A meal plus an extended argument? Seders are the best!

Last night, my housemates and I threw a by-the-seat-of-our-pants Seder.  It’s the first one I’ve ever been to (assuming watching Shari Lewis’s on TV didn’t count).  And plenty of it was un-orthodox (small o) starting with what we had standing in for a lamb shank on the Seder plate.

Our Seder party was about evenly split between Christians and Jews, and the Christians tended to be more theistic than some of the Jews, which prompted the following (paraphrased) exchange between the Seder leader and some of the Christians:

Seder Leader: Ok, and on the next page of the Haggadah…

Christian: Wait, wait, you’re skipping one of the blessings offered to God at the bottom of the page

Seder Leader: Meh. I don’t care about that one.

Christian (after muttering the English translation of the blessing): Next year I’m going to bring an ultra-orthodox Rabbi to Seder to co-lead it with you.

Me: The ultra-orthodox rabbi isn’t even going to be ok sitting on a couch next to [Seder Leader], let alone co-leading the Seder with her.

We had a very long Seder, with a lot of breaks for discussions or arguments or modifications (like the feminist orange on the Seder plate).  And then dinner, to which I contributed dessert.

Here are some of the things I have previously cooked: peanut butter toast (which is just toasted bread that you spread peanut butter on, and which my friends tell me does not count).  Also, pasta (but I didn’t make the sauce, I just boiled water, added noodles, and then, eventually, removed the noodles).

But I’ve decided to try being anti-gnostic, and the best practice I can think of is cooking (which always seems like way too much time spent in slavery to the demands of the physical body), so I made chocolate-caramel matzo.

Look at me! (Mostly) not being contemptuous of the physical world!

The arguing over religion and philosophy and ethics didn’t really make this night different from all other nights at my house, but here’s the question we spent the most time on, and I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments (or email me if they’re long enough for a guest post).

Why would God repeatedly harden Pharoah’s heart to prevent him from allowing the Jews to leave Egypt?

It came up in the Seder reading and I’d already been thinking of it when I heard parts of Exodus read at the Easter Vigil (the bits where the Egyptian soldiers want to flee and God hobbles their chariots so they can be drowned for the greater glory of God).  Everyone at the Seder, Jewish and Christian, felt fairly uncomfortable with these parts of the story and no one seemed to find these deaths glorious.  To me, it’s always sounded like God callously harming people for a dramatic flourish.

If you’re religious, how do you deal with this part of the Torah/the Bible?

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  • Elizabeth

    In the LDS edition of the KJV, there’s a footnote on all such verses with an alternate translation “and Pharaoh will harden his heart” or “and Pharaoh hardened his heart.” (For more information on the Joseph Smith Translation, Wikipedia’s article is quite informative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smith_Translation_of_the_Bible)

  • Lukas

    “But I’ve decided to try being anti-gnostic, and the best practice I can think of is cooking”

    You have seen Babette’s Feast, right?

    • leahlibresco

      I have not.

  • Ray

    Considering the fact that the consensus among archaeologists and historians seems to be that few to none of the events described in Exodus actually happened, shouldn’t the question be why did God allow his people to believe that he did these things? Do the religious people here actually think Exodus has any more basis in history than, say, the Iliad?

    • Patrick

      Well, the Bible can still be interpreted as a book of stories. You can ask why the characters in a book do the things they do.

      As it stands, this section is part of the Old Testament. Immediately after God hardens the heart of the Pharoah so that he can murder more Egyptians, there’s a whole series of stories in which God gets angry over various things (often quite petty things) and gets ready to start murdering Israelites in an indiscriminate genocidal rage. Typically Moses intervenes and talks God off the ledge, usually convincing God to murder a smaller number of innocent people (God likes sending a message by murdering people’s wives and children) than God initially intended to murder. The obvious answer for why God induced the Egyptians to do something that would justify killing them is that this is completely in God’s character as demonstrated over and over in multiple stories across a large portion of the Scriptures, and the Egyptians didn’t have a Moses to intervene.

