Pharaoh: Hard Hearted



“Pharaoh: Hard Hearted” by Rosanna McFadden


I am Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, King of de Nile, and yes, I’m a . . . god.  Were you expecting something else?  Of course, I wasn’t born a god, but my grandfather who founded our dynasty declared himself one, and so did my father.  When you become Pharaoh you get to wear the striped hat and be a god.  That’s how we roll in my family.

These are busy times in Egypt.  It’s Infrastructure Decade, so were in the middle of a lot of projects.  A lot of public works building going up.  Nah, just kidding.  They’re tombs for rich guys like me — I’m taking a lot of stuff into the afterlife.  My engineers have come up with a new building design — wide at the bottom and coming to a point at the top.  I’m not sure what we’re going to call them: Triangulars?  Quadagons? Pyramids?  They’re pretty cool, but they take a lot of bricks and a lot of labor.  Fortunately we have these immigrant Hebrews whom we have enslaved.  OK they’ve been here for 400 years, but they aren’t Egyptians, so they don’t have any rights. They’re strong — maybe a little too strong.  My dad was pretty worried about the Hebrew boys, in particular.  I think we’ve got that settled, and we’re working them hard making bricks out of mud and straw.

So I got word that two guys wanted an audience with me — a couple of old Hebrews, by the look of them.  They were dressed like herdsman; straight out of the backcountry. One of the guys looked kind of familiar, but I just couldn’t place him.  And then they introduced themselves as Moses and his brother Aaron.  Wait a minute — I knew a guy named Moses; a long time ago.  There was a kid at the palace — one of my aunt’s sons.  Moses — that’s a name you don’t hear every day.    Moses . . . he was what, 10 years older than me?  I haven’t heard that name in 50 years.  He was kind of a hothead, if I remember right.  Something about taking a chariot for a joy ride, and then later, he just disappeared, and we never saw him again.  I wonder message they could have for me.

And Moses said, Let my people go.

And he said it just like that — wimpy, like he wasn’t sure what he was doing.  And then I knew it was the same guy.  Moses was not aa good speaker.  So Moses had gone native. Interesting.  We had always wondered if he was a Hebrew, but of course, that’s not the kind of thing you ask, especially given the way my father felt about Hebrew boys.  Whew, he had not aged well.  Big white beard, weather-beaten face.  He looked like he’d been living in a tent for the past 50 years.  I had no sympathy for him at all.

Let’s get something straight: these are not your people; they’re my people.  I own these people.  If they’re your people, where have you been for the past 50 years?  If they’re your people, why aren’t you out there making bricks with them?  I am not letting anybody go.  Get out of here.

I then I told the overseers: there are a couple old guys stirring up trouble among the Hebrews.  We have to shut that mess down now.  You’re going to work those lazy Hebrews even harder: from now on, they have to find their own straw to make bricks: we are not sacrificing production: same quota of bricks, they just have to get their own straw now.  Got it?

A couple weeks go by, and Moses and Aaron come back and say, Let my people go.

Apparently I have laid too much of a burden on their backs.  These Hebrews want to take the people out to worship their God in the wilderness.  I see . . . kind of a festival to worship a God I’ve never heard of and whose name you can’t say.   I’d let the people go out for a long weekend of singing and dancing. It would be a nice break for them, and in the meantime, my bricks will just make themselves.   Hahahah.   No.

And them Moses tried to impress me with the snake trick.  He threw down his staff and it turned into a snake.  My magicians can do the snake trick: they threw down their staffs, which turned into snakes.  Moses’ snake ate the other snakes, which was a new twist, but still, it’s gonna take more than a snake to impress me.  So then Moses picks up his snake — staff, whatever, and walks out of the palace to the Nile River, strikes it with his staff, and it turns to blood.  For a week.  Of course, all the fish died and washed up on the banks and rotted and it stench was incredible, but my magicians turned the river back into water.

And then there were frogs, and gnats, and flies — which are big gnats.  And there was a disease which killed the livestock — just the Egyptian livestock.  And then Moses threw some ashes into the air which became dust that caused festering boils.  And yes, festering boils are just as uncomfortable as they sound.  And after every plague, Moses and Aaron came to me and said, Let my people go.  And I said, Read my lips: No.  No no no no.

And then there was a storm with thunder and lightning and hail which killed our early crops of flax and barley.  Clothing and food.  And Moses and Aaron came and said Let my people go.  And I said, you know, I was wrong.  You’re right — take your people and go.  Not.  Nobody’s going anywhere.

And then there was a plague of locusts which killed that late crops of wheat and spelt.  I do love a good bowl of spelt.  So when Aaron and Moses said Let my people go.  I said, here’s the deal: I will let some of your people go.  The men can go, but the women and children and all the flocks stay here.  But then I changed my mind: who’s going to build my triangulars if the men are gone?  No.

And then it was dark for three days.  Dark as night — no work getting done on any of my projects.  Moses and Aaron show up again with their Let my people go and I relented.  Go, worship your God.  All of you — men, women and children.  Just leave the animals here.  Nothing with hooves leaves Egypt.  Got it?  Oh, and one more thing Moses: if you show your face here again, you’re dead.  Got that?  He did.  But I changed my mind again.  They’re not going anywhere.

I knew those Hebrews were up to something, but I didn’t know what.  Lambs being slaughtered, preparations being made.  But what could they do while I was still the god of Egypt.  I found out at midnight.  A terrible cry went up from all over Egypt: our firstborn were dead.  Animals and people — our sons.  Including my son, the next god of Egypt.  I summoned Moses and Aaron and said, Get out of here.  All of you.  Take your women and children and all your animals and get out.  Go worship your God.  Ask a blessing for me.

