God's Message to Pharaoh part 2
by John Thomas Lowe
How did Joseph help Egypt following the interpretation of this dream?
Joseph revealed to Pharaoh that his dream would herald seven years of plenty preceding a famine that would last seven years. … The interpretation of the dream, combined with the excellent counsel he received, made a great impression on Pharaoh, who decided to make Joseph his second-in-command in Egypt.
A God who sends plagues and hardens hearts?
Arguably the greatest act of salvation in the Old Testament is the exodus from Egypt, related in the first fifteen chapters of the book of Exodus. However, the means by which God brings about this deliverance seems deeply problematic. Not only does he inflict violence upon a whole nation (ten increasingly destructive plagues), but he also hardens the heart of Pharaoh, seemingly preventing him from releasing Israel, which would end the violence. How can we understand this portrayal of God? Why does he act this way and not another?
First, we need to acknowledge that stopping this violence as quickly as possible is not God's primary purpose. During the whole of the encounters with Pharaoh, Israel is still presumably laboring in the brick pits. Indeed, Israel fades into the background for much of Exodus 5-11, where the focus is on the encounters between three figures: God, Pharaoh, and Moses. By examining these encounters and the explanations within them, we can gain a greater understanding of why God acts as he does. We will look at one explanation of Pharaoh in particular (9:13-19). Then we will look at the hardening as a separate explanation to Moses. The fact that these explanations are given to different people is crucial in helping us as readers to understand this narrative.
As Pharaoh continually refuses to respond to God, the signs/plagues become increasingly powerful. They are structured in a 3x3+1 pattern, with three triads of increasingly violent plagues before the final terrible plague on the firstborn:
1st plague 2nd plague 3rd plague Features of triad
1st triad 1. Blood 2. Frogs 3. Lice Temporary effects
2nd triad 4. Swarm 5. Livestock 6. Boils 'Heavy,' ongoing effects
3rd triad 7. Storm 8. Locusts 9. Darkness Unparalleled effects
What Pharaoh is to learn from the plagues is not just that God can send them but that he removes them completely when asked (8:14-15 10-11; 9:29) and that he exempts his people from them (8:22-23 18-19; 11:7). Combining this with the fact that God starts with lesser plagues (or signs) and only moves to more destructive plagues shows a God who uses power far more carefully than Pharaoh does. He has sustained Pharaoh and Egypt to show them (and the world) that he is a different master from Pharaoh. This is even clearer for Israel. The exodus is not freedom in autonomy but rather a change of masters ('Let my people go so that they may serve me'). Pharaoh's mastery leads to suffering and death. God's mastery leads to life in all its fullness (6:6-8).
However, verse 17 shows us that there is a problem. God comments (in seeming exasperation) that Pharaoh has not responded appropriately to the previous signs. He has not acknowledged God's power as he refuses to release God's people. He has not understood that God was sustaining him, perhaps seeing this as a limitation in God's power rather than an explanation of the character of that power. This leads us to verse 18 and the announcement of a hailstorm of a ferocity never before seen. Verses 15-17 are an extended explanation of why this change is taking place. Because these lesser signs have not convinced Pharaoh, it seems that the only way to get through to him is to send signs of truly terrifying power.
Pharaoh does not listen to God, but some Egyptians do (9:20-21). Nevertheless, to differentiate his use of power once again, God gives Pharaoh and his people a way to avoid the worst of the plague (verse 19). They are warned to bring anything moveable indoors to avoid being destroyed in the hailstorm.
What can we learn from 9:13-19 and the explanation to Pharaoh? We learn that God is a responsive God seeking a response from Pharaoh. He does not ignore Pharaoh but wants him to release his people. When Pharaoh refuses to respond correctly, God responds by increasing the plagues, still seeking a response. (We can see similar patterns in his relationship with Israel in Amos 4:6-12 and Ezekiel 20.)
The hardening – an explanation to Moses
At this point, one may object. If God is so interested in Pharaoh, how do we understand the repeated comment that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Wouldn't this prevent Pharaoh from responding correctly?
