeming them, He's calling them to be His own. He's giving them this holy, special vocation, and it's out of this people then that the Messiah is going to come.
Mike Zeigler: So Exodus shows Christians the larger story, the track record of God through the ages, and the character of God.
Tom Egger: Yeah. Yeah. That's a very good summary. Yeah, the track record of God. It's a key point in the story of the great things that He's done, but that also then reveals who is this God? Who is the God who created us? Well, in the book of Exodus, He steps into history, and there's the refrain that runs through the book, "So that you may know that I am the Lord, so that you may know that I am the Lord," and He keeps acting in these ways so that His people will know Him and so that all people will know Him.
Mike Zeigler: Clearly, we have a lot that we could keep talking about, but I think we're out of time. Would you come back and talk some more with us?
Tom Egger: Yeah, absolutely.
Mike Zeigler: All right. Thanks for joining us.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"May God Bestow on Us His Grace" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)