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Questions You ve Asked about the Old Testament PATTERNS IN THE PLAGUES

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    1. Questions Youve Asked about the Old Testament PATTERNS IN THE PLAGUES

    2. The most fundamental aspect of understanding the ten plagues is understanding their purpose(s). What were the ten plagues supposed to accomplish? Two different answers are given in Exodus. The first is that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go unless compelled to do so by a greater power (Exod 3:19-20). The second is that the plagues were to serve as a demonstration of Gods power (Exod 7:4-6). When we stop and think about these purposes, however, we realize that one of them is very well served by the plagues, and the other could easily be met by other means. God doesnt really have to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. God could get the Israelites out of Egypt without Pharaohs cooperation. The people may think that they need Pharaohs permission to leave, but God could easily just strike the Egyptian army dead, or cause them all to fall into a deep sleep, and then lead the Israelites out of Egypt. But God chose not to do this. Why not? It seems that the second purpose, to demonstrate Gods power, is more important than the first. The first could be accomplished in a number of different ways; the second, only by exercises of divine power that people could witness. Therefore, it would appear that the function of demonstrating Gods power is the more important one theologically. The most fundamental aspect of understanding the ten plagues is understanding their purpose(s). What were the ten plagues supposed to accomplish? Two different answers are given in Exodus. The first is that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go unless compelled to do so by a greater power (Exod 3:19-20). The second is that the plagues were to serve as a demonstration of Gods power (Exod 7:4-6). When we stop and think about these purposes, however, we realize that one of them is very well served by the plagues, and the other could easily be met by other means. God doesnt really have to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. God could get the Israelites out of Egypt without Pharaohs cooperation. The people may think that they need Pharaohs permission to leave, but God could easily just strike the Egyptian army dead, or cause them all to fall into a deep sleep, and then lead the Israelites out of Egypt. But God chose not to do this. Why not? It seems that the second purpose, to demonstrate Gods power, is more important than the first. The first could be accomplished in a number of different ways; the second, only by exercises of divine power that people could witness. Therefore, it would appear that the function of demonstrating Gods power is the more important one theologically.

    3. Judgments on Egyptian gods Exod 12:12 and Num 33:4 characterize the Ten Plagues as judgments [or punishments] on the Egyptian gods. Some readers have attempted to go into more detail by identifying each plague with a specific Egyptian god. For example, some take the plague of the Nile turning to blood as a specific repudiation of Hapi, the goddess most closely identified with the Nile, or of Osiris, as the Nile was mythologically cast as Osiris bloodstream. The plague of frogs might be taken as a repudiation of Heket, goddess of childbearing, whose symbol was a frog. The plague of Murrian might repudiate Apis, the bull-god, or Hathor, goddess of the sky who was also symbolized as a bull. The plague of locusts, which destroyed Egyptian crops, might specifically repudiate Isis, the fertility goddess. The plague of darkness could be seen as a specific repudiation of one of Egypts various sun-gods. The chart on this slide is adapted from Barry Bandstras textbook Reading the Old Testament (Wadsworth, 1999); Bandstras original can be found at http://www.hope.edu/academic/religion/bandstra/RTOT/CH3/CH3_TBD.HTM. Bandstra, who teaches Old Testament at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, thinks that While the correlation between plagues and Egyptian deities is incomplete and in some cases ambiguous, there are enough parallels to suggest that on at least some level the plagues of Yahweh were intended to demonstrate his superiority over Egyptian gods. On the other hand, Bob Dunston, who teaches Old Testament at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky, thinks that this idea has been pressed too far since there is no evidence that the Nile River and various animals were viewed as gods (http://cc.cumber.edu/acad/rel/hbible/HebrewBible/hbnotes/plaguesnotes.htm). One might answer Dunstons objection by saying that the point isnt that the Nile, frogs, cattle, and so on are gods, but that they are controlled or overseen by certain Egyptian gods whose control is shown by the plagues to be limited or even nonexistent. However, this answer would seem to require more consistency in identification than is typically made. For example, Heket is not the goddess of frogs; she is the goddess of childbirth, who happens to have a frog as her iconic symbol. Isis is not represented by locusts, nor by the plants they