      The weirdest thing about this story isn’t that God murdered a bunch of people for a stupid reason, its that he felt he needed to have a reason at all when later he happily murders people’s wives, children, and servants all the time. That’s either due to a categorical difference in the treatment of male heads of households versus non-persons, or else its a categorical difference in the treatment of characters versus non-characters in the story.

      Oh! The other weird thing is that the obvious explanation, that religious people constantly attribute stuff to God in day to day conversation without literally meaning that God did it, is never considered. Scripture is just different in people’s minds, apparently. There’s a latent literalism in even the most liberal believer.

  • Maiki

    My guess — given the relative importance of these events in salvation history, it is to highlight that all things are done by God’s Will. There is a distinction between God’s active will — as in God parting the waters of the Red Sea, and God’s passive will — as in God permitting evil so that a greater Good may come of it. Regardless, God’s will needs to be behind everything (nothing Good exists apart from God). This evil, of Pharaoh hardening his heart, is permitted (willed) by God because it will bring about the greater Glory of the salvation not just of Israel, but of all mankind at a later date. Apparently (since I’m too busy to dig up the quotations myself but google commentators assure me this is so), in some places the passage has Pharaoh as the subject in the sentence rather than God being the hardener of the heart — which points to the duality in causation.

    It is sort of like the phrase, ” Oh happy fault of Adam, that bought us so great a redeemer” (or some such). Is it truly better that evil is permitted in the world rather than always prevented? Apparently so, that God permits evil when he can make a greater Good out of it.

  • Ray, that is an excellent question, and one I’d love to see answered.

  • Jay

    I’d like to propose a different question. Given that God’s actions here are only one among many that clearly qualify him to be the world’s most nefarious supervillain, how can non-psychopaths go around claiming that the Bible is the source of their ethics with a straight face?

    More seriously, I just don’t think there’s any need to explore this issue. I’m sure that the Ancient Council of Learned Rabbis or whatever has come up with some elaborate rationalization for this entire episode, drawing in equal parts on “misunderstandings,” “allegory,” and that favorite theodicean panacea “God works in mysterious ways.”

    But of course that’s all nonsense. The clear takeaway from the Biblical myth is that God murdered thousands on innocent children to convince an unelected pharaoh to free slaves that logically could have just been teleported out of the country, and then specifically stopped the pharoah from listening, just to make a point. It might be interesting to try to “explain” that action in the way we explain total dick moves committed by other mythical figures, like the gods in the Iliad. Or we might try to “explain” it in terms of the society and psychology of the people who first came up with the myth. But trying to defend those actions as actually justified is just too ridiculous to even consider, as nobody genuinely questioning from a neutral position would decide that they were okay. It’s only the height of religious rationalization that lets people sit around and celebrate how their God once murdered thousands of innocent children without running out of the room in horror.

  • A related, but equally important, question is why God sent plagues to punish all the Egyptian people – given that ancient Egypt was not a democracy and no one other than Pharaoh had any real vote in this decision. (IIRC, the text explicitly states that even people in prison suffered from the plagues.) Even if Pharaoh hardened his own heart, why wouldn’t God just punish him with plagues, rather than pointlessly tormenting an entire nation of innocent people, including children? The only possible reason would be for God to prove to everyone how powerful, violent and scary he is, which is more or less what the text says.

    Also, Leah, don’t be afraid of cooking! It’s a lot of fun when you get good at it and can exercise your creativity. I view creating a good meal as an especially utilitarian kind of artwork. 🙂

  • Daniel A. Duran

    People have mentioned several reasons for god acting this way from showing his power over the Egyptians gods, to punishing the pharaoh and/or his people.

