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The Character of the Hardened Heart
Preparing for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Two Days before Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 114
Old Testament: Exodus 14:1-18
Epistle: Acts 7:9-16
Psalter: Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Old Testament: Genesis 41:53—42:17
Epistle: Acts 7:9-16
Through the waters of oppression and death, Lord God, you led a people into the burning presence of your love. As you fed them in the desert, now feed us with the finest of wheat, that we may know the liberating power of the paschal feast. Amen. (Revised Common Lectionary)
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.’ I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so.
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him; he took six hundred elite chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers” (Exodus 14:1-18).
In the story of the Exodus, we encounter three different sentences concerning the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: Pharaoh hardened his heart. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. God hardened pharaoh’s heart. What are we to make of this? Some are disturbed when they hear that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as if God forced Pharaoh to make a bad decision by which God would punish him. If that is the case, it is certainly concerning, but let’s think through this a little more carefully.
One of the things that Saint Paul says in Romans chapter 1 is that the wrath of God is not God actively punishing people, but rather God giving people what they want. Paul will say that for those who persist in their sin will, at some point be delivered over to their own desires to what they have wanted all along. In other words, God will take his hand of providence and protection off of them to allow them to pursue their own way. God allows them to have what they want.
What I want to suggest in reference to Pharaoh is that God hardening Pharaoh’s heart must be seen in the context of the first two phrases. Pharaoh hardens his heart because he does not want to let go of his slave labor force. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened because he understands the implications for his empire if he allows his slaves to leave. Because Pharaoh persists in resisting what God wants, God also at times hardens Pharaoh’s heart at certain relevant places in order to show God’s glory to Pharaoh. It’s as if God says to Pharaoh, “Okay. You’re going to resist and insist on doing things your own way. Not only am I going to let you have your own way I’m going to help you along.
God does not coerce. God does not force us to sin. God does not want us to rebel; but God will let us have what we want. When things get extreme God may assist us in giving what we want, even though what we not want is not for our best.
PRAYER: Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
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