eat; she is, however, a goddess associated with fertility. So this particular objection to Dunstons ends up being hoist by its own petard. Moreover, attempts to fill in the gaps on the chart usually result in what may be most charitably be called stretching to make the point. There are no prominent Egyptian gods specifically associated with gnats or flies. Some interpreters have taken gnats and flies as metonymic for all insects, and have linked these plagues to Egyptian use of the dung beetle as a sacred symbol. But there is neither a plague of beetles, nor a plague on beetles, among the ten plagues. We would be pressing the matter beyond the evidence available to state definitively that each plague is a pointed repudiation of a specific Egyptian god. If these specific connections were intended, they are not made explicit in Exodus. Elsewhere, the Old Testament is not shy about naming specific gods, especially those of the non-Israelites living in Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan. If such specific connections were intended, one may justly wonder why Exodus is so coy about naming the specific gods. One might well suppose that such naming would be unnecessary, but in fact we are not entitled to assume, and we cannot prove, that the earliest readers of the book of Exodus would be familiar enough with the Egyptian pantheon (especially that of the second millennium BCE) to make these connections in the absence of explicit identifications. Exod 12:12 and Num 33:4 characterize the Ten Plagues as judgments [or punishments] on the Egyptian gods. Some readers have attempted to go into more detail by identifying each plague with a specific Egyptian god. For example, some take the plague of the Nile turning to blood as a specific repudiation of Hapi, the goddess most closely identified with the Nile, or of Osiris, as the Nile was mythologically cast as Osiris bloodstream. The plague of frogs might be taken as a repudiation of Heket, goddess of childbearing, whose symbol was a frog. The plague of Murrian might repudiate Apis, the bull-god, or Hathor, goddess of the sky who was also symbolized as a bull. The plague of locusts, which destroyed Egyptian crops, might specifically repudiate Isis, the fertility goddess. The plague of darkness could be seen as a specific repudiation of one of Egypts various sun-gods. The chart on this slide is adapted from Barry Bandstras textbook Reading the Old Testament (Wadsworth, 1999); Bandstras original can be found at http://www.hope.edu/academic/religion/bandstra/RTOT/CH3/CH3_TBD.HTM. Bandstra, who teaches Old Testament at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, thinks that While the correlation between plagues and Egyptian deities is incomplete and in some cases ambiguous, there are enough parallels to suggest that on at least some level the plagues of Yahweh were intended to demonstrate his superiority over Egyptian gods. On the other hand, Bob Dunston, who teaches Old Testament at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky, thinks that this idea has been pressed too far since there is no evidence that the Nile River and various animals were viewed as gods (http://cc.cumber.edu/acad/rel/hbible/HebrewBible/hbnotes/plaguesnotes.htm). One might answer Dunstons objection by saying that the point isnt that the Nile, frogs, cattle, and so on are gods, but that they are controlled or overseen by certain Egyptian gods whose control is shown by the plagues to be limited or even nonexistent. However, this answer would seem to require more consistency in identification than is typically made. For example, Heket is not the goddess of frogs; she is the goddess of childbirth, who happens to have a frog as her iconic symbol. Isis is not represented by locusts, nor by the plants they eat; she is, however, a goddess associated with fertility. So this particular objection to Dunstons ends up being hoist by its own petard. Moreover, attempts to fill in the gaps on the chart usually result in what may be most charitably be called stretching to make the point. There are no prominent Egyptian gods specifically associated with gnats or flies. Some interpreters have taken gnats and flies as metonymic for all insects, and have linked these plagues to Egyptian use of the dung beetle as a sacred symbol. But there is neither a plague of beetles, nor a plague on beetles, among the ten plagues. We would be pressing the matter beyond the evidence available to state definitively that each plague is a pointed repudiation of a specific Egyptian god. If these specific connections were intended, they are not made explicit in Exodus. Elsewhere, the Old Testament is not shy about naming specific gods, especially those of the non-Israelites living in Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan. If such specific connections were intended, one may justly wonder why Exodus is so coy about naming the specific gods. One might well suppose that such naming would be unnecessary, but in fact we are not entitled to assume, and we cannot prove, that the earliest readers of the book of Exodus would be familiar enough with the Egyptian pantheon (especially that of the second millennium BCE) to make these connections in the absence of explicit identifications.

