Like most people, I spent a good portion of 2020 on Zoom. On one particular Zoom call in early April, a friend of mine reflected on the world in which we now found ourselves. Those of us living in Tennessee experienced a disastrous series of tornadoes across the state just days before COVID-19 upended the world. My friend pointed out something profound as we discussed these two concurrent tragedies: “For the first time in decades, we have been confronted with two problems that technology cannot easily fix.”
Our modern world has completely oriented our lives around an ever-growing array of technology: phones, computers, refrigerators, cars, watches, doorbells, books, and entertainment. In the process, we have come to treat technology as an omnipotent and omnipresent source of answers, healing, happiness, and meaning. Technology has become the focal point around which our lives and decisions revolve. It has moved from being a tool to becoming an idol in our society.
But technology didn’t protect my neighbors from straight-line winds and tornadoes that devastated businesses, shredded homes, and stole lives. And technology failed to save our world from COVID-19 before we lost millions of lives. We are citizens of the twenty-first century, and we get impatient when YouTube videos fail to load within five seconds, so it was truly disorienting when days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years without the pandemic being deleted from our lives. Our lives came to revolve around technology—and technology failed us. Technology is an incompetent god.
I was reminded of this Zoom conversation recently while rereading the story of the plagues recounted for us in Exodus 7–11. With each plague, Pharaoh and the Egyptians are dealt blow after blow to their view of the world. Their spiritual, economic, and military foundations are torn apart by acts of the Hebrew God that expose the gods of Egypt as inept and powerless. The God of the Israelites proved his dominion over the water, the frogs, the desert, the bugs, the animals, disease, the weather, the sun, and ultimately death. An average citizen could easily connect each of these plagues with an Egyptian god or goddess: Osiris. Ra. Heqet. Set. Wadjyt. Apis. The list of supposed divine rulers goes on and on. The Egyptians revolved their lives around these deities—and their gods failed them. The Egyptian deities were incompetent gods.
It is disorienting—both in ancient biblical times as well as the twenty-first century—when the things we put at the center of our lives disappoint and fail us. Think about how our lives felt so untethered throughout the height of the pandemic, as if we were ships tossed about in a violent storm at sea. Unmoored and under relentless attack, many quickly became overwhelmed by the fracturing of the world as we knew it. We can imagine Pharaoh and the Egyptian citizens dealing with the same emotions and fears as they faced a complete fracturing of their world, both physically and spiritually. Their lives were turned upside down.
We live in difficult times. Yet times of chaos and disorientation are not new actors on the stage of human history.
In such times of chaos and upheaval, we are faced with the choice to double down on serving these insufficient gods or to reorient our lives around something else—someone else. The choice for us today is no different than it was for the individuals in the Exodus story. Whether Hebrew or Egyptian, individuals were faced with fighting to save the status quo of a life run by the Egyptian deities or to choose to follow the God of the Hebrews, YAHWEH—the God who chose the name “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” when talking to Moses through a burning bush; and the same God who, in Exodus 34:6b–7a, had another conversation with Moses, describing God’s own characteristics: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
We live in difficult times. Yet times of chaos and disorientation are not new actors on the stage of human history. The story of Exodus reminds us that, in times of chaos, our God brings order, peace, and steadfast love. In times of destruction, our God brings healing, mercy, and re-creation. In times of disorientation, our God is faithful, gracious, and slow to anger. The deities of Egypt and the powers of modern technology cannot protect our lives or provide us with meaning. But God can. Our God is our salvation, and our God never fails.
No matter the difficulties that we face in our lives, we can find hope in knowing that our God journeys with us and defends us. And, having journeyed with our triune God through hard times, we can join the Israelites in singing the song of victory that they sang after crossing the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation; he is my God, and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:2).