In Appreciation of Pharaoh
Pharaoh always gets a bad rap in the Exodus story and that’s too bad. Dialing back our judgmental posture towards Pharaoh might afford us a bit of enlightenment.
I always wondered why Pharaoh didn’t just kill Moses and Aaron or throw them into prison. That would seem to be an efficient and obvious solution to his troubles, but he does not.
If you recall Moses had committed a capital crime during the reign of the previous Pharaoh and that Pharaoh wanted Moses dead. The warrant for Moses’ arrest, however, wasn’t revenge, it was justice.
No great civilization can endure without justice. The Egyptians had a strong sense of justice which gave strength to their empire. The word for the concept of truth, justice, order, law, balance or morality in ancient Egypt was “ma’at”. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia on the concept:
Maat as a principle was formed to meet the complex needs of the emergent Egyptian state that embraced diverse peoples with conflicting interests. The development of such rules sought to avert chaos and it became the basis of Egyptian law. From an early period the King would describe himself as the “Lord of Maat” who decreed with his mouth the Maat he conceived in his heart.
The significance of Maat developed to the point that it embraced all aspects of existence, including the basic equilibrium of the universe, the relationship between constituent parts, the cycle of the seasons, heavenly movements, religious observations and fair dealings, honesty and truthfulness in social interactions.
The ancient Egyptians had a deep conviction of an underlying holiness and unity within the universe. Cosmic harmony was achieved by correct public and ritual life. Any disturbance in cosmic harmony could have consequences for the individual as well as the state. An impious King could bring about famine or blasphemy blindness to an individual. In opposition to the right order expressed in the concept of Maat is the concept of Isfet: chaos, lies and violence.
In addition to the importance of the Maat, several other principles within ancient Egyptian law were essential, including an adherence to tradition as opposed to change, the importance of rhetorical skill, and the significance of achieving impartiality, and social justice. In one Middle Kingdom (2062 to c. 1664 BCE) text the Creator declares “I made every man like his fellow”. Maat called the rich to help the less fortunate rather than exploit them, echoed in tomb declarations: “I have given bread to the hungry and clothed the naked” and “I was a husband to the widow and father to the orphan”.
Theologically speaking we would call the Egyptian concept of “ma’at” the common grace blessings of truth, justice, harmony and order that most of humanity commonly understands to be necessary for human life and development.
The previous Pharaoh pursued the murderer Moses for his violation of Maat. Moses deserved judgment for killing the Egyptian. Whether there was a statute of limitations on such things, or whether the record keeping was insufficient, or for whatever reason the Pharaoh that Moses and Aaron confront was sufficiently gripped.
In the Egyptian political/religious system (remember those were not assumed to be separate things as in a secular culture) Pharaoh’s job was to insure the maat that would bless the land.
My Well-being at Ma’at’s Expense
The Exodus story begins with the flourishing of the children of Israel in the land of Goshen. God has blessed them. They are being fruitful and multiplying. They are in fact doing so to the degree that it is making Pharaoh nervous. Pharaoh comes to the conclusion that his duty to ma’at must take a back seat to his duty to the preservation of his power and the security of “his people”, meaning his ethnic/political/religious group. It is at this point that he begins to enact policies of genocide against the Hebrew people. It is also at this point in the story that Yhwh decides to get involved.
The series Breaking Bad as recently concluded. It prompted numerous Internet discussions about the nature of evil. Walter White was a good man who, facing cancer, decided to use his chemical expertise to cook meth in order to earn some needed money for his family. This tiny decision, along with a string of subsequent decisions, would turn him into a monster and destroy the world he tried to save. Walter White’s story is Pharaoh’s story is our story.
Like Walter White, Pharaoh will have multiple opportunities to get out of the business of being a genocidal dictator, and get back into the business of ma’at, but Pharaoh, like Walter, will continue to insist that he can have them both.
I Will Make You God to Pharaoh
The Genesis stories are commonly read by us today as God making stuff. A closer reading of the story (while not excluding that fact that God made stuff) shows that what the story is more concerned with is how God orders stuff, regulates stuff, and creates flourishing by his ordering and ordaining of stuff. (See John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One and Andy Crouch’s Playing God-Redeeming the Gift of Power).
The man and the woman in Genesis one are made in God’s image. They are to be God’s representatives, to act with God’s power over the new creation. They are to fulfill it. They are to create order and flourishing by which the world is developed and flourishes. This is what we were made to do and even in our rebellious state this is what we do.
Pharaoh was made to bring ma’at to Egypt. To build it into a great civilization that would lead to human flourishing, but Pharaoh has been straying from the path and using the power he has to create human misery. Now the owner of the earth is sending his representative, Moses, to be God to Pharaoh. Moses will be a prophet and call Pharaoh back to the path of true ma’at. If Pharaoh does not do this, all that Pharaoh has labored to do will be destroyed.
