Let’s deal with an elephant in the room of these stories: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Isn’t God manipulating Pharaoh, by allowing him to repent and then hardening his heart, so that more plagues can come?
A short answer would be: Yes, God used Pharaoh to carry out a divine plan. God wished to show the power of God so that the Egyptians and especially the Israelites would know that God is the Lord (e.g., Exodus 7:5).
We must remember that Pharaoh was not simply a stubborn leader, loath to lose face. Pharaoh was “son of Ra (or Re),” a religious identity. The god Ra created the cosmic order (ma‘at) and Pharaoh as Ra Incarnate maintained the natural order as well as Egyptian society. Pharaoh clearly did not want to fail in his role as ruler of the cosmic order, nor as ruler of the Egyptian kingdom. (6) In the minds of Pharaoh and the Egyptians—and likely to the Israelites as well—the plagues were a struggle between deities.
In an important way, God did not force Pharaoh to do something that he couldn’t have done anyway. We should remember that Pharaoh did acknowledge his guilt (Ex. 9:27, 10:16), asked Moses for intercession (8:8, 8:28, 9:28, 10:17), and Moses prayed for him (8:12, 8:30, 9:33, 10:17). (7) But when push came to shove, Pharaoh could not release the Israelites without losing his identity as son of Re. That’s no small dilemma! God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh’s heart was predisposed to be hardened.
This is a mystery of grace and free will! John Wesley taught prevenient grace: the grace that guides us toward faith. God is involved in our lives, but we also have free will to respond. Grace and free will are always a both-and proposition.
Yet, as I said above, God did use Pharaoh to accomplish a purpose: to take the side of the Israelites and free them from slavery via a series of signs and wonders. In theory, the Israelites could always look back to those signs and wonders and base their faith in God’s miracles and advocacy. But the Israelites were notoriously prone to worry and “murmur.” Similarly, the Christians to whom the Apostle Paul wrote struggled to have genuine faith. Nevertheless, God accomplished a great thing to which generations have looked in faith.
In much lesser ways, don’t we all act like Pharaoh from time to time? We repent of something, but then we feel better about the situation and do the same thing again. A failure of resolve, to follow through with promises to God, are universal examples of human foolishness.
But we look to God in faith, at God’s blessings in our lives and in the biblical narrative. If we are sick, or if a loved one is sick, we don’t know at the time of the crisis what the outcome will be. But we can always look to the Lord and know that the Lord never leaves us under any circumstances.
1.Think about times when you were sorry for something, made certain promises to God, but when you felt better, nothing really changed.
2.In the U.S., we have no religious qualifications for public office. Would you ever vote for a highly qualified and principled atheist? Why or why not?