Be Holy

19 “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. 21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 18:19-30 ESV

God not only commissioned Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, but to take them all the way to Canaan, the land He had promised to give as an inheritance to the descendants of Abraham. As the Israelites stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they were roughly halfway to their final destination, but they were far from ready to conquer the land that God had destined to be their home. During their four-century-long absence from Canaan, the Israelites had taken on many of the moral and social customs of their Egyptian captors. They had adopted the Egyptian gods as their own. They also ended up lowering their moral standards by assimilating many of the depraved sexual vices of the Egyptians into their daily lives.

While they may have left Egypt behind them, they were still carrying a lot of these depraved and destructive practices with them as they journeyed to Canaan. And they would soon discover that the land God had given them as their inheritance was filled with sinful people who made the Egyptians look like rank amateurs. And how did these nations develop their disposition for sin? According to the apostle Paul, their sinful behavior was a direct result of their rejection of God. In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul describes the downward moral spiral that took place after the fall.

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved. – Romans 1:18-27 ESV

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul points out the moral decline of humanity after sin entered the world. At one point, all mankind had an awareness of God, as His divine attributes were evident all around them in the created world. But in time, these very same people began to worship the creation instead of the Creator. In an effort to make sense of their place and purpose in the world, human beings began to speculate and experiment with all kinds of things that might provide them with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. But in their unwillingness to honor God, they ended up rejecting or replacing Him with gods of their own making. As Paul puts it, “they traded the truth about God for a lie,” and God allowed them to do so. He abandoned them to their shameful desires.

The book of Genesis reveals that the moral decline of humanity was quick and quite comprehensive. Mankind’s fall from the pinnacle of God’s creative order was dramatic and surprisingly sweeping in its impact. According to the book of Genesis, the sinful state of the world became so perverse and pervasive that God was forced to take action.

The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:5 NLT

And the LORD said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” – Genesis 6:7 NLT

This determination by God led to the worldwide flood that destroyed all humanity, except for Noah and his family. When the floodwaters subsided, God began again with Noah and his three sons: Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Along with their wives, these men were commissioned by God to repopulate the world, and they did as God told them to do. Genesis 10 reveals the nations that came from the three sons of Noah, and ends with the following statement: “These are the clans that descended from Noah’s sons, arranged by nation according to their lines of descent. All the nations of the earth descended from these clans after the great flood” (Genesis 10:32 NLT).

But despite God’s gracious gift of a second chance, mankind simply repeated the pattern all over again. They turned their backs on God, replacing Him with lifeless idols made by human hands, and making the pursuit of pleasure their highest priority. Paul describes such people in stark and degrading terms.

They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

At one point, Paul warned his young protege, Timothy, about the sorry state of the world in “the last days.” He described the people of their day as “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4 NLT). And this was not just his opinion regarding the unsaved and unchurched. Paul was warning Timothy that, as the end draws hear, even the people of God would be guilty of these things, “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT).

And Leviticus 18 reveals that God knew the Israelites would be just as susceptible to adopting and adapting the ways of the world. That is why He spends so much time warning them to avoid the sexual sins of their past and future neighbors.

These taboos were far from arbitrary or puritanical; they were purposeful and practical. God knew exactly what He was doing and why He was doing it. He had chosen the people of Israel to be His royal priesthood and a holy nation. These strict social and sexual standards were designed to illustrate what true human flourishing should look like. Sexuality had been God’s gift to mankind. It was through the union of one woman and one man that God had planned to fill the world with more of His image bearers. But with the entrance of sin into the world, humanity’s ability to mirror the image of God became distorted. Seeking to satisfy their own desires, human beings began to push the boundaries of God’s divine decrees and, in doing so, revealed their true intention to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV). In other words, they wanted to be the determiners of their own fates. They wanted to decide what was right and what was wrong. They wanted the freedom to determine what was true and what was false. And their relentless pursuit of autonomy had led to idolatry and every imaginable form of moral depravity. God’s moral order had been turned on its head, with men having sexual relations with men and women with women. Even the practice of bestiality had become commonplace and completely acceptable among the nations of Canaan.

But God had a different standard for His people. Their lives were to reflect their status as His chosen people. So, when they arrived at the land of Canaan, the Israelites were to avoid the mistakes of the land’s current occupants. The whole reason God was preparing to replace the Canaanites with the Israelites was that they had defiled the land. In the 400 years since Jacob had left Canaan, the various nations who remained behind had defiled themselves and the land.

Because the entire land has become defiled, I am punishing the people who live there. I will cause the land to vomit them out. – Leviticus 18:25 NLT

All these detestable activities are practiced by the people of the land where I am taking you, and this is how the land has become defiled. – Leviticus 18:27 NLT

Everything God declared to be off-limits to the Israelites was considered acceptable behavior to the Canaanites. What was considered common and kosher to the Canaanites was to be recognized as unholy and unacceptable to the people of God. The status quo was never to be the determiner of godly behavior. The ways of the world, no matter how prevalent and permissible, were never to dictate the behavior of God’s people. They were to be holy, just as He was holy. And while His ways may not always make sense or appeal to our fallen natures, they are always right and just. As God told the prophet, Isaiah:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

That’s why God told the Israelites, “So obey my instructions, and do not defile yourselves by committing any of these detestable practices that were committed by the people who lived in the land before you. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:30 ESV). None of this was up for debate or discussion. God wasn’t asking for their opinion or permission. His ways were better. His methods were holy, just, and right. They were His chosen people, but to enjoy all that He had prepared for them, they would need to live in keeping with His perfect will.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Holy Living

39 “And if any animal which you may eat dies, whoever touches its carcass shall be unclean until the evening, 40 and whoever eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. And whoever carries the carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening.

41 “Every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten. 42 Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground, you shall not eat, for they are detestable. 43 You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them. 44 For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

46 This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, 47 to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.” – Leviticus 11:39-47 ESV

Chapter 11 is the beginning of an entire section of Leviticus that deals with laws concerning purification. The issue is less about physical cleanliness than it is about holiness. The state of “uncleanness” which God repeatedly addresses in this passage does not refer to the presence of dirt but instead, it is a spiritual category that carries a deep underlying message regarding the Israelite’s relationship with Yahweh.

Chapters 11-15 contain God’s decrees concerning the very real threat of spiritual impurity – a state that would make God’s chosen people unworthy to enter His presence. There were certain actions that God declared to be off-limits because doing them would render the individual defiled, dishonored, or desecrated. Eating the flesh of certain banned animals fell into that category. Touching a dead body would automatically result in defilement. And God’s desire was that His chosen people would fear any form of separation from Him so much that they would be willing to give up those things that He declared to be unclean and unacceptable.

