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Pharaoh's Hard Heart in Exodus 7

Don’t be on God’s bad side.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 7:1-13

What an amazing exchange! The plagues have captured imagination for generations (don’t get to Passover; that’s next week). We see God’s power in unmistakable ways, but we also see Pharaoh defiantly resist God. We should be emboldened to serve God and terrified to think of what will happen to those who deny Him.

they did just as the Lord commanded them. (7:6)

[This is a church teacher resource that has been retroactively edited for the web.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Overcoming Limitations. Moses may have had a stutter, making him very insecure in large public settings. Later in life, even without Aaron’s help, he was able to lead the entire nation. There are lots of examples of that in history—your group members probably know a few. Here are some that I found: (1) Albert Einstein. His mind was too abstract for his reality, and he had a hard time coping with school and menial work. He stuck to it and eventually found his niche. (2) Bethany Hamilton (the soul surfer). When she was 13, a shark bit off her arm. She learned how to surf with new balance and eventually became a national champion surfer. (3) Benjamin Franklin. Would you believe that his family was too poor to send him to school after he turned 10? That didn’t stop him from learning on his own and becoming, you know, Benjamin Franklin. (4) Richard Branson. He has dyslexia. Did terrible in school. Had to make his fortune by blazing his own trail. (5) Vincent Van Gogh. Would you believe that he only sold 1 painting his entire life? He had his own way of looking at the world, and no one understood it. (6) Franklin Roosevelt. One of my favorite stories of perseverance—FDR contracted polio at 39, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. That, of course, did not stop him from leading the free world against the Nazis.

Apollo 13. I saw this illustration in the Quicksource, and I really like it. You remember that Apollo 13 had a failed respirator, and the guys on the ground had to invent one from the materials they knew were in the space capsule. Then, in short bursts of radio transmission, they had to tell the astronauts how to build this contraption. And there was no vide either direction. Have you ever been given instructions to do something that were not as complete as you would have liked? Did it make a difference if you knew the person giving the instructions? Basically, that’s how Moses and the entire Israeli people had to approach these commands from God. They did not have the big picture, and they could not understand everything God wanted them to do. How would you have acted in their situation?

Stubborn vs. Self-Destructive. Pharaoh is one of the great tragic figures from all of literary history. His behavior has been used as a warning to lots of situations. But we have plenty of other examples: Captain Ahab (Moby Dick), Denethor (Lord of the Rings), Othello (Othello), the main character in Raging Bull, the main character in The Wolf of Wall Street, Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones. They are painted as tragic figures, whose stubbornness, insecurity, addictions, or mental illness prevents them from stopping their course of action before it destroys them. I see this as a very serious topic for serious reflection. Ask your group: We applaud people for standing their ground, but at what point does “dogged determination” become self-destructive? How can we know if we’re ever on such a path, and how can we help a friend we see on such a path? The point of those literary examples is that they couldn’t be stopped; they were destroyed by their behavior. May that not be us!


Who Was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

If you want to make a historian fidget, ask them a question like this. There are so many unknowns and so many more debates. This is question is both affected by and also affects the debate of the date of the Exodus itself. Last week, I gave you two common dates. The “early date” is rooted in 1 Kings 6:1, in which the Exodus is said to have happened 480 years before the building of the Temple. Many biblical scholars put the reign of Solomon between 970-930 BC, putting the Exodus around 1446. The biblical evidence drips for this early date. The name “Moses” could easily be a double-meaning tribute to any of those Thutmose rulers. Thutmose III, in particular, led Egypt to its greatest size (in terms of land mass) and conducted more military campaigns than most pharaohs, and would be a perfect candidate for our infamous Pharaoh. (Incidentally, historians all recognize that his firstborn son, Amenemhat, died while young.) His successor is also a possibility, ruling over a vast empire, but was known to be more peaceful (his firstborn son also died under unknown circumstances). (Note that I put the wrong pharaoh on last week’s handout. Silly mistake and sorry about that!)

Partial List of Pharaohs

Disarray:           1802-1550 BC

Ahmose I:         ~1550-1525

Amenhotep I:  1541-1520

Thutmose I:       1520-1492

Thutmose II:      1492-1479

Hatsheput:        1479-1458

Thutmose III*: 1458-1425

Amenhotep II: 1425-1400

Thutmose IV:   1400-1390

Amenhotep III*: 1390-1352

Ahkenaten*:     1352-1334

Tutankhamun: 1333-1324

Rameses II*:      1279-1213


I starred Amenhotep III and Ahkenaten out of curiosity. Amenhotep led Egypt to its period of greatest wealth and may have built more monuments than any other pharaoh. Ahkenaten was Egypt’s only monotheist pharaoh. His religion was wiped from history soon after his death. Some Christians have tried to make something of them both, but I don’t see how they intersect the Bible story in any way.

