Chapter 7 begins with Moses showing Pharaoh a sign, the turning of his staff into a serpent (not a snake). The same word is used here as in Genesis 1:21 for the big sea serpents that God makes on the fifth day of creation.
It is interesting to me that the Lord says to Moses that he will make him “like God” to Pharaoh, while in reality we have seen that Moses is quite human. Perhaps there is a lesson for Christian leaders in this. When God uses us in amazing ways we need to stay humble and remember that in reality we are very human indeed.
Then in these chapters, we have the story of the ten plagues God sent upon Egypt, not (as Richard Elliott Friedman points out) to punish the Egyptians, but rather as a sign by which YHWH will become known. (See Exodus 9:16.) The ten plagues are:
- Death of livestock
- Darkness for three days
- Death of the firstborn
Despite the very serious nature of this story, there are some moments of comic relief. For example, the Egyptian magicians duplicate the miracle/plague of turning the water in the Nile to blood. But how stupid of them to do so! Why would anyone want to make the plague in their own land worse? I imagine that this slam upon the intelligence of the Egyptians was not lost on the first Israelite audience for this story. The whole point seems to be that the Egyptians are foolish (10:2).
Some of Pharaoh’s responses to Moses I also find comic. For instance, Pharaoh’s request for prayer from Moses when he has, in fact, denied Moses’ request in Exodus 8:28. Then there is the picture of the Egyptian officials hurrying to bring their livestock under cover in 9:20. I also like the line from Pharaoh’s officials in 10:7.... “How long shall this fellow be a snare to us? Let the people go already! Don’t you get it Pharaoh? The land is ruined!” (WJV translation) Then we have Pharaoh asking for forgiveness “just this once” in 10:17.
However, underneath the comic touches we have a very serious thing going on. That serious thing is not simply the plagues, but the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We are told, alternately, that Pharaoh hardened his heart and that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. So which is it?
I think the answer is both. God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened by letting Pharaoh have his way. Fortunately or unfortunately that seems to be what God does with us when we insist on having our own way. He has given us freedom to choose to come to him, love him, and follow his ways… or not. God never goes back on his decision to give us free choice.
The C. S. Lewis quote in this section makes the point that even seeing a miracle is not enough to convince some people to follow God. If our intellectual presupposition is that miracles do not and cannot occur, then we will always find a path to explain away any purported miracle. As Lewis says, seeing does not always mean believing. The story of the dwarfs, in Lewis’ The Last Battle, is an example of this. They walk through a stable door into Aslan’s beautiful new Narnia, but instead of thinking they are in lovely countryside, the dwarfs think they are in a dark stable. They are so afraid of being taken in, of buying into false “pie in the sky” theology, that even Aslan cannot take them out of their delusion.
Again, whether or not we see spiritual reality depends upon our own free choice. Plague or health, dark stable or sunlit countryside, hell or heaven: we choose.