It’s easy to read this lengthy list of banned animals and focus all the attention on them. But God’s primary concern was that His people would learn “to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten” (Leviticus 11:47 ESV). These dietary laws may sound arbitrary to the modern Western mind, but God was trying to persuade His people to think holistically about their lives. Holiness was a state of being that included all of life. God’s people were to avoid the temptation to compartmentalize their lives and reserve some areas for their own discretion. They belonged to God and He wanted them to understand that every area of their lives was to be dedicated to His use and for His glory. The apostle Paul picked up on this idea in his first letter to the believers in Corinth.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. – 1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV

That is an apt summary of the dietary laws and a great way to view this entire section of Leviticus. God was commanding His people to avoid anything that might interfere with their covenant relationship with Him. He wanted them to desire nothing greater than their intimate and unbroken fellowship with Him. And if avoiding certain foods would help preserve their set-apart status as His chosen people, that act of self-denial should be an easy choice.

Once again, the apostle Paul provides a practical perspective on this attitude of willing sacrifice in order to pursue a right relationship with God.

…everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. – Philippians 3:8-9 NLT

Nothing was so important to Paul that he would allow it to interfere with his relationship with Christ. He was willing to give up anything if he thought it might help to improve his walk with Christ. And he applied this dedication to abstinence to every area of his life, including his relationship with other believers.

And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble. – 1 Corinthians 8:12-13 NLT

Were the Israelites willing to do the same thing? Was God’s ban on the consumption of certain animals worth obeying in order to maintain a right relationship with Him? Would they be okay with relinquishing their “right” to eat what they wanted so that they might enjoy unbroken fellowship with God?

God had declared certain foods to be unclean and off-limits. He provided no explanation and none should have been expected. It was enough that He had spoken and His will on the matter had been made perfectly clear. God felt no need to explain the reason behind his prohibition of certain animals. He simply declared them to be unclean and, if eaten, they would pose a threat to the Israelite’s relationship with Him. The question the Israelites had to ask themselves was whether the consumption of camel or badger meat was more important to them than maintaining their relationship with God.

When they found themselves facing hunger and possible starvation, would the temptation to eat banned meat override their desire to live in unbroken fellowship with Yahweh? These bans would become increasingly more real when they arrived in the land of Canaan and found themselves surrounded by people groups who regularly consumed many of the items that God had deemed off-limits for them. Compromise and accommodation would pose real threats to their relationship with Yahweh and that is why He provided them with a detailed list of rules concerning their ongoing holiness. They needed to know that they were to live distinctively different lives from all the other nations that occupied Canaan.

What underlies all of these prohibitions is God’s desire that His people live holy lives. He clearly commands them to refrain from making themselves detestable. In other words, each day they had to make a decision to avoid that which God declared to be unclean so that they could remain undefiled. It was a choice. They could choose to become unclean or remain pure in the eyes of God. Holiness was a choice.

“I am the Lord your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. – Leviticus 11:44 NLT

Ever since the Israelites had left Egypt, they had been faced with a choice to trust Yahweh as their redeemer, provider, and guide. Each day brought new temptations to doubt His goodness and greatness. The lack of food caused them to bicker and complain. The constant scarcity of water led them to question His wisdom and compassion.  But at Sinai, more than a year after they had left Egypt, God was still calling them to recognize who He was and to live their lives in a way that reflected their reverence for Him.

“I, the Lord, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:45 NLT

This is a statement of God’s sovereignty and holiness. This all-powerful and completely righteous God had chosen to redeem the people of Israel as His own possession. They belonged to Him. He had miraculously released them from their captivity in Egypt and set them apart to be a separate and distinct nation that would live according to His will. God had not chosen them because they had somehow earned His favor. They had done nothing to deserve His selection of them as His treasured possession. But now that they were His, He expected them to reflect their unique status as His one-of-a-kind people. He was holy, so they must be holy. And the dietary laws were just one more way God set them apart from all the other nations.

God had tasked Aaron and his sons with the responsibility of teaching the people “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10 ESV). These men were to help the Israelites to distinguish themselves from all the other nations on earth by seeing life from God’s point of view. Yahweh was providing them with divine insight into every area of life so that they might live in keeping with His will. And God reiterated the necessity for them to learn to distinguish the difference between the holy and the command, the clean and the unclean. He declared that these dietary laws were “to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten” (Leviticus 11:47 ESV). All so that His people might reflect His holiness by the way they lived their lives.

His will would become their will. His desires would replace their own. They would live to bring Him glory rather than seek their own good. Being God’s people required that they obey His will. And, in doing so, they would demonstrate that they were His chosen people.

Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Motivation to Give Sacrificially

1 Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”

Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

10 “Let every skillful craftsman among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded: 11 the tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its hooks and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 12 the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the veil of the screen; 13 the table with its poles and all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand also for the light, with its utensils and its lamps, and the oil for the light; 15 and the altar of incense, with its poles, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the door, at the door of the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering, with its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils, the basin and its stand; 17 the hangings of the court, its pillars and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court; 18 the pegs of the tabernacle and the pegs of the court, and their cords; 19 the finely worked garments for ministering in the Holy Place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests.”

20 Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. 22 So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the Lord. 23 And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. 24 Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. 25 And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. 26 All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. 27 And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breastpiece, 28 and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. 29 All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. – Exodus 35:1-29 ESV

His face aglow with the glory of the Lord, Moses delivered his latest message to the people of Israel, and he began with a reminder of the Sabbath day of rest. With the construction of the Tabernacle not yet begun, Moses knew that the Israelites would be tempted to violate God’s prohibition against working on the Sabbath in order to complete the massive project as quickly as possible. Since the Tabernacle was to house God’s presence, it would be to their advantage to finish its construction in record time. They likely believed that the longer it took them to build it, the greater the risk that God might abandon them. So, God had Moses warn them against working on the Sabbath.

In six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there must be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of complete rest to the Lord. Anyone who does work on it will be put to death. – Exodus 35:2 NLT

They were not to allow the project’s size and scope and their zeal to complete it to lead to further disobedience. Violating the Sabbath would not be an acceptable compromise. In fact, God reminds them that even the simple task of kindling a fire on the seventh day would result in death. All of God’s were equally valid and binding. There were to be no concessions or compromises. Attempting to fulfill the will of God by breaking the law of God was never acceptable. The Tabernacle was to be built according to God’s terms and no shortcuts or loopholes were allowed. The people were expected to do everything God’s way or not at all.

With the golden calf incident behind them, the Israelites were to prepare for the construction of the Tabernacle. It was time for God’s design to become a reality but before they could begin, the people had to provide the materials for its construction. This was not the first time the people had heard about God’s command for a voluntary contribution of building materials.

“Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them. Here is a list of sacred offerings you may accept from them:

gold, silver, and bronze;
blue, purple, and scarlet thread;
fine linen and goat hair for cloth;
tanned ram skins and fine goatskin leather;
acacia wood;
olive oil for the lamps;
spices for the anointing oil and the fragrant incense;
onyx stones, and other gemstones to be set in the ephod and the priest’s chestpiece.

“Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. – Exodus 25:2-8 NLT

The people had been more than willing to donate their gold so that Aaron could make the golden calf but would they prove generous when it came to all the material needed to build God’s house? And the list was a long and expensive one. Precious metals, rare gems, fine linen, timber, thread, oil, tanned animal skins, and incense were all required for God’s house. Without the building materials in hand, the craftsmen would find it impossible to create the walls, framework, and furniture for God’s house. There would be no bronze altar, ark of the covenant, or mercy seat. The walls that designated the Holy of Holies where the presence of God would rest above the mercy seat could not be built. The entire structure would remain little more than an idea, instead of becoming a tangible reality and the place where God would dwell among His people.

