By the time we read the first nine plagues, you may be frustrated with Pharaoh. You read about him experiencing the signs of God’s power and purpose, which are gradually intensifying, and clearly intensifying in chapter 10, and he is still in denial, compromise and confrontation mode. You may be tempted to respond like his magicians who “abandoned” him back in Exodus 8.19 or question his “policy” as his court officials do in Exodus 10.7. There they confront him telling him to change and let Israel go. You may simply write him off as arrogant, selfish, and power hungry. And he is all of that and more. I, however, feel sorry for him at one level. I suppose my sympathy has a lot to do with the harsh reality that I am often tempted to act like him in my interactions with God. And sometimes, it isn’t just a temptation.
Pharaoh gets it so wrong so often. In some respects, this isn’t his fault. He was raised this way. He was born and groomed and trained to be the most powerful man on Earth. He was fabulously wealthy. Monuments were built in his honor. He had great armies, complete with the latest technology, the chariot, at his disposal. He had the power of life and death over his fellow Egyptians. He was worshiped as a god. And he had thousands of Jewish slaves. That last factor set him on this collision course with Israel’s God.
While he believed what his culture said about him and overestimated his worth, he underestimated YHWH and YHWH’s divine purposes. Pharaoh’s goal was to enhance his personal status and Egypt’s role in the world. YHWH’s goal was to redeem Israel and all of Creation. Pharaoh benefited from social injustice, such as Israel’s enslavement. God’s goal was to smash injustice and eradicate it from Creation for all time. Pharaoh thought he controlled his little portion of Creation. YHWH, on the other hand, in these plague signs, showed Pharaoh that the power to create the world and undo that Creation rested solely in YHWH’s hands. And yet Pharaoh’s approach to interacting with YHWH is attempted compromise, which happens at least three times, and feigned shallow repentance. The most ironic of which is in Exodus 10.16: “I have sinned against the Lord your God….Do forgive my sin just this once.” He says that at the end of the eighth plague, and in the ninth plague he tries to compromise with YHWH one more time. Pharaoh doesn’t take YHWH seriously, rather he attempts to play with Him.
In reality, the figure who is in charge is YHWH and the toy is Pharaoh himself. As 10.2 notes, how YHWH dealt with Pharaoh will be a constant story for the future generations of Jews. According to Waldemar Janzen, the gist of the Hebrew phrasing in that verse is something like “Pharaoh and the Egyptians are like toys in God’s hands” (Exodus, BCBC Series, p. 128). Up to a point, God willingly plays along with Pharaoh’s behavior and banter. However, as reported in 10.15, God “could have stretched out [his] hand and struck [Pharaoh] and [his] people with pestilence, and [Pharaoh] would have been cut off from the Earth.”
God could have, but God didn’t. In the second and fourth plagues, God responds to Pharaoh’s request to relent. Mercy is extended to Egypt. God’s goal isn’t to destroy the Egyptians, but to make a point about his divine authority and power. In the seventh plague, which is more intense and destructive than the previous ones, the Egyptians are warned to take shelter before the hail began. Those who obey and survive learn there is none like YHWH “in all the earth.” (10.14).
While God is patient with Pharaoh, YHWH refuses to be his patsy. YHWH won’t be manipulated. YHWH won’t compromise on divine goals. And YHWH certainly won’t be drug down to Pharaoh’s level. The final three plague signs are so intense Pharaoh should have given up, changed his mind, and repented by letting Israel go. However, we are told he firmly held on to his Hebrew slaves. And he expelled Moses, his only direct connection to YHWH, threatening to kill him if he ever showed his face in the royal palace again. With that his fate is sealed. He has run out of time. One more plague awaits him.
I don’t know about you, but as I said at the beginning, I feel sorry for Pharaoh at some level because I see myself in him at points. While not on his scale, I too am tempted to believe it when culture tells me now wonderful I am. I am so amazing, I should get a Lexus for Christmas this year…just because I am me. And I forget that God and God’s plans for Creation make me look rather insignificant. I read about injustice in the world and learning how I benefit from various injustices while doing little or nothing to confront them. Sadly, the best I can muster on a regular basis is to use Fairtrade beeswax lip balm from Zambia in the winter and drink Fairtrade coffee most of the time. And I forget that YHWH’s intention is to remove injustice from our collective experience. I am tempted to control my little portion of Creation for myself. And I forget that even my little world is caught up in God’s vast Creation. And most embarrassing of all, I suppose, is when I naively try to drag God down to my level and implore the Lord to do my bidding.
But as I said, that’s just me. I don’t know about you.