I said last week that the historical evidence favors a later date. Archeological evidence in Canaan is slim for significant military activity before 1300 BC. (But you might remember when we went through Joshua that I said there was indeed evidence for the destruction of Jericho around 1400.) Most importantly is the reference in Exodus 1:11 to a storehouse built at “Rameses”, a name not used before 1292 BC. Rameses II is known as “The Great” among all the pharaohs, leading scholars to make him the pharaoh of the Exodus. (Note that “Rameses” is almost always the name used in Exodus-related movies.)

I favor 1446 as the date for the Exodus. It lines up with the traditional date for Solomon’s reign and puts a very likely Thutmose III on the throne. Some scholars have argued that the name “Rameses” was added by a later editor of the Torah. That makes sense in that Rameses II ran campaigns in Canaan during the time of the Judges, so people would have been familiar with him. I’m okay with that—Rameses’s name was also added to Genesis 47:11, hundreds of years before the Exodus. And as I said last week, the archeological evidence is not conclusive; it just favors the late date. So I’ll stick with the traditional early date.


Where We Are in Exodus

Moses and Aaron went back to Egypt and reported to the elders what God sent them to do. The Israelites were ecstatic. But then not only did Pharaoh reject, he made life harder for the Israelite slaves. Moses went into a serious crisis of self-doubt. That establishes the pattern for this section of Exodus: God sends Moses to Pharaoh, Pharaoh refuses to listen. Again, the Bible Project videos do a great job of explaining the monstrosity that is Pharaoh. Our passage explains one of those cycles. If you want to, reserve some time at the end of the lesson to run through the list of the plagues: (1) water to blood, (2) frogs, (3) gnats, (4) flies, (5) death of livestock, (6) boils, (7) hail, (8) locusts, (9) darkness, (10) death of firstborn. Pharaoh’s magicians can replicate the first two, but no more. Pharaoh’s heart gets irrationally harder with each plague. God protects the Israelites through each plague. And each plague knocks off a successive Egyptian deity.


Part 1: Strategy Explained (7:1-5)

The Lord answered Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet. You must say whatever I command you; then Aaron your brother must declare it to Pharaoh so that he will let the Israelites go from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not listen to you, but I will put my hand into Egypt and bring the military divisions of my people the Israelites out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the Israelites from among them.”

This passage sounds a lot like the commission we read back in chapter 4. I take from this that God is still showing compassion and encouragement to worry-wart Moses. That says a lot to me about both God and Moses (and continues to foreshadow the problems we will find in the rest of the book). Here are some differences: (1) Moses will now be like God to Pharaoh instead of Aaron. While this sounds really strange in a Christian’s ears, it’s really no different than saying “I need to be like Jesus to my neighbor.” In the context of God the Father, this means speaking with authority and acting in power. But . . . (2) Now, instead of being Moses’ “mouth” Aaron will be Moses’ “prophet”. What exactly does that mean in view of the previous statement? I think it means that Moses will be the physical representative of God—when Moses lifts his hands, the plagues come; when Moses enters the room, the dialog begins. Aaron might be the speaker, but Moses will be seen as the actor. (3) Instead of speaking to the Israelites, they will now speak to Pharaoh. Considering how poorly things had gone already, this probably stuck out to Moses in ominous fashion.

But it was all part of God’s plan. To us, it looks like God was luring Pharaoh into a trap. Why would He do that? Why wouldn’t He just squash Pharaoh? Because the Israelites didn’t need to adopt a new patron deity—they needed to know that all of these other deities were false, nonexistent, and worthless. If Pharaoh caved too quickly, the Israelites would only get part of the story. And in truth, the most important plague was the death of the firstborn because that would be the illustration for Jesus (but more on that next week! Don’t talk Passover yet!).


That explains why God would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart was already set against God; he was an enemy of God. But even someone with a hard heart would eventually reach a breaking point and see that his behavior was impossibly self-destructive. God’s intervention would keep Pharaoh on his evil course for God’s own glorious purposes (see Romans 9!).

My guess is someone will ask a question like this: “Is it fair that God would ‘force’ Pharaoh’s free will on him and not give a chance to change his mind?” Good question. If you read Romans 9, you will see Paul’s answer: “Fair is the wrong word—nothing about life is ‘fair’ because every person is different (different attributes and advantages/disadvantages). We must trust that God’s purposes for each person are right.” You easily illustrate this by then asking, “Is it fair that we were born in America and not North Korea?”

In this case, we learn that the purpose for Pharaoh’s actions is to show His signs and wonders to Pharaoh, and thus to all of Egypt. Set it up like this (from my beloved Serendipity Bible): “Why did God send plagues on Egypt?

[] To make life miserable for the idolatrous Egyptians;

[] to force Pharaoh to free His people;

[] to demonstrate His power to the Egyptians;

[] to demonstrate His power to the Israelites.”

