This week’s portion is Va’eira (meaning, “and I appeared”; Exo 6:2-9). It covers the first 7 plagues of Egypt:
1. The waters of the whole land turning to blood
2. A nationwide invasion of frogs
3. The dust of the land turning to lice
4. Swarms of flies everywhere
5. Fatal pestilence on all the livestock
6. An epidemic of boils afflicting both man and beast, supernaturally induced by the scattering of ash
7. A catastrophic, nationwide hail storm
However, the thing which interests me most about this portion has to do with ethics, rather than the blatant supernaturalism of the Scriptural account. … How can God be justified in the way He went about procuring the freedom of Israel, considering the amount of suffering and apparent interference with human free will that was involved?
The debate surrounding this question is best outlined in Romans 9:14-24:
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
This passage of Paul’s has commonly been interpeted in such a way that God comes across as capricious and callous in His sovereignty – neither needing a logical reason nor a sense of morality to decide how He deals with people. But I don’t believe this is what Paul meant to convey at all.
In his letter, Paul writes that it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy; this indicates that the point, to him, is God chooses to have mercy and compassion on whom He wills, not so much that He appoints to damnation whom He wills – for by right all humanity is condemned through Adam without God ever having needed to consign them to it. But in Exodus 9:16, He declares concerning Pharaoh: “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”
It is in this context, therefore, that God’s actions are supposed to be understood when He hardens an individual. … Those who find fault with Him may accuse Him of being selective with whom He chooses to have mercy, but the truth is, mercy is God’s prerogative – He is not unrighteous if He chooses not to exercise it with every single person in the world (especially if they’ve already been damned by sin); instead, He is free to use certain elements of fallen, hardened humanity, if He wishes, by leaving them in their fallen state instead of redeeming them, and hardening them further in that context.
Thus when we read Paul, we ought not to take his words as a suggestion that God simply hardens innocent people to damnation if He wills (far be it from God, in fact, to do such a thing in His righteousness) – rather, I think Paul means that God should not be accused of being unfair for choosing to have mercy on some sinners when no one is truly innocent; and if, conversely, He raises certain people up in order to bring about judgement on/through them, He should not be accused of being unmerciful either, because He is still, ultimately, just. This is the context by which we ought to understand the question: “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”
If you look at what happened with Pharaoh in the unfolding of the 10 plagues, it’s easy to see that he had a naturally hard heart. He hardened his own heart against Moses from the start, beginning with the sign of Aaron’s rod and all the way through the first 5 plagues, as well as the 7th plague. … God, on the other hand, hardened Pharaoh during the 6th plague, then for plagues 8-10 and at the final pursuit to the Red Sea – so when you count it up, Pharaoh actually hardened his own heart more times than God did, and God never hardened Pharaoh’s heart against his free will or personal inclinations, but rather in accordance with what they’d consistently been, as a divine judgement on the man’s own perpetually wicked, stubborn decision-making.
Anyone who reads the story of the Exodus knows that this Pharaoh was a proud, cruel, despotic, murderous personality. No one can rightly or reasonably accuse God of being unmerciful for not choosing to save or spare such a man; Pharaoh got what he deserved, and if God hardened him further in his hard-heartedness so that He would be glorified through him along the way, no one can really accuse Him of being unfair/unrighteous (… in fact, one could argue that if God had decided to redeem such a person, it would’ve required a level of compassion amounting to oxymoronism, being in complete violation of the demands of divine justice and wisdom).
Jeremiah 18:1-10 says,
The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.
Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Lord. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.
When one reads Paul, his use of the analogy of the potter and the clay should be further clarified by this teaching provided by Jeremiah. … The fact is, a potter doesn’t shape a piece of clay against the peculiarities of the clay itself. If he intends to make a certain type of vessel but the clay doesn’t cooperate and becomes marred, the potter will change tack and make it into a different kind of vessel to what he originally planned, as he deems fit.
Now when it comes to Egypt, the nation was overdue for judgement because of centuries of slavery, idolatry, sexual sin and sorcery, to say nothing of the genocidal murder of thousands upon thousands of Hebrew babies around the time of Moses’ birth (… personally, in fact, I believe that’s one of the reasons God ultimately hardened Pharaoh to the point of the killing of the firstborn in the 10th plague – because no justice had ever been done for those children).
The blood of the Hebrew male infants had never been avenged, and the Egyptians never repented of all the sins they did – so because they had no mercy and wouldn’t relent concerning their enslavement of the Hebrews; because Egypt’s had been an abominably corrupt culture for a very long time; because Pharaoh was hard-hearted even all the way through the first half of the 10 plagues, when he should’ve been seizing the opportunity to hear God and repent – God judged the nation. And the blood of Israel’s sacrificed children, in my opinion, ultimately ended up paving the way for Israel’s freedom to be purchased – their liberty was blood-bought, as it is even to this day for all who wish salvation and redemption in God (except now, it’s accomplished through the blood of His only beloved Son, Yeshua).
