This came up in conversation the other day, so let me just remind you of the terminal problems for the Exodus story faced by those who defend the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart… I know I only ran this recently, but some Christians have short memories.
The Exodus is a story that is hugely important to Christians (and Jews), as can be seen by some comments by Christians on the previous articles in this series. I want to continue my claims that the Exodus never happened because of both historical issues and theological/philosophical ones by getting onto some philosophy before returning to history in future pieces.
Previously, I have shown you the problems with claims concerning camels in the Exodus account and beyond (here) and how the whole story is ridiculous. This article builds on some of the claims I made in the last piece.
I am going to revisit this subject with a number of articles, all in a series as I have done with the Nativity and Easter, and I hope it should provide a one-stop shop for all things Exodus debunking.
Let us now talk about the intervening God, and how God can force people’s hands.
It seems to me that Christians quite often have their cakes, and then eat them too! How greedy (though I often wonder what the point of having a cake is, if not to eat it…)! I mean this by the fact that they will always argue the virtues of free will, and the wonderful gift that it is, and then allow God to punish us for using it, and then intervene willy-nilly and lessen its potency as a gift. That is like me giving you a gun for Christmas and you firing it and me shouting, “You silly bugger, what are you doing firing it!? You’ve gone and hurt someone! I’m going to have to punish you now! You should have used the gun to do something nice like bake a cake! And then we could ALL eat it!” I would then continue to intervene whenever you got the gun out to make sure you knew the rules, or that you used the gun to do something that I wanted. Furthermore, I would often do things that would allow you not to use the gun. In view of this, what is the point of giving you the gun in the first place? It’s a complete waste of time, unless seen as a tool for my own selfish gratification?
Take Moses, for example. He was given the unenviable task of mustering all the Hebrews in Egypt and leading them out of slavery, back to their promised land. Leaving aside all the historical, archaeological and commonsensical issues of this story (how bad at Geography must you be to take two million people and assorted livestock into the wilderness and not find your way out for forty years? Where were the pastures and food to support this multitude? Marching ten abreast would have meant a line 150 miles long etc), let us assume it is true. The issues concerning God interfering start when Moses is a shepherd in exile from his Hebrew brethren, in Sinai or Midian. He sees a burning bush that will not burn out, and God speaks to him from there revealing his name. God orders Moses to go to Egypt and free his brethren from Egyptian bondage. So much for freely tending to his sheep! Moses is then almost killed by God because his son was not circumcised. Free will was fine, but if you chose freely not to cut the skin at the end of your son’s penis off in the name of God, then you were in really deep trouble. Meanwhile, tribes all around the world happily existed with their own moral and legal systems without necessarily resorting to self-genital harm.
Now, in all of Moses’ life, there existed some three or so Pharaohs who had incredible power and renown, but none of whom were named. Strange, since historically we tend to name all our kings when talking about them. Moses and Aaron managed to hold court with the Pharaoh and ask him to allow Moses to take the Israelites for a feast in the wilderness, which was denied. At the second asking, Moses and Aaron turned Moses’ rod into a snake, which the Pharaoh’s magicians did too, and they were denied again. The third meeting allowed Moses to prove himself by having Aaron turn the Nile to blood, but the magicians did the same, so he was not seen as that clever. At the next meeting, he opted to make Aaron bring all the frogs from the Nile to overrun Egypt, but those pesky magicians copied. When Moses said he could get rid of the frogs, Pharaoh decided to submit, but when the frogs died in a horrible mess, Pharaoh took back his allowance. As a side point, it is funny to note how no Christian ever seems to doubt the fact that the pagan magicians of the Pharaoh could do these amazing acts to match Aaron and Moses. I know of no other humans outside of Christianity that we, in the Western world, believe could do these things. Either one is naturally capable to do these things, or you need supernatural aid. Since God is the only agent with such supernatural abilities (or agents under God’s control), then one must assume these were either natural occurrences or God was enabling the magicians to do thusly. Which then means that God is setting up the whole situation, and forcing more people’s hands. He is completely creating the backdrop for the next truly tragic events to unfold.
Now, this is where God unashamedly affects the people of Egypt with his actions. In order to force the Pharaoh’s hand and allow the Hebrews to depart, God sends the ten plagues down. Now let’s think about these plagues:
· All the rivers and streams throughout Egypt are turned to blood.
· Frogs run rampant throughout the land, from border to border.