One common way to address the hardening issue is to note that Pharaoh starts hardening his heart and that God only starts hardening later. The first example of this is just before the previous explanation and the start of the genuinely terrifying plagues (9:12). The argument then goes that God is simply doing what Pharaoh has already done to himself. There is something in this. The concept of God hardening people elsewhere in the Bible refers to those who are already opposed to his will. The hardening thus reinforces their already stubborn position.
However, in this case, there is an issue. Before the initial encounter with Pharaoh, God tells Moses that he, God, will harden Pharaoh's heart (4:21). This theme is repeated in further explanations to Moses (7:3; 10:1). How do we make sense of these explanations?
In one sense, Moses and Pharaoh are very similar in that they do not want to do what God is commanding them to do. Before the encounter with Pharaoh, God had an extended encounter with Moses (3:1-4:17). God tells Moses to be His messenger to Israel and Pharaoh. In response, Moses raises four objections to this, finally asking God to send someone else. God patiently works through Moses' reasons, but Moses is not allowed to refuse. In both cases, God is determined that these men will do something they do not want to do (Moses: go to Pharaoh; Pharaoh: release Israel) and is prepared to do whatever is necessary to convince them to do it.
In another sense, however, the two men are very different. Whereas Pharaoh's refusal is based on his attitude of superiority (5:2), Moses' refusal is based on his attitude of inferiority (3:11). He is the spokesman for the God of a group of enslaved people who are meant to go to the most powerful man in the known world and tell him to do something he will not want to do. If he had any hopes that Pharaoh would listen, they are dashed by the 'bricks without straw' edict and his subsequent rejection by the Israelites (5:21). However, God tells him to go back to Pharaoh again and again and make the same demand, which Pharaoh keeps refusing. How is Moses expected to keep going back to Pharaoh and keep bringing the same (seemingly ineffectual) message? To Moses, it must seem that Pharaoh is in charge and that he is simply playing with Moses (and God).
This is where the hardening comes in. Before Moses goes to Pharaoh, God warns him that it will not be easy, that Pharaoh will only be swayed by power (3:19). However, even though Pharaoh may seem to be in control and frustrating God's plans, he is not. God is in control. The hardening of the heart is a way to explain to Moses that God is sovereign even over Pharaoh's stubbornness. Moses may feel that Pharaoh is playing with him, but God reminds him of the more incredible picture that God is (in one sense) playing with Pharaoh (10:2). Moses has to do his part (bring God's message to Pharaoh). How Pharaoh responds is God's responsibility, not his.
However, this hardening does not remove Pharaoh's ability to respond. He receives his most extended explanation (9:13-19) just after God hardens him for the first time (9:12). If Pharaoh could not respond appropriately, God's comment in 9:17 is meaningless (also compare 10:1 and 10:3).
The critical point is that there are two different types of explanation here, based on the different relationships between God and the two men. The relationship between God and Pharaoh is hostile: 'do this (release my people), or I will do this (send a more powerful sign).' The focus is on Pharaoh, his decision, and the consequences. In contrast, God's relationship with Moses is collaborative: 'do this (speak to Pharaoh), and I will do this (the sign/Pharaoh's response). The focus is on God's sovereignty.
Neither explanation would work if given to the other man. Pharaoh is never told: 'God is hardening your heart.' If he was, he could shrug his shoulders and say, 'then it does not matter what I do, does it?' If Moses was told: 'it is up to Pharaoh to decide,' he could shrug his shoulders and say, 'then it does not matter what I do, does it?' As readers, we see both explanations, but we need to avoid collapsing them into each other or allowing either explanation to dominate our understanding. God tells each man an aspect of the truth, which is not accessible to anyone in its wholeness. For each man, this aspect is what he needs to hear to motivate him to do what God wants him to do.
Moving beyond the Exodus story into more comprehensive situations of violence, where there often is no easy answer, both explanations have their place for different people. We live with the paradox that people's choices are significant to God (even if they lead to more violence) and yet that God is ultimately sovereign (and that one-day violence will end
1. Backwardness - the state of having made less progress than is usual or expected: