An Exodus From Our Own Empire

In re-reading the Exodus narrative today, I was reminded of a few things. First, the many great films that have been made about Moses and the Israelites (The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, etc.); the story itself is rich, and cinematic history attests to this. Second, I was struck in particular by the potency of some of the major themes present in the story. In particular, during a week filled with divisive election rhetoric attempting to argue for candidates or parties that are often diametrically opposed to the way of Christ, I think it is worth reflecting on the supremacy of the Lord over and against the supremacy of our own ideologies, philosophies, and power-structures. So while this is not necessarily a film review outright, it is a reflection on a transcendent tale both in film and religious history.

There are two main narrative notes I’d like to focus on: first, God’s usurping of the magicians and their work (8:18, 9:11), and second, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7, 9:12, 9:34, 10:27, and 11:10).

The Usurping of The Magicians

It is critical for us to understand who Pharaoh was, and what he represented, in the ancient world. Elevated above all other power structures of the day, he stood as the pinnacle representative of Egyptian rule, prosperity, and control. This led to a few critical, commonly held beliefs by Egyptians at the time:

  1. That Pharaoh was responsible for maintaining order and justice (maat), resulting in an expectation that chaos and injustice should never infringe upon the Empire.
  2. That Pharaoh’s policies and actions were inherently good and justified given his position (i.e. a godlike figure who defined good and acted on it)

In other words, there was an inherent trust in the Pharaoh’s ability to protect from opposition, to act for the good of the nation, and to display his supremacy over and against any opposing element (natural or manmade). The plagues that arise in Exodus, therefore, pose a real problem for Pharaoh: if he is who the empire and its ideology says he is, then the nation of Egypt should be able to withstand any oppositions under his leadership. The greatness of Egypt must triumph, if the view of the empire is true, and when it does, it will remain inherently ‘good.’

Enter the magicians of Egypt. Serving Pharaoh, their responsibility in this story is to ensure that the narrative of Egypt’s control is maintained; they need to show that, no matter what forces might arise against it, Egypt can triumph through its own power. Initially, they accomplish this goal quite effectively. Before the plagues begin, they mimic Moses’s transforming staff, turning theirs into snakes just as Moses did his (7:8-13). The implication here is that whatever power Moses has, it cannot trump the power of the Egyptian empire; their ideology withstood the first test. This happens again in the first of the plagues brought upon Egypt: they are able to replicate the first plague (the turning of the Nile to blood, 7:14-25), showing that whatever power Moses and his God have, it cannot topple Pharaoh and his own control and power. The same is said for the second plague (frogs, 8:7), and now it seems clear: Pharaoh and his court are able to retain their view of goodness and control against this, and therefore any, opposition.

This starts to change, however. The plagues intensify, and as they do, the magicians are unable to keep up; they cannot replicate the gnats that Moses’s God brings upon the nation (8:18), and they furthermore are unable to prevent themselves from getting boils, ultimately incapable of even standing in opposition to Moses and his God (9:11). Suddenly, the Pharaoh and Egypt have a real problem: they are encountering a power that transcends them. They are experiencing a problem that they alone are unable to solve. No Egyptian magic arts, no philosophy or ideology, is able to triumph over this problem outright. Complete trust in the empire, then, is shown to be flawed, and the views of Pharaoh as the ultimate authority over goodness and justice is brought into question.

Fast-forward to 2020: I look around our current landscape, and in spite of a reported majority of people professing to follow the God of Moses (either in a Christian denomination or within Judaism), I often see an ascription of hope in the ideologies of American politics as the ultimate provider of control, power, and goodness. Indeed, our current president has affirmed that he alone is able to fix the problems that plague our nation (problems here meaning the specific concerns of a particular base, i.e. the economy, immigration, etc.). The same can be said of the president’s current opposer: the viewpoint articulated by both sides implies that their way is the only way towards prosperity, protection, and health. The ‘good’ is defined by a worldly ideology, which means that the given ideology must prevail in order for goodness to exist.

If either group is correct, then this means that choosing any other ideology will spell utter doom for our nation. Political advertisements scream of this – voting for the *fill in the blank* party means you are voting for the only path to prosperity. Indeed, this assumption requires allegiance to a worldly ideology or philosophy, over and against any other, for success in the determined areas of focus. In other words, our political rhetoric does not follow the more nuanced and careful assertion, “This policy is likely to produce the best possible outcome,” acknowledging that something like a global pandemic has the power to disrupt that ideology, but instead, “This policy is the only way to maintain control and goodness over any other opposing force.” By following this assumption, we ascribe a level of control to our presidential candidates (and, more broadly, our political parties) that is akin to the control ascribed to Pharaoh and his empire: we believe that our manmade power and ideology will provide us the order, justice, and goodness we are looking for, and therefore we cannot allow anything to triumph over it. Thus we support our parties fervently, rejecting any evidence that runs contrary to our assertion. We have created alternative gods, and our ballots have become our sacrifices to them; while we may not have “magicians” attempting to prove our ideologies right, we certainly have modern replacements, whether through our social media outlets, our news reports, or otherwise. We have forgotten the point of this portion of the Exodus tale: that our own empires cannot provide us true justice, control, and prosperity, and that there is actually a God who provides these at the expense of those worldly ideologies.