There’s truth in each. Egypt would know that God was the Lord when these wonders came upon them. (Note that some historians think this has to do with Ahkenaten becoming Egypt’s only monotheist a century later; the problem with that is his god “Aten” was nothing like Yahweh.) End this section with this question: “Would signs and wonders make people believe in God today?” When you talk to missionaries, you will hear that there are places around the world where God still performs wonders, and the people respond. I really don’t think that miracles would make a difference in the western world. The people around us would find a way to discount it, or ignore it, and then forget about it. And so God does act like this here today.


Aside: Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

This is always the great debate surrounding Pharaoh: if God hardened his heart, can we really blame Pharaoh for his actions? Shouldn’t we blame God? If you watched the Bible Project videos on Exodus that I sent out last week, you saw a very good explanation of what’s going on here. Pharaoh hardened his own heart against the Hebrews (some combination of pride, arrogance, stubbornness, and delusion). God knew that he would do that, but still offered legitimate chances for Pharaoh to change his mind. After a certain point (halfway through the plagues), God then reinforced Pharaoh’s decision so that the tragic end of self-destruction would become evident to everyone, even Pharaoh’s advisors. So one the one hand, yes, as Paul said in Romans 9, Pharaoh was a tool by which God accomplished His purposes (to Pharaoh’s eternal destruction). But on the other hand, Pharaoh was a willing tool for his own destruction. God did not make Pharaoh do anything he would not have otherwise done. You might say that God did not violate Pharaoh’s free will in this matter. And that’s really the question, which is why I brought up the examples of self-destructive characters. We can’t understand how Pharaoh could be so wrong, but we have plenty of examples of people who have followed similar courses to the same end.


Part 2: Simple Obedience (7:6-7)

So Moses and Aaron did this; they did just as the Lord commanded them. Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.

The repetition is found in the Hebrew; it’s there to stress the action. The date is there not simply to bag on how old they were. Yes, they were old. It’s more to show a contrast with the first 40 years of Moses’ life, spent in the palace, receiving top education and training. The next 40 years were spent in the desert, doing nothing that would prepare him for this task. But they obeyed.

Share some stories of people who took a major step in their faith journey very late in life. Here are a few to get you thinking. Helen. This woman became a Christian when she turned 60; no one else in her family was; she had already been divorced. Then her son Constantine won the battle to become Emperor of Rome, and through her influence became a Christian and ended all persecution of Christians in the empire. Then, at age 77, Helen went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she used her wealth to build great churches that still stand today. Olga. This princess in Russia was Game of Thrones bad, murdering her enemies and even massacring her rivals at a peace banquet! Then, at age 75, she traveled to Constantinople to win an alliance with the Byzantine Empire. What she found there was Jesus. She brought back a contingent of priests to establish what is now called the Russian Orthodox Church. Importantly, none of that took root during her life—she died thinking she had failed. But her grandson led the great revival that forever changed Russia. Of course, you might be more successful mentioning people a bit more recent. Some celebrities that left Hollywood for Christianity include Chris Tucker, Montell Jordan, Kirk Cameron, Donna Summer (?!). Every seminary boasts a number of students who enrolled for the first time in their late 40s (or older), hearing a call to become a pastor what we would think of as late in life. Surely someone in your group has a story of a friend who, later in life, changed his/her ways and became a follower of Jesus?


Aside: Magic

I really enjoy the television show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us”. They invite magicians to the show to try to fool them with their best tricks (and I’ve seen some amazing tricks). They never reveal anyone’s secrets, but they always make sure to explain that there are no “dark arts” at work. Someone came onstage to do a full séance (really creepy), and explained that none of it was real. They’ve had mind-readers, hypnotic suggestion, mind-control, levitation, you name it. All in full view of a live television close-up. And none of it was “real”. It’s amazing what a master manipulator can do through sleight-of-hand and some well-hidden helpers.

So. What do we make of Jannes and Jambres, Pharaoh’s magicians (2 Tim 3:8), and the “occult practices” they used to imitate God’s wonders? The text does not say, so many Christians have assumed that they were into demonic powers. But what did they do? Turn a staff into a snake, make water appear to be blood, and make frogs appear. (Once we get to the plague of gnats, the magicians can’t keep up anymore.) We are not told the length of time they had to prepare, nor the extent of their trick. I have seen more amazing things than that under the controlled conditions of this tv show, so my inclination is to call them parlor tricksters, taking advantage of human gullibility and maybe some knowledge of chemistry. They absolutely could have been in to what we often call “black magic”, but just about every instance of “black magic” in the world today has been debunked. It seems more likely to me that these guys were just playing really good tricks.


