It’s hard to overstate the significance of the episode that now begins here in Exodus 7. The significance…and the difficulty of it all…not least being the miraculous nature of the plagues.
This is like our Gospel Reading today. Sure, it’s a great thing that the Gerasene man is freed by Jesus from that legion of demons. Hooray for him! But at the cost of those pigs? What harm were they doing?
So here now as the Exodus gets under way. Yes, it’s great that Israel is finally going to be set free. Hooray for them! But at the cost of so much devastation to the Egyptians…most of whom have no hand at all in Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Why should they suffer?
The introductory verses of chapter 7 speak of the difficulties. V1, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you…’” First off, Moses himself needs this whole thing. It’s like Jesus’ disciples. Before His crucifixion, the whole lot of them are like the Keystone Cops, bumbling around. And Peter, he puts his foot in his mouth every other time he opens it! And when the crunch time came at the cross, they ran and hid.
But after Easter, after Pentecost, they are very different men. Daring. Bold. Confident. Yes, they have the Holy Spirit now. But it’s also true because they have come through all that hardship.
So Moses has also been weak and embarrassing up to this point! And now God tells him, v2, “You shall speak all that I command you…” No more, no less. No more groveling before Pharaoh. No more begging. What was that about, anyway?! Stick to the script. Say what I tell you! Oh yes, Moses needs this!
Ah, but it’s not going to be pretty. In v2, God says to him, “…‘tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land.’” BUT, v3, “‘But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.’”
God will harden his heart? God will?! That hardly seems fair. Pharaoh may be a bully and a tyrant, but what choice does he have if God is making him that way! What’s more, v4, once God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that’s all the excuse He needs to act. “‘Then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring My hosts, My people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’” A lot of people are going to get hurt because of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness. But it’s God who has done the hardening!
In the Book of Romans, St. Paul deals with this very thing. He cites Exodus where God tells Pharaoh that He has raised him up to the throne, just so He can take him down. “So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills,” Paul writes. Then Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Then why does God blame us? Who can resist Him?” And Paul’s answer? “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?!” Well, gee, Paul, thanks for clearing up nothing!
It’s no wonder people in history have come up with the screwy idea that God has divvied up the human race into two categories…saved and damned. It’s all predestined. But that’s not what the Bible says. And the story here in Exodus is far more subtle than either the fatalists or the freewill advocates can say.
Here’s why. The plot with each of the plagues is virtually the same. Moses says, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh says, “No way.” Moses goes out and waves his staff and, “bam,” plague strikes. It’s bad. Pharaoh gives, “OK, OK, you can go. Just stop the plague.” Moses goes out, waves his staff. The plague stops. And it is at that point that Pharaoh is hardened. God hardens him, by giving him what he asks, by doing him good. Every time God does Pharaoh good he becomes hardened. The only time Pharaoh is repentant, is when the plagues are their worst.
It’s like Flannery O’Connor’s grim short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It’s the story of a family on vacation, under the thumb of a domineering grandmother. The family is accosted by escaped convicts, who murder the family one by one. But the grandmother remains a rock hard soul despite the death of her family…until she’s the only one left. At that point she softens and pleads for her own life, asking the convict to pray to Jesus. Of course, he shoots her. And the dark story ends with the man saying, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Sometimes grace is grotesque! Grotesque as a herd of pigs plunging into the sea. Grotesque as a Man crucified, nails piercing His hands and feet, His life slowly drained from Him. Yes, Easter is glorious freedom…but it is at the cross, in the agony of that darkness, that repentance is born, that grace is revealed.
And for some people, that grace is a lifesaver. Like the slave trader, John Newton, “Once I was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” For others, it merely hardens them in their unbelief. Not because God likes one and not the other. He shows His grace to all. But not all want it.
That’s what is happening to Pharaoh. It’s not that God had damned him…but that in showing Pharaoh grace, grace amid the cross of the plagues…it only hardened the man…like the thief crucified at Jesus’ left hand. While the man on Jesus’ right, in the midst of the same plagues, like Israel, believes and is saved.
Now to the plagues themselves. There are 10 plagues which fall on the Egyptians, and to a lesser extent on Israel as well. But they are more than a series of escalating violence. The plagues can also be seen as God’s judgment on the Egyptian pantheon.
Accordingly the first plague of blood in the Nile, ch. 7, was directed against the Hapi, the Nile god. The frogs, plague no.2, ch 8, was directed against Heket, a goddess of childbirth represented as a frog. The plague against cattle, ch 9, is against Hathor, the sky goddess, represented in the form of a cow. The hail, ch 9, locusts, ch 10, as well as the gnats and flies and boils, ch 8 & 9, are directed against Seth, god of winds and storms, as well as Isis, goddess of life, and Min, a god of fertility and vegetation, the protector of crops. The plague of darkness, ch 10, is directed against deities associated with the sun, especially Horus and Amun-Ra. Finally, the tenth plague, ch 11, the death of the firstborn, is against the chief deity of Pharaoh, the consort of Isis, goddess of life, namely, the great god of the dead, Osiris.
And with each plague, each failure of Egypt’s gods, Pharaoh is repentant. As in 10:16, he says, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Now, therefore, forgive my sin, please, only this once, and plead with the Lord your God only to remove this death from me.” There’s no reason to doubt the man’s sincerity. Yet once each plague had passed, once God in His grace had halted the devastation…Pharaoh was hardened.
You see, this whole event is so much more than God beating up on the Egyptians in order to get Israel out of slavery. This is God’s modus operandi—judgment and grace.
We Lutherans call it Law and Gospel. God’s perfect justice with His perfect mercy. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, witnessing firsthand how God’s judgment was falling on the gods of Nazi Germany, with their idolatry of Blut und Eisen, blood and iron, preached in a sermon at Advent: “we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering…. We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love…that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
“Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.” It is the very picture of Jesus’ crucifixion: pardon, grace, and love in the midst of evil, judgment, and death.
Moses and Israel came to see that. Pharaoh and Egypt did not. And what do we see when the world seems to be headed you-know-where because of its various idolatries? Do we see nothing? Merely natural phenomena, as the plagues on Egypt could also be explained by natural means. Do we see only judgment…and seek to identify people to blame for the troubles we must endure, while seeking to excuse ourselves?
Or do we see the cross in the events of our day? God humbling us in order to lift us again. God, sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat…not to condemn, but to pardon and to save? What do we see in the events swirling around us these days?
Well…Pharaoh is blind. And next week, judgment will fall in the final plague. Yet, like Good Friday and Easter, the final plague, Pharaoh’s judgment, will be Israel’s redemption. For with God, the cliché is very true: “It is darkest before the dawn.”