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Shemot/Exodus 8:28(32) And Pharaoh hardened his heart this time as well and he did not send out the people.
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So far, we have heardHaShem's words, "Let My people go that they may worship Me" (Shemot 8:16(20)) three times - HaShem didn't say it before the third plague, the lice - but this is the fourth time we have heard about the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Twice (the first and third: blood and lice), Pharaoh stiffens or strengthens his heart - using the Qal stem of the verb and twice (the second and fourth: frogs and insects) he makes his heart hard or heavy using the Hif'il stem of the verb . All four times, Pharaoh is both the subject and the object of the verb; he is the agent who acts to stiffen or harden his own heart, to refuse to obey HaShem and let the people of Israel go so that they may serve HaShem.
Let's look back a few verses to see the immediate context of our text. In verse 16, HaShem tells Moshe to announce the fourth plague: swarms of insects, suggested by Nahum Sarna to be "the stable fly, a vicious, bloodsucking insect that can multiple prodigiously in tropical and subtropical regions". By verse 21, Pharaoh has summoned Moshe and Aharon to make an offer - "Go and sacrifice to your G-d within the land" (Shemot 8:21, NJPS) - that he hopes will be sufficient to get him off the hook. Moshe points out how impossible that would be, so Pharaoh increases his offer - "I will let you go to sacrifice to the L-RD your G-d in the wilderness" (v. 24, NJPS), so long as it isn't very far - and then asks Moshe to pray that the plague be removed. Moshe promises to pray, but warns Pharaoh not to play games with HaShem by not letting to people go. Nonetheless, as soon as the plague has ended, Pharaoh changes his mind and does exactly that.
Leon Kass tries to see things from Pharaoh's point of view: "The demands that Moshe makes genuinely threaten the regime: not only is Pharaoh at economic risk of losing an enormous number of his slaves; his authority and divine status are at even greater risk." But, as the plagues continue, Pharaoh loses the means of control; one after the other, they are stripped away. He sometimes thinks of yielding - after all, it is seriously hard work and very inconvenient - but respite seems to come each time, allowing time to regroup and "believe in his own wisdom." But at the end of the day, he cannot - by definition, so to speak - stand: "The refutation of his way - and of his divinity - is a major purpose of the protracted contest." He must lose for, "the resolute and self-sufficing Pharaoh is in fact an angel of death, unleashed finally against himself and his own."1
Lost in most English translations of Pharaoh's words is the pronoun 'I': " I, I will let you go ..." Added to emphasise the subject pronoun in the verb, the personal pronoun turns a statement into a promise; here this should render the commitment as "I myself will let you go ..." Sarna suggests that Pharaoh is trying to assert "superior authority while at the same time making a concession." However, as the Jewish commentators are quick to point out, this means that he has broken his promise.Rashi simply says that, "although Pharaoh said, 'I will send you', he did not keep his promise", but the Ralbag sees wider ramifications: "It was a great reproach to the kingdom for the king not to do as he had promised." Peter Enns shrewdly observes that "Pharaoh's repentance is only on the surface. He has not yet learned that it is in Yahweh's power to let the people go and that, when all is said and done, his role in Israel's release is not significant."2
Umberto Cassuto notices another difference between Pharaoh's words on this occasion compared to the first three plagues. In all three, the narrator records that Pharaoh would not listen to Moshe and Aharon, while here that phrase is absent. He suggests that tells us that "Pharaoh's recalcitrance reaches a new peak here: he himself had said, 'I will let you go', but if fact 'he did not let the people go'."3 Pharaoh did not just ignore a promise given by one of his officials, as if it were of no value because Pharaoh himself didn't say it, he broke his own promise - that being a much larger matter than refusing to listen to Moshe and Aharon. Perhaps in some obscure way, Pharaoh is already getting a premonition of his defeat as Rav Sha'ul records: "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth'" (Romans 9:17, ESV).