Now, it is important to remember: in the midst of the plagues, God provides Pharaoh and the Egyptians ample opportunity to cede their control; there are ten plagues, each of them escalating in severity, and in the midst of each plague Pharaoh refuses to give up his ideology and submit himself to an alternative (and higher) authority and power, even when evidence runs contrary to his assertions. The text discusses this as the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart,” and an examination of this phrase ought to convict us in the midst of our own political gods.

The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

The repeated refrain of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart has been explored in great depth by Jewish and Christian scholars throughout the centuries. There are a variety of observations made about the source of the heart-hardening (i.e. how much agency does Pharaoh have in the process), and linguistically there is room for a few different conclusions. Regardless, many scholars agree that the phraseology used here is a reference to Egyptian beliefs and constructs. In other words, the text is taking the dominant beliefs about goodness and control and turning them on their heads.

Let’s return briefly to the beliefs the ancient Egyptians held towards Pharaoh. We have already found that, given the empire’s inability to replicate or stop the plagues through their magicians, the notion of their control is disrupted. Now, in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, we learn that the continued commitment to a worldly ideology to define what is ‘good’ will result in destruction.

Now, it is important to remember what Egypt and Pharaoh’s definition of ‘good’ is in the story. Remember what Egypt has done: they have enslaved and oppressed thousands of people in the nation of Israel (Exodus 1-2), denying their essential human dignity and therefore opposing the inherent image of God in them. This empire built itself on bricks of abuse, and it continues to affirm its own justification. The implication is that Egypt defines what is ‘good,’ and that ‘good’ in this instance means making Egypt great, even if it comes at the cost of abusing thousands of lives. God has seen this oppression and heard the cries of the oppressed (Exodus 3), and is now asserting a real authority over Egypt and reminding them of what is truly ‘good.’

Pharaoh’s response, however, is not one of change. He does not recognize his own inability to control and define good as his empire begins to crumble, but instead ‘hardens his heart’ and persists in the pursuit of his, and his nation’s, ideology. A quick contextual examination reveals the power of this Biblical phrasing.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, it was believed that the afterlife contained a judgment scene, depicted in the “Weighing of the Heart” (see image below). In this instance, the heart of the deceased was weighed against the weight of a feather. The feather represents what the Egyptians believed was ‘right’ or ‘good,’ and if a heart turned out to be heavier than the feather, then the person would be devoured by the lion/hippopotamus/crocidile hybrid demon Ammit.

According to many scholars, the biblical text–in discussing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart–is actually referring to this Egyptian belief and implying that Pharaoh’s heart is becoming heavier and heavier; each time that Pharaoh persists in pursuing the ideology of his nation (namely, that Egypt has control, defines justice, and establishes what is good), the text is saying that he is actually condemning himself more and more. By persisting in his oppressive regime (and, more broadly, his definition of what is good over and against all others), he is actually increasing his guilt against true goodness, which is defined and enforced by Israel’s God.

More than this, the ancient Egyptians had expressions that were functional equivalents to the Biblical expression, ‘hard-hearted.’ One of these Egyptian expressions actually praised people for being ‘stouthearted,’ as the phrase implied that one was courageous, resolute, and determined. It is possible, then, that the biblical text here is implying that the trait commonly praised in Egypt (remaining resolute and determined in your support of the nation and its ability to define justice and goodness) is actually exactly what condemns Pharaoh. Since he fervently persists in his affirmation of his own (and his nation’s) control and authority, he is therefore incurring the judgment of the true definer of goodness in Israel’s God.

It seems that Pharaoh’s response can serve as a cautionary tale for us today. In the midst of a political sphere that demands allegiance over and against any other ideologies, we are confronted with the fact that our choices have consequences. The elevation of our own political philosophies, to the degree that we affirm their control and inherent goodness over and against all others, turns us away from the definer and enforcer of true control and goodness in God. In a season full of our own sorts of ‘plagues,’ with racial injustice becoming more exposed, mounting loan debt at multiple levels of society, an economy in shambles, a groaning planet, refugee crises across the globe, and a pandemic that continues to end hundreds of thousands of American lives, we are forced to respond, and the question that persists for us is simple: Will we harden our hearts? Will we continue to double-down on our own ideologies, implying that they alone will bring the control and goodness we are seeking? Or will we submit ourselves to a higher authority, one which reveals itself in the destruction of our worldly ideologies? Will we make an exodus from our own empires and submit ourselves and our ballots to a God that affirms the inherent value of all humans (Gen. 1), that protects and advocates for the weak and the vulnerable and gives them freedom (Lev. 19, Luke 4:18-19, etc.), that mourns with those who mourn (John 11:35, Matthew 5:4, etc.), that does not seek violence and destruction (Matthew 5:38-40), that loves even the enemy (Matthew 5:44)? In an election season where the inadequacies of our dominant political systems are on full display, where will we pledge allegiance? Hosea gives us a clue:

“Assyria will not save us,

We will not ride on horses;

Nor will we say again, ‘Our god,’

To the work of our hands.” (Hosea 14:3).

From our ballot and beyond, in our daily lives, we are faced with a decision to give authority to something. So in our conversations with one another (which will inevitably move beyond this week), we can ask ourselves the real, potent question that Exodus points us to: Who is our god?

For some other practical resources on how to vote as a Christian, see a few of these links below:

How Should Christians Vote? – The Holy Post

How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t – Tim Keller

Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics – Eugene Cho

Reading While Black: African-American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope – Esau McCaulley

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Bruggemann

Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? – John Fea

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