Hard Hearts and the Liberation of God’s People

A sermon on Exodus 7-12, the 10 Plagues

This week in Faith Formation programming, we’re doing an Exodus event based on the story of the 10 plagues, so we switched our reading  from Joseph to the text that was just read. That switch was my choice, and I regret it immensely. Like the Noah story which makes great kids posters and toys, the ten plagues with all their critters and extreme weather make for a great kids event. As an adult though, looking at the details of God’s actions to free the Israelites from slavery I’m deeply troubled.

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There’s a lot of death here, and while we can easily gloss over it like we did in the Noah story by saying those were all bad people who deserved to die, our adult minds know that’s not the truth. The destruction of crops and death of livestock was an economic blow that would’ve starved Egypt’s working poor. The severe weather and darkness would’ve hit those with shoddy or no shelter hardest. And the death of the firstborn includes children of all ages.

“But the Lord hardened Pharoah’s heart…”  Exodus 9:12, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10

Most troubling of all is this repeated phrase: “But the Lord hardened Pharoah’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.”  Five times, this phrase is repeated, and each time the destruction is multiplied from the last. We traditionally think of Pharoah’s stubbornness as causing the plagues, and celebrate God’s role as liberator. But what do we do with this story if it is God who is hardening Pharoah’s heart and causing all this terror and death? Can God be both terrorizer of the Egyptians and liberator of the Israelites? 

Thankfully, I’m not the first person to ask this question, so there is ancient wisdom to draw on. In Judaism, the religion to whom this story first belonged, there is a tradition called midrash. Midrash is interpretation of the biblical text by rabbis and religious scholars, the collected wisdom of God’s chosen people. The midrash for Exodus is called the Exodus Rabbah, and has remained largely unchanged since the 12th century. When someone asked a rabbi I follow on Twitter about this troublesome repetition of God hardening Pharoah’s heart, she answered and quoted the Exodus Rabbah.

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This is important, the fact that Pharoah hardens his own heart 5 times before the story tells us that God does the hardening. It reminds us that God created humans with free will and allows our choices to temporarily subvert God’s will. God’s will certainly prevails, as Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism: “The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray that it may be done among us also.”

Our choices matter, every single one of them, especially the ones that involve how we subjugate or ignore the needs of others for our own benefit and comfort. Our choices matter not only because of the others they affect, but because as Rabbi Ruttenberg said, “we choose and choose and choose and eventually that becomes something of our destiny”. Each tiny choice we make that is contrary to God’s intention makes it easier to choose sin and evil again. Little by little, our hearts get as hard as Pharoah’s.

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And then what does God do with us? The same thing God did with Pharoah: God uses even our hardness of heart to break down the systems of oppression and accomplish freedom for God’s beloved people (which is all people BTW). God has tried to get Pharoah to cooperate, 5 times, but each time as soon as the plague disappears, so does his mercy. By the sixth plague, God has decided that if Pharoah is determined to continue opposing God’s will, it’s time to break down the whole oppressive system of Egyptian society. By the time these plagues are over, and after the incident at the Red Sea, Pharoah will have no slaves, no crops, no cattle, and no army. Not only will God’s chosen people be free, but the mighty of Egypt who are left will be leveled with the poor in their grief and loss of security. Not only will Pharoah have no power of the Isrealites, Pharoah will have no power over anything.

I wonder if the same thing is happening in our nation today with patriarchal power that denies the reality of women’s experiences of violence and assault, and prevents men from being held accountable for their wrongs. The tide of accusations linked to the #MeToo movement seems as all-encompassing as an Exodus plague, and the destruction wreaked on the lives of victims is no less appalling.

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I keep thinking that the next accusation will be enough to wake us up to the severity of this problem and change the way we respond, but this latest uproar over Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s accusation against Brett Kavanaugh has shown how hard the hearts of our politicians and religious leaders still are. I’m not going to repeat the things that our President and Franklin Graham have said this week because they are despicable. But holding this Exodus story alongside those statements made me wonder if God is not using the hardened hearts of people like them to bring down the system of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Perhaps God is even hardening their self-righteous resolve, so that the protests against patriarchy will rise high enough to wash it completely away.

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I don’t know. What I do know is the Exodus story is a powerful testimony both to the power of God to liberate and the  power of humans to oppose God’s will. It is hard to hold these two things together in our hearts; it is exhausting, especially in times as chaotic and uncertain as our own. I understand the impulse to harden my heart against the cries of today’s Israelites, for it is painful to hear them. Women and men talking about the abuse they’ve endured at the hands of those who should’ve protected and cherished them. Children crying in detention facilities, not knowing when they’ll see each other again. Families looking at the wreckage of their homes after hurricanes, flooding and tornadoes. We hear their cries and see their stricken faces, and we want to turn away. 

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Thankfully, we have a God who can hold the pain of the whole world at once, whose heart never hardens. This Exodus story begins with that good news: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Even when we cannot, even when we will not, God hears the cries of the oppressed and works for their liberation. God will do that with us or without us, so I pray that God will keep our hearts soft enough to be Moses and Aaron and Miriam instead of Pharoah. Amen. 

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