So, Moses reissued God’s call for donations and restated that this was to be a voluntary contribution, given by those “of a generous heart” (Exodus 35:5 ESV). This was not a mandatory tax but was to be considered a freewill offering. God was giving His people an opportunity to participate in His work by donating their time, treasures, and talents. The promise of His presence would require sacrifice on their part. For God’s house to become a reality, they would have to give of themselves, sacrificially surrendering their resources and their lives to the cause. And the people responded.

So the whole community of the Israelites went out from the presence of Moses. Everyone whose heart stirred him to action and everyone whose spirit was willing came and brought the offering for the Lord for the work of the tent of meeting, for all its service, and for the holy garments. – Exodus 35:20-21 NLT

Motivated by the Spirit of God, the people rose to the challenge and contributed all the resources God had requested. Nothing was missing. No items were left out or withheld. And Moses records that this voluntary effort had 100 percent participation.

Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord‘s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. – Exodus 35:24 ESV

Everyone gave something, whether wood, gold, silver, fabric, spices, oil, yarn, or talent. The entire Israelite community got involved and engaged.

All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. – Exodus 35:29 ESV

God moved among His people, creating the desire to fulfill His will. This was not a case of coercion or forced generosity. Their hearts were moved to do the right thing. Left to their own devices, the Israelites would have proven to be stingy and stubbornly resistant to God’s request. But He moved their hearts to do the right thing. And this movement of the Spirit of God was a foreshadowing of things to come. Centuries later, God would declare His intention to move in their lives yet again, transforming their sin-hardened hearts so that they might do the right thing.

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27 NLT

God’s will is always done His way, but He graciously chooses to use people to accomplish His will. To do so, He transforms hardened hearts so that they might respond to His invitation to serve alongside Him in His work. God could have built the Tabernacle Himself, but He chose to give His people a part to play in its construction. Their time, talents, and treasures would be essential ingredients in the making of His earthly dwelling place – for their good and His glory.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Breastpiece of Judgment

15 “You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. 16 It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. 17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; 18 and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; 19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. 21 There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 22 You shall make for the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. 23 And you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. 24 And you shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. 25 The two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings of filigree, and so attach it in front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. 26 You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 27 And you shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, at its seam above the skillfully woven band of the ephod. 28 And they shall bind the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, so that it may lie on the skillfully woven band of the ephod, so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. 29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord. 30 And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly.” – Exodus 28:15-30 ESV

The high priest’s sacred garment was to include a second feature: the breastpiece of judgment. This smaller, color-coordinated accessory was also made of fine linen and woven with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarns. It hung from two gold chains which were attached to the shoulder straps of the linen ephod. This long piece of handcrafted fabric was folded into a square and stitched on three sides, forming a pocket. Attached to the front of the breastpiece were 12 precious gems, each engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The gems were surrounded with gold filigree, accentuating the beauty and worth of each stone. Inside the pocket of the breastpiece were placed the Urim and Thummim, special stones used to discern the will of God.

“The purpose of the breastpiece was ‘for making decisions’ (v. 15). The Urim and Thummim, deposited in the pouch, were sacred lots used as the ‘means of making decisions’ (v. 30). The word ‘Urim’ begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and ‘Thummim’ begins with the last letter, so the lots were probably restricted to giving either positive or negative responses to questions asked of them. Strengthening that likelihood is the fact that the phrase ‘Urim and Thummim’ is best translated into English as ‘curses and perfections,’ meaning that if ‘Urim’ dominated when the lots were cast the answer would be no but if ‘Thummim’ dominated the answer would be yes.” – Ronald Youngblood, Exodus

Little is known about how the Urim and Thummim were used, but in the book of Numbers, Moses told his successor, Joshua, that these “sacred lots” were to be used to “determine everything” the Israelites were to do.

“When direction from the Lord is needed, Joshua will stand before Eleazar the priest, who will use the Urim—one of the sacred lots cast before the Lord—to determine his will. This is how Joshua and the rest of the community of Israel will determine everything they should do.” – Numbers 27:21 NLT

In the book of Joshua, it appears that the Urim and Thummim were used to determine who among the Israelites was guilty of violating the command of God.

“In the morning therefore you shall be brought near by your tribes. And the tribe that the Lord takes by lot shall come near by clans. And the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households. And the household that the Lord takes shall come near man by man. – Joshua 7:14 ESV

Prior to their defeat of the city of Jericho, God had given the Israelites clear instructions regarding what to do with the plunder of the city.

“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:18-19 ESV

But a man named Achan had violated God’s command, and his son resulted in the Israelites’ failure to conquer the much smaller city of Ai. Apparently, the Urim and Thummim were used to determine the identity of the guilty party. For whatever reason, God chose to use this rather strange system to guide Joshua and the people of Israel. Rather than speaking to Joshua directly, as He had done with Moses, God provided the Urim and Thummim as the primary means for revealing His will. And because the Urim and Thummim were under the care of the high priest, Joshua was required to seek the aid of Eleazar in order to receive direction from God.

This breastpiece worn by the high priest was adorned with the 12 gemstones, signifying the 12 sons of Jacob and the 12 tribes of Israel. Inside the pouch formed by the breastpiece were the Urim and Thummim, which were essential tools for determining God’s will for the 12 tribes. And this vital accessory was worn next to the heart of the high priest, signifying both his role as mediator but also as shepherd of the people of God.

Two additional gold chains hung from the bottom of the breastpiece which attached to two gold rings affixed to the front of the linen ephod.

“This will hold the chestpiece securely to the ephod above the decorative sash. In this way, Aaron will carry the names of the tribes of Israel on the sacred chestpiece over his heart when he goes into the Holy Place.” – Exodus 28:28-29 NLT

Aaron was to hold the people of God close to his heart at all times, especially when serving in his role as the high priest. Every time he entered the Holy Place to offer atoning sacrifices on behalf of the people, he did so as their representative. He bore the 12 tribes on his shoulders and close to his heart. And between his heart and the 12 stones representing the people of God, were the tools for determining the will of God.

God had made it perfectly clear that in order for the Israelites to remain His treasured possession, they would have to obey His will.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

Like priceless gems, the Israelites were of great value to God, and in his role as the high priest, Aaron was to share God’s care and concern for them. By carrying the Urim and Thummim, Aaron would play an important role in determining God’s will. But he would also serve as the agent of atonement, offering up the required blood sacrifices to cover the inevitable sins of the people.

In giving the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, God made His will known. He had disclosed the laws that were to regulate the behavior of the people of Israel. They knew what was expected of them. The apostle Paul summed up God’s expectations of His people when he wrote, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). When all is said and done, what God demands of His people is a life of holiness. He expects them to live in keeping with their status as His children. The Israelites didn’t need the Urim and Thummim to determine how to live. God had already revealed that to them. These little-understood stones were to be used in special instances when the Law of God could not be applied. They were not to be used for personal decision-making but only for determining the will of God for the entire community of God. In the rare instance that the Law was not applicable, the nation was to seek the will of God through this divinely ordained decision-making system.