    Frankly, I do not know why God would act this way or that way, furthermore I don’t know if God even had or must have a reason to act this way over that way. That aside, I think it must be noted that even if God had a motivation that compelled him to act as depicted in the OT, there’s no good reason to suppose the religious believer would be the first to know what these motivations are.

  • Courtney

    The writers of these stories attributed absolutely everything to God actively working in their lives. Say the ancient Israelites were living here during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year. Or the earthquake in Haiti before that. I would imagine that they would say that God actively caused those things to happen as a punishment, or a way to proclaim His glory, etc. (I realize there are certain Christian sects that might believe that still but…)

    The point is, just because bad things happen, doesn’t mean that God is actively causing them. Maybe He is, maybe its just the natural world. But the way the Israelite people saw it, nothing would happen without Him specifically ordering it.

    • Interesting about major Tsunamis, a Methodist minister once gave me this verse segment regarding them “he calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land” Amos 9:4. Of course I’ve heard many theories, God did it, the devil did it, and it’s the result of mankind’s sin causing the problems in the world. The third one stems from the morality as natural law idea, where the sins of mankind have basic natural implications, Genesis 3:17-18 “”Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it
      all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you,”
      . Off topic, just thought it was interesting.

  • Jack

    First, in reply to Maiki, who wrote:

    Apparently (since I’m too busy to dig up the quotations myself but google commentators assure me this is so), in some places the passage has Pharaoh as the subject in the sentence rather than God being the hardener of the heart — which points to the duality in causation.

    Yes, that’s right, but in other places — especially towards the end of the story as God’s violence escalates — there is no doubt that Pharaoh wants to let the Israelites go and end the plagues, but God hardens Pharaoh’s heart just so that He (God) can inflict all the suffering he originally wanted to. From Exodus 10:

    1. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him… 20.But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.

    As a child I was indoctrinated with a Presbyterian flavor of Christianity. I learned this story in Sunday school class as a little kid, and the story was sanitized. Not that any of the violence and murder were removed, but God’s malevolence was. I grew up thinking Pharaoh was an obstinate jerk who deserved what he got. I didn’t know the true content of this story until I read it for myself as an adult, decades after abandoning religion. So all of that is just preamble to this answer to your question, Leah: How to mainstream Presbyterians deal with this story? They lie about it, to their children and, presumably, to themselves.

  • Wow, I’m having trouble believing the atheists in this comment thread. Oh the POOR Egyptians! God took their slaves away! And he even killed some of them! How horrible, those poor things. They were only trying too keep those pesky Hebrews out of trouble, after all, fully employed, benefits like obstetrical care (aka infanticide) and everything. Seriously? You are defending Pharaoh? Would you also have defended slave-holding in the South because ending it would have caused bloodshed? Do the concepts of justice and punishment never cross your minds? If only you had ever listened to the great theologian Bob Marley, then maybe you’d get it. Oppressed people don’t like being oppressed, and the oppressors deserve a few whacks for doing evil. And Pharaoh’s poor army? Dude, they are a tyrant’s army. There are so many things wrong with these comments I can’t even begin to address all of them.

    As for the factuality of it, the numbers are exaggerated. Therefore it didn’t happen. That makes no sense! It just means the story was exaggerated! And Pharaoh’s heart? First, who knows what his heart was doing? Scripture is inspired, not dictated. But even if it is accurate, there are at least two good reasons for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart. 1) as punishment for evildoing 2) to weaken Egypt so that they don’t immediately go and squash the Israelites the next day.

    I get the feeling these responses are coming from people who have never even seen the wrong end of the oppressor’s stick. Have you never even met people who are under oppressed conditions? Systematic, institutionalized injustices are really horrible and are seriously difficult to break. I can’t believe I’m even having to say these things. The exodus is a liberation story. Setting slaves free is good! What would you have had the Israelites do (if you granted that they existed) instead of killing some people and running away?

    One last thing. All the atheists judging the Bible are doing it through post-Christian lenses. Nobody in the ancient world would have thought either slavery or lethal plagues on people were objectively bad, because a human life was only worth what it could do for you. It took a few dozen more centuries to figure out that humans have intrinsic value and dignity, and therefore slavery and killing people are wrong. The atheistic intrinsic dignity argument is very weak; the Christian one very strong (imago Dei and all). Then people get a hold of the Bible and criticize God for working with the ancient barbarians like they are barbarians and not like they are nice civilized drone-flying, Guantanamo-torturing, economically exploitative Americans. Because Pharaoh and Egypt are still alive, by the way, in us. Maybe that’s why Exodus seems so wrong, because we identify with the Egyptians and not the Hebrews. Dude. Seriously.

    • Patrick

      Ironically, imago Dei is exactly what we’re arguing about. According to you, imago Dei is a strutting member of the SS, puffed up and prideful in the knowledge that he can brutalize anyone he pleases, ready to murder your children if you upset him, even if you’ve already agreed to give him everything he wants. I don’t personally see the inherent dignity in that, but I suppose I wouldn’t say that to his face. He’d probably murder the people I love in retaliation. Imago Dei.

      • You analogy makes no sense. You just turned the Egyptians into into Jews being oppressed by the Nazi SS, who are in the place of the Hebrews. The Hebrews were the SS? huh?!

        You took one phrase out of my post and made a nonsensical analogy. Try again.

        How about, instead, the South under slavery. I suppose those poor slaves should never have fought back against their masters either. Is that it?

        • Daniel A. Duran

          “According to you, imago Dei is a strutting member of the SS, puffed up and prideful in the knowledge that he can brutalize anyone he pleases, ready to murder your children if you upset him.”

          Brian green this sort of nonsense is not even worth replying to unless to point out what it is; a load of emotional and muddle-headed fundamentalist crap.

        • Patrick

          Its not about whether slaves should be free.

          Its about whether, AFTER HAVING OBTAINED FREEDOM FOR THE SLAVES, you should go back, undo what you accomplished, foment MORE suffering, and then murder a bunch of children.

          Seriously. You just defended unnecessarily murdering people after they’ve already surrendered. You’ve just defended unnecessarily murdering people’s KIDS after they’ve surrendered.

          And you did it in the name of Christ.

          That should bother you more than it does me.

          • Thank you for stating the problem so clearly. I did not, however, defend either of the things you claim I did.

            What I am defending is that there are ways of interpreting this story that are not barbaric, and which are more likely to be true than your interpretation.

            Catholics are not Biblical fundamentalists like you are. The story is exaggerated and pre-interpreted, and therefore it’s details are no longer clear, only the general sense is clear, which is that this is a story about liberation.

            What I did claim down below (to Jonas) is that slaves may under certain circumstances kill their masters. Now I noticed my answer there contains an ambiguity so I am going to go fix it. Sorry if that influenced your response.

          • Daniel A. Duran

            “Its about whether Its about whether, AFTER HAVING OBTAINED FREEDOM FOR THE SLAVES,…”
            Patrick, you’re a riot. It seems you realized how ridiculous you sounded when you reimagined the pharaoh and the Egyptians as holocaust victims and the god that got the Jews out of slavery as a celestial SS stormtrooper that now you’re pretending that the previous posts was really about something else. How cute. Thankfully people can read what your previous post and Brian’s response really said.

            “You just defended unnecessarily murdering people after they’ve already surrendered.”
            in which part they surrendered? is that the Patrick version of the bible where pharaoh is translated as they? Then you conveniently forget that the pharaoh sinned and hardened his heart (and/or god hardened his heart), not misleading in the least, no sir.

            “And you did it in the name of Christ.”
            Brian did you do any of this in the name of Christ? Do you have any clue as to what he’s babbling about?
            “That should bother you more than it does me.”
            The way you contort this way and that way for damage control is amusing, though I admit that the way you try to get on your high horse is somewhat repulsive, but never mind that now. I don’t think it bothers Patrick, though. Brian, are you upset at any of this? Or are you also laughing as to how Patrick tries to pretend not to be the anachronistic and anthrophormic fundamentalist he is?

