Friday, February 10, 2006

Heads: God wins; Tails: Pharaoh Loses

I have always greatly enjoyed the story about Pharaoh/Moses and Exodus. Since we have been talking about morality here and there, it is fun to review that story in light of some of the statements claimed by Christians and their morality.

O.K., a little back story. The Hebrews were slaves in the county of Egypt. Yahweh had apparently forgotten about them, but happened to hear them complaining, and “remembered” His covenant with Abraham. Curious action for an all-knowing God.

God’s Wife: Alright, God. You need to paint the back wall of Heaven today.
God: Hey! Just remembered; I have to help the Hebrews out of Egypt. Gotta go!

Naturally God picks an 80 year old (Moses) and his 83 year old brother (Aaron) to lead the people out. The first few chapters of the Book of Exodus provide the interaction between Moses and God. To save you the time:

Moses: But I don’t wanna.
God: And you’re gonna.

What is more interesting is that God predicts exactly what will happen. He tells Moses that they will be leaving Egypt and inheriting Canaan. But, God tells Moses to ask Pharaoh for a three-day journey in the desert. No mention about ever leaving and never coming back.

This is a lie. God tells Moses to lie to Pharaoh. Is telling a lie immoral? Is telling someone else to tell a lie immoral? Of course, perhaps one could say that this was technically not a lie, because they really were going for a three-day journey. And another three-day journey. And another three-day journey. In fact, they were going for not just one, but 4,850 three-day journeys! Maybe lie is not the right word. An abysmal lack of the complete truth?

And Moses asks Pharaoh for the three day journey.

It has been discussed that God’s morals didn’t change through the course of history, but that how He interacted with humans changed. At one time, it was very important (apparently) that polyester blends should not be allowed. At another, no gold and pearls on women. What appears to be a change of requirements is merely God trying to interact with humans as best as He can. The one thing that remains constant, though, is that we must always, always, always obey God.

When God asked Pharaoh (via Moses) to let the people go, Pharaoh was supposed to obey this request of God’s--right? That would be obeying God.

Wrong. (I know. This morality based upon God can get tricky.) See God had already determined that He needed Pharaoh to say “no” so that God can show God’s power to the Egyptians. Apparently God’s glory trumps God’s call for obedience. (Exodus 7:3, 10:1-2, 14:4) God goes on and on about it, in fact.

Luckily for our story, then, Pharaoh does the right thing by saying, “No.” Right? Nope—wrong again! Because Pharaoh does the right thing, by saying “No,” God sends the first plague.

At this point, we must pause and wonder, exactly what the point of the plagues was? God had already determined that He would be sending the Tenth Plague, killing all the firstborns. (Ex. 4:23) Was God punishing Pharaoh? For what? Pharaoh, as we have seen, was doing exactly what God desired—giving God a chance to flex His muscles. Was God trying to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go? But when Pharaoh wanted to, God had to step in and physically force Pharaoh to change his mind.

We enter a macabre dance between Pharaoh, God and Moses.

Moses: Let my people go.
Pharaoh: No!
God: Pow with a plague.
Moses: Let my people go.
Pharaoh: Ulp……O.K.
God: Wrong! I have to harden your heart.
Pharaoh: Oh……..then, “no”?
God: Bad choice. Pow with a plague.

Moses: Let my people go.
Pharaoh: Well. “No” was wrong. “Yes” was a problem. I’ll try “no” and see what happens.
God: Bad choice, again! Pow with a plague.
Pharaoh: O.K., O.K., O.K., I get it. “Yes.”
God: Not yet. Haven’t performed the tenth plague yet. I will harden your heart so that you will not let my people go. (Ex. 4:21)
Pharaoh: Look, God. If I say “no” you just hit my country with plagues. If I say, “yes” you beat me until I say “no.”
God: Did I hear you say, “no” so it is pow with a plague, or was that a “yes” so I have to harden your heart until you say “no.”? Wasn’t quite clear. Oh, what the hey—here’s a plague.

Finally, of course, God leads them right into the Tenth Plague.

I would think, as a Christian, personal responsibility would be a requirement for punishment. Apparently not, at least according to our story.

What if you and your spouse were young farmers somewhere in Egypt. You don’t own slaves. You barely know of the Hebrews. All you are trying to do is get by with what you have in the current bad times. The greatest joy you have is your newly born child. (Uh-oh.) You don’t even have a say as to who would pick the King’s shoes to wear to breakfast, let alone matters of national policy. Even if you DID want the Hebrews to go, look who is against you—the King of the Egyptians, and the God of the Hebrews.

What possible personal responsibility could such a farmer couple have in the fact the Hebrews were not allowed to leave Egypt? Yet, of course as we already know—that baby is killed along with all of the others.

After the tenth plague, without even asking, Pharaoh tells Moses to let the people go. Finally, God doesn’t step in. Guess what happens? Ta-da! The people are released to go. (Makes one wonder if God hadn’t stepped in earlier, what would have happened. No, wait. No it doesn’t. When God stopped stepping in, the people were let go.)

The Egyptians are broken. The people may leave. Now we have been told that Jesus is God. That He was right there, thick in the action. We all know the Jesus of the New Testament, “Love your Neighbor.” The Hebrews would see a neighbor in dire need. Countless Egyptian homes that would desire solace and concern. (In fact, the same sort of concern the Egyptian Mid-wives had provided the Hebrews 80 years earlier.)

