Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Thoughts on Passover

Each year on the first night of Passover, I faithfully commemorate the deliverance of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt by watching Cecil B. DeMille’s sprawling, campy epic, The Ten Commandments.

I’ve never been under any delusion that the movie is historically or Biblically accurate; for all DeMille’s claims that in addition to the Holy Scriptures he drew from Philo, Josephus and the Midrash in fleshing out the story of Moses, most of it is invented from whole cloth, and I’m not talking about a torn Levite’s robe. Yet I can’t help thinking that DeMille got a lot closer to God’s truth and sense of justice than the author(s) of Exodus.

As I was re-reading the familiar text yesterday morning, I was struck and disturbed by what God was saying and doing in this story. In Exodus Chapter 4, as Moses is about to depart Midian and return to Egypt, God says to him, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”

Let’s get this straight: Moses is to go before Pharaoh and make a humanitarian argument on behalf of the Hebrews, and back it up with signs from God, but then God is going to hi-jack the Pharaoh’s sense of justice and compassion and make him less fair and just than he actually is so that God will be justified in punishing not just Pharaoh (for the hardness of heart that wasn’t his fault) but also the many Egyptians – including innocent children – who are neither responsible for the Hebrews’ condition nor in a position to do anything about it. “But you refused to let him go,” God commands Moses to say to Pharaoh, “now I will kill your firstborn son.” This is dishonest and unscrupulous in the extreme.

And it’s not just Chapter 4; three more times the Lord tells Moses “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” or “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.” So God is going to usurp free will and critical thinking in order to be justified and even glorified in inflicting suffering and death on people for not obeying him when they had no choice in the matter.

I can’t accept this. 1 John says, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” That’s the God I know and believe in.

Then I woke up today to The New York Times proclaiming that the Exodus never happened.

So what do we do with this story, if it is historically improbable and theologically disjunct?

I don’t have a good answer. I still find truth and meaning in the broader outlines: there is a God who knows your suffering and hears your prayers; there is a God who goes to bat for you; suffering helps us put life into perspective, teaches us things, builds character and gives us insight so that we might have compassion for others; God has already given us all the tools we need to change the world; if you maintain your faith, at the appointed time you will be delivered from your adversity, and at that time your period of suffering will begin to make sense to you; and also, just when you think you’re trapped, sometimes a totally unexpected way will open for you, usually at the last minute.

I know these things to be true, even if they have been presented to us in a historically inaccurate package. A truth is not always the same thing as a fact.

But a God who forces you to disobey him so that he can punish you for it? That’s bullshit.


Steve said...


Perhaps, god is a man-made fiction, and the bible is full of mythology.

But most of all maybe free will is not but an illusion in the first place.

My personal take on Passover is that is is a horrible thing to believe ever took place, let alone celebrate as a great thing.


Jarred said...

I've heard some Christians suggest that what God meant by "hardening his heart" is not as direct an action by God, but God acknowledging that Pharoah's reaction to exposure to God will be result in a hardening of his heart. What do you think of such an attempt to interpret these statements in a less horrific manner?

Andy said...

My response is, that's not what the text says. It says "I will harden his heart."

Trickish Knave said...

"But a God who forces you to disobey him so that he can punish you for it? That’s bullshit."

The Egyptians did follow the god of the Jews so Pharaoh wasn't disobeying god to begin with.

"My response is, that's not what the text says. It says 'I will harden his heart.'"

True, but without a deep understanding of Hebrew who knows what that really means. I do know that the first word in Hebrew for 7 of the 10 commandments does not mean the weak "thou shalt not" translation. It is the strictest form of "don't" there is.

The hardening of Pharaoh's heart, Abraham's order to kill his son, and even the existence of the tree with the forbidden fruit all raise questions of God's benevolence.

Why would he pull this shit if he really loves us?

In context, like most of scripture, the hardening of Pharaoh's heart makes sense. The Jews have been in bondage for 400 years and now God has come to set them free, set them up as his children and, eventually, help them to be the stewards of his religion through Jesus.

What better way to show some broken and detitute people who will later become the catalyst of Christianity to use a few miracles to solidify the greatness of God? The 10 plagues prepared the Jews for what was to come and helped to get rid of the idolatry that was so prevailant in that time.

Well, at least for a little while. Moses couldn't go away for 40 days without the weak ones turning back to idolatry. Anyway...

Andy said...

Well, I didn't intend for this post to be "Andy's Judgment on the Exodus." I'm fairly begging here for someone to show me where I'm wrong. Seriously. Explain this to me.

I would love for this to just simply be a problem with translation.

kr said...