Every child of God wrestles with the desire to know God’s will. But as the apostle Paul points out, the will of God is quite clear: He desires our holiness. Yet we tend to want God to be more specific. Who should I marry? What career path should I take? Is this the house you want me to buy? And it is not that God has no opinion about those matters, but it is that He is more concerned about your holiness. In most cases, our decision-making would be greatly simplified if we learned to ask the question: Will this decision help or hinder my pursuit of holiness? If I marry this individual will they become a partner in my desire to live a holy life? Will that job or career path pave the way to greater sanctification or lead me to a life of self-reliance and a love of the world?

As the high priest for the people of God, Aaron was given the tools to determine God’s will. But from the sparse references to the Urim and Thummim in the Scriptures, it appears that they were infrequently utilized. Aaron knew what God expected of His people. The Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant were quite specific and left little to the imagination. God demanded holiness. And the primary role of the high priest was to help the people of God maintain their holiness by atoning for their sinfulness. Their purity was to be his highest priority.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Plague Number Three

16 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’” 17 And they did so. Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. 19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 8:16-19 ESV

God was not done. The water of the Nile had been turned to blood and then from this putrid source had come millions, if not billions, of frogs that filled every nook and cranny of Egypt. They were everywhere and in everything. But at Pharaoh’s request, the frogs were miraculously eliminated, dying n the spot and leaving the Egyptians with a huge environmental clean-up operation to conduct.

And it seems that about the time the dead and decaying bodies of the frogs were removed, another divine judgment was waiting in the wings. Once again, God gave His instructions to Moses, who then passed them on to Aaron.

“Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’” – Exodus 8:16 ESV

While the blood-filled Nile posed a problem for the Egyptians, it was only seven days in duration. Soon, the fresh water returned and the people were able to slake their thirst. And the epidemic of frogs lasted for a short period of time and then completely dissipated with their mass extinction.

But what happened next was something different altogether. This plague took things to a personal level. Rather than being inconvenienced by contaminated water or the uncomfortable presence of hideous frogs, the Egyptians were going to experience real pain. God was sending a horde of insects to make their lives miserable.

Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. – Exodus 8:17 ESV

The Hebrew word that in English appears as “gnats” is כִּנִּים (kinnim), and it has been translated a variety of different ways, including as “lice, gnats, ticks, flies, fleas, or mosquitoes.” It is unclear exactly what kind of insect is being described, but it seems clear that, whatever they were, they were prolific and painful. Their comparison to dust suggests that they were both small in size and staggering in terms of their number. The New Living Translation states that they “infested the entire land, covering the Egyptians and their animals” (Exodus 8:17 NLT). And would appear that these tiny creatures were more than a nuisance. They were actually painful, delivering either a bite or sting that made the lives of the Egyptians and their livestock miserable.

They were “. . . a species of gnats, so small as to be hardly visible to the eye, but with a sting which, according to Philo and Origin, causes a most painful irritation of the skin. They even creep into the eyes and nose, and after the harvest they rise in great swarms from the inundated rice fields. – C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch

These creatures were invasive and pervasive, and they were indiscriminate in terms of their attack. The rich and poor suffered alike. Pharaoh himself was not immune from their presence and he could do nothing to escape the frustrating nature of their relentless torment.

It seems readily apparent that their vast number was meant as a not-so-subtle reminder of the Israelites’ prolific explosion in during their time in Egypt. The opening chapter of the book established the staggering growth of Israel’s population while they were living in the land of Goshen.

…they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land. – Exodus 1:7 NLT

As with the Israelites, so with the gnats. They filled the land and proved to be a threat to the Egyptians’ way of life. And, as before, Pharaoh’s magicians attempted to replicate this supernatural sign by trying to conjure up even more gnats.

Pharaoh’s magicians tried to do the same thing with their secret arts, but this time they failed. And the gnats covered everyone, people and animals alike. – Exodus 8:8 NLT

The irony in this should not be missed. These men had also been able to turn water into blood and produce their own swarm of frogs. But this time, they were completely incapable of making more gnats. It seems odd that they would even try, but they were desperate to do anything to bring into question the power of Moses and Aaron.

It is almost as if God was letting them know that when it comes divine to judgment, He needed no help. He was fully capable of making more than enough gnats to accomplish His divine purpose. Stimied in their attempt to duplicate Aaron’s sign, they turned to Pharaoh and confessed, “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:19 NLT).

They knew they were beaten and by whom. The reason for their choice of the word “finger” has occasioned many theories, none of which is entirely satisfying. At the least their statement highlights that the plague was accomplished by God with majestic ease and effortlessness. Perhaps the reason that they could not do this was that it involved producing life—from the dust of the ground, as in Genesis 2:7. The creative power of God confounded the magic of the Egyptians and brought on them a loathsome plague. – NET Bible Study Notes on Exodus

It was clear to these men that this sign had been the work of an unknown God. They use the generic term, ĕlōhîm, and not the proper name, Jehovah. In doing so, they were not acknowledging the God of Israel, but were simply admitting that a diving being had been behind this devastating judgment. And no matter how hard they tried, they could not reproduce the works of Aaron, a “magician” of this unnamed God.

But their words made no impact on Pharaoh. As he has done so many times before, he hardened his heart against this latest display of God’s power and judgment. He was not going to let these two elderly Jewish men change his mind or alter his plans for the people of Israel. In a sense, Pharaoh was saying, “Bring it on!” He was drawing a line in the sand and declaring his intention to refute any and all overtures from this invisible and overly demanding deity. Come what may, Pharaoh was going to stand his ground against Moses and Aaron’s God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Second Plague

1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs that shall come up into your house and into your bedroom and on your bed and into the houses of your servants and your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your servants.”’” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, over the canals and over the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt!’” So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. But the magicians did the same by their secret arts and made frogs come up on the land of Egypt.

Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the Lord to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” Moses said to Pharaoh, “Be pleased to command me when I am to plead for you and for your servants and for your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” 10 And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God. 11 The frogs shall go away from you and your houses and your servants and your people. They shall be left only in the Nile.” 12 So Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh, and Moses cried to the Lord about the frogs, as he had agreed with Pharaoh. 13 And the Lord did according to the word of Moses. The frogs died out in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 14 And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank. 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 8:1-14 ESV

Seven days after having turned all the potable water in Egypt to blood, God summoned Moses and Aaron again. They were to return to the palace and reiterate their request for Pharaoh to release the people of Israel. But this time, their petition was to be accompanied by a warning of a second plague. Having gotten Pharaoh’s attention with the blood-filled Nile and the mass extinction of most of its aquatic life, Moses and Aaron were to issue a threat of further devastation should he refuse their request again.