And they left.  600,000 of them.  Gone.  They will never work for me again.  I wonder if there’s still time to hunt them down and kill them.


Pharoah is our latest jerk of the Bible — thanks for your help in telling his story.   I need to come clean about some stuff you just heard: some historical liberties I took with the story.  The Bible doesn’t tell us which Pharoah he was, but likely Ramses III.  We also don’t know if Pharoah knew Moses from Moses’ time at the Egyptian palace, but it’s an interesting possibility: Moses was there from infancy to adulthood.  We do know that Moses was 80 and his older brother Aaron was 83 when they came back to confront Pharaoh.   The Bible tells us that slaves made bricks and were labor for Egyptian building projects, but archaeologists do not think that triangulars — I guess they call them pyramids now — were built with slave labor.  I just had to get that off my chest for anyone who is fact-checking.

Tomorrow, as you know, is Valentine’s Day, and there is a LOT in these chapters of Exodus about hearts — specifically Pharoah’s heart.  Most of it is not good.  In fact, Moses, who is not eager to confront Pharoah in the first place, is given a nearly impossible assignment.  Here’s what God tells Moses in Exodus chapter 7:

You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.’

In other words, I’m going to tell you what to say to Pharoah, but I’m going to be sure that he doesn’t listen to you.  The phrase which is used over and over is, “I {God} will harden Pharoah’s heart” or “Pharoah hardened his heart.”  You don’t have to be a cardiologist to know that a hard heart is not a good thing.  Hardened arteries, a heart muscle which is stiff instead of flexible, these all spell trouble.  Of course, the Bible is not talking about Pharoah’s heart disease — if only he’d gone easier on the spelt — the Bible is talking about Pharoah’s capacity for compassion.

Clearly, Pharoah is a jerk.  First of all, he thinks he’s a god, which is a major foul.  He relies on, and thinks he’s entitled to, the labor of enslaved people.  We should not be too smug about this — Americans have their own complicated history with slavery.  It’s no coincidence that the Exodus story has had so much resonance and meaning for enslaved people and their descendants.  The Hebrews were not captured on another continent and brought to Egypt as slaves — they had been in Egypt for over 400 years, since Jacob’s son Joseph was taken there.  There were not individual slave owners who owned and sold individual Hebrews and their offspring, there was an entire ethnic group who were systematically oppressed and stripped of their rights: including the right of their infant boys to live.  This is different than American slavery for sure, but there is no “better” kind of slavery.  No building project could justify what Pharoah was doing. Pharoah is a jerk.

And yet, in the process of reading and re-reading these chapters of Exodus, I catch the occasional sympathetic glimpse of this guy.  As soon as Egypt is hit with the second plague, the plague of frogs in chapter 8, Pharoah is willing to let the people go — at least to go far enough to worship their God. It may be only because of the inconvenience or economic loss caused by the frogs, the death of livestock, or whatever, but Pharoah consents to letting the people, or at least some of the people, go. Pharoah has genuinely not heard of the God of the Hebrews — the laws of the Jewish faith have not yet been communicated to Moses, and the Jewish nation comes after the people reach the promised land.  But this God of the Hebrews is pulling all the strings — including Pharoah’s heartstrings.  It is God who hardens Pharoah’s heart so that Pharoah changes his mind.  We’re told right up front that God is going to do this so that the Egyptians will know that God is the Lord: a worthy project, but too bad for the Egyptians, who lose crops and livestock and children in the process.  The children of Israel, who have also seen God’s activity in Egypt, are going to need a lot of reminding about who is Lord, when they’re out wandering around in the wilderness being stiff-necked and whiney.  I can understand why Pharoah doesn’t get it right away — especially when he has so much to lose by letting the people go.

Here is the moment when I almost feel sorry for Pharoah: it’s in Chapter 12: 31-32; the Angel of Death has just passed over the Hebrews, and has killed the firstborn of the Egyptians, including Pharoah’s son.  Pharoah calls in Moses and Aaron and says:  ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’  I’m haunted by that last request for a blessing.  Even a jerk can be devastated by the untimely death of a child. Could it be that jerks can even be aware of the need of God’s blessing?  Maybe jerks are in special need of God’s blessing.  We don’t know if anyone brought a blessing for Pharoah: we do know that his heart hardened one last time; he sent his army to pursue the Hebrews, and the Egyptian army with its chariots and horses and riders were all drowned in the Red Sea.

I’d hope that one of our prayers for Valentine’s Day, and one lesson we could learn from Pharoah is to soften our hearts.  Take away the pride that keeps holding a grudge and refuses to relinquish or forgive: that kind of a hard heart will damage us just as surely as arterial blockage.  The damage may be unseen, it may happen gradually, but we cannot reverse the damage which has been done to ourselves and others by years of not exercising compassion.  A steady diet of grievance and resentment is the junk food of toxic relationships which will harden our hearts.  Forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude are what softens and strengthens our hearts.  If we begin by forgiving the people close to us, we may someday reach the goal which Jesus set of forgiving our enemies.  It’s a high bar.

We all need blessing — even when we are jerks.  Each one of us has the opportunity to soften our hearts and extend blessing to someone else — even though we can still be jerks.  Share that blessing through an offering of service, an encouraging word, or a random act of kindness.  Remember that God loves us, even when we are in need of forgiveness, and we always have the opportunity to forgive others. Our jerk for next week is Esau.  He and his twin brother Jacob were quite a pair.  You can read their story in Genesis.