Pharaoh’s hard heart (Exodus 10:1-2)

Is Pharaoh to blame if God hardened his heart?

Open Exodus 10:1-2.

In the modern world, knowledge is acutely focused on causation. Other cultures have not always shared this preoccupation.

Many ancient peoples attributed anything that happened to God. For example, we say, “It rained.” And if someone asks why, we explain that evaporated moisture fell when it hit a region of low atmospheric pressure. That’s not how they viewed things in Old Testament times. They never said, “It rained.” They said, “God sent rain” or “God withheld rain.” We say, “She’s pregnant.” They said, “God opened her womb” or “God closed her womb.” Whatever happened — good or bad — God was the cause.

That cultural difference makes it hard for us to make sense of how they described things. We read, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” and we wonder if God was being unreasonable. Surely Pharaoh cannot be culpable if God overrode his human will and forced him to be disobedient. That’s because we think in exclusive terms: for us, the cause must be either Pharaoh hardening his own heart or God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

But to the Hebrews, these were not mutually incompatible ideas. They thought both were true. They could say:

  • Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:15, 32).
  • God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8).
  • Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (7:13-14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 34-35).

Our mindset makes it difficult to comprehend the existence of evil. If God is good, and God only does good, and everything comes from God, then how can evil exist? If evil exists, then in some ultimate sense, God is responsible. As any ruler knows, the buck stops at the top.

The Hebrews didn’t struggle with the question in those terms. Read Job. Everything comes from God, the good and the bad. Even the satan functions as a member of God’s court, for nothing could happen except by the omnipotent sovereign’s decree. So if Pharaoh’s heart was resistant to God’s decree, they understood that resistance as an act of God too.

Can you grasp their both/and perspective? Pharaoh is making culpable choices of his own within God’s overarching sovereignty. These two truths are not incompatible in the Hebrew worldview.  (And just to be clear, this is not about Pharaoh’s personal salvation: that would be anachronistic.)

One of the really interesting aspects of the story is that God repeatedly tells Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (4:21; 7:3; 14:4). On each occasion, God is preparing Moses to take a message to Pharaoh. Moses has already objected that he won’t be able to convince Pharaoh: “How then will Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:12, 30)  God knows Pharaoh won’t listen to Moses, but he doesn’t want Moses to feel like it’s his own fault. So God carries the can, unburdening Moses from the responsibility for Pharaoh’s response.

Once you realize the story is telling you that the Egyptian king’s hard heart is functioning within the bigger story of God’s overarching sovereignty, you realize that the harder Pharaoh resists, the more God’s sovereignty is revealed. If Pharaoh had chosen to give in easily, God’s sovereignty would not have been so obvious. The more Pharaoh resists, the more he ends up revealing who’s really in charge.

Carefully read these verses, and you’ll see all of that coming together at the beginning of the eighth plague:

Exodus 10:1–2 (ESV)
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.”

Does God authorize governments? (Romans 13:1-7)

We can’t talk about the kingdom of God without considering how the power of the church relates to the power of the state.

Open Romans 13:1-7.

Does Romans 13 decree the divine right of kings? It has been used that way for centuries. Even today, the royal coat of arms of the UK rests on such a claim: Dieu et mon droit, literally God and my right!

Does Romans 13 authorize war? Many interpreters have claimed that it does, so we’ll address this question in our next post.

Good exegesis starts with Paul’s context, not ours. The power claims in Romans 13 do not originate with Paul. He knew that Roman emperors laid claim to divine right to rule. This tradition dates way back to previous pagan empires, and is found all over the world.

But Paul was a Jew, writing from a Hebrew worldview. In that framework, Paul’s words in Romans 13 are not strange at all. In Romans 9:17, he quotes the Hebrew claim that God raised up even the Pharaoh of the exodus for his purposes.

In fact, a case can be made that Romans is a new Exodus story — a story of God liberating the earth from its oppressive rulers: Continue reading “Does God authorize governments? (Romans 13:1-7)”

Fighting violence with violence (Exodus 2:11-14)

Open Exodus 2:11-14.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house. He sees how human government operates. The Hebrew slaves weighed down with burdens (2:11, the same word as 1:11).

He identifies with them: the Hebrews are his brothers. Moses feels a responsibility to act against the injustice. He sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, so Moses strikes the Egyptian. The same Hebrew word (nā·ḵāh) is used to describe both actions. Moses has fallen into the trap of trying to resolve violence through violence. We have already seen how destructive this approach is (compare Genesis 4:23; 6:11).

This temptation will dog God’s people throughout their history. It still does. By responding to oppression with oppression, Moses has become the agent of death rather than the agent of YHWH. He is using his power the way Pharaoh uses it. Killing is not the path to saving. Moses knows his actions are wrong: furtively checking that no one is watching, and hiding the body in the sand (2:12). Continue reading “Fighting violence with violence (Exodus 2:11-14)”

Feeding the multitude (Matthew 14:13-21)

What are we to learn from unusual miracles like the feeding of the 5000?

Open Matthew 14:13-21.

Feeding the 5000, or walking on water. They’re favourites that capture our imagination, but why did Jesus do these things? If they were signs, what were they pointing to? Was he showing off? Was he telling the crowds he was God? What was Jesus doing? Continue reading “Feeding the multitude (Matthew 14:13-21)”

What power do the rulers of this world have over God’s people? (Matthew 14:1-12)

Are we safe from harm? Or can God’s people be hurt by the evil in the world?