“This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so they can worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs across your entire land. The Nile River will swarm with frogs. They will come up out of the river and into your palace, even into your bedroom and onto your bed! They will enter the houses of your officials and your people. They will even jump into your ovens and your kneading bowls. Frogs will jump on you, your people, and all your officials.” – Exodus 8:1-4 NLT

This time, rather than turning water into blood, the plague would feature a supernatural infestation of frogs. As a good Egyptian, Pharaoh would have understood the irony in this warning because his people held these amphibious creatures in high esteem. They even had a goddess, Heqet, whose image reflected that of a frog. This grotesque-looking deity was believed to be the wife of Khnum, the creator god. This husband-wife team of gods was responsible for bringing life to every human being.  Khnum would fashion them on his potter’s wheel, then Heqet would provide them with life before placing them in the mother’s womb.

Many pregnant women wore charms or amulets featuring Heqet’s image, as a kind of talisman to ensure the safe delivery of their child. Frogs were a protected species in Egypt and the intentional killing of them was punishable by death.

So, when Moses announced to Pharaoh that these esteemed creatures were going to suddenly explode in number and fill the land, it was to be a not-so-subtle message concerning the Egyptians’ pantheon of mythical gods and goddesses. It would be as if Heqet, the goddess of fertility, was so good at her job that the creature whose image she bore would proliferate so successfully that they filled the land.

Little Heqets would be everywhere; in their homes and even in the royal palace. These symbols of fertility would show up in their bedrooms and even find their way into the beds of the Egyptians. No place would be free from their pervasive and repugnant presence.

What should not be overlooked is that these creatures came from the very Nile and other water sources that had been turned to blood. While the fish had died, the frogs had survived and thrived. There is no natural explanation for this phenomenon. It was intended to be a supernatural display of God’s power and sovereignty. In a sense, God was bringing life from death. The bloody Nile was producing a superabundance of frogs, the very symbols of fertility and life for the Egyptian people. But this divine infestation would prove to be far less than pleasurable. The sheer numbers of these slimy creatures would soon leave the Egyptians with a sense of revulsion and a collective desire to see them eradicated.

But, as before, Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to do anything about this latest sign. All they could do was replicate it. In other words, they made the problem worse. And their ability to mirror the actions of Moses and Aaron was likely a sovereign act of God. He allowed them to make more frogs but prevented them from doing anything to reduce their number or stop their proliferation.

One of the things that stands out in this scene is the way God utilized His two servants. There was a hierarchy of leadership in their relationship with Yahweh. Moses would receive instructions from God, then he would deliver them to Aaron.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him…” – Exodus 8:1 ESV

And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff…” – Exodus 8:5 ESV

Aaron was destined to be the primary enactor of God’s will. He was the one who was ordered to throw down his staff in the presence of Pharaoh, and it was his staff that was turned into a serpent. It was also Aaron whom God ordered to turn the water into blood.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood… –Exodus 7:19 ESV

This was all in fulfillment of God’s statement: “he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him” (Exodus 4:16 ESV). The working relationship between these two brothers was divinely established. God had ordained that Moses would portray the role of God’s primary emissary. He would then delegate responsibility to Aaron to carry out the will of Yahweh. So that when all was said and done, Pharaoh would know that these supernatural signs and wonders were the actions of the God of Moses and Aaron.

“So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. – Exodus 3:20 ESV

And this hierarchy of leadership did not escape Pharaoh. When he and his people grew weary of the plague of frogs, he appealed to Moses and Aaron but addressed his request to their God.

“Plead with the Lord to take the frogs away from me and my people. I will let your people go, so they can offer sacrifices to the Lord.” – Exodus 8:8 ESV

He recognized that this was the work of a powerful deity and not some kind of parlor trick performed by an elderly Hebrew man. Pharaoh knew he was up against something far greater than he had ever seen before, and he was ready to acquiesce to God’s demands.

Rather than providing Pharaoh with an immediate response to his request, Moses asked him to determine the timing of what would prove to be another miracle.

“You set the time!” Moses replied. “Tell me when you want me to pray for you, your officials, and your people. Then you and your houses will be rid of the frogs. They will remain only in the Nile River.” – Exodus 8:9 NLT

By allowing Pharaoh to choose the exact moment for God to act, Moses was demonstrating his own intimate relationship with Yahweh. Unlike Pharaoh, Moses could approach his God and have his requests heard and answered. And when Pharaoh set the following morning as the deadline for deliverance, Moses agreed with the request but warned Pharaoh “it will be as you have said. Then you will know that there is no one like the Lord our God” (Exodus 8:10 ESV). the God of the Hebrews had brought the frogs into being and He would be the one to make them disappear.

Moses took the request to God and, according to Pharaoh’s timelines, the next morning the frogs began to die off, leaving a massive clean-up effort for the Egyptians. But this miraculous display of God’s power did nothing to change the heart of Pharaoh. As soon as the frogs began to disappear, Pharaoh’s penchant for stubbornness reared its ugly head again.

when Pharaoh saw that relief had come, he became stubborn. He refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had predicted. – Exodus 8:15 NLT

God was not done, so Pharaoh was not ready to give in. It was going to take far more than blood and frogs to convince this arrogant despot to bend the knee to the will of God. And God had already preordained an entire series of plagues that would culminate in one final devastating display of His divine sovereignty.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” – Exodus 4:21-23 ESV

Pharaoh did not yet comprehend the full glory and magnitude of Yahweh. But, in time, he would. In time he would come to understand that there is no other god but the Lord. But for now, he was determined to remain stubbornly opposed to God’s will and destined to subject his people to the full weight of God’s divine wrath.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Plague Number One

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that turned into a serpent. 16 And you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed. 17 Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’” 19 And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

20 Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. 21 And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile.

25 Seven full days passed after the Lord had struck the Nile. – Exodus 7:14-25 ESV

Things were about to get busy for God’s two elderly representatives. At an age when most men would be slowing down, Moses and Aaron had been assigned the God-ordained task of delivering His people from their captivity in Egypt. And this formidable responsibility wasn’t made any easier by the recalcitrant Pharaoh. As God had warned, the king of Egypt would do everything in his considerable power to keep the Israelites enslaved.

God was not surprised by Pharaoh’s actions. He had actually predicted it and claimed that He was the motivating factor behind Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance.  The Almighty knew the king’s heart and was using his predispositions and natural tendencies to bring about the preordained plan for Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh’s “hard heart” would play a major role in God’s redemptive plan.

Having enacted their first sign in the presence of Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron were given instructions to take things to the next level. Araon’s staff turning into a snake was a mere parlor trick compared to what God was about to do. Pharaoh’s arrogant refusal to accept the terms of God’s demands would be met with severe judgment. God was going to strike at the heart of Egypt’s economic, religious, and cultural life: The Nile.

This vast river was the source of all life for the people of Egypt. Its annual flood cycle ensured the dissemination of nutrient-rich silt on the shorelines, providing fertility and prosperity to the land. The Egyptians believed the Nile to be a gift of the gods and they associated a number of their deities with the river itself.

There were Apis and Isis, the god and goddess of the Nile. Khnum was considered the guardian of the Nile. There were at least two gods who were deemed responsible for the Nile’s flooding. The first was the crocodile-like deity Sobek, whose domain consisted of the Nile’s waters. The second was Hapi, who was sometimes referred to as “Lord of the River Bringing Vegetation.” Because of his role in the annual flood cycle, Hapi was also considered a god of fertility.

