Building People of Substance for Works of Power
And the LORD will make a difference between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt. So nothing shall die of all that belongs to the children of Israel.” ‘ ” Then the LORD appointed a set time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.” So the LORD did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the children of Israel, not one died.Exodus 9:4-6 NKJV
When I read about the death of Egypt’s livestock, I’m reminded of my second grade teacher. She was a nice lady, but very straight-laced (It was 1955). One morning my buddies and I were looking through one of those kaleidoscope tubes, the old cardboard kind. When you looked into the end of the tube and turned it, you could see by all manner of colorful patterns. Apparently I was very impressed with what I was seeing, as I exclaimed, “Holy Cow!” My teacher assessed this to be blasphemous, and marched me to the office to be chastened by the principal.
For me, this was an exclamation of wonder learned from listening to Harry Caray call St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on the radio: “Holy Cow, what a catch!” For Mrs. Griffin, it was an insult to God. The phrase originated in the early 20th century and became a sort of substitute for profanity. Apparently the idea derived from a derisive reference to Hindu religion. I knew none of this, so my intent was neither profane nor religious. However, at least in her mind, I was either worshipping cows or cursing God in my heart. If she had a point, I missed it at the time.
In the ancient Near East of Moses’s day, it was quite common to worship gods symbolized by or embodied in livestock. Egypt and its neighbors all had gods associated with animals. Osiris was often depicted and worshipped as a ram, while Apis and Mnevis were bulls. The deities so embodied were thought to be responsible for fertility, provision, and the afterlife. When these “holy cows” were destroyed by Yahweh, the message was clear: Israel’s God has power over yours. At the Exodus, Moses observed, “Also on their gods the LORD had executed judgments (Numbers 33:4).” His non-Israelite father-n-law, Jethro, heard the story and exclaimed, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods (Exodus 18:11).”
This story is not just about judgment on the gods of Egypt. It’s also a demonstration that God makes a difference between His people and the people who serve other gods. The plague that destroyed the animals in Egypt miraculously stopped at the border of Goshen, home of God’s people. God’s difference was clearly visible: Israel’s cows lived, Egypt’s died. Why? The Israelites had cows but they didn’t worship cows. Their cows were just cows. God doesn’t mind us having cows. He does mind us worshiping other gods. Sometimes the line can be blurry.
Most of us don’t personally own much livestock. We do have other, more contemporary, signs of God’s wondrous provision. In that ancient culture, livestock provided food and sustenance to the people. A man with large flocks and herds was a wealthy man. Though the wealth of mighty Egypt was destroyed, the lowly Israelite slaves remained blessed. Their cows lived because Israel didn’t worship them. Prosperity and provision in the midst of judgment was a sign to the world around them: Yahweh is the God above all gods. Worship Him.
Men’s hearts wandering toward the exaltation of provision over the provider is not unique to the ancients. We live in an age when possessions and provision often take the central place in our lives. A desire for money, a fear of lack, and a love of luxury drive us to decisions made without the counsel of God. Your final authority in making decisions is effectively your God. The New Testament is full of warnings about this subtle idolatry. Here are just a few:
- For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10 ESV)
- As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (1 Timothy 6:17 ESV)
- No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24 ESV)
“Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior. ”Martin Luther
Here’s The Point: God wants His people to prosper, even in the middle of famine and pestilence. Our Goshen, our land of drawing near, is found in our hearts, and shows itself in the way we live in the world. God wants to make a difference, and He wants the world to be able to see it. When the stock market crashes, my cows are still alive. When the inflation rate goes up, my cows are still multiplying. No matter what’s going on in the world, my God supplies my needs. I live in Goshen as long as I don’t worship the provision, only the Provider. The difference between Egypt and Goshen is in who or what we worship. Don’t let your cows lord it over your life. They’re just cows. Worship God, eat cows, live in Goshen.
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