Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.”
Exodus 8:25 (NRSVCE)
The story of Pharaoh and the plagues is fascinating. Like many ancient cultures, the Egyptians believed that their leader, Pharaoh, was a god. At least, that’s what Pharaoh would have them believe. By raising themselves to the status of deity, leaders put themselves in a social class all by themselves. They could do no wrong and their actions could not be questioned.
Under the literal events in the text, there is a subtle battle going on between Pharaoh (a god, remember) and the God of the Hebrews. It was common for Pharaohs to claim that their deeds, successes, and victories in battle were done by Pharaoh’s “mighty hand.” Throughout the last few chapters, God through Moses and Aaron continues to claim to accomplish these plagues by God’s “mighty hand.” God even has Moses and Aaron “stretch out” their hand with the staff. In each case, this is a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s authority.
The repeated phrase about Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened” can also be interpreted as a challenge to the Egyptian ruler’s claim of being above reproach. According to the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” the ancients believed that in the afterlife their heart would be weighed on a scale to determine if it is heavier than the metaphorical feather that they believed represented what was right and just. The “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart may be interpreted that with each turn it is getting heavier, and thus it is an indictment that the ruler is guilty, even by the Egyptians own religious beliefs, of not doing what is right and just by the Hebrew people that he’s enslaved.
What really struck me as I read today’s chapter was Pharaoh’s struggle. He refuses to let the Hebrews take three days to go into the wilderness and worship God. Then, Pharaoh promises to let the Hebrews go if Moses will pray to relieve Egypt of the plague, and then refuses to keep his promise. Then, Pharaoh promises to let them go but only if they do it on his terms by not going into the wilderness.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that Christ asks me to humbly submit myself to God and to others. In fact, that was posture Jesus exemplified in becoming human and obediently suffering on the cross and sacrificing Himself for all. Following Jesus is about following that example, and humbly putting God and others ahead of myself.
In Pharaoh, I see an individual who is sitting on a throne both literal and metaphorical. Pharaoh is the poster child for pride, self-aggrandizement, and self-deception. He is desperately trying to save face and retain some sense of power and authority, but each time he does he continues to reveal that his pride is actually a weakness and a tragic flaw perpetually exposing the deception he’d created for himself.
As I exit the holiday weekend and enter another week, I find myself meditating on the contrast between Pharaoh and Jesus. I don’t have to look very hard to find ways that my thoughts, words, and actions appear more Pharaoh-like than Christ-like. That’s not the person I want to be. I’m reminded of Saul of Tarsus, the powerful and proud Hebrew who was transformed from Jesus’ most zealous enemy to Jesus’ most zealous follower. In the transformation, Paul discovered that weakness is actually strength:
…but [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.