Exodus 11:1-10, 12:29-32
The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.’ The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials, and in the sight of the people. Moses said, ‘Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been nor will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites — not at people, not at animals — so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, “Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.” After that I will leave.’ And in hot anger he left Pharaoh. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Exodus: Plagues, Power and Pharaoh’s Fate
I opted to share something about Pharaoh’s fate as part of our “Game of Thrones” series, knowing I was probably biting off more than we could chew on in just one Sunday morning sermon. But I couldn’t resist re-visiting the plagues – particularly the last, most heinous of the plagues, the death of the first born in all of Egypt – and musing about the fate of Pharaoh and his hardened heart, which is one of the great questions and conundrums in all of Scripture.
When I say the creators of the Game of Thrones series have nothing on the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s hard not to think about the plagues. The short version of that longer story is that God was tired of the abuse suffered by the Hebrew people who were enslaved under the tyranny of Egypt’s Pharaoh. Having recruited Moses to set God’s people free, God and Moses have this back and forth battle of wills and displays of power all so that Pharaoh might see and understand his place under the banner of Israel’s God as the creator of the universe. God and Moses give Pharaoh chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity to let the Hebrew slaves go, but Pharaoh refuses.
And Pharaoh refuses, not only because letting those slaves go – releasing them to the freedom they deserved – would mean a tremendous loss of financial power, loss of a free labor force, and an upsetting of the social order in Egypt, but it would mean proof that Pharaoh wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. See, in that time and place, Pharaohs were believed to have divine powers – to be gods, themselves, in part; or at least intermediaries for the gods of the Egyptians. So, he would have to relinquish his own divine status in the eyes of his people. Pharaoh would have to admit that the God of Moses, the God of the Hebrew slaves, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was more mighty and powerful than himself and his magicians.
So, even after all of those plagues – the river of blood; the frogs, the gnats, the flies; the sick livestock, the boils, the thunder and hail, the locusts and the darkness – Pharaoh still refused. He came close a couple of times – promising release and freedom for Moses and his people – but when each punishing plague was stopped he would change his mind, hardening his heart, losing his courage to humble himself, to relinquish his power and to do what Moses was asking.
And, sometimes we’re told, toward the end of this onslaught of plagues, it was God who hardened the heart of Pharaoh; that it was God who forced Pharaoh to make the choices he made to keep the Hebrews enslaved. And this notion has, for generations, invited believers and scholars and theologians and pastors to consider the nature and source of evil in the world. This story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart has made many wonder about the nature of a God who would punish Pharaoh for something over which Pharaoh had no control.
If he couldn’t repent, why should he be punished? Where is grace and mercy and justice to be found in a God who acts as a puppet master, pulling the strings and hardening the hearts of people like Pharaoh, only to end up destroying them for that same hardness of heart, in the end? And what does it say to us about free will – our own ability to choose repentance, to choose justice, to choose faithfulness, or to choose the opposite, for that matter? IS God some kind of puppet master pulling our strings and making us move and choose and do according to God’s every whim?
Well, remember what all of those plagues were about. They were about Moses asking Pharaoh to let God’s people go; to let them leave their slavery in Egypt; to let them be free from Pharaoh’s bondage so they could worship and live and bless and be blessed by their God, out there in the world. But the plagues were also about showing, too – who God was; that the God of Moses and the Israelites was the God of all things, even the God of and the God over Pharaoh and Egypt – who believed otherwise.
So when the frogs and the fire and the darkness and the boils wouldn’t convince Pharaoh of God’s power, God got serious. And not just by way of the death of the first born – which was the deal breaker for Pharaoh, the straw that broke the camel’s back. God got serious with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, in the end, because it was another dramatic, powerful way to prove who God was and who Pharaoh was not. It led, ultimately, to freedom for the Israelites and destruction for Pharaoh and his army.
And I learned a new way of understanding all of this, thanks to some writing by a Jewish Rabbi named Bernard Zlotowitz.
If Pharaoh was who Pharaoh claimed to be; if he was stronger and more powerful than the God of Moses; if he was all-powerful and almighty; if he was a god himself, or even an intermediator for a god of the Egyptians … he could have un-hardened his own heart; he could have reversed what God had done; he could have repented and meant it. He could have relented, he could have released the Israelites, once and for all, and not followed his own compulsion to chase after them, ultimately drowning in the sea – consumed not just by water, but consumed by his own pride and thirst for power and greed and sin and all the rest.
In other words, Pharaoh had had a taste of what could save him – mercy, justice and freedom for those oppressed Hebrew slaves – on all those occasions he had decided to let them go and when God ceased God’s punishment, when God turned off the plague like a faucet. But when Pharaoh changed his mind that last time – or his mind was changed – whatever the case may be – Pharaoh was powerless to save himself any longer, even though he knew how, because he was not the god he pretended to be.
Pharaoh – this earthly ruler – was no match for the God of Moses and the Israelites – the ruler of the universe, because Pharaoh’s sinful, greedy, power-hungry, hard and broken heart was hardened in a way he could not un-do or mend on his own. Pharaoh needed God – the one true God – just as Moses and the Israelites did – just as you and I need God – to be free, to be liberated, to be forgiven, to be unbound by our sinfulness. And we just can’t do it on our own.
It was a lesson for everyone involved: for the Egyptians who believed Pharaoh was all-powerful – and for the Hebrew slaves who may have wondered – they could see that he was not. And for those who doubted Moses and his God, that power was confirmed.
And the good news about that God – the hope in all of this – is that that God will go to great lengths – any length – to love and care for those who need it most. Was that God the God of Moses and the Israelites? Yes. Was that same God – the creator of the universe, the God of all things – the God of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, too? Yes. And when the God of the universe sees some of God’s children hurting, suffering, and struggling at the hands of some of God’s other children – God seeks to change things.
Like any loving parent who sees an older, bigger, stronger sibling pushing his little brother around and steps in to protect the younger, smaller, weaker of the two…God acts.
Like a teacher who sees one of her students bullying another and moves to stop that injustice…God acts.
Our God is always on the side of the underdog. Our God is always looking out for the outsider. Our God always stands in for the outcast and the cast-out, in the name of justice and mercy.
And I love that about our God. It is hope for the hopeless. It is challenge and accountability for those in power. And it’s a reality check for those of us who live somewhere in the middle – those of us with more power and privilege than most of the world, whether we’re always able to admit it or see it or not; and those of us called to wield that power and privilege – as children of God – with grace and mercy, generosity and love for the sake of our brothers and sisters and for the sake of God’s kingdom in our midst. And those of us who – like Pharaoh and Moses – can’t save ourselves or do any of this on our own.
And all of that is Mary’s hope and the promise of Jesus she sings about before his arrival. She reminds us, in this morning’s Gospel, about what the power of that one true God looks like and means to accomplish in the world.
Our God looks with favor upon faithful servants.
Our God has mercy on those who fear him, from generation to generation.
Our God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
Our God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God made known to us in Jesus – is a God of mercy, love, grace, hope, redemption, freedom and justice.
Our God – and the ways of Christ’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” – are our hope for this world and the next.
(You can read the piece by Bernard Zlotowitz I refer to here. It’s short, sweet and worth your time, if you have it.)