AT THE “BIBLE IN ONE YEAR” Adult Study on October 21st my colleague, Beth Taylor, reflected out loud about the passages in Exodus where the text says that God “hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” What’s this about? Why would God deliberately make things difficult for Moses to accomplish the task this very same God had given him, namely, the liberation of the Hebrew slaves?
The Reverend Beth offered no tidy solution to this scriptural dilemma, except to say “Maybe our conception of right and wrong is too small. Maybe our conception of God is too small.”
Another point she made had to do with where we might look for the presence of God in these ancient stories. Oh, there are the obvious epiphanies such as the burning bush, but what about the less obvious ones, the epiphanies that are accessible to us because we have the advantage of 3000+ years of hindsight regarding these sacred texts? Beth mentioned the little Hebrew boys who Pharaoh commanded be killed by the same midwives who had just seen them safely into this world, newborns who evoke in us a comparison to the infant Jesus, born into an inhospitable world and sought with murderous intent by a ruthless king. I would carry it a step further, and venture to suggest that God was with those Egyptian families, mourning over the deaths of their firstborn sons. I can also see God revealed in those unlucky Egyptian soldiers, following orders to pursue the escaping Hebrews slaves into the menacing waters of the Red Sea. From Jesus, we have learned to look for God wherever there is suffering, vulnerability, and loss.
So whose side is God on, anyway? In the unfolding drama of salvation, I have no doubt that God was being revealed in the story of Israel, but the “official” Israelite conception of God was always too small. The same goes for us, as we ponder these sacred events anew.
To me, the picture of God sitting up in heaven and “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” with lightning bolts of invisible cholesterol is just as troubling as the picture of God sending down plagues of frogs and gnats upon Egyptian peasants. At the same time, I am aware of the way my own experience of God has emerged from the struggle between health and dysfunction, courage and fear, success and failure, blessing and curse. Without Pharaoh’s hardened heart, the escape of the Hebrew slaves might scarcely have been noticed. If Pharaoh had simply said to Moses, “Let your people go? Why certainly! Ta Ta,” what kind of a story would that make? As it is, Pharaoh became a co-conspirator with Moses in the salvation of the world.
Running throughout the Bible, and culminating in the new Testament, is the theme of reconciliation. In the kingdom of God, Pharaoh’s drowned soldiers join with the other gnat-bitten, frog-beset enemies of God in a big, rowdy wedding-festival where Jesus provides wine, and music is provided by Moses’ sister Miriam who sings, as always, “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider has he thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:21) At least that’s how I see it.