Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Who hardened Pharaoh's heart?

In the biblical narrative of the Exodus, there are some hard words, perhaps none harder than the following from Exodus 7:3:
But I [the LORD] will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.
As the narrative proceeds, Pharaoh and Egypt are afflicted by 10 awful plagues that ravage the land and its people. Each time, Pharaoh hardens his heart (or sometimes it says his heart was hardened) and refuses to let the people of Israel go.  The plagues culminate with the death of the firstborn son of all of the people of Egypt, finally causing  Pharaoh to relent and let Israel go.

What are we to make of this story? From a literary standpoint, the ten plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart serves to build up the reputation of YHWH as a God of power.  This reputation goes before the Israelites and prepares the way for them on their trek to the promised land. God deliberately inflicts great tribulation on the Egyptians and deliberately hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he can display his power.

From a theological standpoint this narrative becomes a wee bit troubling, at least for me. There is the issue of choice.  Did Pharaoh not have a choice.  In the story he appears to be a pawn of God's plan to increase his reputation.  Then there is the greater issue of a God who will inflict pain and suffering upon a people, and will make sure that he does it to such an extent that his reputation among the nations becomes one of fear. It certainly seems like this is a different God than the one spoken of by Jesus.  Jesus did not bring wrath down on Rome and create a reputation for being one to be feared.  No, Jesus demonstrated the power of God not through triumph, but through weakness and a cross. So, what should Christians make of the Exodus narrative?

I am not a theologian (as one of my seminary professors once pointed out, much to my consternation at the time), but I suspect the answer to finding a satisfying solution to this dilemma lies in the greater biblical narrative.  Only by setting this story in the entire canonical context can I begin to make sense of this story. What say you?


  1. The way I see it is that God is all holy and any and all sin offends His holiness. The God of the Old Testament is indeed a vengeful God ("I, the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me . . .") because He must be. Consider the great sin of the Pharaoh for enslaving God's chosen people, the people from which the Messiah would come from. Through the plagues God is both showing his might and punishing the Pharaoh for his sin, and the sins of the Egyptians. I have also heard from some that it is likely that many Egyptians by the time of the last plague were convinced of the Israelites' God and so took the same precautions as them (i.e. painting the doorway with a lamb's blood) so as to not let the Angel of Death in. Their sons would then be spared. God is then exacting revenge on only those who do not believe in Him (those that "hate" Him). It is a part of God's character, in his infinite righteousness, to strike down sin when He feels He must. Understanding this, we come to realize that we are all worthy of only this punishment, being the sinful beings as we are. We are all condemned to death because of our sin. Exodus shows us what could have been had it not been for Jesus. Jesus' sacrifice of Himself is the greatest mercy, the greatest gift ever bestowed upon mankind. Jesus' sacrifice was not weak, for he bared the death and misery of all mankind for us and broke free from Hell, which is something no man could do on his own. The triumph over the grave is truly the greatest triumph of all, much more than the destruction of cities and empires. If salvation had been so easy as overthrowing the Roman Empire, what would be the difference between the Messiah and any other great conqueror, such as Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte? Although it is interesting to note that the Roman Empire crumbled soon after the rise of Christianity.

    And also, just because I'm almost finished re-reading the Harry Potter series for the third time:

    I find that Harry Potter sometimes helps me understand the loving sacrifice God made for me. You see, in the series Lily gives her life to save Harry from Voldemort, who is the epitome of all evil. It is this sacrifice of love that saves Harry's life from the Killing Curse, Avada Kedavra. In the beginning of the series, Harry is naive and doesn't understand the significance of this sacrifice that his mother made, just as we as humans can't seem to comprehend God's amazing love. So we get eternal life. Awesome. But we don't understand what would have been had it not been for the sacrifice. As Harry gets older he learns more about the context of his survival, just as as we grow up we come to realize the true evil in the world. Lily, who is just this ghost figure at first, comes to be a major player in the defeat of Voldemort, just as Jesus is the key to the defeat of Satan and all evil.

    Lily's sacrifice is shown to one of the most brave and loving things someone could ever do, which is how we should see Jesus' death on the cross.

    God was and is vengeful because He must be to maintain His holiness, but He is also loving because He gives a chance at salvation, a chance to be free from sin forever as it was in the original Creation.

    ~Anastasia Johnson

  2. My room mate and I talked about it this and the way we saw it was that by bringing all these hardships upon the Israelites (by hardening Pharaoh's heart) then delivering the Israelites from them, God taught the Israelites to trust Him and to believe that no matter what predicament they were in, God had the power to deliver them from it. For example, the Israelites felt almost hopeless when they were caught between the Red Sea and the Pharaoh's army on the other but God parted the sea for them and helped them out and so they came to trust Him and His power to deliver them from any crisis, no matter how big.

  3. I find myself questioning the same thing while I was reading Exodus. I came to the conclusion that God probably did not want the Israelites to take him for granted. God is the most merciful and forgiving by his definition, however, by hardening Pharaoh's heart he taught the Israelites to put their trust in Moses and strengthen their belief in God because He helped them overcome all of the plagues and protected them from them. Also, I believe that the Bible is incomplete. Any religious text can't be complete unless in it's original form because the TRUE meaning is always lost in the translation. God's feelings can't be judged by humans because God doesn't have any human emotions. Boast, happiness, anger, jealousy, are all emotions that exist but are identified and labeled by humans, therefore, claiming that God had any kind of insecurities would be incorrect because we don't know the truth. We could be completely unaware of God's purpose behind everything because we have limited knowledge.

  4. At first it seems like God is purposefully punishing the Pharaoh for something that God made him do. Its like setting someone up to fail and when it looks like they might succeed, changing the rules so that they cannot possibly win. But you can also look at Gods treatment of the Pharaoh as punishment for the Egyptians enslaving the Israelite people. The Israelite people had no choice in the matters that concerned their lives while enslaved so God gave a taste of that to Pharaoh. He took away his choices so that he could experience some of what the Israelites had suffering from for generations. Giving the Israelites a reputation to proceed before them had to be part of his plan as well because after being in slavery for so long they had to look like easy pickings for bandits or slavers. The justice that God delivered to the Pharaoh and the Egyptians was the only thing that was protecting the Israelites and without it they would have ended up dead in the desert or slaves to another nation.
    The first time you read the passage it seems like God is being unfair to Pharaoh and is intentionally being cruel but instead he is delivering justice and providing protection to the Israelites during a vulnerable time