December 31, 2006

Exodus 7-9: God made me do it

Today's reading is Exodus 7-9 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Moses and Aaron's meeting with Pharaoh and the first seven plagues (blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle, boils, and hail).

You knew it was coming. Sooner or later, I was bound to do an essay about the Bible's take on free will vs. determinism. And, given the substance of today's readings, this seems like an ideal time for it. A brief caveat before I start, however: far wiser people than I have been discussing free will vs. determinism for thousands of years and have yet to arrive at a universal answer. I will not reach any conclusions today. Instead, I hope to expose some features of the text and their consequences.

The first thing we need to do in discussing this topic is to define our terms. For my readers not familiar with this debate, "free will" means that people have free choice in their actions, to choose one decision over another. "Determinism," on the other hand, means that our choices and actions are predetermined and we have no real choice in anything, no matter how it seems at the time.

Based on these definitions, today's passage strays firmly into the camp of determinism.

We must note, first of all, that God tells Moses beforehand that He will harden Pharaoh's heart to prevent the Israelites from leaving. (Ex. 4:21, 7:2-3) Pharaoh may truly want to allow the Israelites to leave, but God assures Moses that this will not happen. God intends to have an audience for his miracles and wonders, and the only way He can ensure this is by keeping the Israelites where they are. (Ex. 7:1-5) If Pharaoh gave in to his desires to let the Israelites leave, God would have no reason to perform the ten plagues.

Initially, Pharaoh wasn't too worried about the plagues. After all, his magicians were able to do many of the same things Aaron and Moses did: they turned their staves into snakes (Ex. 7:11-12), they turned water into blood (Ex. 7:22), and they brought forth frogs. (Ex. 8:7) It is only with the plague of lice, the third plague, that they are not able to replicate the miracle and declare that the plague is the work of God. (Ex. 8:18-19) The next time we hear from the magicians, they are as smitten as anyone else by the plague of boils and can no longer face Moses. (Ex. 9:11)

Beginning with the second plague, Pharaoh starts entreating Moses and Aaron to pray for him and his people, promising them that if they remove the plague, he will let them go pray in the desert. He does it during the plague of frogs (Ex. 8:8-10), during the plague of flies (Ex. 8:25-28), and during the plague of hail (Ex. 9:27-28). Each of these three times, Pharaoh promises that if the Moses and Aaron pray for him, he will allow the Israelites to leave to perform their sacrifice in the desert.

You know how this turns out, don't you? Every time Moses prays to God and stops the plague, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to let the Israelites leave. In fact, for every plague, Pharaoh's heart was hardened. What is interesting, however, is who hardened Pharaoh's heart. For most plagues, the text states either that Pharaoh's heart was hard, without saying who hardened it (Ex. 7:13, 7:22, 8:19), or else it says that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Ex. 8:15, 8:32, 9:34). However, with the plague of boils, the text tells us "The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh." (Ex. 9:12, KJV) Here we read specifically that it was not Pharaoh's choice to prevent the people from leaving, but God's. In a very direct way, God took an active part in Pharaoh's mind and made him stubborn.

But what about free will? What about Adam and Eve's choice to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What about Abraham's bargaining with God? What about the choices people have made throughout the Bible? We don't read that God had any hand in those choices, only in this particular decision of Pharaoh's. Pharaoh seems sincere enough when he makes the bargains with Moses and Aaron during the plagues; it is only afterwards that he renegs.

We must conclude, therefore, that God had a particularly special purpose in circumventing man's free will in this occasion. The text tells us, indeed, that this was so. It tells us this in two places, first in Ex. 7:3-5, and later in Ex. 9:16. The second passage reads as follows: "But I have raised you [Pharaoh and the Egyptians] up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." (Ex. 9:16, NIV) To recap: God has done this so that people will know that He is God. This is self-aggrandizing at its most obvious. By saying that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, he implies that he could have softened Pharaoh's heart just as easily. But if he had done this, he would not have had the chance to perform miracles and have the Egyptians worship him. So he sets up the situation to prove how mighty he is.

Usually this sort of behaviour is reserved for particularly whiney CEOs, and is hardly the sort of thing we'd expect to see in the greatest deity in the world. So, free will or determinism? The answer seems to be, "free will, unless God wants a chance to show off."


Russ said...

You wrote: "Usually this sort of behaviour is reserved for particularly whiney CEOs, and is hardly the sort of thing we'd expect to see in the greatest deity in the world."

I see where you are coming from, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I also enjoy your writing style.

May I offer some observations?

God of the Bible, as revealed there, if He exists, is neither "in the world", nor of it. He is not a creation of nature, nor a part of it. As Ultimate Creator, He stands completely outside of the cosmos, outside of nature, and outside of man. He is eternally above and beyond all, except insofar as He decides to come to us, which thankfully He has, and does.

True God is not comparable in any way, shape or form to a "whiny CEO", nor to all CEO's, presidents, kings and intellectuals combined and multiplied by 100. His "behaviour" is not subject to our analysis or critique.

His ways are not our ways, as He has chosen to tell us. In fact, they are always higher than our ways. Therefore, to attempt to analyze Him or His actions is futile and fruitless. We are called to faith in the Supreme Other, whose actions and decisions are, by definition, holy and True.

We can accept or reject Him, and we have the freedom to do either, but we do not have any intellectually legitimate freedom to analyze God of the unverse against our own puny standards, beliefs and biases. To think we could possibly understand and analyze Him in this manner is to know nothing of Him at all.

In addition, to believe He is subject to our will and criticism is to already have rejected Him, revealing our subsequent critiques disingenuous.

I suppose I am saying we would do much better to call the issue what it is - belief and faith, or not belief and faith in the God who has revealed enough for us to know we have that decision to make, so that we can make it.

If we've already made the decision in the negative, isn't it enough to say so, honestly, and move on to more intellectually valid pursuits?

(By the way, in my professional life I have known hundreds of CEO's, both men and women. Some are more impressive than others, and I can't think offhand of one whose demeanor I would characterize as "whiny". I am sure there must be some, but it is unlikely for a weak and whiny man or woman to wind up CEO of a substantial business enterprise.)


Julie said...

Hi Russ,

I admit I may have been a bit harsh in my comparison. I was searching for a snappy way to end the entry, and that was the best one I could come up with on short notice.

As for your main point, I respectfully disagree. Though the issue of faith and belief is obviously an important one, I do not think it is the only way to approach the text. For thousands of years, Jews have been analysing the Bible and trying to figure out why God does as He does. This is, in large part, where the various stories of the Talmud and Midrashim come from.

In short, I don't think it's quite so cut-and-dried as "do I believe in the deity who does this, or don't I?" I believe it is equally valid to ask, "what sort of a God would do a thing like this? If God is the ultimate good, what purpose does this episode serve?"

I have never hid the fact that I am pursuing this project in an attempt to reveal little-known aspects of the Bible both to myself and to my readers. If this is the God we choose to believe in, we should know as much about Him and His actions as possible.