Editorial Note: This is part of a regular series that shares notable and perhaps surprising facts that pertain to religion. Some amusing, others shocking. Many of them will correct misinformation that various religious groups like to spread, and / or reveal things they like to hide. A few of them might perhaps reframe people’s understanding about certain topics. Also, if you have any issues with what I’ve written here, please visit my caveats page.
Perhaps you’ve heard the Bible story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement. God brings it up several times in reference to Himself, during significant occasions. For example, God starts the original Ten Commandments by saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)
If you aren’t familiar with the tale, you can find a synopsis of the story, as it’s usually told, in any of thousands of places online, such as here. Please take a few minutes to read one, then come back.
For today, I won’t dwell on God delivering the Israelites into more than 400 years of slavery before he later delivered them out from slavery. (Genesis 15:13) And I won’t dwell on the fact that there are no indications whatsoever outside of the Bible, no corroborating archeological findings and historical records, backing up that the Egyptians ever enslaved the Israelites, or that the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert, or that Moses even existed at all. Nor will I dwell on the fact that the first plague, leaving no water to drink in all of Egypt, would’ve killed all the people and animals in the country from the outset, ending the story. Nor shall I dwell upon on the fact that the livestock which the story explicitly says were all killed by the fifth plague were shortly thereafter explicitly killed a second time by the seventh plague, and then the firstborn amongst those twice-dead livestock were explicitly killed yet a third time by the tenth plague. We’ll save all such topics for another day.
Rather, let’s start by considering the odd behavior of the Pharaoh in this story. Based upon the way the story always gets retold, you might be scratching your head as to why the Pharaoh didn’t relent sooner. Was God’s first plague, turning every drop of drinkable water in Egypt to blood, not sufficiently persuasive? Was this not an adequate demonstration that God had the power and the will to make his demands met, and that He was not to be trifled with? Through one plague after another, Moses and Aaron sequentially warned the Pharaoh of exactly what horrors God was about to visit upon the Egyptians, and then God carried through on His threats. Through one plague after another, the Pharaoh seemed to capitulate, asking Moses and God to call off the plague, promising to free the Israelite slaves — then took back his word and refused to free the slaves, after God lifted the plague. While festering boils disabled the populace, fire and ice pelted down from the sky, and the land fell into complete darkness, the Pharaoh persisted in his folly. Through the loss of Egypt’s entire supply of water, the collapse of all its fisheries, the destruction of all of its crops, the death of all its livestock, the slaughter of every firstborn citizen, and ultimately the drowning of the entire Egyptian army, the Pharaoh dared again and again, eleven times in a row, to incur another round of God’s wrath.
Why was he such a glutton for punishment? Was he stupid? Was he insane? Was it a deadly mixture of wickedness and pride, as preachers preach from the pulpit and Sunday school teachers tell the children?
If we actually read the story in the Bible, rather than listen to people who revise it, we don’t need to guess. The Bible tells us exactly why the Pharaoh behaved this way: because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, making him refuse. (Exodus 4:21, Exodus 9:12, Exodus 10:20, Exodus 11:10, Exodus 14:8)
What?! God was playing both sides, making Moses tell the Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves, and also making the Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelite slaves?! Yes, indeed.
Why would God do such a thing? Fortunately, the Bible also tells us exactly why God behaved this way: to demonstrate His power, in order to become famous. (Exodus 9:16)
It’s something theists usually prefer to leave out of the story. If you bring it up, savvy apologists will often try to spin it to a more palatable interpretation. That particular apologetic goes something like this:
“God doesn’t do that. It’s a matter of semantics. The further the Pharaoh went away from the word of Moses and God, in search of other thoughts, the more deaf he became to them. Then, the more his past experience changed his brain, the more likely it was that the Pharaoh would not listen to God and Moses the next time. The Pharaoh formed his intellectual perception to a particular way of thinking, thus the ‘hardening of his heart.’ It was the Pharaoh’s own actions that hardened his heart. Since the Pharaoh chose not to go to God’s way of thinking, it seemed like God placed more obstacles in his way, thereby giving the appearance that God did it. However, this was simply a natural biological function, helped along by things that the Pharaoh encountered in the environment.”
I can understand why people read interpretations into these passages to fit how they feel that a God they could accept should behave. However, the “Pharaoh did it to himself” interpretation simply does not comport with scripture. God bluntly, explicitly, and repeatedly takes credit for hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, and moreover explains that he planned this from the beginning, along with elucidating precisely why He did it. Then He brazenly says that He’ll have mercy on whom He will and He’ll harden whom He will. He notes that you can’t resist His will, and yet He’ll still blame you for doing what He made you do. Then He defiantly addresses anyone who takes issue with such behavior:
“I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.”
‘One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist His will?’ But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” (Romans 9:17-20)
We are left with the uncomfortable fact that God interfered with the Pharaoh’s free will and forced his defiance, so that He would have an excuse to wield deadly supernatural might against the Egyptians, to demonstrate His power, to gain fame.
Exodus 38:26 tells us that there were 603,550 non-Levite, Israelite male slaves 20 years or older who left Egypt in the Exodus, and Numbers 3:39 tells us there were an additional 22,000 Levite, Israelite male slaves 1 month or older who also left. From this, I think we can sensibly surmise that the number of Egyptians killed (all of the firstborn males killed by the Angel of Death, plus the entire army drowned in the Red Sea, plus everyone killed in the the seventh plague’s hail and fire, plus everyone who starved to death when all of the livestock and fish died and all the crops were destroyed by locusts, etc.) would’ve numbered somewhere from several hundred thousand to several million.
So, in this story, God:
1) interferes with the Pharaoh’s free will to force him to behave defiantly, then punishes both him and his entire population for this defiance;
2) plays both sides, demanding that the Israelites be set free while thwarting this from happening;
3) causes at least several hundred thousand preventable deaths, including many tens of thousands of innocent children;
4) does all this for the express purpose of showing off his power, to make a name for Himself.
Why do revisionists leave out the critical part about God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart when they retell this story? And why do apologists strive to reinterpret that part to mean something different than what it actually says? Because God’s actions in the story, as the Bible tells the tale, offend their moral sensibilities. As they should. But the Bible does say that, and pretending otherwise is neither faithful nor honest. Instead, fundamentalist believers must grapple with worshipping a God whose morality contradicts their own.