So, I was googling around for information on the song in Exodus 15, trying to think up an introduction for today’s post, when I happened to play the song “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt. I suddenly found myself crying over the song’s duet and its picture of faith. Twenty years ago, I loved the song, but considered its contrast between faith and rationality overwrought; now, I’ve kind of come around to it. Trust in God doesn’t always make sense to us, yet here I am, like Miriam and Zipporah, seeking faith and speaking words I never thought I’d say. And as I listened to the song and read the Hebrew lyrics of the bridge, taken from Exodus 15, I laughed out loud through my tears. Of course they didn’t include lines like “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea” (15:4) and “You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff!” (15:7) Can you imagine a DreamWorks movie with such a celebration of–to put it as tactfully as possible–retributive justice? Now that would be a real miracle.
Today’s chapter details Pharaoh’s greatest mistake. The disgusting discomforts of the bloody Nile, the frogs, the gnats, and the swarms weren’t enough. Neither were the livestock diseases, the skin inflammations, the hailstorms, locusts, and darkness. And it looked for a moment like the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn might be enough, but then Pharaoh changed his mind and wanted his slaves back. So, today he and his chariots come after Israel in hot pursuit. Throughout the book of Exodus, but especially here, Pharaoh is the picture of anti-repentance.
The Pentateuch is weird. Genesis is mostly narrative with periodic genealogies. Exodus, too, consists of sizeable portions of narrative containing occasional genealogies, but here in Exodus 12, we see detailed instructions for observing Passover woven into the story. The ancient Hebrews had no problem deriving what ought to be from what is, because in their view, a moral God had created a moral universe, and he had told them how things should be in it. The bulk of the chapter consists of God issuing Passover norms to Moses and Aaron. But you can set those aside for the moment, because I want to talk about that narrative portion in the middle where God does what he’s been saying he’s going to do, namely, killing the firstborn of Egypt.
If there’s one phrase for which the book of Exodus is known, it’s “Let my people go.” But if there are two phrases for which the book of Exodus is known, the second one is “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” Or “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Or “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” There are a lot of different ways that the phrase shows up, and they’re even more diverse in the original Hebrew, so let’s take a look at some of them.
God doesn’t pull any punches in Exodus 9. If anything, between the livestock-slaying pestilence, the flesh sores, and the hailstorm, he ups the ante. And as I read about God wrecking shop on the Egyptians’ animals, skin, and crops, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is not going to go over well with some people.” The Shortpacked comic in which David Willis, by way of The Prince of Egypt, goes for the throat of the God of the Exodus narrative springs readily to mind. I can’t hope to resolve every difficulty with Exodus in a single post, but perhaps I can shed light on a few issues and offer answers to some questions. You know what? This one’s for the skeptics. This one’s for the skeptic in you and the skeptic in me. Let’s do it.
What’s your favorite plague of Egypt? I remember in third grade, mine was the frogs. All the other plagues seemed utterly undesirable, but the prospect of having multitudes of frogs absolutely everywhere all the time sounded awesome, because I was an eight-year-old boy.
I hope you’re ready for some plagues, because today we’ve got plagues. Well, one plague. Don’t worry, there are more later.
Houston, we have a problem. I was all set to examine how God answers Moses’ questions and frustrations from our passage yesterday, make a point about how he doesn’t get angry with him this time, dig into the content of his response, but almost immediately I encountered complications. As God appeals to his history with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to underscore his commitment to their descendants, he makes a claim that is, prima facie, hog-bonkers.
Moses probably didn’t expect Pharaoh to release the Israelites without some resistance. But I don’t think he expected Pharaoh to make things worse.
You ever go into a job interview, a meeting with a doctor, a Q&A session following a lecture, and then afterwards come up with all sorts of questions you wish you’d thought to ask? Moses certainly didn’t. God kinda jumped him with the burning-bush meeting here, but he’s got so many questions and issues that the conversation extends into a second chapter. Say what you will about Moses, but the man can raise a concern.