      • Maiki

        You are talking as if God were just another dude, and equal in dignity to another human, and having just the authority and lordship of another human. God is the author of all. This is like saying Shakespeare is evil for killing Juliet. We, as characters in the story, are sort of in a roleplaying game. God is a GM with a great plan for a great game. He won’t railroad us all the time, but the game is structured so it works best if we stick to our stated alignment. Occasionally, he will allow egregious actions in the game if they can be worked into a more awesome point. Occasionally, even player characters will have to die (if they were innocent bystanders, they might get an even better game to play. If you are constantly making the game non-enjoyable for everyone, you are being a jerk).

        at this point, I’ll remind people that this is an analogy, and like all analogies, it will break down in about 10 seconds.

    • Jay

      I’m also hesitant to respond, as I can’t really believe you meant this comment seriously, but I just can’t resist.

      First, we’re not talking about whether oppression justifies violence. Surely it does in some situations. We’re not even talking about whether violence against innocents is sometimes necessary in resisting oppression. Perhaps it is. What we’re talking about is a myth with a supposedly all-powerful God who is willing to use his powers to free his chosen people from slavery. And instead of just, you know, teleporting the Hebrews out of Egypt into the chosen land, he enacts a complicated scheme that involves killing thousands of innocent children. I honestly can’t think of any other action by any other “good” mythical figure that compares in terms of raw evil — certainly none of the horrors committed by any of the Greek gods would qualify. If this were anything other than a well-known Bible story, you would never think you had to defend it.

      Second, on the factual question, you’re not seriously suggesting that anything like the Exodus actually happened, are you? I mean, not only is there no record of Hebrew tribes ever being slaves in Egypt or wandering around the desert, but Egypt actually ruled much of Canaan at the time of the supposed Exodus. That’s one hell of a historical error.

      Third, as for judging the Bible through “post-Christian” lenses — that is, by modern standards — I think that’s sort of exactly the point. The Bible is a two-thousand year old culture dump, expounding on history, law, government, ethics for barbarous people who would not have, as you put it, “thought either slavery or lethal plagues on people were objectively bad.” It’s a product of its time, and it’s time was awful. Maybe it’s sort of interesting as a historical document, but there’s absolutely no reason to expect it would remain a good source of ethics. The Exodus is just one of many Biblical stories in which either God or God’s agents commit atrocities that we would never try to justify today. And that’s exactly why we shouldn’t look to the Bible for guidance today anymore than we should rely on two-thousand year old legal regimes on modern political questions.

      • Jay, Your last paragraph: Thank you.

    • And Pharaoh’s heart? First, who knows what his heart was doing? Scripture is inspired, not dictated.

      I think this is really the crux of the issue (for me at least). If you’re willing to admit that God didn’t actually force Pharaoh to harden his heart, then this is less damaging for Christianity. Though it’s worth pointing out that that is not what the Bible says.

      But even if it is accurate, there are at least two good reasons for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart. 1) as punishment for evildoing 2) to weaken Egypt so that they don’t immediately go and squash the Israelites the next day.

      Trouble is, this isn’t why the Bible says God did those things-
      Exodus 9:16 “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”
      Exodus 10:1b “I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them”
      Exodus 11:9 “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt”

      The Bible says God did it to demonstrate his power.

      I get the feeling these responses are coming from people who have never even seen the wrong end of the oppressor’s stick. Have you never even met people who are under oppressed conditions? Systematic, institutionalized injustices are really horrible and are seriously difficult to break.

