This was a question that I was struggling with all of last week. We’re all pretty familiar with the Passover story and the way it points to Jesus. Hooray, we love that bit! But I think we are often tempted to overlook the brutality of it. How can God still be good? This is how to goes for me:
I’m reading through Exodus and I’m like…I really want to see Israel set free from the oppressive regime of the Egyptians who even kill the Israelite children to maintain the population and stop them revolting. I hate the idea of slavery and I love the idea of God who sets the captives free, so I’m all excited.
And what I want to read is that Moses meets Pharaoh over an organic skinny latte; they both sign a memorandum of understanding, and Pharaoh, now a changed man, ruffles Moses’ hair on the way out and then they all live happily ever after. Or at least that Moses hires some top-notch lawyers and after a thrilling and tense battle in the courts, Moses sues Pharaoh into the ground and leaves with all his riches.
Instead, we see God reveal His plan to Moses to kill all the Egyptian firstborn children. The thought of this is, let’s be honest, even if it does point forward to the beauty of the cross, is pretty unbearable.
So how do we square this up?
Let me be the first to say it isn’t easy at all; in fact, it’s devastating. Nobody finds this comfortable, and I don’t think we are supposed to. The Bible is gritty, real and there’s a lot of it that you wouldn’t put on a fridge magnet.
Having said that, God is always there in the midst of the mess, and that is so unbelievably true in this story.
So here are three ways I see him working in this story that make me believe He is good and one important question at the end I feel we must answer:
Firstly, justice hurts.
If we want to live in a world with total equality and justice, we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that it isn’t easy to achieve that. A lot of stuff would have to be dismantled, deconstructed and destroyed, including a great deal of what is inside each and every one of our hearts. Nobody is perfect, yet we want a perfect world; therefore, we can’t achieve justice without pain and great cost.
And that’s exactly what we see here. We cry out alongside Israel for justice in this story, but then when it comes, it shocks us. We never saw how deep the injustice went and the depth to which they would have to be extracted from. More on why that is in a minute.
The difference for us though is that the Passover is ancient history that points forwards. We now know that the pain that justice causes is not poured out on us but Christ on the cross. Justice hurts so the cross is painful; a firstborn son had to die and that didn’t exclude God. He knows and understands the pain of justice intimately.
Secondly, this is a battle of Ideology.
Each and every one of the plagues is an attack on an Egyptian god or idol. For example in the first plague, the Eygptian river god gets attacked as the Nile turns to blood. In turn, each Egyptian deity is humiliated and trumped by Yahweh.
Rightly so, we know that in oppressive societies, especially ones that are economically dependant upon slavery, a deep shift in ideology is needed for change to occur. In the UK, it was the Great Awakening that led William Wilberforce to lead the charge to emancipate slavery. When God topples corrupt idols, genuine change can happen.
This 10th plague is no different, it’s about destructive ideology being crushed.
Pharaoh was thought of as the firstborn son of the sun god (Ra). The ‘Son of Ra’ would have been part of his title, Ra being the first of all the Egyptian gods.
So this plague is very much an attack on an ideology at the centre of Egyptian power. If you dismantle the power of the firstborn, then you dismantle the power of Egypt, and that is exactly what happens.
Part of me wonders if this is what was going on when Pharaoh killed the firstborn Israelite babies at the start of Exodus. It would have been common knowledge that Israel was thought of as God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22), in direct opposition to Pharaoh, also thought of as the firstborn of god.
So the fight is set up from the beginning: who is the real god and who is the real firstborn? This really matters.
The showdown commences and there is only going to be one winner. Egypt must understand who the true God is and who the true firstborn is, and the 10th plague makes it devastatingly clear.
But wouldn’t a good God have just teleported them all out of there anyway?
Yes, he could have, but here is the hard bit to stomach: God’s reputation really matters; it matters that He wins like this.
We’d like to think God isn’t bothered about what seems like a popularity contest amongst the gods, but He is and it matters that He is. He wants all the glory and all the worship because He alone is worthy, and because He alone is worthy, we will only find satisfaction in him alone. So it’s for our good and His glory that He is a jealous God.
