If the leader of the most powerful nation in the world at the time could come to the conclusion that there is one God, it would be a moment in history that confirmed the truth of monotheism. And, the name of that God is Yehovah, the God of the Hebrews. That would have been a game changer. The only impediment to this was Pharaoh. This will not be the time to get into the concept of free will versus election, but here is the problem and some questions.
For those who believe in free will, how can God morally justify the taking away of the free will of Pharaoh? Why would the Lord want the sanction of Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go into the wilderness, then harden his heart to make him say “No” once he decides to say “Yes.” We are going to look into these questions and see how Pharaoh could have ruined God’s plans.
Egypt cannot be forced into accepting the fact that there is one God, it must be a genuine move on their part. God does not have to “cheat” to get what he wants. If Pharaoh has free choice, could anyone predict what he is going to do? What if Pharaoh doesn’t go along with what God wants? Pharaoh could use his free will to thwart his plan. Humans are weak and this could influence Pharaoh to give in, not because he recognizes the Lord, but because of fear and stress.
The Exodus story could have ended by a Pharaoh that added Yehovah to his pantheon of Gods. If Pharaoh wants to give up because he is beaten and lacks the courage to go on, the Lord could choose to give Pharaoh the courage to keep going, to keep fighting. If Pharaoh ever gave up, it would not be because he thought he was wrong, but because he was beaten. There are some teachers and commentators who believe this is a possible scenario here.
If the Lord “strengthens” Pharaoh’s heart to continue as the Hebrew word suggests, does that mean God has violated Pharaoh’s free will? Is it advancing his free will? Did Pharaoh have free will to begin with? All of these questions come up as one studies the Exodus story. If anyone has played sports, they know that there are times when players give up because it is too tough to play on. They want to quit. But then a coach comes along, or another player, and gives a “pep talk” and this talk encourages the players to play on. In some cases, this talk resulted in a victory. One of the most famous pep talks was by Knute Rockne, the football coach of Notre Dame from 1918 to 1930, called “Win one for the Gipper.”
Rabbi Fohrman brings up God’s stance towards Pharaoh in giving him strength to keep going through the plagues that were devastating. The Lord stance is he would tell Pharaoh to “not let expediency decide this conflict between us. Let’s decide this on principle. If throughout this struggle you ever want to quit and give in to principle, if you ever lose confidence in your position, if you ever come to the conclusion that I am in fact the creator of the universe and that you are just a man who is duty bound to release my people, I will gladly accept your surrender and call off this conflict. However, if you have not changed your mind about any of this and you will to keep going with this conflict between us, then we will. But if you want to quit merely because you are afraid, don’t worry, I will give you the strength to keep going and see your vision through to the end. You be the one to decide.”
Pharaoh is going to change his mind many times during this ordeal. The Torah does not use the same word for this change of mind. There will be several words that will be used in the Hebrew that one will not pick up on when reading this in any other language. One of the words comes from the Hebrew root “KVD (kof, beit, dalet) and the other from the Hebrew root ChZK (chet, zayin, kof). These would be understood as “Kabed ha Lev” (heavy heart) and “Chazek ha Lev” (strengthen the heart). Strength of heart sounds like something good because a person sees his vision through to the end. It is the acquisition of courage. This term will be used when the Lord changes the mind of Pharaoh to give him courage to continue in what he believes in deep in his heart (Exo 4.21, 7.13, 8.17, 9.12, 10.20, 10.27, 11.10, 14.4). We will go over the plagues and see where the Lord strengthens the heart of Pharaoh. But, we also know that Pharaoh will be stubborn and does things without thinking. The phrase for that is “Kaved ha Lev” and it means “heavy or stubborn heart.”
Pharaoh will get so stubborn that no matter what God does to show him the evidence of his error, he will not budge and will go headlong into situations that will not be good. He will not admit the truth. Pharaoh wasn’t going to admit that there was ever another god who was the creator of all things and also all powerful. Pharaoh doesn’t want to change his theology, he wants it to remain the same. He was a god to his people and whatever he said or wanted was the last word on the subject. We know that gods fought other gods for supremacy, so as a god, he will fight this other god named Yehovah and he intends to win.
Pharaoh did not hold on to Israel just because of the economy, it was a battle to hold on to what he thought of himself, a god. He wasn’t going to admit that there was a one, true creator God who opposed him. He would have to humble himself and realize who he really was, a mere man. The Lord’s plan doesn’t rest entirely on showing a sign that proves he is the one, true God. This can fail and go bad very quickly. The Lord must do something else and we will deal with this as we move through the plagues.
The story of the Ten Plagues is one of the most well known stories of the Torah, but it is also a negotiation. Pharaoh will change his mind, illustrated by the phrase “Chazek ha Lev” and “Kaved ha Lev.” These terms means the “strengthening and the hardening of the heart.” In Exo 7.5 it says, “And Egypt shall come to know that I am the Yehovah, when I stretch out my hand upon Egypt.” Now, when did Egypt begin to “know” who Yehovah was?
It started when Moses gave his two statements to Pharaoh in Exo 5.1 and 5.3, which we have touched on previously. Yehovah wants Pharaoh to let the people go out into the wilderness for three days so that they can celebrate. Pharaoh rejects that request, then Moses says, “The God of the Hebrews happened upon us. Please let us go a three days journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or the sword.” Moses uses language in 5.3 that sounds like he is fearful.
These two statements show two different ideas of God. Looking at what we have gone over about monotheism and polytheism, the first statement of Moses in 5.1 reveals who the Lord really is. In his second statement, he presents the Lord on the polytheistic view relating to “power.” So, Pharaoh and Egypt have just started their theological training and “going to school” right away to learn who Yehovah really is. Moses puts the truth right out there in 5.1. The creator God Yehovah is telling you to let his people go because he has a relationship with them and wants to celebrate with them. Pharaoh will not understand this kind of thing because of his polytheistic views. So, in Exo 5.3, Moses gives Pharaoh information in ways he could understand, according to his polytheistic view of the “gods.”
In Part 88 we will pick up here.