An unpleasant section of the biblical narrative, to be sure.

Partly I see this as a reflection of the growing understanding by God's People (and his recorders) of How He Is ...

Certainly you are fast enough to put at the feet of the mortals other "erroneous" understandings of what God wanted recorded. Although this story is better-known than most of the others, why do you hesitate to apply the same reasoning? Especially as this story would be very very much part of the oral traditions ... so it's not like we can even begin to claim one author.

Anyhow, I don't necessarily agree with you on the overall pattern of OT analysis, but it seems like you are causing yourself unnecessary stress, if you really are comfortable with the erroneous mortal authors as a basic (rather than subsidiary) assumption ... ?

Matthew said...

As a side note, Mormon theology holds that those particular passages are mistranslated. They claim the original text states that God said that pharoh would harden his own heart (or something like that).

Just sayin

Andy said...

KR, you're absolutely right, I think this is prime evidence that the Bible shows an evolving understanding of God, and that this is largely why we CAN'T just rely on the literal word and why it is morally incumbent upon us to reject certain passages like this as misguided. My knickers are in a knot because so many people refuse to do that; so many people want to believe in a vindictive, manipulative God who plays favorites.

kr said...

Well ... He does play favorites, even in the Christian tradition. We can say that those people opened their lives to him more fully, maybe, but it's still there. Presumably if everyone opened more fully this would not be an issue ;).

The vindictive thing, I am willing to put at the feet of the evolving Hebraic understanding of how the world works/should work.

Marc said...

God did harden Pharaoh's heart. He was using Pharaoh as a tool. There should be no question that the Jews were God's chosen people under the old covenant. He required that the Jews believe only in Him and that they have no other gods before Him. As we learn later during their exodus, they had a hard time with that; they were human, and prone to flesh failure, as are we all.

But back to the point. God was making a point to the Jews when He was releasing them from the bondage of Egypt: I am your God and I will demonstrate that I AM and that all other gods are powerless against Me. As a result, you will cease to worship all gods except Me (as you will remember He made this very clear in the Ten Commandments - it was the first, and there was a divine reason for it being first) and you will recognize that I am the only way to salvation.

The purpose of the plagues (brought about by the hardening of Pharaoh's heart) was to demonstrate that superiority and power of the Almighty over all the gods of Egypt, to Jews and non-Jews alike. It was a demonstration of the point that, unlike the other peoples of the world who worshipped all manner of gods, the Jews were worshipping the one true God, the God who could bring about life and destruction by power, not by coincidence.

Since the Jews had begun to worship some of the Egyptian gods while in captivity, it was necessary for Yahweh to demonstrate His power to His own believing people as well as the unbelievers. Who had more power in the eyes of the people at the time than Pharaoh? Pharaoh was a pawn in the plan, Andy. He was not one of the chosen. He did not believe in Yahweh as the one true God. So God used Pharaoh's position and power to demonstrate that he was nothing but a man, that his power was useless against the power of the Almighty.

The Egyptians (the pharaohs) had held God's chosen people in captivity for 40 years, and they were made to pay for the consequences of that action. The message: no one takes what is God's and gets away with it forever. It would be different if Pharaoh believed in God and God hardened his heart. That was the point: Pharaoh didn't believe in God and neither did the Egyptians, and so God was going to demonstrate for all of them that He was supreme and his people were the chosen through a show of power..."shock and awe" shall we call it?

There needed to be clear actions and consequences for the demonstration of God's supremacy to be unequivocally made.

If you think that pharaohs were fair and just, you need to remember that they reigned over the people with fear and terror. They enslaved the Jews and many other peoples for years and made their lives hell to break their spirits in a mockery of their belief in the one true God. Does that sound fair and just?

God used Moses as His spokesman before all the people to tell them what God wanted and what He expected of them. And Moses prevailed in leading the Jews out of Egypt, but you will remember that because the Jews failed to believe in the singular divinity of God, He forced them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. And because Moses failed as a leader to obey God's will to the letter by striking the rock for water instead of speaking to it, he didn't get to make it to the promised land of Israel. God freely admits that He "is a jealous god," says Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:14, Deut. 5:9, Deut. 6:15, Joshua 24:19, and a host of other verses, and this is certainly proof of that. No other gods are to be honored but Him.

If this sounds like a foreshadowing of the New Testament, it's no coincidence. God still demands that He be recognized as the one true God. Christ is the messenger he used to deliver the message to His chosen people, Christians. Unlike Moses, who was a man and therefore flawed, Christ perfected the Mosaic role, living as a man in accordance with the Mosaic law while delivering the new law to the world without a misstep. For Christians, the New Testament gospels replace the Mosaic laws as the way to salvation, Christians are the chosen "called out," and rulers of the world are still in denial of the God who is the I AM. At the second coming of Christ will be the demonstration of God's power and wrath as he pours it out on unbelievers.