It makes perfect sense that God would choose this revered natural resource to be the site of His first judgment. He sent Moses and Aaron to meet Pharaoh on the banks of the river the next morning. The omniscient God of Israel foreknew that Pharaoh would be making a morning visit to the river’s banks and He instructed His two agents to get there early and be ready to confront the king upon his arrival.

Moses was instructed to have Aaron take the same staff that God had transformed into a snake and use it to strike the waters of the Nile. But before doing so, Moses was to deliver to Pharaoh the following short speech from God.

So this is what the Lord says: “I will show you that I am the Lord.” Look! I will strike the water of the Nile with this staff in my hand, and the river will turn to blood. The fish in it will die, and the river will stink. The Egyptians will not be able to drink any water from the Nile.’” – Exodus 7:17-18 NLT

It is likely that Pharaoh was accompanied by a royal retinue of armed guards, servants, and administrative officials. Perhaps his visit had religious overtones and there were priests to assist him in making sacrifices to one or more of the gods of the Nile.

But at the sight of these two elderly Hebrews standing on the bank of the river, Pharaoh must have been more than a bit surprised and irritated. And to hear them pronounce their far-fetched plan to turn the river to blood must have left him bemused. Who did these men think they were? Did they not know they were dealing with one of the most powerful men in the world?

But Moses and Aaron did as God had instructed them.

As Pharaoh and all of his officials watched, Aaron raised his staff and struck the water of the Nile. Suddenly, the whole river turned to blood! The fish in the river died, and the water became so foul that the Egyptians couldn’t drink it. There was blood everywhere throughout the land of Egypt. – Exodus 7:20-21 NLT

In a matter of minutes, the entire river had been transformed into blood. This supernatural display of God’s power was meant to demonstrate His superiority and sovereignty. The God of creation was giving irrefutable evidence of His status as the one true God. Hapi, Khnum, Apis, and Isis were all defenseless before the majesty and might of Jehovah. They could not protect their own domain from the devastating judgment of the God of the Hebrews. And all Pharaoh could do was stand back and watch.

According to the text, the effects of this miracle were not localized but widespread throughout Egypt, impacting “all its rivers, canals, ponds, and all the reservoirs” (Exodus 7:19 NLT). Every source of drinking water was affected. And, not only that, the fish that served as a primary source of food for the Egyptians were wiped out as a result of this nationwide catastrophe. 

In what will become a rather strange and repeated scene, Pharaoh’s magicians responded to this devastating display of God’s judgment by replicating it. In other words, they mimicked the actions of God and actually made matters worse. If they had the power to turn water into blood, why did they not choose to do the opposite? Once again, God seems to be using these so-called magicians as instruments of His sovereign will. It is ironic that they display similar power to that of Moses and Aaron, but they cannot repair or resist what God’s agents have done. They can only replicate it and increase the suffering of their own people.

Seven days would pass. During that time, Pharaoh would go about his business as if nothing had happened. He refused to think about the devastation brought upon his nation by the God of Moses and Aaron. Safely ensconced in his palace, he was unaware that his people were busy digging wells in a vain attempt to find fresh drinking water.  And little did Pharaoh know that this was just the beginning. The book of Psalms records the litany of miraculous judgments that were headed Pharaoh’s way.

They did not remember his power
    or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,
when he performed his signs in Egypt
    and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.
He turned their rivers to blood,
    so that they could not drink of their streams.
He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them,
    and frogs, which destroyed them.
He gave their crops to the destroying locust
    and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail
    and their sycamores with frost.
He gave over their cattle to the hail
    and their flocks to thunderbolts.
He let loose on them his burning anger,
    wrath, indignation, and distress,
    a company of destroying angels.
He made a path for his anger;
    he did not spare them from death,
    but gave their lives over to the plague.
He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
    the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
Then he led out his people like sheep
    and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. – Psalm 78:42-52 ESV

The blood-filled Nile was only the precursor to so much more that God had planned for the nation of Egypt. And when He was done, they would know that He alone was Lord.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

From Bad to Worse

10 So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. 11 Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced in the least.’” 12 So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.” 14 And the foremen of the people of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten and were asked, “Why have you not done all your task of making bricks today and yesterday, as in the past?”

15 Then the foremen of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you treat your servants like this? 16 No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people.” 17 But he said, “You are idle, you are idle; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Go now and work. No straw will be given you, but you must still deliver the same number of bricks.” 19 The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, “You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day.” 20 They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; 21 and they said to them, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

22 Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” – Exodus 5:10-23 ESV

When God appeared to Moses in the wilderness near Mount Horeb, He had revealed His knowledge of the Israelites’ plight in Egypt.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…” – Exodus 3:7 ESV

And God had assured Moses that He was ready to do something about their untenable situation.

“…I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:8 ESV

Much to his surprise and initial dismay, Moses learned that he was to be the one God would use to bring about the deliverance of His people. After much debate and a great deal of delay, Moses finally gave in to God’s call and made the long journey back to Egypt. And he and his brother, Aaron, in obedience to God’s command, delivered His messages to the people of Israel and Pharaoh. But while the Israelites were thrilled with the news of God’s presence among them and His plan to deliver them, Pharaoh had a far less sanguine response to God’s plan. In fact, he was enraged at the audacity of these two nondescript and unimpressive Hebrews. How dare they walk into his palace and demand that he provide their fellow Israelites with a week off so they can worship their so-called God in the wilderness.

Rather than give in to Moses’ request, he decided to teach this upstart Hebrew a painful lesson. To who Moses who was boss, Pharaoh turned up the heat on the already suffering descendants of Abraham. Moses’ arrival had gotten their hopes up and they were expecting an immediate improvement in their circumstances. But, instead, their situation got exponentially worse.

One of their duties as an unpaid workforce for Pharaoh was to manufacture the bricks used in the many construction projects around the kingdom. This labor-intensive process was difficult enough, but now it was going to become even more time-consuming and wearying because Pharaoh denied them access to the straw that helped bind the clay together. As punishment for their request for time off, he ordered them to find their own straw. This would require additional time and effort, but the daily quota of bricks would remain unchanged.

On top of this, Pharaoh ordered the Egyptian slave masters and Hebrew foremen to show no mercy. They were to push the Israelites relentlessly. When the people fell behind and failed to meet their quotas, the Egyptians punished the Hebrew foremen.

And in time, the people began to lose hope. They were in a no-win situation and there seemed to be no other recourse than to appeal to Pharaoh for mercy.

So the Israelite foremen went to Pharaoh and pleaded with him. “Please don’t treat your servants like this,” they begged. “We are given no straw, but the slave drivers still demand, ‘Make bricks!’ We are being beaten, but it isn’t our fault! Your own people are to blame!” – Exodus 5:15-16 NLT

Pharaoh responded, but not with mercy. He accused them of being lazy and trying to use their request to worship their God as an excuse for shirking their duties. And he would have none of it. As far as he was concerned, their whole reason for being was to work, not to worship. Their job was to sacrifice on Pharaoh’s behalf, not on behalf of some impotent deity from a backwater region like Canaan.