And we see the benefits of this power displayed in Egypt for centuries after. It fuels legend and story, causing ripples of God’s goodness and freedom throughout the ancient world in all sorts of unlikely places (think of Rahab and Ruth).
In the end, Pharaoh becomes an archetype throughout scripture of oppressive man-made idols that must be usurped in order for humans to find freedom in true worship. As Augustine says, ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. Nothing else will do except God alone for no one else is good like he is! So it matters that God obliterates the destructive Egyptian gods.
Which begs the question: if God hadn’t have worked in this way, would they have had the confidence and trust to enter the promised land and work out salvation history? Would the right things happen for Christ to come as he did? Would the church even have been born? Who knows the answers to those questions, but we do trust that there are reasons why the Passover had to happen like this.
Thirdly, Egypt had a way out.
When I first realised this, I felt like it made a huge difference to my understanding of what was happening.
In 12:38, we see a multitude of people, presumably mostly Egyptians, leaving Egypt with the Israelites. These are people who swapped sides, who saw and acknowledged who the true God was, and joined Israel to follow him. I think it is very fair to presume that also means these are people who also painted their door frames red with the blood of the lamb. How else would they swap sides? They made a decision to trust in Yahweh and to follow Him and they were saved.
The Passover is open to Egyptians and Israelites alike, all who call on the Lord will be saved. There is no reason not to imagine that there was a large number of Egyptians who saw the futility of Pharaoh’s battle after the first nine plagues (which now seem like a grace to awaken people) and decided to swap sides. A good God always gives second chances, we see that here.
But all of that still leaves one final question. Could a good God harden Pharaoh’s heart and make all this happen anyway?
Yes and no.
Yes, God does harden Pharaoh’s heart and He probably does make the battle worse. But like we already said, perhaps this is a story that is needed to carry salvation history forward and end up saving billions of lives in the future.
It’s important to remember that when dealing with these difficult moral questions, that God can do all things, but only all things which are actually possible. For example, He can’t make a square into a circle as that’s a contradiction; He can’t destroy injustice without causing pain, as that’s also a contradiction. We have to trust here that he does what is the best thing possible in the long view of eternity.
Remembering we are working towards the beautiful vision of Revelation 7 here helps, when all the nations will bow at the throne of Jesus, joined together in perfect unity. And that glorious vision won’t happen until all other idols and gods, including Pharaoh, get dethroned and humiliated.
But although God does harden Pharaoh’s heart, it’s only after he hardens his own heart first.
On all the occasions that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, twice he explicitly hardens it himself and three times the hardening is ambiguous. God only starts to harden his heart after the 5th time it is hardened, and then hardens it four times. So before we see God explicitly hardening Pharaoh’s heart, it is already pretty hard.
Furthermore, in the 7th plague, the narrator describes Pharaoh as hardening his own heart (Exodus 9:34) and then later describes the same hardening using an ambiguous term. This suggests the ambiguous terms for hardening that preceded it in the earlier plagues probably means he hardens his own heart there as well. This means that in the first 5 times and the 7th time that it’s Pharaoh that hardens his own heart. God then gives him over to his sin and just continues doing what he started (think Romans 1:24).
This is of particular significance for Exodus 7:13-14, the first time where Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Here the Hebrew word used for hardening is an ambiguous verb, but for some reason, the ESV translates it as God doing the hardening. Given the context of the 7th plague and the fact that the pattern (otherwise) is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first, then God hardens it, this translation doesn’t seem to be very fair.
Tim Makie from the Bible Project does an excellent job of explaining this here.
All of this is just a humbling reminder that there are no easy answers to justice.
But we’ve got to remember, as we’ve already said, that God doesn’t sit distant from this pain. He is right there in the middle of it, taking it on instead of us, wrestling it into submission on the cross. Justice is important; justice won’t come without pain, but in the cross we find freedom like no other. God is still good.
You can tune in to the rest of our series on Exodus using the information here