      I think I agree with everything you said here, but I don’t think this is really the issue in question. The issue isn’t whether slavery is bad, but whether or not the response attributed to God is a just one. And I think the commentators so far would say that infanticide is basically never justice. I suspect your response would be something along the lines of “you don’t have the right to judge God”, and I agree with that- IFF the Christian God is the real one. But in deciding whether or not we believe in God at all (or even in a particular God), I think it is appropriate to judge the actions of that God as claimed by his followers and decide if you believe that to be in the character of a benevolent, just God.

      Nobody in the ancient world would have thought either slavery or lethal plagues on people were objectively bad, because a human life was only worth what it could do for you. It took a few dozen more centuries to figure out that humans have intrinsic value and dignity, and therefore slavery and killing people are wrong.

      I think that’s sort of the point the commentors are trying to make- God ought to know that these things are wrong, even if the people of the time didn’t. Either that, or we have a wildly incorrect modern understanding of right and wrong

      The atheistic intrinsic dignity argument is very weak; the Christian one very strong (imago Dei and all).

      I tend to agree with you on this point. But you can’t exactly object to being judged by your own standard.

      So Brian…the slaves of the Israelites should have killed their masters? Maybe just their first born children?

      If their masters were an empire of abusive systematically-oppressive murderers living over 3000 years ago, yes.

      My own personal opinion from a reading of Exodus and Leviticus is that “abusive systematically-oppressive murderers” describes ancient Israel just as much as it does ancient Egypt. Moreover, my problem with this argument is that it necessitates a cycle of violence (and seems quite counter to modern day Christian teachings). If every people who were repressed had the right to violence against their oppressors, we would have… well, frankly a world that had many of the same problems we have today 🙂 At the very least, that seems to be the claim made by most of the instigators of violence throughout the middle east. Yes, some violence may be necessary to overturn an unjust social order- but genocide and/or infanticide is not.

      • Jake, this is a good response and I sympathize with your point of view. Your last paragraph is especially important because you are right that the Israelites aren’t very good people. God says as much throughout the OT (and they do get punished for it). That’s why we have to take their story of the events with a grain of salt. God ordering genocide and infanticide is inconsistent with other things that the Bible says about God, and considering the age and bias of these texts, its these texts that need to be examined skeptically, not places where “God is love,” etc. My response below addresses some of your concerns as well.

    • Donalbain

      That would all make sense if the plagues were targeted at those who oppressed the slaves. But they weren’t. Every single Egyptian suffered. From the poorest to the richest.

    • This would only make sense to me if this is how god continued to carry out business. Jesus seems to directly contradict your implied stance on how god acts, aka bringing about temporal states of affairs that align with unseen states of hearts. For example, John 9: no one’s sin caused a man to be born blind.

      As a non-believer, it would be a huge testament to god’s existence if worldly states aligned with instances of blatant and obvious good-doing and wrong-doing. Instead, there appears to be very little correlation other than, say, law enforcement acting on criminal acts. We can all think of those we think are fairly horrible or inhumane who seem to suffer nothing out of the ordinary as a result. Or the living saint who comes down with cancer or dies in a car accident.

      It is exactly because of this that “divine justice” is thought of by Christians as not being manifest in the real world that criminals are to “get their due” after death (risk of hell) and living saints who suffer are said to be “sharing in Jesus’ suffering” or enduring hardship for a greater good.

      For what it’s worth, I just ran across a post illustrating that religious do apparently think that bad things happen to bad people more than the non-religious, which is interesting.

      In any case, I think the point I’m making is clear. If all of this befell [poor] Pharaoh back then because he deserved it… why did god stop blazing the trail for the persecuted and oppressed today with swift acts of justice?

  • Jonas

    So Brian…the slaves of the Israelites should have killed their masters? Maybe just their first born children?

    • If their masters were an empire of abusive systematically-oppressive murderers living over 3000 years ago, yes.

      Or do you think they should have called in the United Nations?

