Let’s go back to see where we are so far. God decides that he is going to play the long game to release Israel by using ten plagues over several months instead of a simple miracle. The Lord seems to be interested in obtaining Pharaoh’s consent to letting Israel go for three days into the wilderness, but then he isn’t interested in his consent and makes him say “No.” This is not the way most of us would have done this. If God’s actions are hard to explain, Pharaoh’s actions are hard to explain also. So, let’s take a look at Pharaoh and his position and see what he did.
Pharaoh’s actions through this narrative gives us some understanding about what he was doing. Pharaoh has been studied for centuries and many people have seen some of his behaviors as contrary to what they would have expected. Just before the last plague, Moses tells Pharaoh what was going to happen. He says, “Thus says the Lord: At about midnight, I shall go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the first born in Egypt shall die” (Exo 11.4-5).
In the Talmud (Berekot 4a) it says that scholars and rabbis were interested in this verse. Why does it say “about midnight?” Why not say the exact time? In Exo 12.29 it says “it happened at midnight.” The question that came up was, “Why wasn’t Moses exact, but later it says at midnight?” The rabbis taught that God knew when it was going to happen but Pharaoh didn’t. They discussed the fact that what if the “timekeepers” in Pharaoh’s court were a little “off.” Pharaoh would have called Moses a “liar” saying, “You said midnight and that didn’t happen.” Maybe Moses was vague for a reason. Could that happen? Sure it could, just look at what happens today. You have a politician the press doesn’t like, and he says something that doesn’t happen exactly like he said, they will say he was lying.
It is the same thing here, and the rabbis really believe that is why Moses said “about midnight.” They had good reason to believe that Pharaoh would have reacted that way. Pharaoh reacted to the second plague of frogs by asking Moses to take them away (Exo 8.4). Moses then lets Pharaoh pick the time (Exo 8.5) and Pharaoh says “Tomorrow.” Now, the frogs were everywhere so why would Pharaoh wait that long to get rid of them? Rabbi Fohrman says he was waiting to see of Moses really can stop the plague of frogs so he says “tomorrow.” As a result, Moses says “Whatever you want” but you are going to realize that there is no other like the Lord, our God” (Exo 8.6).
Thinking about this, it would seem that Moses and Pharaoh are on the same page here. Moses lets Pharaoh pick the time and Pharaoh accepts, and then Moses tells Pharaoh that this will show Pharaoh that there is none like the Lord. Now, you may be asking, “Why would the timing of frogs according to what Pharaoh said prove the power of Yehovah?” It’s like stopping the plague is more impressive than the plague itself. However, Moses knows how Pharaoh will see it. The power of the plague is less impressive to Pharaoh than whether Moses can turn off the frogs. Timing seems to be an issue with Pharaoh.
This is just one example of some of the strange behavior by Pharaoh. This isn’t how we would have reacted if we were in his place. Let’s look at another example in the fifth plague where the cattle and livestock are struck. Pharaoh has another reaction that is hard to understand.
If we were a king and we have been fighting a guy like Moses over this issue of the slaves being set free for three days to go into the wilderness to worship their God, how would we have reacted? We are sitting on our throne when we hear that there is a plague that has struck the livestock in our kingdom. We don’t know why at first, and nobody else knows why either. If we are prudent and have a coherent thought process, we would want an immediate damage report. We would want to know just how bad it is, who was hurt, how many animals were hurt or killed. But this Pharaoh doesn’t do any of that. Exo 9.7 says that Pharaoh sent some people to check out the animals belonging to Israel, and finds out that none of them died.
He doesn’t even bother to assess the damage to Egypt’s animals, and doesn’t want a damage report. But he does do an assessment on Israel and their livestock. With the frogs, Moses and Pharaoh argue about the exact time, but now, Pharaoh’s concern is not about his dying animals, but how certain areas were affected and how others were not. He is interested in how “surgical” this strike was. That’s why the rabbis saw that Moses preferred to say “about midnight.” Pharaoh was an exacting man and any discrepancy in what Moses said would catch the focus of Pharaoh. Pharaoh is one of those guys who obsesses about things. He doesn’t seem to be impressed with the sheer power of a plague, he is interested in the timing and how precise everything is. That is what impresses Pharaoh.
What we have in this story is a battle of wills. Maybe he is not going against God over the release of the slaves alone, but he was going to battle with God over something for which timing and precision counts for more than power, but what could that be? We have seen in the Exodus story how God and Pharaoh do things that we might not expect. But what about the third character in our story, Moses? Did he act in ways that are hard for us to explain, or in ways that we would not have acted?
Let’s go back to the very beginning. Pharaoh is sitting on his throne conducting everyday Pharaoh business. He has ambassadors coming to him, questions to answer, papers to sign and other things. All of a sudden two guys show up to see him and they look like shepherds. They come before him and make a demand on Pharaoh and they say, “Thus says Yehovah, the God of Israel, send my people out and let them rejoice before me in the desert” (Exo 5.1). Moses is standing there looking at Pharaoh and he must be wondering what Pharaoh is going to say next. Then Pharaoh says, “Who is Yehovah that I should listen to his voice to let Israel go. I do not know Yehovah, and what’s more, I will not let Israel go” (Exo 5.2). Pharaoh is being very clear here. If we were Moses, what would we have said?
Pharaoh really doesn’t know the God of Moses and Israel, and he isn’t interested in letting Israel go. Moses has two things that he could do. He could accept what Pharaoh has said, turn around, go home and ask the Lord what to do. He is the one who sent him anyway, and Moses did what he was asked to do, so to check with him would be appropriate. He could say, “I came, I told him, and that’s that.” Now it was up to the Lord to respond. Moses could have done that. But he didn’t.
The other thing he could do is the exact opposite. Instead of leaving, he could tell Pharaoh he doesn’t understand who Yehovah is. This God is not one you want to anger. If Pharaoh doesn’t let Israel go, he may devastate Egypt, the people and the land. But that is not what Moses said. He says, “The God of the Hebrews happened upon us. Let us go, please, for three days in the desert and sacrifice to our God; otherwise, he might hurt us with pestilence and the sword” (Exo 5.3).
Does Moses think that by telling Pharaoh that they were “scared” of what God might do to them if they don’t go out to worship him was really going to motivate Pharaoh to change his mind here? Why would anyone react in their favor to this approach? Pharaoh didn’t know Yehovah and why would he care what he did?
Well, as it turns out, Pharaoh doesn’t care about what Yehovah might do to them and Pharaoh accuses Moses and Aaron of distracting the people with all this talk about going into the wilderness (Exo 5.4-5). He tells them both to get out of his court and he immediately doubles the workload of the Israelites (Exo 5.6-9). Pharaoh accuses the people of being lazy and they must have too much time on their hands to think about getting a few days off (Exo 5.17-18). Why would Moses say what he said to Pharaoh in the first place? Pharaoh said “No” very clearly. Now, if Moses had gone to God and God told him to say what he said in v.3, then that’s fine. But why say it when you had no chance of succeeding?
In Part 83 we will pick up here to see whether Moses had a plan here by examining Exo 5.1 and Exo 5.3.