The plague stories in Exodus have always seemed a bit off to me. Looking back from our post-modern viewpoint, they feel like angry nine-year-olds fighting. Or a really bad marriage. Maybe that’s because Moses and Pharaoh are brothers, and nobody can hurt you like family. But when we take what is familiar to us and apply it to God, we always move in the wrong direction. We can’t extrapolate upwards. When we do, the plague story becomes another episode of daytime television. Our actions don’t tell us about God. God’s actions tell us about us. God’s actions tell us about him.
He is not all, “Alla-ka-zam! Now you’re a fish!” which is how we tend to view the miraculous. Fantasy and magic are the closest we can come (beyond quantum physics, and who really understands that?) to miracles. But God is not Harry Potter, even with all of Ms. Rowling’s messianic sub-plots. Prayer is not a magic formula. The Ark of the Covenant is not a magic wand. We cannot bend the will of the Almighty to our own. When we accept this reality we begin to grow into a mature relationship with our Creator.
The plagues show God values choice.
What has always confused me about the plagues are the two verses (Ex 7:3, 14:4) when God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” as opposed to the two verses when the text says, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (Ex 7:13, 8:19). I could understand Pharaoh choosing to harden his heart. But God hardening Pharaoh’s heart just didn’t make sense. Either God was vindictive and blood-thirsty, which flies in the face of who I know God to be, or I was missing something.
And I was. Until I asked myself, “What if this is two different ways of saying the same thing?” God knows Pharaoh better than I know my wife. For God to say, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” is the same as God saying, “I will do something which will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Like I know I my wife will get angry if I watch football instead of washing the dishes, God knows the plagues will harden Pharaoh’s heart. But here’s the catch, Pharaoh, like my wife, gets to make a choice. Pharaoh chooses not to let God’s people go. My wife chooses to throw a shoe at me.
God shows mercy in His judgement.
Even in her anger, my wife tempers her judgement with mercy. She throws a sandal instead a boot. Think about it. Couldn’t the Master of the Universe who spoke matter and energy into being simply destroy Egypt out of hand? The plagues look harsh to us, but so does the lex talionis. When God gave Israel the “eye for an eye” rule, it wasn’t to help them exact judgement, it was to limit their response. “An eye for an eye” does not mean you can gleefully blind your neighbor. It means if he backs into your Camry you can’t burn down his house in retaliation. What we see in the plagues is not God’s punishment, but God’s restraint. We see it over and over again in the books of Moses. God clothes Adam and Eve. He spares Cain. He saves Noah’s family. God actually allows Abraham to bargain him down in the judgement on Sodom. And God does it again with Pharaoh.
God shows Pharaoh how those with power should act. Remember who this Pharaoh is: he reneged on the relationship between his father and Joseph; he enslaved the Hebrews; he murdered their infant sons. This is not a nice guy. Yet God gives him the choice. He won’t zap Pharaoh for the same reason he won’t zap you or me. God never uses power to overwhelm the human heart. To do so would take away our ability to choose. And without choice there can be no love. This is God’s mercy. That he first loved us. And gives us the choice to love him back.