No Mercy with Pharaoh
When Moses and Aaron first go before Pharaoh they are faced with his scorn, and the scorn of the all the wisdom of Egypt. “Who is the Lord?”
He is going to find out. We know how the story goes for Pharaoh, but at this point Moses and Aaron still are not clear about that. They don’t understand how implacable Pharaoh is, how much he can endure, and what it will take. They actually try to get him to relent by suggesting that that he is more merciful than God.
The God of the Hebrews has met with us, they say, and if you don’t let us go . . . uh, he’s going to punish us or smite us or something.
That is a strange thing to say. It is a strange thing to say because God never said any such thing. He told Moses he had seen the oppression of his people and remembered his covenant. As a result, he was going to visit them and rescue them. Moses was instructed to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go, not instructed to tell the people that if they didn’t leave they would be punished. It is a strange reversal. It is also strange because of the only possible reason Moses has for doing this: he’s trying to soften the imperative, to massage the message, to appeal to Pharaoh’s goodness. But can there be mercy with Pharaoh?
There is, of course, no mercy with Pharaoh. Pharaoh grows suspicious and as a result makes things worse for the people of Israel. They find themselves in a bind that is worse than before. The new policy is unreasonable and for Israel, hopeless.
So the elders of Israel go and try to appeal to the king. They are helpless, they think they have no one else to turn to. Maybe there was some oversight, maybe some underling exceeded his authority. Egypt’s economy no doubt changed: its markets were flooded with straw. All the supply of straw going to the brick industry was diverted elsewhere and no doubt the price of straw collapsed. Perhaps the elders of Israel wondered if Pharaoh understood what was going on in his country. Perhaps if Pharaoh knew what was really happening he would not be so harsh. Could there be mercy with Pharaoh?
Instead of turning to the Lord, they turned to Pharaoh. And there was, of course, no mercy with Pharaoh. He berated them and remained implacable. And the end was that everybody was bitter and discouraged, including Moses. Why, he asks the Lord, are you bringing trouble on this people? What am I even doing here?
The Lord had his purposes. He was preparing to abase Pharaoh for one, and no one will question his procedure when all is done. He was also showing his people that they have no help or hope apart from God who alone hears their cries and alone can rescue them. They will learn soon enough that there is no mercy with Pharaoh, because they will soon enough know there is only mercy with the Lord.
Here’s an enigmatic story! After the Lord has patiently heard Moses’ objections and overcome them, after Moses agrees to do what he is still reluctant to do, after he gets permission from his Father-in-law and readily obtains it, and after he leaves Moab to return to Egypt the Lord comes to him at night and tries to kill him.
How? What must it have been like to be attacked unexpectedly at the encampment? Not much information is given. The question ‘how’ goes unanswered because it is not our business.
The question instead is, Why. Why did the Lord meet Moses and then try to kill him? Why here, why now?
The answer has to do with the past and the future. The Lord’s meeting with Moses takes place between the past and the future, in the present, where all his encounters with temporal beings occur.
What is in the past? In the distant past, a covenant. A covenant sealed by circumcision. A covenant of dedication to God, of hoping in him exclusively, of waiting and trusting in his promises, of offering him a whole entire life. In the near past, are the words of God spoken in Moab before Moses set out. Do all the wonders, God says in 4:21; Pharaoh is not going to listen to you; then you are going to tell him something about Israel whom I mean to deliver: tell him that it is my firstborn. And because you will not let my firstborn go and serve me, I will kill your own firstborn.
That is in the past, and one other thing. In the present Zipporah realizes what God is after and abruptly circumcises her son, bitterly exclaiming that Moses is a husband of blood. She knew! She knew what God was after. And the question is how she would have known. How did Zipporah find out in the confusion of that desperate moment that was what God wanted?
Because in the past she must have objected to Moses’ Hebrew rather than Egyptian identity. And we must assume that she did not want the reproach of God’s enslaved people. She was disgusted at it and by it. And Moses must have listened to his wife, the way Adam did, the way Abraham did, forgetting the past, the covenant, God’s righteous demands.
But the future needs to factor into understanding this enigmatic episode as well. The future is what God plans to do: to rescue his consecrated people, those who have a covenant relationship with him, the circumcised children of Israel. And the Lord’s purposes for his people involve the punishment of Pharaoh. The climactic plague is the one that sets up the Passover, that festival of identity which Christians still maintain in the Lord’s Supper. And it is the one in which God purposed to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn, his best, and the best and first of all the land, to show him the enormity of what he is doing by enslaving God’s own firstborn and keeping him from service to God.
And so Moses’ own firstborn must identify with God’s covenant and God’s people, must be circumcised, must be consecrated with blood to the Lord. “You are a husband of blood!” Zipporah exclaims, because she knows God’s requirements, though she does not understand their saving, precious meaning. Moses could not be about God’s business without acknowledging the rituals God intended as vehicles toward that precious, all-important meaning: the great and ultimate meaning which is found in Christ, in his blood, in his consecration, in our union to him by faith, and in the circumcision of our hearts which sets them apart for his service.
Exodus 6:5 And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.
Here the question is, how can God remember?
Does God forget? Did God not think of his covenant for 400 years? That is not possible.
Does he have too many things to do? I used to think that when I was a kid. That God had a bunch of things to do, obviously, and so there were things he didn’t concentrate on. Of course, nothing was ever neglected, but many things were deliberately put aside while other projects were undertaken. I used to think, in other words, that God had a series of really accurate internal alarm clocks.
But that is untrained and ill-conceived theology. Many of God’s attributes are violated by that notion of God’s being and activity. So that is not the way to understand it.
When it says that God remembers, it does not mean that God forgot. It is impossible for God to forget the slightest thing—that we know! Theology guiding us, then, we have to say that Moses is talking to us in language of accommodation. We have to understand that language the way Calvin understands the expression El Shaddai—not as literal but metaphorical. He is saying things that do not mean quite as we might naturally take it, because he is talking about something that goes beyond our experience.
It has to do with God’s eternity. God is not limited by time like we are. God’s eternity certainly means that he is everlasting, but it also means that he has no past and no future. We are limited to a slice of time called present, with the past irrecoverably gone and the future constantly out of reach. God is not so limited; his eternity is an eternal, unlimited present. God does not remember because he has no past from which to fetch his memories.
When God, then, tells us he remembered, it is something to do with us. It means that it looks to us like he remembered. It is language of accommodation. It is speaking of God’s eternal purpose to save his people. It is speaking of God’s eternal activity of deliverance – in its totality—manifested partially and progressively in time. In other words, it means it didn’t look to us like God was doing anything before, and now it looks to us like he is – we are aware of his saving activity from our limited perspective. That is what it means that God remembers.
There is a lot of theology in that. And it is there because God expects us to interpret, to think, to meditate, to study and understand these things: this is how God reveals himself, not just in obvious statements, but in more difficult expressions that require reflection and the coordination of what we know to evaluate our interpretive possibilities. What do we learn?