Open Matthew 14:1-12.

As you read the Bible, do you notice how the stories fit together? Why would Matthew stop talking about Jesus and tell a story about Herod instead? What’s his point?

Continue reading “What power do the rulers of this world have over God’s people? (Matthew 14:1-12)”

How does justice come?

How can justice ever come to our communities? Did Jesus have anything ideas?

Imagine you’re in a class on Training and Assessment. Everyone makes a presentation, and you choose your topic. What’s your passion?

Students chose everything from surfing to swords. I wanted something related to the kingdom of God that could be relevant, appropriate for a non-religious setting, and doable in 15 minutes.

You can read what I said below, and I’d be interested in your feedback. The group responded well, and the experience helped me think through this issue further.

Clearly this isn’t the whole story. But is this an approach that could help us present the good news in a way Aussies see as relevant and important?

Here’s the script: Continue reading “How does justice come?”

Why doesn’t God sort it out? (Matthew 13:47-50)

If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why doesn’t he sort out injustice now?

Open Matthew 13:47-50.

Why is the world such a mess if it’s God’s kingdom? How can so much evil and injustice exist in the kingdom of God?

Why doesn’t our heavenly king sort out his earthly realm? Is this really the best God can do?

That’s no theoretical question. Ask the people in pain. Ask the parents of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February. Why doesn’t God act? Philip Yancey calls it, “the question that never goes away.”

Megaphones blare, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!Continue reading “Why doesn’t God sort it out? (Matthew 13:47-50)”

Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict (Matthew 12:14-21)

What can we learn from Jesus about how to handle conflict?

Open Matthew 12:14-21 and Isaiah 42:1–4.

How do you handle conflict? Fight? Or flight?

Some of us are fighters. We stand our ground. We’re warriors for justice, for ourselves and for others. We’ll never stand by and let evil take the reins.

Some of us avoid conflict. We keep the peace at all costs. We take the way of the cross: it’s more godly to suffer wrong than to demand rights.

Funny thing is that both groups conscript Jesus. Justice warriors look up to a Jesus as a leader who stood up for the poor, the outcasts, the unacceptable “sinners.” He trained his followers to handle confrontation, bringing not peace but a sword (10:14-39). He announced woes on the Galilean towns that rebuffed his kingship (11:20-24). He confronted the Pharisees so vehemently and persistently that they wanted to destroy him (12:1-14).

Then, suddenly, Jesus suddenly quits the confrontation and withdraws (12:15). And this isn’t the first time. When John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus withdrew into Galilee (4:12). This non-confrontational Jesus was not what John expected the Messiah to be (11:3). Jesus didn’t rescue John. John was beheaded, and Jesus withdrew again (14:13).

So what’s all this withdrawing? Is this another side to Jesus? Is this the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of children’s lullabies? Continue reading “Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict (Matthew 12:14-21)”

God’s kingdom and social justice

Social justice isn’t an angry fist; it’s a cross, bearing the injustice away.

Imagine a world without gender conflict, where males and females value each other as persons. Imagine a world where no one no one dies of preventable diseases, where no one starves while others horde wealth. Imagine a world without racism or slavery or war, a world where no leader forces themselves on people. Imagine a world where people shun violence and retribution, calling on God to bring justice instead.

Lofty ideals? It’s our future. This is the world we will know when it runs as our heavenly sovereign intends — as the kingdom of God. The big question is how do we get there?

Continue reading “God’s kingdom and social justice”

The kingdom and prophetic engagement: speaking truth to power?

Does being the kingdom of God mean speaking out against abuses of power in the current political system?

Quick: give me a Bible verse on social justice. What comes to mind?

Continue reading “The kingdom and prophetic engagement: speaking truth to power?”

Where’s God’s justice in an unjust world? (Matthew 10:26-31)

Your heavenly Father knows when even a sparrow falls.

Open Matthew 10:26-31.

We all have filters that shape what we hear. That’s true of how we understand our closest friends. It’s even more significant when we want to understand what Jesus said 2000 years ago in a very different setting.

For example, we in the western church tend to think of souls as immortal. After your body dies, your soul lives on, either in heaven or hell. It would make no sense to us to talk about bodies going to hell. Yet that’s precisely what Jesus did to: he said it’s better to lose an eye than to lose your whole body in hell (Matthew 5:29-30, 22). Something that doesn’t make sense is a hint that we’re not hearing it right, that we need to reframe the way we think. Continue reading “Where’s God’s justice in an unjust world? (Matthew 10:26-31)”

The homeless king (Matthew 8:20)

When his people are homeless, the Saviour is homeless too.

Open Matthew 8:19-20.

Matthew tells us that people had begun to recognize Jesus’ authority (7:29; 8:9). The king walked among his people, freeing them from their oppression (8:16). He bore their weakness, their dis-ease (8:17).

He was a homeless king (8:20). Ever heard of such a thing? He chose to be homeless as he moved among his people, identifying with them. In a sense, his people were homeless too. They had lost their homeland to foreign powers long ago. When Babylon invaded, so many died trying to defend Jerusalem they couldn’t bury them all, so their dead bodies became food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth (Jeremiah 7:33; 19:7). The birds and the beasts had homes, while God’s people did not. Continue reading “The homeless king (Matthew 8:20)”