· All the land of Egypt is infested with lice or gnats.
· Egypt and the houses of Egyptians are attacked by swarms of flies.
· Diseases are meted out upon horses, asses, camels, oxen and sheep. All Egyptian livestock die.
· Boils are inflicted upon man and beast alike.
· Egypt has its first ever hailstorm.
· The pitiful remaining crops are devastated by a massive plague of locusts.
· Three days of thick darkness ensue.
· The firstborn of every family and beast in the land of Egypt dies.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not hideous? Is this really the behaviour of an all-loving God? Really? There are millions of Egyptians living the length and breadth of Egypt who have nothing to do with the Hebrews, who have likely never met one, who have their crops destroyed, their animals diseased and covered in boils, who have their firstborn die, and those of their livestock and so on. The life of these people is a determined misery. And these influences are out of their control and in the hands of an all-powerful, all-loving God. God could have simply, and very easily, in all his power, appeared to the Pharaoh and made him say “Yes”. One simple word would have averted all this pain and suffering. The course of the lives of all those Egyptians was changed forever, and they were punished for the transgression of one, single person – the Pharaoh. This is no tectonic plate movement, no natural disaster, this is a set of direct actions from an all-loving God.
But the most disturbing part about this story is the declaration made earlier in the biblical text, in Exodus 4:21-23:
The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ “
Not only did God cause the horrible plagues that came down upon Egypt as a result of the decision made by Pharaoh (and thus you could say that Pharaoh caused the plagues), but he actually made up Pharaoh’s mind. Thus, the whole incident, the whole catalogue of events, was based on God reducing Pharaoh’s actions to a determined outcome. God determined that Pharaoh was not going to let Moses take the Hebrews away by declaring that his hand was to be forced, and that the answer he was always going to give would be a resounding “No”. The sheer number of deaths and the pain and suffering caused by this determined outcome, by this constraint of free will, make a mockery of the gift that God has supposedly given us, and the moral responsibility for these tragic events lies squarely on the shoulders of God.
God is seen to harden hearts elsewhere, too, such as this passage from Paul in his letter to the Romans, which he draws on earlier Old Testament scripture:
What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; just as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes to see not and ears to hear not,
down to this very day.”
and David says,
“let their table become a snare and a trap,
and a stumbling block and a retribution to them.
“let their eyes be darkened to see not,
and bend their backs forever.”
We return again to the idea of having a chosen elect, and the rest of the people being unfairly disadvantaged in their actions by having their faculties unfairly tinkered with. These are the sort of passages that give people who argue for free will, of the fairness of God, so much trouble in explaining away, until eventually, many theologians simply say that Original Sin allows God to punish whomsoever he chooses.
Such divine interventions are, more often than not, seen as miracles. The implications are that God intervenes for a reason – it is not as if he is sitting in heaven bored, with nothing better to do (although, who am I to say that this isn’t the case?). God gets involved to achieve an end. The idea that God needs to achieve a certain outcome to his own creation (that he has supposedly designed to achieve a particular end) has implications for his design ability. Moreover, there are similar implications for believers in the fact that God used Middle Knowledge to create the world. Of all the possible worlds that God could have created, knowing all the possible counterfactuals and options, God has chosen a world that still requires him to intervene on a regular basis, seemingly in one particular area of the world, and over one particular epoch. The usefulness of Middle Knowledge is perhaps rendered impotent as God finds it a necessity to get his hands dirty sorting out the causal chain on earth. He has chosen to actualise the maximally best world, and yet he still produces one that requires a few thousand years of constant intervention in the Middle East. One must remember that every time that God intervenes on earth, there are implications for the free will of those involved: people are being used as pawns, being moved around the chessboard of the Ancient Near East, in a one-sided game that God simply cannot lose.
And don’t forget that God has foreknowledge, and, therefore, foreknowledge of his own actions. Or is it simply that God’s intervening actions ensure that the prophecies that he communicated come true – a set of self-fulfilling prophecies? Maybe it is the case that God does not know all possible futures, but that he predicts something to happen hundreds of years down the line, and if it doesn’t look like it is going to come about, then he goes about his business to make sure it does, by moving his chess pieces around, or sending the odd plague.
Philosopher James Keller has stated that miracles are inherently unfair, and show that a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful God is unjust in singling out a person or people for preferential treatment. To be fair, I think he has a good point. God could quite easily divert dangerous volcano eruptions or tsunamis yet deems it more important to maul 42 children with a lion for jeering at a man, as seen in 2 Kings 2:23-24:
Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!”