    4. Judgments on Egyptian gods Egyptians believe Egyptian gods control nature Pharaoh, a god, guarantees cosmic order The Lord God of Israel supersedes Egypts gods Even if identifying specific plagues with specific Egyptian gods pushes our evidence a bit too far, the basic attitude underlying that approach is quite right. The Egyptians believed that their gods controlled various aspects of nature. Even more than that, they regarded Pharaoh himself as a god who guaranteed cosmic order, the stable functioning of the world itself. By manipulating various aspects of nature, the ten plagues vividly demonstrate that Pharaoh and Egypts other gods are far inferior to the Lord God of Israel. (Incidentally, this discussion is a good example of how familiarity with ancient cultures around Israel can be helpful in illuminating biblical texts, and also how such knowledge can be pressed too far if we assume too much about ancient Israelites familiarity with those cultures. In some ways, we may know a lot more about ancient Egypt than the earliest readers of Exodus did.) Even if identifying specific plagues with specific Egyptian gods pushes our evidence a bit too far, the basic attitude underlying that approach is quite right. The Egyptians believed that their gods controlled various aspects of nature. Even more than that, they regarded Pharaoh himself as a god who guaranteed cosmic order, the stable functioning of the world itself. By manipulating various aspects of nature, the ten plagues vividly demonstrate that Pharaoh and Egypts other gods are far inferior to the Lord God of Israel. (Incidentally, this discussion is a good example of how familiarity with ancient cultures around Israel can be helpful in illuminating biblical texts, and also how such knowledge can be pressed too far if we assume too much about ancient Israelites familiarity with those cultures. In some ways, we may know a lot more about ancient Egypt than the earliest readers of Exodus did.)

    5. Patterns of force While it may be said that the basic message of the ten plagues is a demonstration of Gods power, or perhaps more specifically that the plagues demonstrate the superiority of the Lord God of Israel to the Egyptian gods, the literary patterning of the plagues suggests that there are three specific components to this demonstration. It is fairly easy to demonstrate that the plagues are subtly, but intentionally, patterned into three groups of three plagues, plus one. Before the first, fourth, and seventh plagues, God sends Moses to Pharaoh early in the morning with a command to let my people go and a warning about the upcoming plague (Exod 7:15; 8:16; 9:13). Before the second, fifth, and eighth plagues, God sends Moses to Pharaoh with a command to let my people go and a warning about the upcoming plague, but the time of day when Moses goes is not specified (Exod 7:26; 9:1; 10:1). Before the third, sixth, and ninth plagues, there is no visit to Pharaoh mentioned (Exod 8:12; 9:8; 10:21). This patterning does not necessarily have any particular message, but it does demonstrate that the plagues are deliberately grouped by the narrator into three cycles of three, plus one. Having learned that the plagues are deliberately grouped into three cycles of three, plus one, we can now ask whether there is any special sub-message within each group of three. If the overall point of the plagues is to demonstrate the superiority of the Lord God of Israel, how does each of these groups of plagues contribute to that overall point? The first group of three plagues is characterized by the basic issue of Gods reality. The plagues of blood, frogs, and gnats (or mosquitoes or lice) show, at their most basic, that the Lord God is really at work in the plagues. Yet although the first plague is the best known, it is also, in some ways, the weakest. The transformation of the water into blood is reproduced by Pharaohs magicians (Exod 7:22), and there is no suggestion in Exodus (unlike, say, The Prince of Egypt) that whatever the magicians did was just a poor imitation that discolored the water instead of transforming it. It is also significant that the transformed water apparently goes back to normal on its own, without any divine intervention; at the very least, no action by God to reverse the transformation is mentioned, but the Egyptians manage to get drinking water (Exod 7:24). The Egyptian magicians are also able to reproduce the second plague, the frogs (Exod 8:3). It seems, however, that they are not able to make the frogs go away, for Pharaoh must petition Moses to get rid of the frogs (Exod 8:4). Both the Lord and Pharaohs magicians can curse the land with frogs, but only the Lord can take the frogs away. With the third plague, the magicians find themselves unable to reproduce the plague, and they conclude that this is the doing of a God. Up until the third plague, the magicians could have regarded Moses as simply another, perhaps more powerful, magician. Finally, when the magicians are unable to reproduce the third