So I’ve been studying the Exodus story today. It’s been a long time since I’ve read about the passover, and although I do know the story, I hate taking things out of context, so I decided to read it all, from Exodus 1, all the way through chapter 12.
One thing I noticed right off was that when God started talking to Moses about getting the Israelites out of Egypt, the first thing he said was that Pharaoh would never let the people go without a mighty display of God’s power. Chapter 3:18b-20 says:
“Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.”
So Moses does what God told him, and talks to the Israelite elders, and then they all go talk to Pharaoh. Y’all probably already know that Pharaoh’s whole deal was that he [and all Egyptians] was raised to believe that there were many gods, and that pharaoh himself was one of those gods.
When Moses and Aaron came to tell him to let the Hebrews go worship their God in the desert, they scoffed, because they didn’t know that the Hebrew God was more powerful than their gods. So began the works of the Hebrew God.
I think it’s important to notice that God starts out saying that Pharaoh isn’t going to allow the Hebrews to just up and leave, and that’s before he starts talking about hardening Pharaoh’s heart. It’s also interesting to note that there isn’t just one sign of God’s power [the death of the first born] but there are many, including a very benign sign: Moses’s staff becoming a snake in Exodus 7:8-13. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicated the sign, Moses’s staff ate the other staffs, which showed in a small and very symbolic way that the Hebrew God was more powerful than the many gods of Egypt.
I don’t believe for an instant that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against his will. Pharaoh was already an asshole who didn’t care about anyone. He had shown over and over that he only cared about being number one and oppressing the Hebrews to keep them under control so they wouldn’t revolt and kick his ass [reminds me of South Africa and Apartheid] [read Chapter 2:23-25 and Chapter 5:6-9, 17-19].
The very fact that the Hebrews wanted to go into the desert and worship their own God instead of Pharaoh probably pissed him off plenty, plus I’m sure he was paranoid about the fact that there were a lot of them, and if he let them go, he might lose his free work-force, but also there was the chance that they might try to plan a revolt [’cause he knew he’d been pretty mean to them and deserved it, eh?]
Pharaoh also shows that he doesn’t care about his own people, as we can see from his reaction to the river Nile becoming blood [Exodus 7:20-24]
“20 Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. 21 The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.
22 But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. 23 Instead, he turned and went into his palace, and did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river.”
There are several times in the story where Pharoah seems to repent long enough to get Moses to pray so that God will stop whatever plague is coming.
There’s the plague of frogs: Exodus 8:8-15
“8 Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Pray to the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the LORD.”
9 Moses said to Pharaoh, “I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.”
10 “Tomorrow,” Pharaoh said.
Moses replied, “It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the LORD our God. 11 The frogs will leave you and your houses, your officials and your people; they will remain only in the Nile.”
12 After Moses and Aaron left Pharaoh, Moses cried out to the LORD about the frogs he had brought on Pharaoh. 13 And the LORD did what Moses asked. The frogs died in the houses, in the courtyards and in the fields. 14 They were piled into heaps, and the land reeked of them. 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said.”
Then there were gnats, but Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t replicate that plague. At this point, the magicians freaked out, but pharaoh hardened his heart again [Ex. 8:19]
Then came flies, and this is where I noticed that the Hebrews didn’t live amongst the rest of the Egyptians [here’s Exodus 8]:
They lived in the land of Goshen, and God didn’t send the flies there [Ex 8:20-23]. So pharaoh calls Moses back and tells him he can worship God on his land, but Moses says that won’t work because the Egyptians will freak out and stone them, so Pharaoh says he’ll let them go to the desert and worship, but they can’t go very far, and then asks Moses to pray for him… which Moses does. And the plague stops, and Pharaoh hardens his heart again.
It happens over and over and over. Eventually, Pharaoh’s own officials are beginning to believe what Moses and Aaron are saying, and they start heeding the warnings. I think this is really interesting, so I’m going to quote it [Exodus 9:13-26]:
“13 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, 14 or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. 16 But I have raised you up [a] for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. 17 You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. 18 Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now. 19 Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’ ”
20 Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. 21 But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.