So I am sure Jesus used this opportunity to demonstrate the exceptional qualities of Love within the Hebrew religion—right? Nope. Jesus orders the Hebrews to go ask for silver and gold from the Egyptians. Why is this Jesus so interested in silver and gold from grieving parents? The word used is that the Hebrews “plundered” the Egyptians. (By the way, this was a command of God. Ex. 3:22)

Alright. God has destroyed the Egyptians agriculture, killed all of their livestock, ruined their economy, and decimated their society. To add insult to injury, He has plundered their wealth while they grieve for their dead. Surely that would be enough.

It isn’t. It would appear that God did not feel quite satisfied with all of the killing previously performed. It didn’t sit right.

Pharaoh was ready to leave well enough alone. He had not intention whatsoever to have anything to do with those Hebrews. God can’t have that. God steps in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh must pursue the Jews.

Why? What possible gain could God have from this? The people were free. They were on their way to Canaan. Pharaoh wasn’t following them. What compels a God like this to cause further murder and destruction? God cranks it up a notch, by not only hardening Pharaoh’s heart, but He hardens the entire army’s heart! (Ex. 14:17) Basically, He would have to, to get them to ludicrously follow the Hebrews.

The Army was comprised of men who had lost children, brothers, fathers and cousins. They had seen the complete destruction of their society. For 60 to 90 days, they are held back by a cloud, watching the Hebrews slowly trudge across the sea floor. Morale would be at an all-time low, if not abandoned in full rout. About the only way TO get them to purse this crowd would be a miracle.

And, of course, having little choice in the matter, they follow the Hebrews and drown. The greatest irony of it all? The one person that is not listed among all the dead was Pharaoh. The very entity that God poured all of the blame on, did not receive the punishment. Everyone else did.

Obviously, as any study of history or archeology reveals, these events did not occur. But how does turning this into an allegory help? If, for some bizarre reason, God was compelled by some actual force of nature to do these horrendous things, and we simply cannot know why, that may, in some small way, give us pause to wonder of a possible excuse.

But to create a story to make a point, with such a base morality, is very difficult to explain.


  1. Whether this episode was meant to be literal or allegory, to this day I am as puzzled by it as when I first read and discussed it so many years ago. In the literal sense, I can't conceive of Pharaoh's soldiers pursuing Moses onto the dry sea bottom after observing the walls of water miraculously parted. As for the myriad of possible symbolic interpretations, I have yet to find that balance of benevolence and compassion expected of a "just" supreme being. All I get here is a drama dealing with archaic human foibles. It deals with the all-too-human weaknesses evident in period tragedies with one too many twists and turns. One of these days, that mysterious and elusive "perfect" interpretation will be discovered and we will finally see the light which up to now is just around the corner.
    Too cynical?

  2. roman – it is still a great story. Like King Arthur. May not be true, but makes a good movie. Ever read Egyptian history and try to fit the Exodus/Plagues in? It’s a mess. I once had a debate with a Christian that I could not nail him down to which millennium (NOT century) B.C.E. the Exodus must occur. He kept vacillating between 2500 and 1500 B.C.E.!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Dagoods,

    The overriding assumption that becomes apparent in this whole post is that God had one purpose. God's one purpose was to get the Hebrews out of Egypt. If that was God's one purpose, then I would totally agree that all this other stuff is just pointless cruelty and meanness on God's part. But as you ought to know having studied your Bible, that was not God's only purpose.

  4. ephphatha, I am sorry if that was the impression I gave. I thought I was clear, but obviously not. God’s one purpose was to show His power. Nothing more. God goes on and on and on about it, in fact. Still bragging, deep in the New Testament, about it. Rom. 9:17.

    I am not sure how showing off one’s muscles by killing what would be millions of innocent sentient beings makes it a “better” purpose then getting the Hebrews to Canaan. (Although one would think that was the purpose of God, but it is not what God keeps saying.)

    Now if God wanted to demonstrate His power, why do you think He then hid every single possible independent piece of even the remotest evidence that it occurred? The only thing we have is a story written 800 years after it was supposed to have occurred.

  5. I am not sure how showing off one’s muscles by killing what would be millions of innocent sentient beings makes it a “better” purpose then getting the Hebrews to Canaan.

    There is no greater good than the glory of God.

    I don't know enough about Egyptian history or archaeology to discuss the historicity of the event.

  6. Interesting statement, ephphatha. If I perform an act that causes God’s glory to be demonstrated, or benefited, is it a sin?

    Good, easy books on the subject of archaeology: Archaeology and the Bible by John Laughlin, or It ain’t Necessarily So by Sturgis. Either one is an afternoon read, but can bring you up to speed on the broad brush.

    If you want more in-depth books, feel free to ask. As to the history of the event, a google search of Egyptian History will show the problems of trying to fit the events of the Ten Plagues and Exodus into where it must be. 13th Century B.C.E. is the outside date. (“Israel” is mentioned as an existing country.) Most want to place it at 1500 B.C.E., but there is no glitch, not even a hiccup in Egyptian (or Canaan) history during this time.

  7. If I perform an act that causes God’s glory to be demonstrated, or benefited, is it a sin?

    Everything ultimately leads to God's glory, but whether it's sin or not depends on whether it violates God's law.

    Thanks for the book recommendations.