Part 3: Signs and Wonders (7:8-13)

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh tells you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh. It will become a serpent.’” So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord had commanded. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a serpent. But then Pharaoh called the wise men and sorcerers—the magicians of Egypt, and they also did the same thing by their occult practices. Each one threw down his staff, and it became a serpent. But Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs. However, Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said.

Start with a silly question: if something in your hand turned into a snake, what would you do? What happened to Moses’ staff was a miracle; it’s hard to say if what the magicians did was a demonic miracle or just sleight of hand (note: I did a scary search through Youtube for any trick like this and found nothing; always be careful with your internet searches). Why a serpent? Why not something else? I don’t think there’s any deep symbolism here; it’s just something that a staff (which Aaron would have had with him) could look like. Note that the word for snake in chapter 4 when it was Moses’ staff is different; this is a different miracle with Aaron’s staff (some have argued the word means ‘crocodile’!). The little detail of Aaron’s serpent swallowing those of the magicians is quite important; yes, they performed a good trick, but it was just a trick. The word for “occult practices” simply means “secret arts” and is based on a verb meaning “to wrap”.

If you have time to look at the plagues, keep reading. Otherwise, end with a challenge: there are people in some form of slavery all around us—slaves to an addiction, slaves to hopelessness, slaves to sin, you get the picture. We don’t have to wait for God to call us from a burning bush to announce freedom to them! God has called all Christians to take that message and do whatever we can to make it real for the people around us. Think of someone you know who needs a Moses; what will you do this week to help them? You have the power of the Holy Spirit—don’t be afraid! No excuses!

Here are a few comments about the plagues. With the plague of blood, remember that God said the moon would become blood, and we all know that’s about appearance (Joel 2:31). The Nile did not have to become blood literally for this to be true; but its appearance and purity would have to be utterly warped—and that not in a natural way, else Pharaoh could have dismissed it. The point is that God has control over what the Egyptians saw as the source of life and could turn it into death. The plague seems localized; note that Pharaoh did not ask Moses to take the blood away. The word for “frogs” is only found here in the Bible; whatever they were, they were very annoying, even to Pharaoh. The plague of gnats is unique in that is was unannounced by God. In keeping with the earlier comment about “literal”, no one believes that every piece of dust in Egypt became a gnat; that would be unnecessary for it to be absolutely true. This is another obscure word; some scholars think it means “mosquitoes” and others “sand fleas”. It probably does not mean “lice” as in the KJV. The plague of flies is interesting is that in Isaiah 7:18, “Egypt” is symbolized by the common housefly. In other words, God simply took something common and increased it so much as to become a problem. Some scholars think this might refer to the horrifying dog-fly, but a swarm of those would probably kill lots of people (not mentioned here). These first four plagues were just annoying—not deadly (yet). That changes with the fifth plague. Another example of non-literal reading: “all” of the cattle could not have died because there is still cattle later. This could mean “all kinds of cattle” or “so much cattle as to be devastating”. And then the plagues affect people. And I’m out of space. See the back for more.


Questions for Deep Thinking

If you have time, consider asking your group a version of these questions (from the Serendipity Bible):

(1) How do you think Moses and Aaron felt when the magicians duplicated their miracle?

[] surprised,

[] shocked,

[] defeated,

[] afraid,

[] angry.

And then note that they had to go through that feeling twice! Would you have given up?

(2) Who do you identify the most with in this story?

[] Moses—being insecure in my abilities;

[] Aaron—covering up for someone else’s insecurities;

[] Pharaoh—hardened to the truth;

[] the magicians—up to tricks;

[] the Israelites—stuck in a trap.

(3) How can you overcome your feelings of inadequacy in serving God?

[] hope for a miracle,

[] trust God to help me,

[] find an ‘Aaron’ to help me,

[] simply be obedient.


Closing Thoughts: The Ten Plagues of Egypt

A number of scholars have given a parallel between the plagues and the days of creation, which is fine, but I think a better way of looking at these is through Egyptian religion. Egypt believed in many gods who controlled events through the forces of nature. Pharaoh was believed to have direct access to those gods (and possibly by the time of Moses was considered a god himself). The primary gods were Ra—the sun, Horus—the falcon (sky), Isis—the mother, Hathor—the cow, Osiris—the jackal (soil/earth), etc. (Interestingly, there was no god of the Nile.) There were thousands of gods whose form changed over time, so don’t get too hung up on the details! The Exodus is seen as a confrontation between God and Pharaoh (and Egypt’s false religion). God systematically takes out each of Egypt’s primary gods, and Pharaoh is helpless to stop it. In the background of Egypt’s worldview was a confidence that came from predictability. The Nile always flooded the same way. The desert always protected from enemies. But now the Nile becomes unpredictable, and the desert produces foes unforeseen. The Egyptians cannot take comfort in their predictable, benevolent world. The true God is not just greater, He created those things. Hence their emphasis in Gen 1.



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