plague, they admit that a divine power is at work. The second group of three plagues emphasizes Gods presence in and access to Egypt. When announcing the fourth plague to Moses, God adds this new element: on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, so that you may know that I the Lord am in the midst of the land (8:18). Similarly, the description of the murrain plague emphasizes a difference between Egyptian and Israelite territory (9:4) and the description of the plague of boils emphasizes that the boils break out all over and throughout the land of Egypt (8:9). If the first three plagues established that God was really at work, the second three plagues establish that God has access to the entire land of Israel and can make distinctions between different parts thereof. God is not sitting out in the desert lobbing bombs at Egypt indiscriminately; God is there in Egypt actively pursuing the divine agenda. The third group of plagues adds another theme, that of Gods incomparability. This theme is made quite explicit in the Lords announcement to Moses of the impending seventh plague. Moses is to quote the Lord to Pharaoh as saying, This time I will send all my plagues upon you, your officials, and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me anywhere in the world (9:14). When the plague of hail is described, the qualification is added that this hail is such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now (9:16; cf. 9:24). Similarly, the locust plague is described as something that neither your fathers nor your fathers fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth until today (10:6; cf. 10:14). This point is not made explicitly in the ninth plague, however. The plagues, then, make a fairly straightforward point: the Lord God of Israel is the lord of all the earth, including Egypt. The Lord is more powerful than Egypt and its gods, including Pharaoh himself. But the narrative makes this point in a sophisticated way that builds step by step toward its climax. The tenth plague combines all of these elements. The first is implied (God cannot achieve what has been announced unless God exists and is really at work. The second theme is explicitly invoked when Moses announces that every firstborn in Egypt will be affected (11:5) and that none of the Israelites will be endangered (11:7). The third theme is explicitly invoked when Moses describes the mourning that will result as a loud cry such as has never been or will ever be again. These patterns in the plagues provide us with a very good example of how a biblical text can carry its basic meaning on the surface, yet build that meaning in very sophisticated ways that are not obvious until you spend a lot of time with a text. Nobody who reads the plagues story with even a modicum of attention can miss the basic point that the Lord God of Israel has power over Egypt. However, when we spend time with the story and dig into its structure, we gain added appreciation for the richness of the narrative. The story doesnt just say that the Lord God of Israel has power over Egypt. It does make that point, but it does so by building up to it first with a demonstration that God is really at work in the events surrounding Moses, then that God has access to all of Egypt and can discriminate between different parts of Egypt in the application of the plagues, and then that God not only has power, but has a power the likes of which the Egyptians had never experienced before and would never experience again. While it may be said that the basic message of the ten plagues is a demonstration of Gods power, or perhaps more specifically that the plagues demonstrate the superiority of the Lord God of Israel to the Egyptian gods, the literary patterning of the plagues suggests that there are three specific components to this demonstration. It is fairly easy to demonstrate that the plagues are subtly, but intentionally, patterned into three groups of three plagues, plus one. Before the first, fourth, and seventh plagues, God sends Moses to Pharaoh early in the morning with a command to let my people go and a warning about the upcoming plague (Exod 7:15; 8:16; 9:13). Before the second, fifth, and eighth plagues, God sends Moses to Pharaoh with a command to let my people go and a warning about the upcoming plague, but the time of day when Moses goes is not specified (Exod 7:26; 9:1; 10:1). Before the third, sixth, and ninth plagues, there is no visit to Pharaoh mentioned (Exod 8:12; 9:8; 10:21). This patterning does not necessarily have any particular message, but it does demonstrate that the plagues are deliberately grouped by the narrator into three cycles of three, plus one. Having learned that the plagues are deliberately grouped into three cycles of three, plus one, we can now ask whether there is any special sub-message within each group of three. If the overall point of the plagues is to demonstrate the superiority of the Lord God of Israel, how does each of these groups of plagues contribute to that