22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that hail will fall all over Egypt—on men and animals and on everything growing in the fields of Egypt.” 23 When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; 24 hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. 25 Throughout Egypt hail struck everything in the fields—both men and animals; it beat down everything growing in the fields and stripped every tree. 26The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were.”
Here, Pharaoh actually admits that he’s sinned:
“27 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.”
29Moses replied, “When I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the LORD. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. 30 But I know that you and your officials still do not fear the LORD God.”
But as soon as the trouble is over, Pharaoh lets his greed rule him again, and he won’t let the Hebrews go.
This happens repeatedly. And God keeps stopping the plagues [when Moses prays] before everything is destroyed, even though he knows Pharaoh is going to go back on his word. He does it ten times before he brings about the death of the firstborn.
So when I got to the part where the death of the firstborn happens, I noticed something else. In the previous plagues, God caused them to happen geographically. The land of Goshen was saved from the plagues, but the land where the Egyptians lived wasn’t spared.
When the passover warning was issued, God told the people in each individual household to eat the feast and paint their door-frames with the blood of the lambs. Why didn’t God just do a geographical thing and kill the firstborns according to the land in which they lived, instead of looking for the blood on each individual house?
Isn’t it very possible that there were some Egyptian believers? I’m guessing that those who knew the Hebrew God were going to know about the feast and the blood, and therefore be spared from the final plague.
In fact, later on in Exodus, it says that many people, not just the Hebrews, went with Moses and the gang into the desert [Ex. 12:37-38]
37The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.
It makes sense that these people were Egyptian converts to Judaism, and that very likely some of them had been spared from the death of the firstborn plague.
So it was Pharaoh’s continued disobedience to God that brought on all the plagues. Pharaoh always had a choice to admit that God was God and he was not [and indeed, seemed to make that choice several times, although it proved to be only to end the current troubles].
The plague of the firstborn was horrible, there’s no question, but it was a last resort, and the people who died [not including the kids] were far from innocent.
See, it wasn’t just children who died, it was adults as well, and they all had a choice.
They all knew about the Hebrews; they’d more than likely heard that it was the Hebrew God who was wreaking havoc; and because Pharaoh’s officials had heeded the warning about hail [Exodus 9:20-21 “20 Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. 21 But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.”] I submit to you that the Egyptians knew what was coming, even if it’s not written, and that some of them did what God said, but most didn’t, because they chose to ignore the warning.
Is that so surprising? How many of us know smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, but we smoke anyway? How many parents smoke around their kids, or smoke during pregnancy, but do it anyway, even though they know they could cause their children to have asthma, or die of SIDS, or have low birth weight, or any number of other illnesses?
Okay, so I’m saying to you that Pharoah and the Egyptians had many, many warnings about God’s power, and their need to do what He said [Which interestingly to me, wasn’t that they convert to Judaism, but that pharaoh allow the Hebrews to go into the desert and worship God the way He wanted them to] and that even after 10 plus plagues, each one more horrible than the ones before, pharaoh refused, because he wanted to be in charge and do things his own way.
Pharaoh knew what was coming. He knew enough about the Hebrew God by then to know that if God said he was going to kill someone, it was going to happen, but he chose to ignore the warning because he didn’t want to let go of control.
Was it extreme? Yeah, but only if you don’t look at what Pharaoh had been doing to the Hebrews… He’d been slaughtering them and torturing them to death for years. Many innocent Hebrew children and adults had already died because of Pharaoh’s evil, long before Moses came back to Egypt. So if we’re looking for a punishment to fit the crime, I’d say it pretty much fits.
The plagues were Pharaoh’s fault. He was evil before Moses ever came to talk to him, and God knew that nothing He did would change Pharaoh’s mind about letting the Hebrews go. Hell, Pharaoh even went after the Hebrews to try to get them to come back, even after his own firstborn son had died!
If God had arbitrarily decided to kill a bunch of firstborn kids of innocent people in a country where their leader was a good man who cared about his own countrymen and treated foreigners with respect, I could see how that would seem cruel and unjustified, but as I’ve studied the Exodus today, it seems to me that that’s not anything like what happened.