Why Did Pharaoh Hold Out So Long? (Exodus 7-11)
Reading Exodus I find it astonishing that it took ten plagues to settle the matter. You’d think only one or two would be evidence enough for Pharaoh that he was outmatched and dealing with a dangerous enemy far beyond his power. If I had been in Pharaoh’s place then I would have buckled much sooner. I liked to think that in that case there would have been much less suffering for all involved. But of course it is impossible for me to put myself in Pharaoh’s shoes. There is a gulf of over three thousand years between us; his was a cultural context completely alien to mine and I can’t even begin to imagine the influence that the divine pretensions of Egypt’s rulers would have had on him and his decision-making.
Why did it take ten plagues before Pharaoh gave in? I can think of seven reasons, six related to Pharaoh himself and one concerned with God. Firstly the six reasons connected to Pharaoh:
Pharaoh didn’t even know who God was. He had never heard of ‘Yahweh’ when Moses name-dropped Him at their first encounter. He could be forgiven for doubting the power or authority of a deity he had never even heard of. God’s fame was not nearly so universal then as it is now – in polytheistic pagan cultures like Egypt and Mesopotamia He would have been listed merely as one of many gods, or perhaps not counted at all. It was only a small, peculiar tribe in the Levant that knew and followed this God. Pharaoh’s doubt led him to underestimate God in a way that many do even today. When you don’t know God you don’t rate Him. A couple of plagues, however, and this reason evaporates.
Once Pharaoh knew he was dealing with a real and powerful God doubt gave way to pride. He thought he could go toe to toe with God, such was his inflated view of his own power and importance. If Pharaoh thought he was a god, as vividly expressed in Ridley Scott’s film Exodus, then maybe he saw this as a personal contest, a trial of strength between two deities. Waters turned to blood, frogs everywhere? That’s not such a big deal. These first two plagues might have demonstrated God’s existence to Pharaoh but they didn’t convince him of His power. Why, his own magicians could do similar things – replicating both the plague of blood (7:22) and the plague of frogs (8:7). To be sure there are other powers in this world capable of doing remarkable things, powers that will mislead and seduce the unwary, but God is unlike any other and His power prevails. The forces of evil could only keep the pace for two plagues – from plague three onwards God was untouchable (8:19).
When Pharaoh saw that he couldn’t match God blow for blow he resorted to guile and negotiation. He tried to fob God off with cheap concessions and half measures. Pharaoh knew he had to concede something in this rapidly escalating crisis, but he didn’t want to go the whole way. So he found ways of appearing to co-operate whilst at the same time hanging on to his precious slaves for as long as possible. First he offered to let them go temporarily – but they must come back. Then only the men could go – the women and children surely weren’t needed? Then, you can go but you can’t take all your possessions. It took many more plagues to show Pharaoh that God wasn’t interested in such feeble gestures. God doesn’t do half measures. You either obey or you don’t. Ultimately, Pharaoh didn’t, and he paid the price.
Where compromise didn’t work Pharaoh resorted to conniving. He led Moses on with promises of compliance only to go back on his word once the danger had passed. During the plagues of flies and of hail, Pharaoh made cheap promises to let the Israelites go and then went back on his word once the plagues were removed. The plagues were bad, sure, but they seemed to be transitory. Perhaps he was beginning to think that the plagues were just something he had to get through? Which leads us on to…
…Did he think he could just weather the storm? It’s staggering what humans can endure when they have to, and Pharaoh is an outstanding example, although in fairness he was far better off than the ordinary people of Egypt. Others, even his own officials, were struggling to endure, but Pharaoh seemed to think that if he could just hold on he could ride out the storm.
And then there’s just plain stubbornness, good old-fashioned pride. Pharaoh just didn’t want to give in. His pride would not allow him to back down and his greed would not allow him to let go. Even his own officials were capitulating around him by the end, but not Pharaoh. He would tough it out. How much misery are we willing to through for the sake of our own pride, just for the sake of not having to admit that we’re wrong and that we need God?
7. God’s Will
Those six reasons all relate to Pharaoh. I still marvel that he managed to endure ten plagues before giving in but that’s because these six reasons alone don’t explain it. The seventh and most important reason is to do with God. The simple but oft-overlooked truth is that God always intended to unleash ten plagues. His express aim was to reveal the full extent of His power and mighty hand, to spread His fame and show His glory. What if Pharaoh had given in earlier, said after one plague that the Israelites could go, no conditions and no strings attached? My belief is that the full scenario would still have played out. It was meant to be this way.
The Ten Plagues of Egypt are legendary and gave both the Israelites and their enemies a full appreciation of who God was. The Israelites so they would honour Him and trust Him as their Lord; their enemies so that they would leave the Israelites alone, for fear of their protector. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament the Israelites recalled the manner of their rescue from Egypt with awe and wonder. God’s actions in the Exodus left a lasting impression that provided the basis for His relationship with His people for generations to come. One plague and a quiet slinking off would not have achieved the same effect. This was God announcing Himself on the world stage to nations that had entirely forgotten their creator. Such an announcement could only come with great signs and wonders. Unmistakeable, and unforgettable.
This is why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Seven times we’re told that this is the case, and it came in both future and past tense to show that this hardening was intentional and premeditated. But Pharaoh wasn’t an unwitting tool of outside purposes. He aided and abetted them by playing his part to the full. Seven times it says he hardened his own heart – one for every time that his heart was hardened by God. Although God’s purpose was at work Pharaoh must take full responsibility for his actions and the consequences. Pharaoh hardened his own heart deliberately but also subconsciously as a result of his own decisions. Hearts do not become hard suddenly or all in one go. They harden and build up layers of resistance over long years, a process of accumulation and calcification from countless bad decisions.
That’s still true today, and so we must beware hard hearts. Rightly does Solomon say
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)
To take away:
What state is your heart in at the moment? Take some time to pray this through thoroughly, because hearts can sometimes become hardened without us even realising…