overall point? The first group of three plagues is characterized by the basic issue of Gods reality. The plagues of blood, frogs, and gnats (or mosquitoes or lice) show, at their most basic, that the Lord God is really at work in the plagues. Yet although the first plague is the best known, it is also, in some ways, the weakest. The transformation of the water into blood is reproduced by Pharaohs magicians (Exod 7:22), and there is no suggestion in Exodus (unlike, say, The Prince of Egypt) that whatever the magicians did was just a poor imitation that discolored the water instead of transforming it. It is also significant that the transformed water apparently goes back to normal on its own, without any divine intervention; at the very least, no action by God to reverse the transformation is mentioned, but the Egyptians manage to get drinking water (Exod 7:24). The Egyptian magicians are also able to reproduce the second plague, the frogs (Exod 8:3). It seems, however, that they are not able to make the frogs go away, for Pharaoh must petition Moses to get rid of the frogs (Exod 8:4). Both the Lord and Pharaohs magicians can curse the land with frogs, but only the Lord can take the frogs away. With the third plague, the magicians find themselves unable to reproduce the plague, and they conclude that this is the doing of a God. Up until the third plague, the magicians could have regarded Moses as simply another, perhaps more powerful, magician. Finally, when the magicians are unable to reproduce the third plague, they admit that a divine power is at work. The second group of three plagues emphasizes Gods presence in and access to Egypt. When announcing the fourth plague to Moses, God adds this new element: on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, so that you may know that I the Lord am in the midst of the land (8:18). Similarly, the description of the murrain plague emphasizes a difference between Egyptian and Israelite territory (9:4) and the description of the plague of boils emphasizes that the boils break out all over and throughout the land of Egypt (8:9). If the first three plagues established that God was really at work, the second three plagues establish that God has access to the entire land of Israel and can make distinctions between different parts thereof. God is not sitting out in the desert lobbing bombs at Egypt indiscriminately; God is there in Egypt actively pursuing the divine agenda. The third group of plagues adds another theme, that of Gods incomparability. This theme is made quite explicit in the Lords announcement to Moses of the impending seventh plague. Moses is to quote the Lord to Pharaoh as saying, This time I will send all my plagues upon you, your officials, and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me anywhere in the world (9:14). When the plague of hail is described, the qualification is added that this hail is such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now (9:16; cf. 9:24). Similarly, the locust plague is described as something that neither your fathers nor your fathers fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth until today (10:6; cf. 10:14). This point is not made explicitly in the ninth plague, however. The plagues, then, make a fairly straightforward point: the Lord God of Israel is the lord of all the earth, including Egypt. The Lord is more powerful than Egypt and its gods, including Pharaoh himself. But the narrative makes this point in a sophisticated way that builds step by step toward its climax. The tenth plague combines all of these elements. The first is implied (God cannot achieve what has been announced unless God exists and is really at work. The second theme is explicitly invoked when Moses announces that every firstborn in Egypt will be affected (11:5) and that none of the Israelites will be endangered (11:7). The third theme is explicitly invoked when Moses describes the mourning that will result as a loud cry such as has never been or will ever be again. These patterns in the plagues provide us with a very good example of how a biblical text can carry its basic meaning on the surface, yet build that meaning in very sophisticated ways that are not obvious until you spend a lot of time with a text. Nobody who reads the plagues story with even a modicum of attention can miss the basic point that the Lord God of Israel has power over Egypt. However, when we spend time with the story and dig into its structure, we gain added appreciation for the richness of the narrative. The story doesnt just say that the Lord God of Israel has power over Egypt. It does make that point, but it does so by building up to it first with a demonstration that God is really at work in the events surrounding Moses, then that God has access to all of Egypt and can discriminate between different parts of Egypt in the application of the plagues, and then that God not only has power, but has a power the likes of which the Egyptians had never experienced before and would never experience again.

