Monday, May 28, 2018

Thoughts About Exodus and Why the Pharoah Wouldn’t Let Israel Go

We usually think of the Pharaoh who held the Israelites in bondage in Egypt as a bad guy (not that I’m going to argue he’s good…)  It seems odd that he would be shown all these signs and plagues, and once each one is over, he refuses to let the children of Israel go, after saying he would. Why did he keep hardening his heart?

I think it might be useful to think about what factors might have contributed to his hard heart because they may show us factors that cause us to harden our hearts.

One factor that easily comes to mind is that the Pharaoh saw that once the Israelites were gone, a very profitable source of cheap labor would be gone too. It would be logical to his self-interest and the interest of his kingdom that he would try to prevent that. He would try to intimidate or jolly Moses along in hopes of not losing control of Israelite labor.  Lesson: Loss of material advantages can often prevent us from responding to the Lord’s call if we value the advantage over obedience.

A second factor that might not be so obvious is that God’s actions may have run contrary to Pharaoh’s notions of how a god acts. Pharaoh has his gods, Moses has his God. This conflict could be seen as a cosmic battle between Pharaoh’s gods and Moses’ God. What is Pharaoh going to think of a God that says, “Let my people go”?  He’s going to think Israel’s God is weak. (“A god that asks permission for his people to leave? Right. Make me!”)  However, in the whole story, we see a God that allows people their agency—even hostile rulers—and lets them make decisions to respond to His requests or commands…or not.  And with the plagues that steadily increase in severity, we see that God is long-suffering, willing to wait for people to make the right choice, but ultimately, He can’t be frustrated and He can’t be toyed with.

Another thing we notice about Pharaoh is that when the crisis of a plague is upon him, suddenly he sees the necessity of letting Israel go, or requesting Moses to stop the plague, but as soon as the plague has stopped, he reneges and doesn’t follow through. Once the pain is gone, all thoughts of changing or acting as promised stop. There’s a nice lesson from this—when we’re going through a crisis, it is easy to make all kinds of resolutions that we’re going to change once things get back to normal, but when conditions improve, it is really easy to say, “Oh, I don’t need to do that after all; I’m okay now.” This is the same way Pharaoh hardened his heart.

Let’s review the plagues and see in what ways Pharaoh tries to put Moses off.

1) Moses’ first request is polite, with no plague. Pharaoh, in response, gets tough and makes the Israelite tasks harder by depriving them of ready straw for making bricks while not diminishing their quota they have to provide. In effect, he rewards good with evil, so the Lord has to get tougher. Ever after, Pharaoh can’t do anything to punish the Israelites because of the crisis of plagues.   Lesson: Sometimes we might consider spiritual impressions to change to be some sort of internal rebellion in ourselves or lack of discipline against a comfortable or tolerable status quo, so we tighten the screws and double down on what we’re doing instead of listening.

2) Then there is the miracle of the rods turning to snakes, the water of the river turning to blood, and the frogs. But because Pharaoh’s magicians seem to be able to do the same, Pharaoh hardens his heart. He still things his gods are just as powerful as Israel’s god. We don’t hear anything about the river and waters being healed; we only hear of the request to send away the frogs. (But you can notice that Pharaoh doesn’t actually say he’ll let the Israelites go once the frogs are gone.)  Lesson: Sometimes we refuse to listen to spiritual impressions or signs we need to change or act because we think they are coincidences or something caused by others.

3) Then there is the plague of lice, which the magicians can’t duplicate, so they tell Pharaoh it is Israel’s God at work. Still, Pharaoh hardens his heart, and we don’t see him asking for that to be removed, so maybe he thought it was a small enough problem that everyone could just deal with it.

4) Next comes the plague of flies, and Pharaoh tries to dictate the terms by which the Israelites will act. Moses’ request from the beginning has been that the Israelites be allowed to go out into the wilderness to sacrifice to God (and then not be expected to return.) The Pharaoh says at this point, “Oh, sure you can sacrifice, but do it here in Egypt.” Moses says, “No, we can’t do that, since our sacrifice is abomination to the Egyptians; they will stone us.” (see Ex. 8:26) and he says the Israelites must go at least three days journey into the wilderness. Pharaoh says “That’s fine; just don’t go very far. And pray for me.” So Moses prays for the flies to go away, which they do, and again Pharaoh hardens his heart. 

Pharaoh’s problem here was that he thought that if the intent of letting the Israelites go was sacrifice, then they should be able to do that anywhere. So why not Egypt? He forgot that the Egyptians did not approve of sacrifice, so requiring that would create a hostile, unbelieving environment for what should be a sacred, believing rite.   Lesson: Sometimes we try to dictate the terms of our obedience to the Lord. We try to choose the time and place that is most convenient, when sometimes those very inconveniences we try to ignore are what contribute to the sacredness of the experience.

5) Then there is the plague on the Egyptian cattle, and the boils on man and beast, but Pharaoh’s heart is still hardened. And he doesn’t seem to ask for any reprieve from these. He must have felt that was another thing people could just handle. Lesson: Sometimes we think we can deal with a problem instead of fixing it as we’re prompted to, and it just causes pain for everybody.

