Who Is YHWH?
There are a couple of ways we can look at the 10 Plagues in Exodus. If we think of God first and foremost as a God of wrath and jealous vengeance, we'll think the plagues are supposed to teach those wicked Egyptians a lesson. That lesson will be, "Respect me or I'll kill your children." I've actually read commentaries and listened to sermons that said this very thing. If we think of God first and foremost as the author of a community through whom all nations of the world will be blessed, we'll think the plagues are supposed to teach the Israelites a lesson. That lesson will be, "Trust me and I'll be the only God you need." I rarely hear this message.
The whole episode kind of begins with Pharoah asking Moses a question: "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?" (Exodus 5:2). Before we start pointing our accusatory fingers at him, we should remember that this is a perfectly understandable question. Pharoah grew up believing in dozens of gods -- believing that he was, in fact, one of the gods incarnate. As far as he was concerned, YHWH was a peer -- one of his equals -- just another regional or topical god. Why obey his voice as opposed to, say, Apis (the bull-god who served as an intermediary between the human and divine worlds), Isis (the goddess of health and healing) or Osiris (the god of order)?
As God visits the Egyptians with plagues, he's not punishing them so much as he is preparing his people to trust him. Each of the plagues takes on a handful of gods or goddesses and trumps them -- in often humorous ways. Take the frogs, for example. Heqt was depicted as a frog and was seen to symbolize birth. But when the plague of the frogs ended, the frogs didn't disappear -- they died where they were. Big rotting piles of Heqt -- heaps of dead deity everywhere you turned. God has irony down pat.
Slavery doesn't breed people who are competent and ready to live on their own. We witnessed this in our own country after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many people who had only known life as a slave were simply unable to cope with a life of freedom. Unbelievably, thousands chose to continue living as slaves -- simply because they didn't know how to live otherwise.
God, in this section of Exodus, is preparing his people for the freedom they will enjoy. They need to know that everything will be okay without the "protection" of their owners. YHWH will be their God, and they will be his people. And YHWH is no regional, seasonal or tropical God. He is the God of everything.
What would life be like for people who really believed that? Would there be as much anxiety? Would there be this smug insistence that we're superior to others? How would you live if you really thought your God was more concerned with preparing you for freedom than with punishing others for not recognizing him? What if God wanted to use you to be a blessing to the people around you -- not to be a constant source of nagging and complaining?