The Exodus story is a story of liberation. It is the the foundational story of the Hebrew people. It is also a troubling story of incompetence, arrogance and stupidity. A stubborn Pharaoh who, despite all the mounting evidence that the Hebrews are being protected, continues to press on.
In other words, Pharaoh doubles down on what doesn’t work because he can’t even see what the problem is.
They Could Not Drink the Water (Day 31 of A Simple Lent) | Wednesday
Today we are moving into the heart of the story. Moses and Aaron have invited Pharaoh to let them go; to play nice. They have told him what kind of god GOD is.
Of course he doesn’t bite. Why would he?
And to show them, Pharaoh makes their lives worse. This is what tyrants do: they don’t act rationally given certain sets of circumstances. They punish those who they believe question their authority.
So they return to Pharaoh with another opportunity. To show them that GOD isn’t going to be overpowered by Pharaoh. He should have learned his lesson when the snake ate the other snakes. He should have seen the sign given to him that he is going to be swallowed up in the end.
But Pharaoh is stubborn. So the Nile will flow, not with water, but with blood.
Stubborn Pharaoh: Why Is His Heart Hard?
One of the persistent questions in the Exodus story deals directly with how stubborn Pharaoh is. Particularly why he is stubborn.
Throughout these early chapters in Exodus it goes back and forth between three different descriptions of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. It describes
- Pharaoh’s heart is hard.
- Pharaoh hardens his own heart.
- GOD hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
and this is where the trouble comes in. Because if it is just the way he is, then we’re not sure how to feel about it, but if he “hardens” his own heart, then he is doing this to himself! But if GOD is doing this to him, then Pharaoh isn’t even responsible for his actions! He can’t be half as bad a dude as he appears to be if GOD is making him be stubborn.
It seems to me that the writer is trying to make two things be true at the same time:
- Pharaoh is a bad guy. Pharaoh should not be pitied. He is bad. He didn’t know Joseph. He enslaved his own people and the Hebrews. He was paranoid and singled the Hebrews out for hate. His heart was always hard and for a whole host of actions he deserves punishment.
- GOD is in control. The writer makes central to the story these actions of GOD and the expression of GOD’s willingness to not only liberate the Hebrew people but to teach them. This is what I’m about he is saying.
In other words, I’m confident the postmodern metaphysics of the question is not the writer’s intention. Pharaoh is justifiably bad and GOD is in control of the situation are both true while setting Pharaoh up as a patsy certainly doesn’t seem the point.
This doesn’t dismiss the problem, but hopefully leads the reader to hear that this isn’t what the story is actually trying to tell you. It isn’t a picture of GOD the micromanager, but GOD the deliverer and liberator from oppressive leadership.
The Blind Leader
The more compelling question for me is not why Pharaoh’s heart is hard, but what do we learn from his hard heart?
Quite a lot actually.
We see in these two events more missed warnings. Pharaoh has been warned about what kind of GOD the Hebrew’s god is and he not only ignores their warnings, but he misses the signs.
The rod turning into a snake was a sign. Pharaoh, wake up! This is what is going to happen to you!
Moses and Aaron produce a snake. Pharaoh gets his sorcerers together and he’s like we can do that too! They produce snakes. And the Hebrews’ snake swallows their snakes whole.
So he’s been warned. Then he got a sign that trouble is ahead. So what does he do? Ignore the problem.
GOD is just getting started.
Flint and the River of Blood
When I read this passage this morning, I couldn’t help but connect this river of blood with the river of waste in Flint, Michigan. Hubris, arrogance, and stubborn support for political ideology has left a water system destroyed which, to save a million or two will cost a billion or two to fix.
It was stupid and based out of some ignorance. But it wasn’t because they didn’t know. They knew. They knew these water sources are different. They knew that there are laws which govern these types of actions. They also ignored those laws which required them to treat the water as it went into the system.
The Flint Water Crisis didn’t happen because some people were stupid and should have known better. It didn’t happen because the city is broke. It happened because leadership was stubborn and had hard hearts toward the working poor in a city whose industry abandoned them and whose state keeps taking the money from them that they were promised.
But of course, stubborn doesn’t just go away in the midst of tragedy. So the people of Flint are required to pay water bills for water they can’t use. The state of Michigan is now paying as much for some high-powered PR firms and for legal representation of the governor as it is to actually fix the problem they made.
This is why stubborn is worse than stupid.
Stupid at least recognizes when they’ve hurt someone. Stubborn leans in to their problems.
For as much as this is part of the foundational Exodus story of the Hebrew people, revealing the nature of GOD as one who liberates and transforms the fortunes of the people, we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that we’re all Moseses and Aarons. Some of us are the Hebrew people who continuously rebel and fight with Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
Sometimes we’re Pharaoh or Egyptians or the sorcerers. Sometimes we’re the ones with hard hearts and stubborn dispositions. Sometimes we’re the ones enslaving others and preventing them from flourishing. Sometimes it is our paranoia of the immigrant that thinks it’s a good idea to demonize them and threaten them and even kill their children. Because they may take our jobs. They might prosper alongside us in the same land.
Sometimes it is our hard heart that causes GOD’s heart to break.
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