6) Then there is the hail, which is mixed with fire. (This may be ball lightning, which still hasn’t been studied much.) It so happens that the Egyptians who believed Moses could save their cattle and servants by bringing them into the house, but apparently Pharaoh didn’t care enough. Still, he asks Moses to stop the hail. Here he tries confession. “I have sinned this time: the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.” (Ex. 9:27) He promises to let the Israelites go afterward, but when the Lord stops the hail, Pharaoh hardens his heart again. So his confession was fake. You can also see that because he says, “I have sinned this time” (emphasis added). He doesn’t admit that his previous refusals to let them go are also sins. Lesson: Confessing a sin doesn’t do any good unless there is a commitment to act differently and follow-through.

7) The next one is an interesting case. Moses tells Pharaoh that there will be a plague of locusts if the Israelites aren’t let go. Pharaoh responds by telling them that only the men can go (see Ex 10:8-11) and then kicks Moses out so he can’t protest. Pharaoh is trying to hold the Israelite families hostage to ensure the return of the men. Also, he is trying to stop the conversation there so that there is no time for Moses to protest and announce the plague. I notice his servants figuring it out; they know Egypt is in trouble, but Pharaoh doesn’t realize it or refuses to see it.  Lesson: Censoring the Lord’s messenger doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Also, sometimes it becomes obvious to others around us that we are ignoring the Lord and on the wrong track, while we flail around trying to avoid the inevitable.

Anyway, Moses is in a tricky spot here. Do they take what Pharaoh offers, or do they stick to their guns? The Lord tells Moses to stretch out his hand over Egypt and bring the locusts. And they come.  Lesson: Partial obedience doesn’t fool the Lord. He knows when full obedience is being held back.

After the locusts come, Pharaoh says, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you. Now therefore forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and entreat the LORD your God, that he may take away from me this death only.” (Ex. 10:16-17)

Interesting that now Pharaoh admits he sinned against the Lord and against Moses. He has to up his contrition rhetoric to try to get Moses to believe him. (We only see this is rhetoric in hindsight, though, in the moment it could have been sincere, so he has to be believed.) But there are things he says which make us question his sincerity, especially since he says, “Forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once.” Even though Pharaoh has seen the Lord remove FIVE plagues, he has this idea that he only has to repent once and then everything will be okay after that. (What? Does he think no more plagues are possible and he’s seen the worst?) He doesn’t realize the principle that believers know-- all of us keep transgressing in ways we hadn’t anticipated, so we continue to need repentance. Also there’s another principle that Pharaoh depended upon, but which we sometimes forget (to our torment)—the Lord continues pardon as often as we repent. If the Lord removed plagues at Pharaoh’s request (knowing how hard-hearted Pharaoh was), how much more merciful will He be our complete sincerity and humility? So much more.

The Lord removes the locusts. But then Pharaoh hardens his heart again.

8) The next plague, Moses brings without going to Pharaoh. It is three days of darkness. This time Pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, but they must leave their cattle in Egypt. He’s still trying to keep hostages, still only trying to get by with 2/3rds obedience.  But since the effect of leaving the cattle means the Israelites would have to go back to Egypt to keep them or stay in the wilderness impoverished, Pharaoh’s agreement is actually not obedience at all, just a complete sham. Lesson: Hypocrisy doesn’t cut it with the Lord either.

Moses holds the line—everyone and everything they own is going with them. Pharaoh does not agree to that and says the next time Moses sees him, Moses will die.

So it has come to threats. Pharaoh seems to think that Moses is the problem and if Moses is gotten rid of, then everything will be okay. The problem is, this has just raised the stakes. Those who dig a pit for others will fall into said pit themselves. So, the Egyptians get the plague of the death of the firstborn.  Lesson:  Getting rid of the leader who transmits the commands of the Lord does not let you off the hook of following those commands.

Let’s sum up what we’ve learned, in a more organized fashion.

Sometimes we have troubles accepting messages from God because:
·      It forces us to sacrifice material advantages
·      It runs counter to our notions of what we think God would tell us.
·      We think it is just self-generated or foolish dissatisfaction.
·      We think it is coincidence or easily duplicated by others.
·      Or we think we can deal with the pain instead of changing.

Once it becomes clear the message really is from God, we still might drag our feet in the following ways:
·      The end of a crisis causes our urgency to fade and our motivation to drop.
·      We might confess our sins of disobedience, but still not change.
·      We might think we can get away with a show of obedience while not actually obeying.
·      We might think we can dictate the terms of the obedience, choosing what’s most convenient.
·      Or we might think that partial obedience is acceptable.
·      We might shorten, edit, re-interpret away the message.
·      Or (the unthinkable) threaten the messenger.

I bet these types of reasons look pretty familiar. But if we recognize ourselves here, recognizing there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it.

What I keep coming back to in this story is how long-suffering and merciful the Lord was with Pharaoh and how that means we can absolutely count on the mercy of the Lord if we repent sincerely and obey completely.