The Hardness of Extrication: Narratival Interpretation of the Moses/Pharaoh/God Encounters

Kurt Anders Richardson, McMaster University

The collection of papers for the NSSR 2000 meeting concerning Moses, Pharaoh and God tends repeatedly to highlight the problematic of God’s prerogatives in either covenant or lordship over creatures. The classic problem of divine influence over human will and action is complexified by the introduction of massive political, military and religious authority embodied in the person of Egypt’s ancient ruler. The difficulty of reconciling divine action through human beings and human beings’ own fundamental freedom to act comes into sharpest relief in the particular prophetic narrative that dares to comment on the confluence and contradiction of divine and human action. Rather than recourse to a set of logical propositions, the scriptural reasoner/ theologian must ‘extricate’ meaning for a logical question that has been begged by the text. The story of Moses’ prophetic attempts to extricate Israel from its enslavement to pharaoh seems to require the enslavement of pharaoh to the ways of God.

Shaul Magid’s paper focuses upon the penal nature of God’s dealings with Pharaoh in the Exodus narratives. Punishment falls upon the ruler precisely because God’s covenantal dealings extend to and include him, rather than working as a sign of exclusion. Magid utilizes a ‘Jewish’ reading that is communal–referencing a range of interpretive traditions within the history of Jewish reading. Unlike the quick aside of Hauerwas to an authoritative reading from Catholic tradition that supposedly solves the fixation of Protestants upon the sole authority of sola scriptura , Magid explores his tradition by lining up rival interpreters without meta-theological claims about authority, whether exclusive or inclusive of tradition. [12]

Still, there are inevitable theological propositions about the message of the texts which Magid cites: the intergenerational reception of scripture such that the voice of God is heard always and everywhere that it is heeded; the divine image in human beings and therefore their free-will capacity for repentance and faithfulness as necessary for covenantal ethics. But what if God blocks this capacity? It could be that the question is irrelevant if the narrative simply requires a following, having its own integral authority to state what it states. But this is not how the history of interpretation has gone, whether it be strictly exegetical (Rashi), exegetical / philosophical (Nahmanides), or altogether philosophical (Maimonides). For the second and third methods, the narrative becomes exemplary of those who continue in ‘unremorseful sin’ such that they lose their free will and ‘the right of partnership with God.’

Following hard upon the story of Joseph, the counselor of Pharaoh and savior of Egypt, the house of Jacob and the nations, the story of the Exodus presents another savior, [13] Moses, who must extricate his people not because of provident designs, but by divine command, of which the plagues are a vital part. Magid notes their role ‘as a necessary tactic’ and becoming ‘an essential part of the exodus.’ In moving through his interpretive options, Magid’s rendering inclines away from making an ontological distinction between human natures of Israelites and of the nations toward a view of covenant that includes Pharaoh and the nations. Then Pharaoh’s impenitence (his sin: the enslavement of Israel) becomes necessary for the full exacting of divine punishment. Had he changed, God’s response would have been leniency. Over and over, mention of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart is rehearsed as a marker, justifying the next plague ‘just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.’ The stubbornness affords the opportunity for the Lord to display his ‘signs’ among the nations. God asks Pharaoh through Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’

Exodus 10 presents the half-hearted response of Pharaoh to the Lord: he will allow Israel’s temporary departure without their livestock and he prays to the Lord. But this is insufficient. Up to this point, the divine purpose as revealed to Pharaoh has been the allowance of Israel to enter the wilderness to worship God apart from their subjugated condition. All the way along there has been an unspoken conflict: God really wants Israel out of Egypt permanently; Pharaoh does not want to lose Israel as his property. Like the evasiveness of Abram as a vulnerable sojourner in Egypt (cf. Gen 12:17-20), there is a certain evasiveness in Moses’ strategy because of the vulnerability of enslaved Israel.

That Pharaoh must undergo a kind of ‘bondage of the will’ in order that Israel might be delivered from their bondage is striking here. Magid cites the ‘anti-Rashi’ Maimonides who regards the hardening of willful, unremorseful sinners as ‘prevented from repenting so that they be punished’ (p.15). Thus we have ‘the loss of free-will is only a punishment resulting from free-will’ (16). Having abused power, Pharaoh loses power though he still resides within covenant relationship. What is significant here is that in order to find a most satisfactory interpretation, Maimonides’ philosophical, wider-ranging reflections on scripture and its implications are chosen over the first and second methods.

At the philosophically sophisticated level of reading one may address issues raised by Vincent Cornell and Stanley Hauerwas. For Cornell’s emphasis upon God’s unity in all reading of Qur’an we have a kind of internal apologetic for God’s being and action–though not for God’s existence. Ultimately, God’s supremacy must be affirmed and therefore human submissiveness is the only appropriate response; one that must nevertheless be volitional. What is at stake in the Moses / Pharaoh narrative is the submission of one ruler to a greater, divinely appointed one in the person of Moses. Rather than the sin of slavery, it is for the sin of the ‘outrageous claim of divinity’ (p. 5) that Pharaoh will be punished as an illegitimate authority. The decisive sign of God’s action is not the death of the firstborn but the defeat of pharaoh’s army which destroyed his divinity claim. Citing Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, Cornell indicates that it is the sovereign claim of God that must thwart the illegitimate sovereignty of Pharaoh.

In Hauerwas we have a respectful resting upon traditional Christian readings of scripture by the pre-modern theologians starting with Origen. But the great allegorist takes us only so far with respect to questions of human will and divine will. By citing Paul in Romans 9:14-20 we move close to the classic observations of Augustine and the positing of the great Western Christian problem of the ‘either / or’ in all encounters between God and human beings. Augustine and later Aquinas present a mystery of co-action so that the greatness of divine will always makes room for the infinitesimally weaker human will so that both accomplish what is according to their natures. The emphasis here is then on mystery and is rooted in Romans’ great question as an answer to why God hardens whose heart he chooses to harden: ‘But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?’

Hannah Arendt, in her great posthumously published work Willing , reminds the reader of her early study of Augustine and the novelty of Paul’s introduction of the dilemma of free will into western philosophical discourse. Just when one is waiting for an answer to the final question on the entire matter of divine will and human will, Paul answers with a question and therefore with no answer. God must be acknowledged for who God is. The scriptural narratives are respected but the readings do not miss this point either. What is unresolved is the dilemma of opposing will and so the narratives always remain essential texts of the mystery. The only real question left to the interpreter: has the freedom of reading scripture endangered itself such that reading ceases to be?