    6. Pharaohs hardened heart One of the features of the ten plagues story that often troubles Christians is the hardening of Pharaohs heart, in particular the biblical statements that the Lord hardened Pharaohs heart and prevented him from letting the Israelites go. Statistically, however, this is one of the storys prominent claims. The statements in Exodus about the hardening of Pharaohs heart can be grouped into three categories. One category specifies God as the agent who hardened Pharaohs heart (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). Another group specifies Pharaoh as the agent who hardened Pharaohs heart (8:15, 32; 9:34). A third group consists of statements in the passive voice (Pharaohs heart was hardened), which leaves the agent ambiguous (7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). If we count up these references, we find that half of them posit God as the agent who hardened Pharaohs heart; only three place Pharaoh himself in that role. Many Christians dislike this portrayal of God as hardening Pharaohs heart, so they try to invent ways to get around it. One example of this can be found at a web site called rationalchristianity.com. The author of the article Who hardened Pharaohs heart? wrote: I take this to mean that Pharaoh did the actual hardening, as we see it - he decided on his own to not listen to God and let the Israelites go. But God knew in advance what Pharaoh would do in any given situation, and deliberately placed Pharaoh in this situation (i.e. God decided that Pharaoh would be born at the time and place that he was and thus placed him in this position of power). (See Exodus 9:13-16.) Thus God brought about the situation, namely that Moses would encounter a pharaoh whose heart was hardened against God, though Pharaoh hardened his heart of his own free will. I think this quotation gets right at the heart of one major reason why so many Christians have such severe problems with this concept. They are so committed to the notion of human free will that they cannot accept that God would ever override a human beings free will. However, I take it as a theological axiom that God doesnt have to behave as we think right. Sometimes Christians press human free will so far that they actually compromise Gods free will in the process, and if it comes down to a contest, God is freer than humans to exercise will. The text of Exodus states unequivocally that God made Pharaoh stubborn. We dont have to like it, but I think we do have to take these statements at their face value instead of explaining them away. In fact, God announces the divine intention to harden Pharaohs heart well before Pharaoh has any options in the matter. The Lord first mentions hardening Pharaohs heart in Exodus 4:21-23. At this time, Moses is still in Midian receiving his instructions from God. It is at this point that God says God will harden Pharaohs heart so that Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go until after the tenth plague. God already plans to get to the tenth plague before Pharaoh ever has a chance to free the Israelites in response to Moses appeal. We sometimes teach the plagues story as if the real purpose of the plagues was to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. To be fair to this common practice, the text of Exodus does lure us in this direction in 3:19-20. If we stop and think about this for a bit, however, we realize that God does not really need ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. One might could argue that Pharaoh would have let the people go after the seventh plague had God not hardened his heart, because after that time all of the hardening of Pharaohs heart is explicitly done by God, not by Pharaoh (and not expressed in passive voice). Even that, however, is not the most fundamental point. God did not need to convince Pharaoh at all. God could have removed the Israelites from Egypt without Pharaohs cooperation. This point is made explicitly in the Lords message to Pharaoh preceding the seventh plague. God could have simply wiped out all of the Egyptians with the merest expenditure of divine power, and the Israelites could have simply strolled out of Egypt unimpeded (9:15). God did not need the plagues to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but then that was not the point. To be sure, God did want the Israelites out of Egypt, but God could have achieved that without the ten plagues. The goal that God achieved with the ten plagues was displaying the divine glory before Egypt and, by extension, the whole world. Gods dialogue in Exodus is very explicit about this (see Exod 9:16; 10:1-2; and other passages). The function of the exodus was to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but the function of the plagues was to demonstrate Gods power to the Egyptians and the Israelites. The claim that the Exodus narrative makes is really not at all ambiguous: God prevented Pharaoh from letting the Israelites go prematurely, in order that God might have ample opportunity to display Gods power. We Christians might not like that (insofar as it smacks of showing off), but I think we do have to accept it as a feature of the Exodus narrative instead of explaining it away, as some have tried to do. We might not approve of God manipulating Pharaohs free will in order to set up additional plagues, but apparently in Gods value system these demonstrations of Gods power were more important than letting Pharaoh make his own decisions. One of the features of the ten plagues story that