So, Pharaoh reiterated his expectation that they meet their daily quota of bricks or suffer the consequences. This left the Hebrew foremen in an even deeper state of despair as they exited the royal palace. Now, they had to go back and break this less-than-encouraging news to their coworkers. But on the way, they ran into Moses and Aaron. And it would not prove to be a well-timed or particularly propitious encounter for the two unsuspecting brothers.

Full of pent-up anger and frustration, the foremen unleashed their vitriol on these two relative strangers, blaming them for the recent spate of troubles.

“May the Lord judge and punish you for making us stink before Pharaoh and his officials. You have put a sword into their hands, an excuse to kill us!” – Exodus 5:21 NLT

As bad as things had been before Moses and Aaron arrived on the scene, the situation in Egypt had taken a decidedly dark turn since their unexpected arrival. These two men had brought down the wrath of Pharaoh and the full weight of the Egyptian government apparatus. The atmosphere had become oppressive and foreboding. And now, the disgruntled and disillusioned Israelites were turning their anger on God’s two messengers.

Moses’ worst nightmare had come true. He had feared this very thing happening. When God had first announced His plan to use Moses as His deliverer, the surprised shepherd had argued, “behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’” (Exodus 4:1 ESV). He was already convinced that this mission was doomed to failure. Now, his suspicions had become a very painful and personal reality. This led him to cry out to God in despair.

“Why have you brought all this trouble on your own people, Lord? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh as your spokesman, he has been even more brutal to your people. And you have done nothing to rescue them!” – Exodus 5:22-23 NLT

From his perspective, nothing had turned out well. He had left Midian and returned to Egypt only to find his own people ready to run him out of town on a rail. And, driven by his frustration and fear, Moses shook his fist in the face of God and dared to accuse Him of a failure to do the right thing. God had claimed that He was going to “deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8 ESV) but instead, the whip of Egyptian slave masters had fallen on the backs of the Hebrew foremen. And now the anger of the foremen had come down hard on Moses and Aaron.

But God was not done. He had not promised immediate deliverance. And God had warned Moses that Pharaoh was going to reject their request to release the people of Israel. This was going to prove to be an epic battle of wills – the will of Pharaoh against the sovereign will of God Almighty. And though Moses was doubtful of the outcome, God had everything under full control. Yes, things were going to get worse before they got better. The circumstances under which the Israelites lived were going to become unbearable but that did not mean that God’s plan was fallible. His will would be done. The deliverance He promised would be forthcoming. And Moses was going to learn the invaluable and timeless lesson of waiting on God.

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. – Isaiah 30:18 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Just When Things Were Looking Up

1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.” – Exodus 5:1-9 ESV

Chapter four ends with the promising statement, “And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction” (Exodus 4:31 ESV). Moses and Aaron had presented God’s message word for word.

“Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—has appeared to me. He told me, ‘I have been watching closely, and I see how the Egyptians are treating you. I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey…’” – Exodus 3:16-17 NLT

Then, as God had commanded, they backed up their words with actions, performing the signs Moses had received in the wilderness of Horeb. And evidently, their efforts proved successful in convincing the Israelites to believe that Jehovah had heard their cries and had come to deliver them from their miserable conditions in Egypt. Encouraged by what they heard and saw, “they bowed their heads and worshiped” (Exodus 3:31 ESV).

Having faithfully communicated God’s message to the people of Israel, Moses’ next stop was the royal throne room, where he and his brother hand-delivered an ultimate to Pharaoh.

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go so they may hold a festival in my honor in the wilderness.” – Exodus 5:1 NLT

Moses and Aaron were sticking with the plan and, so far, everything was happening just as God had said it would.

“The elders of Israel will accept your message. Then you and the elders must go to the king of Egypt and tell him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So please let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord, our God.’ – Exodus 3:18 NLT

But God had already warned Moses that Pharaoh would prove to be a hard nut to crack. This powerful, self-deified monarch was not going to play along with Moses’ request. In fact, he would find the very thought of it ridiculous and not worthy of consideration. But even that was part of God’s sovereign plan.

“I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand forces him. So I will raise my hand and strike the Egyptians, performing all kinds of miracles among them. Then at last he will let you go…” – Exodus 3:19-20 NLT

And as if reading a script written by the hand of God, Pharaoh responded, “Is that so?…and who is the Lord? Why should I listen to him and let Israel go? I don’t know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2 NLT). Overflowing with hubris, Pharaoh mocked his two visitors and belittled the status of this Jehovah (Yᵊhōvâ) who dared to order him around.

Interestingly enough, back when God called Moses to serve as His deliverer, Moses had expressed concern that the Israelites might know who Jehovah was.

“If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?” – Exodus 3:13 NLT

But according to the opening verses of this chapter, it was not the Hebrews who needed a primer on Jehovah’s identity, it was Pharaoh. And, in response to Pharaoh’s sarcastic inquiry, “who is the Lord?”, Moses simply stated, “The God of the Hebrews” (Exodus 5:3 NLT). He uses the generic term ĕlōhîm, which is a Hebrew word used of Jehovah, but also of all other gods. But Moses makes it clear that he is talking about a very specific “God,” the God of the Hebrews. The one true God who created the heavens and the earth.

Moses reiterates his request for Pharaoh to permit the Israelites a take what would be a six-day break from their work so that they can travel into the wilderness and worship their God. In a sense, he was asking Pharaoh to agree to unpaid time off for all Hebrew workers. But he insisted this was not so they could go on holiday, but so that they might worship their God. And then he added a previously undisclosed bit of information.

“If we don’t, he will kill us with a plague or with the sword.” – Exodus 5:3 NLT

Moses was insisting that they were obligated to obey the commands of their God. If they refused, Pharaoh could end up losing all his laborers, not just for six days, but for good. The ball was in Pharaoh’s court. He could accommodate Moses’ request and suffer a drop in productivity for about a week, or he could refuse and watch his primary labor force get wiped off the face of the earth. It was up to him.

After 400 years, the Egyptians had become familiar with the strange religious rites of the Israelites. They would have known that the offerings they made to their God involved animal sacrifices, and the Egyptians considered many of those animals to be sacred. They believed their gods manifested themselves through these creatures, and the idea of the Israelites sacrificing bulls and goats within the borders of Egypt would have appalled and disgusted them. That is why Moses asked permission to journey three days outside of the borders of Egypt.

But Pharaoh was not buying what Moses was selling. He was not about to release the Israelites into the wilderness for any reason or for any length of time, for fear that they might try to escape. So, Pharaoh doubled down on his previous answer and rebuked his two visitors for wasting his time and filling the heads of the Israelites with false hope.

“Moses and Aaron, why are you distracting the people from their tasks? Get back to work! Look, there are many of your people in the land, and you are stopping them from their work.” – Exodus 5:4 NLT

Having drawn a line in the sand, Pharaoh upped the ante and ordered his Egyptian slave drivers to make the lives of the Israelites worse than before. Even the Hebrew foremen who oversaw the chain gangs of laborers were ordered to drive their fellow Israelites harder than before. To increase their suffering and get their mind off of the messages of Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh ordered that all brick production be done without the benefit of straw. It wasn’t that the Israelites were permitted to make strawless bricks, but that they now had to gather the hay and stubble on their own. It added another layer of back-breaking labor to their already difficult task.

Pharaoh concluded that the Israelites were lazy and easily distracted by Moses’ offer of a week off from work to worship in the wilderness. He was going to teach them a valuable and painful lesson they would not soon forget.

“Load them down with more work. Make them sweat! That will teach them to listen to lies!” – Exodus 5:9 NLT

It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that this treatment was going to produce an adverse reaction among the people of God. They had been pumped by Moses’ announcement that Jehovah had heard their cries. They were looking forward to seeing how God was going to improve their lot in life. Now, things had taken a very dark turn for the worse. Rather than experiencing deliverance, their pain and suffering had actually increased. And it wouldn’t take them long to decide that they had been far better off before Moses and his brother showed up on their doorstep.

But little did the Israelites know that this was all part of God’s sovereign plan. Their God was not up in heaven wringing His hands in worry. He had not been caught off guard by Pharaoh’s harsh reaction. God had known all along that this would be Pharaoh’s response. It was built into the whole plan and was part of the sequence of events that would ultimately lead to the release of the Israelites and the judgment of the Egyptians.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Hard Heart is Not Difficult for God

18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.

21 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 your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” – Exodus 4:18-23 ESV

Moses finally determines to accept the Lord’s commission and return to Egypt, but when he informs his father-in-law of his intentions, his words reflect a tone of pessimism.

“Let me go, so that I may return to my relatives in Egypt and see if they are still alive.” – Exodus 4:18 NLT

It almost sounds as if Moses is expecting the worst when he returns. But it is more likely that he is trying to appeal to the heart of Jethro. After all, his father-in-law is a family man and will understand if Moses simply wants to return to check on the well-being of his relatives. This appeal will also help to convince Jethro to allow his daughter and two grandsons to make the journey back with Moses.

Having gained Jethro’s permission, Moses made plans for the long journey home, but not before God informed him that it was safe to return.

“Go back to Egypt, because all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” – Exodus 4:19 NLT

Evidently, Moses still harbored reservations about going back to the place where he had murdered an Egyptian in cold blood. As far as he knew, the bounty on his head was still in effect and he would be arrested as soon as he set foot in Egypt. But God graciously informed him that the statute of limitations had expired because all those who sought him were dead. Moses could no longer use that as an excuse for delaying his return.

Before Moses loaded his wife and sons on a donkey, he received one final order from God that fully summarized his commission.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control. But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go. You must say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord has said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn,  and I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me,’ but since you have refused to let him go, I will surely kill your son, your firstborn!”’” – Exodus 4:21-23 NLT

Moses had his marching orders and they were far from encouraging. God basically told His servant that he would face stiff opposition. Pharaoh was not going to be like what Moses had to say. In fact, he was going to refuse any and all requests to let the people of Israel leave Egypt. And God let Moses know that Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance would be part of His sovereign plan for Israel’s deliverance. God was going to “harden his heart.” This phrase will be used repeatedly throughout the book of Exodus, in order to inform the reader that the entire narrative arc of the story has been authored by God. Though Pharaoh is a powerful figure, he is just another character in God’s divine drama of deliverance.

God is not suggesting that Pharaoh will be a helpless victim of His sovereign will. The king of Egypt will not be subjected to some kind of divine mind control that forces him to function in a robotic, trancelike state. Pharaoh will have full access to all of his mental faculties, and will willingly decide to oppose the will of God. On several occasions, it will become clear that Pharaoh is operating according to his own stubborn will.

But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 8:15 ESV

But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. – Exodus 8:32 ESV

In a sense, God is using the prideful and arrogant nature of Pharaoh to accomplish His will. God is not forcing Pharaoh to do anything. He is simply taking advantage of what He knows to be a weakness in the life of this godless, pagan king. By having Moses make the request for Israel’s release, God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart because He already knows the king will reject that request. God could soften Pharaoh’s heart and make him amenable to Moses’ overtures, but that would not provide the proper environment in which to demonstrate His power and authority to the people of Israel.

But it seems clear from the text that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses. – Exodus 9:12 ESV

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go. – Exodus 10:20 ESV

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. – Exodus 10:27 ESV

Yet, once again, this seems to be an indication that God is allowing Pharaoh to operate according to his own moral compass. Pharaoh was simply doing what he would normally and naturally do, without any interference from God. Without God’s assistance, Pharaoh would be incapable of responding any other way. In that sense, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by refusing to intervene. God could have provided Pharaoh with the capacity to behave in contrast to his normal, sinful disposition, but that would not have accomplished the plan for Israel’s release.

No man or woman can display heart-motivated behavior in keeping with God’s will without God’s help. In the book of Ezekiel, God informs His own chosen people that their ability to obey His laws and statutes will be impossible until He has given them the ability to do so. But one day, He will do just that.

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV

The book of 1 Samuel recalls a scene in which the Philistines had stolen to Ark of the Covenant from Israel. This sacred object was integral to Israel’s worship of Yahweh because it contained the mercy seat, where God’s glory dwelt. To convince the Philistines to return the ark, God “terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.” (1 Samuel 5:6 ESV). In a panic, the people of Ashdod shipped the ark to the nearby city of Gath, “But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them” (1 Samuel 5:9 ESV). 

Like a real-life game of hot potato, the Gathites sent the ark to another neighboring Philistine city. But when it arrived in Ekron, the same thing happened.

…there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven. – 1 Samuel 5:11-12 ESV

In a heightened state of panic, the Philistines sought the wisdom of their priests and diviners, hoping for a solution to their growing problem. Their advice was to send the ark back to Israel. Then they added this interesting word of warning.

“Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?” – 1 Samuel 6:6 ESV

The report of God’s long-past dealings with Pharaoh and the Egyptian people had become legendary. And these pagan priests warned their people not to follow their example. Because the God of the Israelites would eventually get His way.

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul uses the story of Exodus as a lesson on God’s sovereign will. His main point is that God never operates unjustly. All that He does is good, righteous, and in order to accomplish His divine will. God can sovereignly choose to show mercy on whom He wills. It is not based on man’s merit or effort. And then Paul uses Pharaoh as an example.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. – Romans 9:17-18 ESV

He actually borrows from the book of Exodus, quoting the words that Yahweh had Moses deliver to Pharaoh.

“…by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.” – Exodus 9:15-16 ESV

This helps to explain what God told Moses just before he made the trip back to Egypt. The mission on which Moses was about to embark, was going to be difficult, but its outcome was set in stone. Pharaoh was going to be a tough negotiator, but God was well aware of that. He had planned on it. This particular Pharaoh was just the kind of man God needed on the throne of Egypt because he would prove to be just stubborn enough to reject all of Moses’ requests and God’s judgments. And while God could have destroyed the Egyptians in a heartbeat, He had chosen instead to use Pharaoh’s stubbornness as a means for showcasing His power and sovereignty to the people of Israel. After what appeared to be a 400-year absence, God was going to make Himself known to His chosen people in a powerful and irrefutable way.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.