Saturday, September 23, 2006

God the Playwright (Exodus 5-11)

Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, announcing that the god of the Israelites commands his people to celebrate a three-day festival to him in the wilderness, so they'll need some time off work. Pharaoh is indigent at the cheek of these slaves: they're thinking about throwing a massive party? Seems they have too much time on their hands!

Of course, we're told that God's intention is to lead his people out of Egypt for good, not just for three days. It seems awfully deceptive. I suppose the idea is that even this little thing Pharaoh won't allow - making his eventual loss of all his slaves all the more tragic for him.

The play God is directing is, in part, a tragedy in the Shakespearian sense: it involves the ruin of a proud man through his own fault. The Lord has already written the script and finished the casting:
You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.
That's pretty much how it happens. Moses confronts Pharaoh time and time again, visiting plague after plague on Egypt, but he refuses to let the people go on their wilderness pilgrimage. God hardens his heart, so that the birth of Israel as a nation will be so dramatic and powerful that it will be told for generations to come:
I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.
Even though the Lord's judgment on Egypt is the shining moment of Israel's story, it is really troubling for the modern ear (though Calvinists adore it). What is this business about the Lord hardening Pharaoh? Is he forcing a man to be evil against his will? Does God actually want him to be bad just so that he can punish him all the more?

We get into deep waters pretty quickly. Is God sovereign or is man a free moral agent? I have to answer "yes" to this either/or question, and my answer holds for the example of Pharaoh. Let's take a closer look at what God is doing.

In his vast redemptive project of man and all creation, God has promised to create a nation from Abraham's seed. This nation will be a platform for God's engagement with the world, and a template for his plans for all mankind. He has specifically chosen a group of "God-wrestlers", people who will both follow him recklessly and fight with him passionately. He knows that the imaginations of man's heart are evil even from his youth. If this project has any hope of success, God is going to have to kick things off with an act so powerful and memorable that the people won't forget.

To this end, God needs to clash with the world's greatest millitary and cultural power in an epic battle. He needs a mighty figure to play the part of the villain. And what better man than Pharaoh, the son of the king who drowned the baby boys of the Israelites? He is a perfect fit. And so God grooms him to be the best he can be:
For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.
In this plague at least, the Egyptians are free to choose whether to fear God or resist him. But they are not free to thwart his purposes. This is God's story, and both his heroes and villains move it inevitably to the great climax.

I like your title, calling God the Playwright. Kevin Vanhoozer, in his the Drama of Doctrine admirably works on this as a theme in the Story of God, as to what God is about, and then how we, his people, are to fit in. Thanks for working through and sharing your thoughts on this book.

Hey there! Haven't visited in awhile, but finally beginning my journey through and remembered your work, glad to see you're still going! I know you did Exodus a long time ago, but that's where I am right now. I just had a comment on that 'deception' you mentioned: seemed strange to me, too, that God would command Moses to say it is just a three day festival in the desert. But then, I think part of the understanding here is cultural. Remember that these Middle Easterners and we modern Westerners don't communicate the same way. We are very direct, they probably were not. I do think that the message here is what is not said - but both Moses and Pharaoh know exactly what they are REALLY talking about - letting the Israelites go for good. Therefore all of Pharaoh's attempts at negotiation (to make sure they had a reason to come back) and Moses' refusals.

Awesome, Kim - those are some great observations. It's amazing the insights that can be gained by a more cross-cultural perspective.

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