I found it interesting that you didn't address the whole issue of Passover, which can also seem barbaric and unfair in the absence of context. Those whose door mantles (New Testament=men's hearts) weren't sprinkled with the blood of a lamb (New Testament= blood of Christ) lost the firstborn son of their household (New Testament=salvation) as a consequence. The Jews, as the chosen, were the only ones given the information about the blood sprinkling that saved them as the angel of death passed over the land. Under the New Testament, the information is given to all, but just as in the old times, not all believe. To those believe, eternal life is the promise.

I don't think there is a disconnect. Christ is the Light and the Word who John 1 speaks of, and he tempers Yahweh God's wrath with love and forgiveness.

I think you have been given some cloudy information along the way to think that Yahweh God or even Christ has no emotion but love. Neither the Old or New Testaments holds that principle. And in fact, Christ says in Matthew 10:34, "Do not suppose that I came to bring peace to the earth; I came not to bring peace, but a sword." That sword is the sword of vengeance that God will deal out to unbelievers.

I hope that as you study you will come to a better understanding of this...I don't think it's the bull you think it is.

David in KC said...

Gosh, Andy, let's get back to "Cats Across America." Convoluted, literalist theological commentary will drive away your true fans (I'm not speaking of your comments, of course). To quote the old hymn, "When we all get to heaven . . ." they'll wonder why they spent so much time trying to parse the unparsable.

On a lighter, less theological note, I saw "The Ten Commandments" when it first came out in 1956 or 1957. I was 11 years old at the time,on the cusp of puberty. I knew there was something I liked about sweaty, shirtless John Derek (Joshua). It would only become clear in later years.

Andy said...

Marc, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. The Hebrews were actually in captivity for 430 years, according to the Bible (even though there is apparently zero archaeological evidence that this is true).

I see what you're saying, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that God would use people as pawns. I didn't say the pharaohs were fair and just; I said that according to Exodus, God says he's going to make this particular Pharaoh even less so, which to me seems sneaky and underhanded.

I have understood that the Israelites were "Chosen" in the sense that they would be the race through which God reveals Himself to the rest of the world; that the Redeemer would be a Jew and a descendant of the patriarchs. I have more trouble with the idea that God puts Jews first to the extent that he's going to be unfair and manipulative toward other people. It seems to me more likely that the inspiration of the True God would have served to soften Pharaoh's heart.

To me, the Passover is best understood as a metaphor for the periods in our life where we feel stuck, trapped and oppressed and, relying on the example of the Exodus, we are to trust that our unhappiness is serving a purpose, is not reflective of God's disfavor (he sends rain on the just and the unjust, after all), and to be mindful that our deliverance will come. It may not come in this lifetime, but it will come. It's a story about speaking truth to power, it's a story about endurance, and it's an important reminder that God has his own timing for things. When we pray for deliverance, those prayers will be answered, but at the appointed hour.

And I think the story as written is reflective, as KR has said, of the evolving understanding of who and what God is and our relationship to him. Clearly my understanding is also evolving, as well.

kr said...

Argh, Andy beat me!
Happily, it looks like I'm not repeating what he says ...
Andy: there is a very limited amount of archaeological evidence, which is generally accepted only to the degree that the person is prejudiced to one conclusion or the other ;).

Marc: bravo for the coherent presentation!

The problem it sounds like Andy has, and that has always tweaked me as well, is the "God hardened Pharoahs heart" aspect, not so much the plagues themselves, as horrific as they were.

Myself, I actually can go along with the "those who don't obey God (especially when He is--for once--so CLEAR in His proclamations) have chosen to take consequences" idea. I do see such things as "consequences" rather than "vindictiveness"--hence my previous comment. Consequences had to be a little more literal and visceral then, to get some momentum going for the one-god theory ... now that the theory is conceptually established, God seems to give us part of our consequences now and part of them after we die, presumably according to His Infinte Wisdom etc etc.

An interesting note which I never hear mentioned: The Egyptians had had their own Mosaic one-god preacher, the Pharoah Akhenaten--and roundly rejected him, probably before the Exodus event occured (of course there is scholarly discord about when, and even if, the Exodus event occured) ... which implies that God made an effort to "warm up" the Egyptians to accept Himself. I think this is a terribly important piece of the picture, and it saddens me that it seems so universally ignored.