When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.
There is definitely evidence of an unbalanced approach to intervention policy for sorting out the world’s problems. Our imminent climate change problems and mass reduction of biodiversity seem like more pressing matters than the pride of a prophet. This is surely not evidence of an all-loving God, given the reality of 42 extremely upset families.
To get back to the point at hand in a more direct fashion, if we define miracles as perceptible interruptions of the laws of nature which can be explained by divine intervention; and if we define free will as the power of making choices unconstrained by external agencies, then there is evidently a contradiction in the existence of both in the same system. Defenders of evil existing in the world as a result of having to allow for free will, as discussed earlier in the book, must answer this, then: Why does God, on the one hand, allow evil to happen in the world (apparently as a cost of free will), and on the other hand, intervene at times, denying free will to those involved to achieve ends that are resultant from free will caused sinning? It all seems so confused and contradictory. To simplify:
“Why does God not intervene more often to minimize suffering?”
“To allow for us to use free will.”
“Why did God send Jesus down to be sacrificed?”
“To pay for us for using our free will incorrectly.”
“Well then, why not intervene earlier?”
“Er, because he had a plan for 600 years that Jesus would come down and pay for all the free will sins that he knew were going to happen. But he did intervene for other reasons.”
“What were the other reasons?”
“To create a chosen people who lived in awe and fear of the law-giving God by destroying their enemies for using free will, and also punishing the chosen people themselves for using free will.”
To further the point, let me remind you that the Catholic Encyclopaedia included the telling words:
The Hebrew Prophet was not merely, as the word commonly implies, a man enlightened by God to foretell events; he was the interpreter and supernaturally enlightened herald sent by Yahweh to communicate His will and designs to Israel.
This explicitly talks about the will and designs that God had for Israel that he would intervene to ensure they came to pass. God knew he would have to intervene, and he knew that he would be curbing the will of his creations at a regular frequency.
Somehow there appears to be an incoherent use of intervention in the biblical era. Jesus, as a tool for intervention, is sent down as a foreknown penalty for our use of free will, and, ultimately, didn’t have any impact on the way humans act. We still sin in exactly the same way we did before Jesus’ arrival. It becomes a guessing game as to what the ends were that God wanted to achieve in the carrying out of all these interventions. Since they seem to predominantly fall before the arrival of Jesus, one must assume that they were, in some way, preparation for Jesus. The interventions seem to be directed towards showing that the Israelites were the chosen ones, to ensuring certain (and at times bizarre) military and political situations that Jesus can then come and, essentially, supersede with his new covenant.
I have to confess, it seems like an awful lot of interventional effort was expended by God in the direction of the Israelites, and their seemingly petty (on the scale of the history of the world) politics. The rest of the world seemed to exist perfectly well, developing their own moral and legal systems, co-operative farming techniques, civilisations and cultures, without the necessity for God to intervene. And they did this more freely, by definition of the fact that there was no influence from external agencies, from God / Jesus / the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, then, it seems like the whole basis of the Exodus account – the notion that the Hebrews ran from a sort of dictatorial leader that was only so because God made him like that, and the notion that God punished so many people (children, families) and animals on account of his own actions – is fraught with issue. If I were a believing Christian, I would have a whole heap of problems – ethical problems, theological problems, philosophical problems – with this story. But, then again, if you drop this story, it all comes tumbling down like a house of cards. So I get why they tenuously hold to it.
House of cards it is, then.
 Taking the figures in the bible of 603,550 fighting men, that gives an estimate of 2 million people in total. There is no archaeological evidence for the exodus, the number of Egyptians in Egypt only numbered some 3-6 million. With a more plausible estimate of 20,000 people, all the same issues still remain. There has also been found no archaeological evidence of anyone in the wilderness area, especially requiring settlements of the size necessary to support such large numbers.
 It is interesting that in the early plagues the bible explicitly states that all Egyptian cattle died bar none, and then in the hail plague cattle are mentioned again, and then in the final plague, the firstborn cattle die. Again. Yes, the cattle seem to be able to die multiple times. This is either a biblical contradiction, or cattle have multiple lives.
 Deuteronomy 29:4, Isaiah 29:10 and Psalms69:22-23.
 Keller (1995).
 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12477a.htm (10/2009)
Largely taken from my book Free Will?
Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook: