I have debated with several atheists regarding the morality of God. These debates inevitably focus on events described in the Old Testament. This blog will be the first in a series commenting on typical Old Testament scripture cited when atheists are railing the alleged immorality of God. The first Old Testament scripture I would like to dig into is found in the book of Exodus, and is regarding the final plague against Pharaoh, and the people of Egypt – death of the first-born child.
In this book of he Bible God speaks to Moses, and gives him instructions to go to Pharaoh with his brother Aaron with a plea to let the Israelites leave Egypt to go into the wilderness, so they might worship God. Gd directs Moses to give Pharaoh an ultimatum with each refusal from Pharaoh yielding an increasingly worse plague set forth by God. The tenth and final plague involves the death of the firstborn child of every Egyptian. Admittedly killing children is shocking enough, but the piece that really hangs folks up is the mentions of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, which, at face value, is oftentimes interpreted as God purposefully precluding Pharaoh from letting the Israelites go. Further, this then inevitably invokes the notion at God wanted to kill he firstborn children of the Egyptians – an absurd notion, but I understand the confusion.
Hardening of Hearts
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is spoken of many times throughout Exodus. One of the earlier mentions is in Exodus 4:21. In the ESV of the Bible Exodus 4:21 reads, “And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in y our power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (youversion.com). The next reference occurs in Exodus 7:3, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the in the land of Egypt [7:4] Pharaoh will not listen to you” (youversion.com). Ah, but in Exodus 8:15 it reads, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord said”, and in Exodus 8:32, “But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go” (youversion.com). So who is hardening whose heart here anyway? Again, in Exodus 8:12 we are back to the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart. But in Exodus 9:34 Pharaoh is said to have hardened his heart. By the time we get to Exodus 10:1 the Lord says He has hardened not only Pharaoh’s heart, but the hearts of his servants as well.
In the article by Dr. Dave Miller and Kyle Butt, Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?, the question posed by the title of the article is addressed in two ways. I will attempt to summarize:
- The first point explains, “In his copious work on biblical figures of speech, E.W. Bullinger listed several ways that the Hebrew and Greek languages used verbs to mean something other than their strict, literal usage. He listed several verses that show that the languages “used active verbs to express the agent’s design or attempt to do anything, even though the thing was not actually done” (1898, p. 821)”. I may, for example, say someone made me look ridiculous; however, in reality, I looked ridiculous due to my own actions.
- The second point explains, “Bullinger’s fourth list of idiomatic verbs deals with active verbs that “were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do” (p. 823, emp. in orig.)”. In this sense God allowed the circumstances for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (read, “free will”), but did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart.
To answer the question, Pharaoh hardened his own heart while God allowed the circumstances (through human free-will) for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened.
OK, But Why Kill Children at All?
Let us not forget that the Egyptians were not innocent in the book of Exodus. Look at Exodus 1:8-16, for example:
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
Pharaoh, in this case, made the first move in attempting the kill the firstborn of the Israelites as a matter of oppression, and population control. It is important to note here that the term “firstborn” refers specifically to the first male child born. Exodus 21:23-25 provides an example of the “eye for an eye” laws set forth with regard to slave ownership (similar to the code of Hammurabi). Early in Exodus the Israelites are certainly slaves to the Egyptians.
23 But if there is harm,t then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
So we have an established premise for the 10th plague. Certainly not just killing kids for the fun of it. Glenn Miller of Christian Think Tank crunched the numbers in his response to a reader inquiry entitled Was God being evil when He killed the firstborn in Egypt?. In summary, Miller estimates: Innocent Egyptians killed in the tenth plague: 69,000; Innocent Hebrew infanticide killed in the infanticide program of Pharaoh (and successors): 2,750,000. The Egyptians are really beginning to look less innocent by the minute here.
OK, but still… killing children?
Were it not for God taking the lives of these Egyptian children a few things would have happened:
- Hebrew firstborns would have continued being slaughtered by the millions
- Egyptian children would have been raised in a culture that supports infanticide and physical oppression
- The Lord would not have fulfilled his promise to the Israelites
In this case the Lord actually saved more children’s lives then he ended. Additionally, the Bible does not indicate that the Lord tortured these children. The children’s physical lives were ceased; however, the souls of the children would have been allowed to live for eternity with God in perfect peace – a far cry from the horror brought by the Egyptians against the Israelites.
No doubt that this particular event in Exodus does not show the Lord as immoral, but as graceful, loving, fair and just. Ultimately, the frequent misconception regarding this event is due to a misconception of God’s nature… His essence. God is good – the basis for all objective moral truths and duties. Without God we have no basis for objective moral truths and duties, as everything becomes subjective. Something may be perfect relative to imperfection, but when we compare our lives to Jesus how far we have fallen becomes abundantly clear. The morality of the Old Testament God is identical to that of the New Testament God, as the two beings are one and the same. No line in the sand exists.
God is good, and this story found in Exodus is just another example of why I am…
believin’ for a reason!