In any case, the "God hardened Pharoah's heart" theory completely countermands the basic Christian assertion that God wants all people to be His children, as well as the mainline Christian belief that we not only have free will, but that free will is a basic part of God's design for each individual human.

Another cross-academic study that I have never heard applied but I think should be is the question of how the Pharoahs' claimed godhood affected them and their decisionmaking (they were each in their own time supposed to be the head-god of Egypt ... except Akhenaten, which caused theological difficulties galore during his reign). I suspect we here see residual racism ... we are very comfortable teaching about the evils such ridiculous teachings caused amongst the Roman emperors, but I've never heard it applied to the Pharoahs. Also, I have never heard the Egyptian belief presented as anything except a straight-up true belief ... where we kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink "how could they have been THAT stupid?" about the Romans. Which directly implies we have no cultural issues with assuming the Egyptians were just "that stupid" (but our cultural forebears, of course, could not have been universally so gullible). (:Phhbbtttt.)

In any case, we have very nasty, but accepted and taught, historical records of the effects of this type of belief on inbred Roman ruling families. I think assuming similar results in the Egyptian dynasties is reasonable. (Actually, the Egyptians seem to have been less prone to random acts of supremacy, possibly because their theology was much more coherent than the Romans'.)

Pharoah would not only have objected to the loss of a slave workforce or even a loss of face (although the Egyptians--dynasties and people--were very very unaccepting of even the hint of defeat) ... he WAS "God," inasamuch as there was understood to be A God In Egypt, and this bizarre desert upstart (who may or may not have been a boy Pharoah grew up with in the palace) claiming not only that El/Yaweh was more powerful but that Pharoah was not a god at all, and nor were any of the gods of his ancestors ... well, I don't think a hardening of the heart is at all a surprise. I think a towering rage and every attempt to deny Moses, no matter how irrational given initial and accumulating evidence, were pretty predictable ... indeed, to expend every resource to prove Moses wrong (army) becomes logical, and to leave utterly no trace of any of the events in the written or oral traditions, and to remove all traces possible of the events from the physical world, is completely in keeping with Egyptian traditions (the attempted erasure of Hatshepsut, including every mention of her name that her son could locate ... the similar attempted destruction of records and images of Akhenaten and his family) ... Egyptian embarrassments were erased because the Egyptians believed the physical records had something to do with immortality ... and truth.

Anyhow, to me, God hardening Pharoah's heart is both logically unnecessary and not coherent with a Christian understanding of God's nature.

God is a just God, and although He is also merciful (he gives people lots of chances to turn to Him), there is a moral order to the universe and if someone (or a people) doesn't bring themself in line with the moral order they do face consequences. I do think the "vindictiveness" is a reflection of the culture of the Hebrews--it was their best guess as to what God was thinking, based on their own experience. The closest their language-concepts could come to an accurate picture. Really, we are just best-guessing even now. (The fact that God chose this cultural group to work with and through is a separate, although pertinent, discussion.)

I agree with you that Jesus was not the pacfist that so many prefer to paint him nowadays ... but I don't see Jesus as vindictive, nor his portrayal of The Father as vindictive (and certainly not the Holy Spirit).

[But then, I believe God created the world through molecular interactions and directed evolution. This starts me off reading the Bible as partly a cultural artifact ... Genesis is actualy SHOCKINGLY close to the order of events suggested by secular science; I actually find it astounding that people of so long ago might have "randomly" come up with something so accurate. God skipping the part where we're related to monkeys (not to mention invertebrates) seems reasonable, as I'm sure some folks the Hebrews came into contact with would have considered monkeys food ... He had to speak in concepts the people MIGHT be able to understand and MIGHT be able to consider accepting as Truth ;). ]

Andy said...

Yes, I am of a mind with KR, here. I have no problem with there being severe penalties for the hardness of Pharaoh's heart. But the way Exodus presents it, it's actually not Pharaoh's heart that's hard, but God's. It's a vindictive thing to do to demand Pharaoh do something, then prevent him from being able to do it, and punish him and others for it.

And I second KR's kudos for Marc's well-written, coherent argument.

God hardening Pharoah's heart is both logically unnecessary and not coherent with a Christian understanding of God's nature.


I wonder if Gary is still around? I would like his take on this.

kr said...

Y'know, Andy, I just have to say that I find it hilarious how often you end up arguing the mainline ideas/language and I end up arguing the ramdom modern feminism/pagan history ones ... who'd'a'thunk it way back when ;)?

Chiron said...

You asked, "So what do we do with this story?"

Hang a dead rabbit over your door, and leave it there until Easter Sunday.