And when you look at it that way, you could be tempted to think that God was actually going easy on the Egyptians… in a sense. He visited terrible plagues on the nation, but He didn’t kill every male child in Egypt – He only took what was needed to free Israel from slavery, whereas Pharaoh showed the Hebrews no such mercy. Plus, after the firstborn were killed, God instituted a command that every Hebrew firstborn would henceforth belong to Him, as a perpetual memorial that He bought them out of slavery at the price of human life (see Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16). They were never allowed to forget the deaths of those Egyptian children, even though objectively, you could make the case that the Egyptians deserved it.
… As I’ve written before in my post on the curse of Canaan, the balance and purposefulness of God’s ways – the sheer ability of His to marry graciousness with justice even in the painfully undesirable circumstances of a corrupted world – are incredible to contemplate. And this is yet another example of that. Ultimately, in His wisdom, in His righteousness and sovereignty, God gives and takes away, and balances everything out – and this is the lens through which we ought to view Him: His character, His actions, and His dealings with man, including Israel and Egypt/Pharaoh.
Of course, one can still ask how God could let things go from bad to worse for His people, and allow those whom He wishes to redeem, those on whom He’s chosen to have mercy – people who are relatively innocent – to suffer so much in the process of His redeeming them. And this is a fair question, clearly exemplified when Pharaoh increased the burden of the Israelites’ workload after Moses and Aaron first went to see him:
Then, as [the officers of the children of Israel] came out from Pharaoh, they met Moses and Aaron who stood there to meet them. And they said to them, “Let the Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us abhorrent in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.” (Exodus 5:20-22)
Indeed, even when God spoke encouragingly and told Moses to repeat His great promises to the Israelites, they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) listen because they were crushed:
“Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’” So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:6-9)
And it was only at this point, that God also said to Moses:
“Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.” (Exodus 6:1)
… The thing is, why do that? Why go through all that rigmarole, expend all that time and energy, and take such a circuitous rout to set Israel free?
Well, to this, Paul says: “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy…?”
Y’see, God’s miracles aren’t just a display of power for the sake of it. Instead, they’re supposed to help people understand Him better: His nature, His character, His desire for a certain situation and the people involved. The 10 plagues of Egypt are a demonstration of this. Before, during, and after that awful time of judgement, the Scriptures are quite clear on why God went about things the way He did. First He said to Moses:
And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them. (Exodus 7:3-5)
Now the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2)
Then Jethro rejoiced for all the good which the Lord had done for Israel, whom He had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, He was above them.” (Exodus 18:9-11)
To bring about the Exodus, God exercised His sovereignty by hardening Pharaoh’s heart at intervals and executing the 10 plagues. This, firstly, was so that the Egyptians would know who the God of Israel was – that He was greater than their gods, and they couldn’t oppress the Hebrews without making enemies of Him or incurring His wrath. Secondly, it was so that the Israelites themselves, as well as their descendants, would know whom they served – a God who kept His promises, was mighty to save, and would be their Redeemer, Protector and Provider according to the faithfulness of His covenant with their forefathers. Thirdly, it was so that foreigners in other nations would hear about His works in Egypt and know He is the one true God, powerful and without compare, superior to all other deities and spiritual powers in the earth.
The truth is, God does things the way He does because He wants us to know, from the very core of our being – through intimate, firsthand experience and the undeniable witnesses of history and reality – who He is. He is sovereign, but just. Merciful, yet terrible. Wise and gracious in all that He does… unfathomable but redemptive in all the plans that He purposes. And we have to learn to accept this and love and respect Him for it, or not at all.
So to finish, I want to come back to the other aspect of Va’eira which I mentioned earlier: the fact that there’s such a blatant, matter-of-fact chronicle and discussion of supernatural power in the Scripture. Because it isn’t just God who’s acknowledged as having power, but the magicians of Egypt as well, who managed to replicate the sign of Aaron’s rod and the first 2 plagues – it was only from the third plague onward that they confessed it was beyond their ability to reproduce the same phenomena as Moses and Aaron, and freely admitted it was the finger of God at work.
These things aren’t entirely strange or difficult for me to believe because of my religious background, but I know it’s not that simple for everyone. So accordingly, for this week’s supplement, I want to share an article from CMI debunking the natural-cause-and-effect theory of Greta Hort, first published in 1957-58.
Hort set out to explain the 10 plagues through purely naturalistic means, and her work is widely cited in Bible reference books and encyclopaedias today, even though they were never subjected to independent scientific scrutiny until 2003. But once they were, it became apparent that such attempts at explaining away the miraculous nature of the 10 plagues is paltry and, ultimately, insulting to both God and common sense:
The piece also includes a section listing the ways in which the plagues could have spoken against the various gods of Egypt, in light of Scripture’s teaching that God executed judgment on “all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12, Numbers 33:4).
So… enjoy. I admittedly didn’t think I’d manage to write a post of this length during this holiday period, but I’m glad I did. :)
Next week, the Exodus properly begins.