FAILURE TO SEE
This week we are looking at Chapters 5-14 in Exodus. It is much too long to quote but I encourage you to read it. These chapters describe the process of escape and liberation of the Israelite people from Egypt. It is characterized by Pharaoh’s fierce insistence on keeping what he knows—privilege and the status quo—when he is confronted by a people seeking freedom from oppression. It is also characterized by the difficulty of the Israelites to embrace freedom. It turns out both groups, Egyptians and Israelites, were bound by their own perceptions and assumptions. It was and is difficult to respond to God is such circumstances.
There are a couple of literary and historical notes I think need to be mentioned before we can discuss some of the faith in real life applications of the Exodus story. This narrative is the culmination of at least four editors and is written to explain how the Israelites understood their own history and sense of calling. These events which are so critical to the Israelite identity do not show up in Egyptian records. It is important to realize the story does not hinge on secular history, it hinges on how the Hebrew people understood their identity and their relationship to God. It is roughly equivalent to any of us describing the events that have molded us. A pivotal moment for us may not receive a sentence in someone else’s story. But if you want to really know someone, you have to know some of their stories (and vice versa). The Exodus is the story of how the Hebrew people—and perhaps all people—both find and resist God’s call.
It is within this large frame that I want to look at the repeated theme of God hardening the heart of Pharaoh. This hardening is explained biblically as a way to make God’s mighty acts more visible. Each time Pharoah said no, God upped the ante until the powers of this world yielded to Yahweh. All of the pain of the plagues and ultimately the sacrifice of children is understood as God making a point.
I can not reconcile that vision of God with a God of love. I can reconcile that version with a human attempt (ascribed to God) to make sense of how hard it is in real life to see things as they are and how equally difficult it is to discern how to respond.
Most people are familiar with the broad strokes. Moses confronts Pharaoh, Pharaoh resists (in fact we read repeatedly that God hardened his heart), there are the ten plagues— beginning with signs that are dismissed because Pharaoh’s own magicians could duplicate them—water changing to blood, staffs turning to snakes, and even a mass proliferation of frogs. Then there is a series of plagues that the magicians could not duplicate—gnats, flies, death of livestock, thunder and hail and boils. But, after each plague, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.’
Pharaoh doesn’t start to negotiate until locusts destroy the crops and the country is threatened with famine—” nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt. 16 Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you (Exodus 10).” But once again, just three verses later, “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.” The pattern is repeated with the ninth plague—darkness over the land. By now Pharaoh has been willing to make concessions—you may go worship but you may not take your families and later, you may go but you may not take your livestock. Pharaoh is still trying to maintain what he knows. He is not ready to face what is happening. It is not until children start dying that Pharaoh finally relents—but not for long. He sends armies to recapture and wreak vengeance.
Only when his army is defeated does he let the Israelites go. Pharaoh’s vision of ‘how things ought to be’ is not really relinquished, it is ripped from Pharaoh’s grasp. Pharaoh is slow to learn that power and control only work in the short term. Ultimately, underdogs can get to the belly of top dogs. Pharaoh’s hardness of heart was the ways he rationalized and minimized the warning shots across his bow. There was a real problem in Egypt and he didn’t want to face it. Our contemporary lives are full of parallels. How many disastrous signs must we see before we face climate change? Are we in the middle of rationalizing away the warning signs? What will it take to act corporately? Pharaoh had nothing on us. We must be willing to see a problem before we can act on it.
Facing life as it is is one of the most difficult things we can do. I saw a woman in her late fifties who had paid for three different hospitalizations for her addicted son. Now, nearing retirement, her son had relapsed yet again and she did not have money to retire. With the best of intentions and the love of a mother, she had given beyond her ability. There had been many warnings but they were excused and explained away. Only her deep fatigue and limited resources prevented her from trying yet again. She was depressed and broke. What kind of mother would cut off her son? Sometimes we fail to see, much less face our own limitations. We insist there should be a way—but in the end, discover there is not.
There are many psychological reasons for this dilemma. Some people want to avoid confrontation, some fear their relationship might be irretrievably fractured, some believe if only they tried a little more, the relationships could be healed. The theological problem is our unwillingness to face our limitations before God. We get so busy trying to do the right thing we implicitly assume that doing right is within our power and capability. But we are not judged by our competence, we are called into the forever ambiguous task of loving. There is a very fine line between doing everything we can and believing we can do anything if we try hard enough. On one side of the line is determination and humble engagement and on the other is our hubris and belief we can save ourselves (and others) with our effort. We learn the line by crossing it—by discovering our efforts are often insufficient.
This line is almost always easier to see from the outside. People always have advice about raising children, improving relationships, and ‘tough love’. But those opinions are helpful only if offered in humility. Every act of love includes a decision and what works for one may fail for another.
Our congregation and our city is having to face the same question around the issue of homelessness. We are called to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Those needs literally surround us. When does our intended care lead to greater problems? How do we factor in our limitations? Giving is not based solely on need. Giving is based on ability of the giver to give. We do not have the staff or the resources to even do the clean up that is often required on our property—much less do the case work required to make a dent in the problem. But how do we look in the face of need and turn away?
I’ve told the FIRL group that if you need to feel adequate, don’t be a Christian. We are routinely confronted by legitimate human need that is well beyond our competence. We are called to see the world and ourselves as it is, we are called to act and we are called to face our limitations. It is a demanding, uncertain and fluid way to live.
I don’t know how many plagues we must endure personally to break the shell of certainty about ‘how it should be’. But our shell is every bit as thick as Pharaoh’s hardened heart. The good news is that God is persistent, the bad news is that we are a stiff necked people.
And please notice that the Israelite people also had hard hearts—fixed ideas about what should be. Freedom meant entering the wilderness. And they didn’t like that part. It required living not really knowing where the cloud was leading them or if there would be food the next day. They complained bitterly, better to live as slaves in the fleshpots of Egypt. “The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)
It turns out freedom was not what the Israelites imagined. Repeatedly and in spite of any number of God’s mighty acts, they wanted to return to the devil they knew. How often that is true for us.
The writers of Exodus knew well how hard it is for human kind to live within our limitations and still be willing to engage. Both the Egyptians and the Issrailites wanted to hold on to what they knew. But that was not God’s way. God’s way challenged human privilege and challenged human certainties. God’s way led into a wilderness. Using the eye of retrospect, the Exodus story celebrates God’s steadfastness as well as the never ending human difficulty to open our hearts to God. We need to be reminded of both. God challenges what we know and leads us one day at a time—into a wilderness. And FYI, even the land of milk and honey was filled with giants. Life is rarely what we expect.
Our job is to move humbly toward love—however uncertainly. We do so in the promise of God’s love for us. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.