This morning we spent time in YWBC thinking about one of the most troubling parts of the Exodus story, the process by which Pharaoh’s heart becomes hardened. We usually refer to the natural disasters which God visited upon Egypt, in order to bring Pharaoh to his senses and make him aware of the need to set the people of Israel free, as the ten plagues. But Exodus also describes these events as ten ‘signs’ (E.g. Exod 8:23).
As we discussed this morning, my view on this story is not that God has predestined the response of Pharaoh from the beginning. I suspect that if Pharaoh had paid attention to, say, the first three signs, there would have been no need for the final seven. Take a look, for example, at Exodus 4, where God is discussing the creative power he will loan out to Moses to persuade the Israelites of his credibility as a leader. God comes across not as someone with a blueprint, but as someone who is confident he can respond to whatever challenges or objections Moses has to deal with.
In Exodus, the word often used to describe Pharaoh’s hardness is kabed, which means strength – it carries a sense of obstinacy, of arrogance. Even at the beginning of the plague stories, Pharaoh is presented as someone who is stubborn and pride, the sort of person with too much to lose from admitting their own faults or mistakes (not just losing slaves, but losing face as well). There was probably never a strong chance of Pharaoh being flexible with Moses. When God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, it seems like he is merely strengthening a resolve and determination which is already entrenched.
There are some people I know who seem to become more and more set in their ways over time, more bloody-minded and frustrated with the people and the world around them which, unlike them, continues to change. Sometimes we describe these people as becoming a ‘parody’ or ‘caricature’ of themselves, which sums up the way their behaviour becomes more extreme. Whether these people are plain bad-tempered, or just have an air of the ‘prima donna’ or ‘misery guts’ about them, there is one common pattern. Over time, they alienate people. Those around them become frustrated with them or wary, or even plain scared of them (I’ve known ‘scary’ people in every church I’ve been part of), and so these folks drive away the friends who might be able to offer them words of constructive criticism. I’m no expert on psychology, but my sense is that this process does set in very early in some people’s lives, and sadly reaches a point of no return for others. We find ourselves able to predict how they will react badly in circumstances where they don’t get their way.
It’s easy to read the plagues story as just a demonstration of God’s greatness over the powers of the Empire. But the case of Pharaoh’s hardened heart offers a deeper, personal challenge. And it’s also worth reflecting that this is not the only part of the Exodus narrative where people are becoming increasingly stubborn or ‘stiff-necked.’ In the second half of the story, it’s Israel itself displaying increasingly hardened behaviour. Pharaoh’s an easy target for insider readers of the story, but sometimes the barriers to God within his people are as big as the barriers outside. Specks in the eyes of others, planks in our own etc etc....