Now we come to the plagues. In order to properly understand what’s going on in Exodus chapters 7-10, we have to account for a comment that God makes in Exodus12:12, where he says, “Look, what I’m doing here is bringing judgment on all the God’s of Egypt.”
Taking on the Gods
By virtue of the plagues, God is demonstrating his authority over things that were thought to be under control of Egyptian gods. Many people have tried to make one-to-one correlations between each of the plagues and a specific Egyptian deity. It doesn’t work. Egypt had somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 different gods and each of them could take on different manifestations. You can understand the issues with trying to find a direct connection between each plague and a single god, but the point of Exodus 12:12 still stands: When you look at the different plagues, different Egyptian deities had control over each of those aspects of nature.
For example, let’s look at the waters of the Nile River turning to blood. The Nile itself was actually deified in Egyptian mythology. The name used for the Nile god was Hapy. Hapy was responsible for bringing agricultural abundance to the valley through the waters of the Nile. So when God turned the waters of the Nile to blood and upset the entire ecosystem, it could be viewed as a judgment against Hapy.
While we can point to the Nile running red with blood as an indictment of Hapy, it can also be viewed as a judgment against Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh is the manifestation of the sun god, and it is Pharaoh who has ultimate responsibility for the well-being of Egypt. He is responsible for ma´at, the Egyptian concept of truth, balance, and order. When God unleashes the plagues, it destroys the ma´at and challenges Pharaoh’s authority as a god and undermines his right to rule.
A Hardened Heart
As we read about the plagues, we encounter this concept of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. For many, this is an upsetting idea. Some people read it as God has predetermined to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but when Pharaoh’s heart is hard, God judges him for it. What’s the deal? If God is hardening him, how can God blame Pharaoh? I don’t think that’s a good reading of what’s going on in the text. First, when God says he’s going to harden Pharaoh’s heart, he doesn’t say why or in what manner. Once you actually get into the interactions between Pharaoh and God, you see that Pharaoh is hardening his own heart and God is responding in kind.
Second, in stories from the ancient Near East, they don’t do scene shifts the way we do. For example, if I take a coin from my pocket and describe it to you, I’ll say, “This coin is round and it has the word ‘liberty’ on it above this dude’s head. Underneath the guy’s head, it says, ‘1995’. And this coin has a bird on it and it says, ‘The United States of America’ above the bird and ‘quarter dollar’ under the bird.” You’ve seen a quarter so you understand that I’m describing two sides of the same coin. In Hebrew narrative, it’s very normal for the author to give you two sides of the same coin without ever alerting you to the fact that he has flipped the coin. That’s exactly what’s going on with the description of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
A Heavy Heart
But there’s more to it than that. Scripture uses a few terms that are translated as “harden the heart.” The first word actually means “to be strong.” It’s the same word used in Deuteronomy 31:6 and Joshua 1:9 when we are told to be strong and courageous. Another word sometimes translated as “hard” means “to be difficult.” If you have a really difficult task, you would use this word and say the job is hard.
The third common word that is translated as “hard” actually means “heavy.” This is significant when you consider the Egyptians’ concept of what happened after death. They believed the dead person’s heart would be placed on one side of a scale and a feather on the other. If the heart was lighter than a feather, the person was admitted to the afterlife. But if the heart was heavy with sin or evil, it would be devoured and the person would cease to exist.
So when we read that God made Pharaoh’s heart heavy, we’re essentially being told that God is putting Pharaoh in a situation where he’s not even meeting his own standards. When you get to Exodus 14:7, God says he going to harden Pharaoh’s heart and later in verses 17 and 18, he’s going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians to “show his own glory.” What’s so compelling is that the word that gets translated “harden their hearts” is the same word for “glory.” It’s the word that means “heavy.”
Through the plagues, God created circumstances that put the heaviness of Pharaoh’s heart on display for all to see. By doing this, He revealed his own heaviness—his weightiness or significance. In other words, his glory.
Heeding God’s Promptings
Another thing to consider in this encounter is that Pharaoh is not coming off a clean slate. Even before Moses showed up, the view of Pharaoh (and Pharaoh’s own view of himself) is that he is a god. For example, one ancient Egyptian text admonishes,
“Worship Pharaoh. He lives forever. Worship him within your bodies and commune with his majesty in your hearts. He is the sun by whose beams we see. He is the one who illuminates both Upper and Lower Egypt, even more than the sun disc itself.”
When Moses first starts dialoguing with Pharaoh, he says, “Thus says Yahweh….” He is bringing Pharaoh a message from a deity and Pharaoh’s response reveals where Pharaoh is coming from during the whole interchange. “Who is this Yahweh that I should pay the least bit of attention to what he has to say?” (Exodus 5:2)
The implications are pretty obvious. Those of us who have walked with God for any length of time can recall experiences when we felt like the Spirit of God was prompting us in some direction. I’ve borrowed a line from a pastor of mine and incorporated it into my life:
I have decided to follow the promptings of the spirit as best I understand them.
That’s the lesson here. When we develop a lifestyle or a habit of ignoring the promptings of the Spirit, we are hardening our own hearts and we run the risk that God will respond in kind. It is our job to remain open to the promptings of the Spirit and to follow them as best we can.