      The plague on the firstborn represents a symbolic attack on the supposed power of fertility gods who usually claimed such things as their own and therefore protected them. It is also a response to the Egyptians ordering the Hebrews’ male children killed earlier.

      • Let me correct an ambiguity: the yes is to potentially killing their masters (with the attendant specified circumstances) not children. Two questions require two answers, not one, so I was unclear. As for God doing it in Exodus, I think there is plenty of ambiguity and there are better interpretations available.

    • I should also point out that the Bible records a punishing of Israel for hurting the poor: it’s the Babylonian exile. The Israelites do evil, including exploiting the poor, just as they were exploited in Egypt, so they get punished for it.

      You don’t even need to resort to God for this; you can just appeal to natural law. Exploitative societies are unstable, especially to outside shocks to the system.

  • Kyle

    I only skimmed the comments and it didn’t look like anyone offered my favorite explanation of this situation, pardon if I missed it.

    The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.

    When two people can have two completely opposite reactions to the same stimulus, it is a difference in the people and not the stimulus that accounts for the reaction. The language used does not necessarily mean that God, in his omnipotence, violated Pharaoh’s free will, though a strictly literal reading would indicate that.

    On an aside, I think this strictly literal reading of the Bible is why atheists so frequently attack fundamentalists. It is clear (to me at least) that if everything in the Bible was interpreted with a strict literalism, it would indeed be silly to call God all loving. This example with Pharaoh illustrates the point well.

    • Kyle

      I’d also like to mention that Pharaoh’s behavior when he seemingly wants to let them go and then reneges is very typical human behavior.

      Someone convinces you of something you were previously opposed to and when they leave and you are no longer under their influence, you think, “What was I thinking.”

      There is nothing supernatural in that experience.

  • anon atheist

    I think the answer is not that difficult. It’s a demonstration of Gods power like most of the old testament. Or rather a demonstration that God will use his power without hesitation for his chosen people. He hardened the heart of the Pharaoh to demonstrate to which lengths he would have gone if the heart of the Pharaoh really had been that hard.

  • I’m combining responses here, thanks for the discussion. The hardest part of the critique to address is that God kills innocent children for the sake of God’s glory. This is a literal interpretation, but even then it is still misleading (aka it’s a strawman) because of the following.

    1. Children are not specified. “Firstborn” are specified. That will probably include some children, but mostly not.

    2. Lack of a cultural concept of individuality. These were tribal societies where persons were seen as parts of wholes (families and groups), not individuals. Killing one’s in-group was an attack on the group as much as, or more than, an attack on the individuals actually killed. Think of gangs.

    3. Cause of death – the Bible says God did it, looks supernatural. But as Courtney noted above, it could easily have been a natural disease that resulted in a bunch of deaths which were then interpreted into a plague on firstborn.

    4. The data as they come to us are exaggerated and pre-interpreted. We don’t know the full extent of the modifications, but let’s assume it’s not completely made up but not as great as 2 million people going camping in the Sinai. That means we need to pay attention to the big picture but assume the details are muddled.

    Based on the above points, the problem becomes somewhat modified. Something kills some of Egyptians. This is interpreted as a general attack on Egypt and the Hebrew God did it because they are enslaved.

    Should the OT God have acted by our Christian standards? Two answers at least. 1) God might have acted by these standards but not had it recorded as such. The Bible is not dictated. The authors only recalled (as oral history, then written) what happened and tried to explain it, and this (God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to enhance his glory) is how they explained it. 2) OT God was simply acting in a way these folks would respond to (practically/viscerally, not theoretically, because they couldn’t “get it” because they lacked the cultural background). God’s revelation is progressive. 3500 years ago it looks like this. By 2000 years ago God is letting us kill Him. Some changes there. That God applies different standards to different times does not impugn God’s character, it just shows that God relates to people according to their circumstances.

