I’m uneasy about much of these chapters. But I’m also uneasy about my uneasiness.
I find myself with big questions about the fact that the plagues sent to persuade Pharoah to change his mind and let the Israelites go affected not just Pharoah or even the royal family, not just the elite decision-makers, but all of Egypt. And I have even bigger questions, as I hinted yesterday, about the hints that at least some of the time, it is God who harden’s Pharoah’s heart. Who then is responsible for all the suffering Pharoah brings upon his people?
But my uneasiness with my unease comes from the knowledge that I have never been part of an enslaved, oppressed people – or even of a disadvantaged group within a people. I read and think from a position of privilege and freedom; and I know that the texts of the Exodus have given hope to enslaved and oppressed people down the years. From the point of view of a Hebrew slave, the whole of Egypt is the slave-owning oppressor, the holder of privilege. Egypt itself is the seemingly almighty superpower of the age, with all other nations of the region in its sphere of influence.
It is this oppressive power which God opposes, even humiliates, by his actions. As I wrote yesterday, Egypt and its gods in the Bible represent the pressure to keep things the same, to keep the powerful in power and the weak in servitude. Knowing that doesn’t make me feel good about the suffering of the Egyptian peasants, but it does make me take a step back from my feeling that this is just plain wrong.
The hardening of hearts and the freedom of will
I know one devout member of church for whom this passage raises more moral difficulties than any other in the Bible. Why is Pharoah blamed, and Egypt punished, when it is God who hardens his heart, at least in some of the plagues? It doesn’t feel just. It’s not a new question, either. St Paul addresses the same question in Romans chapter 9, especially verses 14-18. Paul’s answer is that mercy is the free gift of God, dispensed as he chooses. On one level I know that to be true, and know that I have to accept it even if I don’t like it. It’s the nature of God to be supreme and authoritative, after all.
But along with knowing the power and authority of God, I also know and treasure the love of God. In Jesus I see the same God who spoke to Moses, but I see mercy before judgement. Perhaps to be able to live with these chapters I need to start with a theme I know I’ll come back to through some of the dark passages that are to come. I can live with these parts of the Old Testament and worship a God of love by remembering that there’s a bigger picture, where the life of the nation of Israel under God’s guidance leads to the salvation of the world and the renewal of all things through Jesus. There are some terrible costs along the way to keep Israel going and going with God; and in humility I have to accept some of the things I don’t like about the story. It helps to know that some of those who have suffered far more than I have read these stories very differently. It doesn’t mean I have to like everything I read, but I’ll live with it and see where it takes us.