The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. – Exodus 4:21
It seems odd that God would tell Moses from the very beginning that it would take many plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Why couldn’t God have freed them with one spectacular display of power? Why couldn’t God have skipped the milder plagues if he knew he’d send the more powerful ones later?
One reason was that the purpose of the plagues wasn’t just to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites, but to declare that God was supreme over the many “gods” that Egypt worshipped (Ex.
12:12). God was communicating this to Pharaoh, and also to his own people who very likely believed in them after four hundred years in that land. Each of the plagues was a defeat of one or more of the gods that the Egyptians worshipped – the Nile god, the Sun god, the Frog god, the animal gods
Another reason could have been mercy. God didn’t simply come in and destroy the oppressor of his people, Pharaoh, before giving him a chance to let them go on his own. God gave him many chances that he rejected, and only after several times did God harden him from further repentance.
Finally, perhaps it was simply that God realized that after four hundred years of not knowing him, his people had to experience his power firsthand many, many times. He knew that they would soon be in the desert facing trials, and would lose faith quickly enough. He knew they would be there for forty years before reaching the Promised Land, and they needed strong memories to sustain them. He also knew that humans often think they’ve learned a lesson when they need to repeat it many times. He was instilling in his people a sense of his power that would sustain them for the millennia ahead.
The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said. – Exodus 8:19
Many of us struggle with the fact that God said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that that God could bring all ten plagues on Egypt before he finally would free the Israelites. It seems like Pharaoh might be innocent pawn which God callously manipulates.
It helps to examine the story more closely. The idea of “hardening the heart” is mentioned twenty times in the Exodus story. The text says ten times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and ten times that God hardened it. The first time that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was in the sixth plague, after Pharaoh had already had five chances to change his mind. With each plague that Pharaoh ignored, it showed that he cruelly cared nothing of the misery of his subjects.
After the third plague, Pharaoh’s magicians declared that the plague of gnats were the “finger of God” – meaning that they were up against something mightier than anything they’d ever known. But in spite of the fact that it was irrational to think that he could defeat this God, Pharaoh refused to yield. At this point, it seems to have become a test of wills between Pharaoh, who considered himself a god, and the real God. Because Pharaoh was understood to be a god himself, his will was absolutely supreme. All decisions of his were uncontested because he held all authority. The fact that God was in control over his power of decision showed that God was ultimately supreme even over him.
We can learn a valuable lesson from this too. When we fall into sin, God is generous with his offers to repent, but at a certain point, our hearts become hardened because of our own desires. As the rabbis used to say, “When sin starts out, it is weak like a spider’s web, but then it becomes as strong as an iron chain.” We should examine ourselves and repent before sin has hardened our wills to the point where we can no longer turn back.