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Shemot/Exodus 9:27 I have sinned this time; the L-rd [is] the Righteous One, and I and my people [are] the wicked ones.
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These are the words of Pharaoh, towards the end of the plague of hail and thunder, when he has summoned Moshe and Aharon and called them into his presence. It sounds like a classic confession of sin, but we know from the rest of the story that within only a few verses he hardens his heart again and another three plagues (locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn) will be necessary to release the Israelites from Egypt. Even Moshe, who hears Pharaoh speak, recognises that this isn't genuine; as he agrees to askHaShem to end the hail and thunder, he tells Pharaoh, "I know that you and your courtiers do not yet fear the L-RD G-d" (Shemot 9:30, JPS). Let's take a closer look at Pharaoh's words and see what doesn't quite ring true.
TheRamban seems to take Pharaoh's words at face value: "The explanation thereof is: 'This time I will acknowledge the Eternal, for I have sinned against Him, and He is the Righteous One, and I and my people are wicked, for we have rebelled against His word from then until now.'" This slightly amplifies the original text and connects this to Pharaoh's original offence in refusing to acknowledge HaShem: "Who is the L-RD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the L-RD, nor will I let Israel go" (5:2, JPS). Rabbi Hirsch also reads Pharaoh that way, putting these words in his mouth - "That which I have now learnt makes me see that G-d is right and we are wrong. I have now seen that it is G-d and not we who are masters and lords of the land, i.e., that we have no right to behave to aliens as if we were the masters of the country" - then commenting, "Pharaoh's comprehension was only amenable to the effects of might and power, and under the tremendous impression that this plague made, some idea dawned in his mind of the unlimited power of the G-d of the Hebrews." By this account, Pharaoh only understands power and he has now been hit sufficiently hard that he starts to realise that he might just have bitten off more than he can chew. Targum Onkelos looks to be in this camp as well, changing the last word of the verse from the Hebrew "[are] the wicked ones" to the Aramaic "are guilty". Drazin and Wagner explain that, "Pharaoh admits that he and his people are guilty and responsible for the hail, which they could have avoided by obeying G-d."
Perhaps Pharaoh's second word offers another clue: , translated above (and by most English translations) as "this time". What does this mean? Nahum Sarna points out that "Pharaoh's 'this time' echoes the identical phrase used by G-d in His forewarning in verse 14": "For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world" (9:14, JPS). Pharaoh is simply playing back what HaShem said before this plague started. Umberto Cassuto doesn't think so.1 He suggests that "Pharaoh confessed to Moshe and Aharon according to the customary confessional formula: I have sinned. But he still remains arrogant, and declines to acknowledge his earlier and primary sins; hence he adds: 'this time', as though he had no other sin on his conscience except his refusal on this occasion." Pharaoh isn't talking about anything else - just this latest plague. Cassuto underlines his point by describing the rest of the verse as just legal fluff - 'righteous' being equivalenced to 'right', and 'wicked' to 'wrong' - to make it sound like an issue being decided in court. Gunther Plaut too says that Pharaoh is using righteous/wicked or right/wrong2 "in the forensic rather than the ethical sense."
So what's going on here? It sounds as though this is simply clinical and juridical. Pharaoh admits that he called this one wrong; this plague shows that G-d is more powerful than Pharaoh thought. It is just moves in a game; brinksmanship. It is just a question of who can bluff or endure the longest. But whatever else it is, it is not repentance. Pharaoh may have admitted his sin, as a wrong move; he may have entreated relief and promised to let Israel go, but he hasn't expressed contrition or asked for forgiveness. And within half a dozen verses, as soon as the hail and thunder stop - just as Moshe predicted - he changes his mind and repeats the sin by breaking his promise and squaring up to the L-rd in defiance again. Pharaoh hasn't given up on the war, he is just recognising and perhaps regretting losing this particular battle. He still intends to fight again and is deluding himself that he can win if he holds out for long enough.
Hebrew has an abstract noun for 'repentance', , from the root , to turn or turn around. It expresses the idea that repentance consists of more than simply recognising that you made a tactical error in an ongoing struggle, but instead requires a turning around, an abandonment of the wrong direction of travel and line of action. Repentance requires real sorrow and renouncing not just of one event, but all connected events, thoughts and plans; it needs an apology and true contrition towards both G-d and those who have been affected or offended by one's actions and words. Even more, it must include a firm intention not to repeat both the individual act and the underlying thought. It is not just a temporary cease-fire while regrouping and waiting for a suitable opportunity to resume hostilities; it is complete surrender.
We can see the typical way that mankind behaves in the words of the prophet: "We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way" (Isaiah 53:6, JPS). We turn in every direction, wandering here and there to suit our own whims and desires. Little groups congregate from time to time around some common cause or idea; we follow a leader over to the other side of the field until we get fed up and and try something else. At times we may stumble, bang our shins or even get fly-blown. But until we get stuck in the barbed wire or tangled in heavy brambles, we do our own thing. Then, when we get caught up, we are hopeless and - short of ripping our fleece, which some do and manage to escape again for a while - we bleat and wail for the shepherd to free us and sort out our sorry condition.
In theAmidah, each time we gather for prayer, we ask G-d for repentance:
Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service; and cause us to return in complete repentance before You. Blessed are You, L-rd, who takes pleasure in repentance.
In three imperative verbs, each with a 1cp - 'us' - ending, we emphasise our plea for G-d to turn us around, to draw us back to closer relationship with Him and bring us under the cover of His Word. He delights when we turn back from our ways to His ways and seek Him with our whole hearts. We ask, each time the Amidah is said, because we need to keep turning towards Him and not flipping around and setting off on our own again. Turning to Him needs to be a life-habit, something we develop by constant practice, lest we get distracted and drawn away. Yeshua said, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28, ESV). Then He adds, "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (v. 29, ESV). We are totally secure in the hands of Yeshua, in the hands of our Father - we cannot be snatched or stolen away. On the other hand, we can choose (or be tempted) to walk away and follow our own desires and agenda, so we need to be on our guard and constantly making sure that - as far as our part is concerned - we stay close to Him.
At a pragmatic level, Yeshua asked the disciples this question: "What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace" (Luke 14:31-32, ESV). By definition, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that if G-d exists at all, He will and must win every battle. He will be the victor of every contest and defeat every enemy - as Rav Sha'ul wrote, "At the name of Yeshua every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of G-d the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11, ESV). We only find an end to pointless and futile conflict when we trust Him and stop fighting against Him. It may not be the most subtle argument for combative people, but wriggling and squirming only hurts us. Will we be like Pharaoh and carry on bluffing and blustering, or will we sign up and fight for G-d rather than against Him?
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
2. - The NJPS actually translates the last phrase of the verse as, "The L-RD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong".
Further Study: 2 Chronicles 12:1-8; Isaiah 26:1-10; Jeremiah 50:6-7; John 6:37-40
Application: So, where do you stand? Are you still in covert hostility with G-d in some way, still trying to win some battle even though you have lost or made a mess of several skirmishes? It is way past time to submit to His total lordship in your life and completely surrender to His grace - do it today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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