often troubles Christians is the hardening of Pharaohs heart, in particular the biblical statements that the Lord hardened Pharaohs heart and prevented him from letting the Israelites go. Statistically, however, this is one of the storys prominent claims. The statements in Exodus about the hardening of Pharaohs heart can be grouped into three categories. One category specifies God as the agent who hardened Pharaohs heart (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). Another group specifies Pharaoh as the agent who hardened Pharaohs heart (8:15, 32; 9:34). A third group consists of statements in the passive voice (Pharaohs heart was hardened), which leaves the agent ambiguous (7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). If we count up these references, we find that half of them posit God as the agent who hardened Pharaohs heart; only three place Pharaoh himself in that role. Many Christians dislike this portrayal of God as hardening Pharaohs heart, so they try to invent ways to get around it. One example of this can be found at a web site called rationalchristianity.com. The author of the article Who hardened Pharaohs heart? wrote: I take this to mean that Pharaoh did the actual hardening, as we see it - he decided on his own to not listen to God and let the Israelites go. But God knew in advance what Pharaoh would do in any given situation, and deliberately placed Pharaoh in this situation (i.e. God decided that Pharaoh would be born at the time and place that he was and thus placed him in this position of power). (See Exodus 9:13-16.) Thus God brought about the situation, namely that Moses would encounter a pharaoh whose heart was hardened against God, though Pharaoh hardened his heart of his own free will. I think this quotation gets right at the heart of one major reason why so many Christians have such severe problems with this concept. They are so committed to the notion of human free will that they cannot accept that God would ever override a human beings free will. However, I take it as a theological axiom that God doesnt have to behave as we think right. Sometimes Christians press human free will so far that they actually compromise Gods free will in the process, and if it comes down to a contest, God is freer than humans to exercise will. The text of Exodus states unequivocally that God made Pharaoh stubborn. We dont have to like it, but I think we do have to take these statements at their face value instead of explaining them away. In fact, God announces the divine intention to harden Pharaohs heart well before Pharaoh has any options in the matter. The Lord first mentions hardening Pharaohs heart in Exodus 4:21-23. At this time, Moses is still in Midian receiving his instructions from God. It is at this point that God says God will harden Pharaohs heart so that Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go until after the tenth plague. God already plans to get to the tenth plague before Pharaoh ever has a chance to free the Israelites in response to Moses appeal. We sometimes teach the plagues story as if the real purpose of the plagues was to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. To be fair to this common practice, the text of Exodus does lure us in this direction in 3:19-20. If we stop and think about this for a bit, however, we realize that God does not really need ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. One might could argue that Pharaoh would have let the people go after the seventh plague had God not hardened his heart, because after that time all of the hardening of Pharaohs heart is explicitly done by God, not by Pharaoh (and not expressed in passive voice). Even that, however, is not the most fundamental point. God did not need to convince Pharaoh at all. God could have removed the Israelites from Egypt without Pharaohs cooperation. This point is made explicitly in the Lords message to Pharaoh preceding the seventh plague. God could have simply wiped out all of the Egyptians with the merest expenditure of divine power, and the Israelites could have simply strolled out of Egypt unimpeded (9:15). God did not need the plagues to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but then that was not the point. To be sure, God did want the Israelites out of Egypt, but God could have achieved that without the ten plagues. The goal that God achieved with the ten plagues was displaying the divine glory before Egypt and, by extension, the whole world. Gods dialogue in Exodus is very explicit about this (see Exod 9:16; 10:1-2; and other passages). The function of the exodus was to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but the function of the plagues was to demonstrate Gods power to the Egyptians and the Israelites. The claim that the Exodus narrative makes is really not at all ambiguous: God prevented Pharaoh from letting the Israelites go prematurely, in order that God might have ample opportunity to display Gods power. We Christians might not like that (insofar as it smacks of showing off), but I think we do have to accept it as a feature of the Exodus narrative instead of explaining it away, as some have tried to do. We might not approve of God manipulating Pharaohs free will in order to set up additional plagues, but apparently in Gods value system these demonstrations of Gods power were more important than letting Pharaoh make his own decisions.

    7. Questions Youve Asked about the Old Testament PATTERNS IN THE PLAGUES Next Weeks Topic (July 28, 2002) BALAAM, GODS YO-YO