Sometimes, I Feel Sorry for Pharaoh

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.

“Sometimes It is About God”

In his commentary on Exodus, at the end of his general comments on all the plagues and at the point where he is supposed to “apply the plagues to modern life,” Peter Enns writes,

“When we read that old story of frogs, gnats, rivers turning to blood, and so forth, perhaps scenes of the famous movie The Ten Commandments come to mind. We are so familiar with it that we do not allow it to strike us deeply, which is the effect it had some three thousand years ago. At the end of the day…do we really believe in the God that the biblical narrative is presenting to us?…This story was not taken for granted by the generations of Israelites living after the Exodus. It was rather intended to be a gripping reminder of who God is. In the final analysis, the story of the plagues is not about what God does to save you, or perhaps even so much a story of how he saved Israel. It is about God, period; for when all is said and done, we all need to be reminded of him now and then. The question, then, to ask of our passage is not, ‘What does this have to do with me?’ We must at least first ask, ‘What does this tell me about who God is?’” (The NIV Application Bible, page 236).

Please allow me to take a stab at this as we focus on the 4th, 5th and 6th plagues or, as I suggested last week, signs given to Pharaoh to change his mind.

Last week’s sermon noted that the showdown between Pharaoh and Yahweh revolved around Israel and the claims both made on the Hebrews. And that showdown is summed up in one word: abodah, which could be translated either as “work/service” or “service/worship.” Pharaoh claimed Israel’s “work.” Yahweh claimed both Israel’s “work” and “worship.” They both wanted Israel, seemingly for different reasons, and at the end of the third plague, Pharaoh and Yahweh are at an impasse.

There is movement, however, when we read the fourth plague. Pharaoh is willing to share Israel with Yahweh. In 8.25, Pharaoh tells Moses Israel may worship Yahweh…within the land of Egypt. Essentially, he is saying, “I will let Israel worship their god so long as I can control their labor.” But Moses counters this won’t work because the general Egyptian population will be offended by Israel’s worship. They will be so offended they will begin killing the Hebrews. We don’t know exactly what the nature of the offense is, but I suspect it has something to do with Egyptian polytheism and Israelite monotheism. We do know that in the ancient world the Jews’ neighbors, who worshiped many gods, saw them as “atheists.” And Israel’s insistence that only Yahweh was to be worshiped would be a problem if they set out to sacrifice to their ONE god in front of their neighbors.

The plagues and the rejection of Pharaoh’s compromise offer points us in an awkward direction: Yahweh doesn’t like to share…at least God doesn’t like to share Israel. There is no “meet in the middle” thinking here. Neither Pharaoh, the human-god, nor any of Egypt’s other gods, like Hapi, the river god, or Heqet, the goddess of childbirth depicted as a frog, or Hathor, the sky goddess depicted as a cow, have a claim on Israel. That, in large measure, is what these plagues and signs are about. Yahweh has work to do. Israel has been elected to help do that work, and Pharaoh is standing in the way. That work is God’s redemption of Creation. In order for that to happen, Israel must be redeemed, and Yahweh is here to claim them from Pharaoh and his oppression. Israel is God’s, and God isn’t in the mood to share.

Evidence of this unique, exclusive relationship appears for the first time in the fourth and fifth plagues: Israel is spared the impact of the plagues, but the Egyptians bear the full brunt of the fly infestation and the death of their livestock. 8.23 and 9.4 offer an intriguing subtle insight as to what is happening. Both verses tell us God makes a “distinction’ between his people and Pharaoh’s people and between Israel’s livestock and Egypt’s livestock. The Hebrew word for “distinction” (8.23 and 9.4) comes from the root word “redeem.” Yahweh is in the process of “redeeming” Israel as the redemption of Creation depends on their redemption. Yahweh is working to bring wholeness to his people and to Creation.

For some reason, known only to God, this plan for Creation’s redemption, which was promised back in Genesis and Abraham’s call, includes the flawed people of Israel. God desires they work with God as the divine plan is implemented. Additionally, Yahweh accepts their worship. And often their “work” and “worship,” like the word abodah, is the same. But they can’t do either the work or worship if they belong to Pharaoh and are busy doing his work. So, Yahweh will not share them with Pharaoh or any other self-styled god, who stands in the way of Yahweh’s redemption work.

Perhaps you are wondering what this redemption of Creation and humanity might look like. What might it involve? Who or what will be impacted? The sixth plague offers an intriguing and ironic small insight into one aspect of Yahweh’s concern for Creation. We know that on the surface, it is “simply” a plague in which seemingly both the Egyptians and their animals develop “festering boils.” Even the Egyptian magicians, who previously had some control over the plagues, can’t avoid this plague. And the source? Moses and Aaron are told to “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh” (9.8). Moses is directed to carry out a “prophetic action” not unlike what the later Hebrew prophets do when Israel lost their way and did things which offended Yahweh…things like oppressing the poor or unjustly dealing with the weak.

Where does the soot and ash come from that Moses throws into the air? It comes from a kiln where you bake bricks. Who makes bricks in Egypt? Enslaved Israel. Who is Moses’ audience for this prophetic action? Pharaoh, who oppresses Israel, who demands their work, treating them unjustly. Pharaoh may not care that Israel is oppressed. In fact, because he benefits from the injustice, I am sure he doesn’t mind at all. Yahweh, however, minds very much. And Yahweh acts to stop the oppression because it is as odious to him as the Egyptians’ infected skin will be to them. So, Moses is directed to do this, and we could say Moses “throws the sooty accusation of injustice in Pharaoh’s face.” This sixth plague is God’s judgment against Pharaoh’s oppressive offense. In God’s redeemed Creation, oppression and injustice will be things of the past, because seemingly Yahweh hates injustice.

I am tempted to apply these two divine attributes of refusing to share God’s people with other “gods” and Yahweh’s dislike of injustice. But you are thoughtful people seeking to be faithful. You are quite capable of drawing your own conclusions and applications. But let me give you this: If Yahweh refuses to share us with other gods and hates injustice, then we __________.