Noticing that here, as on all four occasions so far, the report of Pharoah's heart action comes after the plague has ended, Brevard Childs is interested in what the narrator is trying to tell us. He starts with the comment that, "the hardening does not function as the direct cause of the plagues. Rather, the hardening appears as a reaction to the plagues, or more specifically, to the removal of the plagues." In other words, the hardening happens after a plague, not before - as is obvious with the first plague - so we can see that HaShem doesn't send a plague because Pharaoh has hardened or stiffened his heart. Each step along the way is simply the next step to achieving His goals: that Israel should be set free; and that Egypt - Pharaoh in particular - should know the G-d of Israel as the One True G-d. That will happen when the deities in the Egyptian pantheon are completely discredited and defeated. But Pharaoh doesn't want to go there, so he hardens his heart to resist G-d, to refuse to acknowledge His existence and sovereignty. Childs again: "Hardness ... is not a state of mind, but a specific negative reaction to the signs from G-d.4
We find the same attitude being shown by Ahaz, "the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah" (Isaiah 7:1, Bible). Ahaz, his father and grandfather were all clever politicians and for many years - through a succession of treaties, alliances, arrangements and accommodations betwixt and between the surrounding nations - they had been able to keep the kingdom of Judah relatively safe, secure and prosperous. However, the northern kingdom of Israel had formed an alliance with the Syrians and had come up to Jerusalem to attack it. The prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz to offer an assurance from HaShem that Jerusalem will not fall; all the Judeans need do is stand firm in their faith in HaShem and all would be well. To affirm His word, HaShem says, "Ask a sign of the L-RD your G-d; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven" (Isaiah 7:11, ESV), to which Ahaz astonishingly replies, "I will not ask, and I will not put the L-RD to the test" (v. 12, ESV). While this sounds very pious - after all the Torah says, "You shall not put the L-RD your G-d to the test" (D'varim 6:16, ESV) - Isaiah rebukes Ahaz and HaShem gives him a sign of His choosing instead.
Why was Ahaz rebuked? Because he didn't want to receive a sign from G-d so that he wouldn't have to acknowledge Him or take any notice of what He said, particularly concerning foreign relations and the various religious practices Ahaz had to accept in order to secure the assistance of Judah's neighbours. If he had named or asked for a sign and it had been given to him, then HaShem would have proved that He existed and Ahaz would either have had to do as he was told, or explicitly choose to disobey G-d and face the consequences. As long as Ahaz didn't know for certain that G-d existed, then he felt he could carry on doing whatever he thought was right and his conscience would be clear. Now he knows - whether he likes it or not - he is responsible for the way he behaves, the decisions he takes and how he leads the people.
Many times the gospels tell us about groups of people, religious leaders and others, who come to Yeshua asking for a sign. The writers usually let us know something of their motives: "The Pharisees came and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven to test Him" (Mark 8:11, ESV). They asked for a sign that, in all likelihood they really didn't want, to find out whether He had the authority and right to challenge and rebuke their practices. As long as He didn't produce a sign, they were in the clear: no sign, no Messiah, no authority, business as usual. When He did - the sign of the prophet Jonah, the resurrection after three days - then all of a sudden everyone had to make a decision: would they be obedient or disobedient; would they accept Yeshua as the Son of G-d and work with Him, in His kingdom, or would they in effect refuse Him and therefore G-d.
Are you refusing Yeshua or demanding a sign from Him? Are you, like Pharaoh hardening your heart when He does speak to you or give you a sign because - when push comes to shove - you don't really want to submit to His authority and let Him be your Saviour and Lord? The thing is, the train has already left the terminus on the way to its destination. You can flag it down at a station and jump aboard, so that you too can join in with what G-d is doing, as part of Yeshua's family, or you can stand there on the platform, harden your heart and refuse the ticket you have been given - and get left behind. What are you going to do today?
1. - Leon R. Kass, Founding G-d's Nation - Reading Exodus (New Have, Yale University Press, 2021), pages 146-147.
2. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 214.
3. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 110.
4. - Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), pages 171-172.
Further Study: Isaiah 55:6-9; Romans 9:22-25; Hebrews 3:12-15
Application: How many signs do you need before you will recognise that G-d is calling you to join Him in Messiah Yeshua, His Son? Don't waste another moment; time's too precious to lose. Speak to the Station Master right now, before the signal changes and the train pulls out. Get your ticket from Him, find your seat and settle down for the journey. Better be quick, the guard is looking for his flags and closing all the doors!
Comment - 09:02 15Jan23 Charlotte: I really enjoyed the drash this week, thank you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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