    Critics are getting lost in the details and forgetting the main point of the story. The point is that God set his people free from their slave masters. The details are specific to the time and place and are heavily interpreted by people who didn’t theoretically understand what was going on, either morally or theologically. They just met this God character and thought he was like all the other weird gods they knew of, so that’s the kind of interpretation we get.

    But the big picture is clear: This is a God who liberates the oppressed and punishes evil. Yes, you do need to be careful around this God. But not because God is a maniac, but because human actions are significant and we are held responsible for them.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    “If you’re religious, how do you deal with this part of the Torah/the Bible?”
    There’s a straightforward way of reading these passages that goes back from the Middle Ages. God is the concurrent cause of many of our actions rather than a direct cause. The apple tree is the direct cause of the apple and God is the concurrent or secondary cause of the apple since it keep s the coconut and the coconut tree, the sunlight it receives and all the other elements necessary for the existence of the apple into being or existence.
    So what causes the apple? The tree or God? We can easily say that the apple tree causes the apple, that God causes it or both.

    If a person acts immorally, that person is the direct cause of that immoral action. God did not directly caused the person to act immorally; on the other hand, God keeps the person in existence and does not perform a miracle that will stop the person from exercising his free-will ,so in a way we can say that God is an indirect cause or co-cause of a person acting immorally.
    The text in exodus keeps shifting between saying that the pharaoh sinned or hardened his heart on his own and that God hardened his heart. So what caused the obstinacy of the pharaoh? God or the pharaoh himself? I think we can say both; the pharaoh did not want to let go of the Jews and God did not perform a miracle to change his mind, in fact, he sustained the pharaoh and allowed him to carry his plans.
    I hope this clarifies things somewhat or brings a new perspective into things

  • Daniel A. Duran

    “the concurrent or secondary cause of the apple since it keep s the coconut and the coconut tree”
    I mean apple tree. I shouldn’t write posts in a rush between breaks, ha, ha.

  • Cous

    Leah, just today I was reading Romans 9:14-23, where St. Paul talks about this; I don’t think his answer will satisfy you, but I’m bringing it up as food for thought. I will say that when Paul says “no one can oppose His will,” I think he he is getting a little carried away in his haste when writing the letter or in the pressing need he feels to get his point across to the newborn community of believers he has left in Rome, because the Church, while including Paul’s letters in the Scriptures, has also always taught that the freedom of the human will is of paramount importance to God; He cannot force us to love Him or hate Him, although He can certainly make circumstances such that it requires great effort to resist.

    Romans 9:14-23
    “What should we say, then? That God is unjust? Out of the question! For speaking to Moses, he said: I am gracious to those to whom I am gracious and I take pity on those on whom I take pity. So it is not a matter of what any person wants or what any person does, but only of God having mercy. Scripture says to Pharaoh: I raised you up for this reason, to display my power in you and to have my name talked of throughout the world. In other words, if God wants to show mercy on someone, he does so, and if he wants to harden someone’s heart, he does so. Then you will ask me, ‘How then can he ever blame anyone, since no one can oppose his will?’ But you — who do you think you, a human being, are, to answer back to God? Something that was made, can it say to its maker: why did you make me this shape? A potter surely has the right over his clay to make out of the same lump either a pot for special use or one for ordinary use. But suppose that God, although all the time he wanted to reveal his retribution and demonstrate his power, has with great patience gone on putting up with those who are the instruments of his retribution and designed to be destroyed; so that he may make known the glorious riches ready for the people who are the instruments of his faithful love and were long ago prepared for that glory.”

  • Anonymous

    Today, someone referenced the story of when the Israelites got right up to the doorstep of the promised land… and I was reminded of this thread. Numbers 14:3-4 reads,

    Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.”

    What a sadistic god. Killing innocent Egyptians. Making us suffer the wilderness. Doesn’t even care enough about the women and children who are just going to die too. We’d be so much better off if we just went our own way and got the heck back to Egypt… and our slavery.

    This story is only a problem if you miss the point as badly as the Israelites did.