So that Pharaoh will know that I am Yhwh
Pharaoh earlier asked “who is Yhwh that I should obey him?” and the “wonders” are the answer.
Tim Keller, in his sermon on all the plagues says that the plagues answer the question “Why should we obey God?”
There are three answers the plagues give us for why we should obey: because he is the unique judge over all the earth, because he is the natural judge over all the earth, and because he is the saving judge over all the earth.
Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Keller in his sermon goes on to note that if there were simply a demonstration of raw power or miraculous verification, God should have or could have employed other cool tricks to convince or coerce compliance from Pharaoh. Most of what we call “the plagues” are really catastrophic natural and environmental disasters. Other scholars have noted how they link up with the Genesis 1 creation story. We’ll see in later pronouncements that these messages are designed to communicate not only to Israel and Egypt but to all the nations of the world and they are designed to communicate the specific relationship between God, our own just or unjust actions, and the created order.
Snakes and Sea Monsters
In the first show down God commands Aaron to throw down his staff and it becomes a “snake”. Our English translations will connect this with chapter 4 when this happens at the burning bush episode with Moses and his staff, and this trick is shown to the Hebrew leaders to convince them that Yhwh has sent Moses.
Hebrew readers will note that the language changes with this incident. What Aaron’s staff becomes is something Genesis 1 and other places sometimes translate as “sea monster”. The connection again seems to be the created order and Yhwh’s work of creating flourishing creation out of dangerous chaos. Pharaoh’s magicians similarly produce “sea monsters” but Aaron’s sea monster gobble up those of Pharaoh’s magicians.
You can destroy, but can you create?
The confrontation then moves to water to “blood”. While Pharaoh’s magicians can similarly turn water to blood on a small scale but what is important to note is that Pharaoh doesn’t even try to turn blood to water.
What is happening is that Yhwh is beginning to dismantle his creation through Moses, right in front of the one how was charged by Egyptian culture/religion/politics to maintain the created order that gave Egypt her power and prosperity. Pharaoh was the enforcer of ma’at and is now impotent in challenging Yhwh’s de-creation moves.
In Genesis 1 Yhwh gathers the water into “seas”. Those seas become the place of flourishing life where fish and sea monsters breed, play and thrive. In Exodus 7 Yhwh turns all of the gathered waters (the word is repeated) into “blood” where destroys all living things. The Nile, the “life blood” of Egypt’s empire now no longer affords its thriving but its people will scramble just to survive.
Pharaoh is seen to be a fraudulent bringer of ma’at to his people. He has become a bringer of death who used the Nile as an instrument of death against the boy babies of Israel. Yhwh now turns the Nile over to death completely and Pharaoh is unable to turn it around.
How will Pharaoh Respond?
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart will be the archetype of walking away from God. Pharaoh knows there is nothing he can do but he will stubbornly refuse, against all rationality, to stick to his path. Viewers of Breaking Bad will see this again and again in Walter White. Jesus will cast the story of the Hebrew prophets in a similar light as they confront the nation of Israel and as Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his time.
Pharaoh can do nothing about the sea monster unleashed by Aaron’s staff nor the unlivable blood that the Nile has become. All he can do is harden his heart, steel himself against this God and refuse to acknowledge, worship or obey him.
The only world which Pharaoh has mastery over is his own opinion about God and his only domain are his beliefs and attitudes. Pharaoh has created a little bit of hell on earth and it is within his heart. That hell on earth will flow from his heart and into the entire land as the drama continues.
The True and Better Pharaoh
Why wasn’t the Pharaoh of Exodus 7 the savior of the world?
This question sound blasphemous coming from a Christian, but it would not have been a strange question coming from an Egyptian. Pharaoh’s job, in fact was to guarantee Egyptian prosperity and power. His job was to save his country. Where did Pharaoh go wrong?
Pharaoh made a decision that we, ensconced in a place we all know, validate every day. Pharaoh decided that the preservation of himself and the world to his liking took priority over ma’at.
Andy Crouch in his lecture on power had three points:
- Power is for flourishing
- We misuse our power TO make idols
- Those who make idols become like them.
To deal with our vulnerability (for Pharaoh this was seeing Hebrew flourishing, the well-being of his neighbor as a threat) we misuse our power.
We create idols to address our vulnerability. Our idols make two promises to us: you shall not die, and you shall be like God. This whole story is about who is “God.”
What this shows us is the contrast between Pharaoh and Jesus. Pharaoh attempts to address his vulnerability by creating idols at the expense of the Hebrews. His idols instruct him that he is God and Yhwh is not. Even when he is exposed as being not God by sea monsters and water to blood, the only domain where he can remain God is his heart and so he hardens it in that belief. The result is un-creation.
Jesus, however, embraces a vulnerability he did not have to maintain, and decides that his well-being will be sacrificed for the well-being of his friends, neighbors and enemies, and the result is a new creation, the first fruits of which is his resurrected body.