By Neil Dhingra
Exodus 5-7 may seem like the beginning of a straightforward account of God defeating Pharaoh, as God is God and Pharaoh is not. That account would be familiar and even a neat reversal of how later Egyptian writers remembered the Exodus. As James G. Williams writes, they imagined a sacred order threatened by the diseases of foreigners whose “justifiable expulsion” was prescribed by a sacred source — either oracle or popular consent as vox dei — so the sacred order might be renewed. Here, the sacred order becomes the cosmos, and the diseases are Pharaoh’s excess and obduracy, so that Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen are finally expelled from creation itself, swept under the waters. The basic straightforwardness of this account, however, would prevent us from considering when we ourselves become Pharaohs. Reading the Exodus should involve an often-painful self-recognition.
Pharaoh is not a simple scapegoat. It remains important to God that the Egyptians, Pharaoh included, “know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt” (7:5), and, before the Nile turns to blood, Moses is meant to tell Pharaoh, “By this you will know that I am the Lord” (7:17). T. Desmond Alexander writes that, when God tells Moses that he will “harden Pharaoh’s heart” so, even amidst the coming devastation, “he will not listen to you” (7:3), God means that he does not want to coerce Pharaoh’s will — heart, lēb, referring to one’s entire inner life — through “brute unrelenting force.” Instead, God confirms and even strengthens Pharaoh’s will so that Pharaoh may freely come to know who God is without a short-lived servility borne from fear. Tragically, this recognition never arrives.
Further, if God intends for his name to “resound through all the earth” (9:16), including Egypt, the plagues cannot be arbitrary. As the late Terence Fretheim points out, the plagues are specifically signs of God as Creator. They are not the equivalent of foreign armies or a revolution from within (or a comet hurtling toward earth). Instead, through these signs, God shows the accelerated consequences of Pharaoh’s own anti-creational policies, especially in taking the lives of Israel (1:16), so that nature now has returned to a “hypernatural” chaos in which “water is no longer water; light and darkness are no longer separated; diseases of people and animals run amok; insects and amphibians swarm out of control.”
For instance, in chapter 7, we see Aaron’s staff turn into a snake and swallow the Egyptian magicians’ staffs, themselves become serpents. The snake — tannîn — is at once a symbol of the Pharaoh, “the great dragon sprawling in the midst of his streams, that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself’” (Ezek. 29:3) and chaos itself (the “tannînîm in the water” [Ps. 74:13]). Here, Pharaoh is revealed to be a snake who is himself likely to be “swallowed up” like the magicians’ staffs, by the waters of the Red Sea (Ex. 15:12). Then, as Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites from bondage, God turns the waters of the Nile into blood. This reveals how the Egyptians had sought to end Israel by throwing male children into the Nile (1:22) and foreshadows their own drowning.
If, however, Pharaoh, with his “hardness of heart” can neither know the Lord nor recognize these signs, his insensibility is not his alone. To be sure, his obduracy provokes the paradigmatic instance of divine judgment (Sir. 16:15-6), so that in the Book of Revelation, the doomed “great city” — Babylon/Rome — even bears the symbolic names of “Sodom” and “Egypt” (Rev. 11:8). Nevertheless, Pharaoh represents a more general capacity to resist God’s mercy in extremis, which as Paul writes, God can still use for his purposes, as he “had endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction” (Rom. 9:22) — better, “having made themselves fit for destruction.” If God’s love is like the sun, Origen writes, Pharaoh could finally only dry up like so much mud, instead of melting wax-like as did those “multitudes of the Egyptians who went out with the Hebrews.” But it is not only him.
After all, why is Pharaoh so insensible? To be sure, Pharaoh is a tyrant, intensifying his destructiveness, but the reason for his resistance may be depressingly recognizable. It seems to be envy of another people. Pharaoh notices that the Israelites were “more numerous and more powerful than we” (Ex. 1:9) and moves to oppress them and end their very existence as a people. His rivalry continues with their God through his magicians, even though it soon becomes counterproductive — it is unclear why he would want them to turn more water into blood (7:22) or make more frogs come to Egypt (8:7). Pharaoh keeps the Israelites long after it seems rational to let them go, perhaps even for a calculating imperial “production ideology,” and even after his officials tells him that “Egypt is ruined” because of their presence (10:7).
But this intense rivalry is not only his. Its danger is perhaps so acute that Moses, the Israelite leader, is not clearly an Israelite. He was likely given an Egyptian name and raised as an Egyptian. When God first threatens Pharaoh’s son, God then strangely moves against Moses as if confusing him for that son until Zipporah reminds God of his covenantal kinship with Moses (Ex. 4:26). As Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper remind us, Moses sets himself apart from both Israelite and Egyptian through appealing to what is likely a physical disability. The Israelites do not listen to him because he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10); Pharaoh ignores his “uncircumcised lips” (6:12, 30). Moses necessarily remains an ambiguous figure in any rivalrous group conflict between Israelites and Egyptians.
For us, how do we avoid Pharaoh’s self-destructively rivalrous “hardness of heart?” We have Pharaoh’s example and might recognize the resemblance from reading the Book of Exodus. However, there is another thing. The late Albert Raboteau noted that while the Puritan John Winthrop claimed that the possession of land at least depended on a covenant with God which required faithfulness, later white American preachers spoke in undemandingly self-congratulatory language about a “Redeemer Nation.” On the other hand, Black Americans, such as Maria Stewart, warned an America stained by slavery that God would “pour out upon you the ten plagues of Egypt.” Raboteau writes that for free Blacks like Stewart, as well as enslaved men and women, “America was Egypt, and as long as she continued to enslave and oppress Black Israel, her destiny was in jeopardy.”
Perhaps, to perceive when we have become Pharaoh, we must read with others in a catholicity beyond our prejudices that lets us grasp that Pharaoh was more than a scapegoat to be expelled. Pharaoh represents our own self-congratulatory incapacity to know the Lord, understand the meaning of his signs and wonders, or distance ourselves from deceptive and blinding rivalries. It is within all of us to fail to recognize who we really are, as our hearts become hardened like mud in sunlight.