Waving the Mystery Flag
A couple of years ago Lisa got me a book of Star Wars origami complete with specially designed paper. Unfortunately, as I have begun working through some of the designs in the book I have hit a snag. There are times when, in spite of the instructions, the pathway from one step to the next is not at all clear. Now, I expected this to happen with some of the more complex projects, but I started an easy one the other night and after about 7 folds was completely stumped. I finally had to go to bed still wondering what to do. All night there was this lingering tension. What was I supposed to do? How was I going to understand this? Was I going to have to simply give up on the book? Forget about making the really cool, but really difficult advanced projects? Was my paper-folding adventure coming to an end? I barely slept. Well…I actually barely slept because of Micah and Fort Pickett, but that’s another story.
In any event, have you ever found yourself in one of these places of life where you’ve had to live with tension for any amount of time? Maybe you were waiting to hear back from a job. Perhaps you were waiting to learn whether or not you were going to get a contract on a house. Maybe you had some medical tests done and you were living with the tension of waiting to hear the results. Whatever the case, though, living with tension is hard. It’s uncomfortable. We don’t like it. We like resolution. In fact, sometimes we’ll even take an unhappy resolution because at least we’ll have some answers to which we can start to adjust our lives. What happens, though, when resolution proves elusive and we are simply left with tension?
This morning we are in the fourth and final week of our series, He Said What? All throughout this series we have been examining various hard passages in the Old Testament and seeing what kind of sense we can make out of them. We started the series by looking at a story from the time of judges whose plot seems like it should be more likely to appear in a primetime network drama than the pages of Scripture. The plot involved mistresses, murder, gang rape, dismemberment…and that’s just the first half! From there we looked at another hard story in which God seems to radically overreact by roasting alive two of Aarons’ sons for offering incense in a manner other than what He had prescribed. Finally last week we turned from hard narratives to examine a passage of law that is often derided today as an example of how the God of the Old Testament is all about judgment and wrath and retaliation whereas Jesus, the God of the New Testament, is all about love and grace and peace and joy and all that other good stuff.
What we found in each of these instances once we applied our principles of interpretation is that not only are the standard critical takes of these passages not correct, but they in fact serve to affirm the revealed character of God and point to Christ as the proper solution to the problem of sin and human depravity. The tension of these passages may not be totally eliminated, but it is mitigated to a certain extent. I would argue that following a similar process will lead to similar results in…most instances. But, what about when it won’t?
As we wrap up this series this morning we are going to close with a doozy. We are going to look at the first real epic conflict in the Bible. This is the standoff that occurs when God sends Moses to demand that Pharaoh set the Israelites free. The conflict is epic not because Moses is such an imposing figure, but because it pits the one who is God against one who thought himself to be a god. Far from simply being a contest to decide the fate of a group of people, this was a no-holds-barred battle to show who was God and who was not.
This, however, is where we run into a problem. You see, Christians believe that God is all-powerful. Technically, He could have just changed Pharaoh’s heart to want to release the people and the battle that was about to unfold along with all its collateral damage could have been avoided all together. For Him to pursue Pharaoh and all the people of Egypt with plague after plague was like a bodybuilder picking a fight with a delusional baby. All delusions of grandeur to the side, the baby doesn’t have a chance. No one in their right mind would consider that to be a fair fight. But things actually get harder than this as the text I want to look at with you this morning reveals. If you have a Bible with you in some form, find your way with me to Exodus 4:21. Let me set the stage as you find your way there.
The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years when God called Moses to the task of leading them out. The problem was, while Moses may have had the social connections to be able to approach Pharaoh given his royal upbringing his character should have disqualified him from the job. He had anger issues, he was a murderer who had never faced justice, and he was a coward. Yet God saw something we probably wouldn’t have seen and called Him anyway. This story of His calling begins in Exodus 3 with the famous burning bush. The next two chapters are the conversation between God and Moses in which Moses basically uses every excuse he can think of to avoid being given this incredible task. Seems like a real winner.
At long last Moses agreed to do it, went back home to tell his family, and God sent him to Egypt to get to work. As He did, God gave Moses one final bit of encouragement. Listen to this starting at 4:21: “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.’” The Egyptians in the royal court would have been impressed by the display of power. Egypt had its own stock of magicians who prided themselves on their ability to manipulate nature to their own ends. The miracles God enabled Moses to do would have helped to establish his credentials as one who really was sent by a god. They would have added some oomph to his command to let the people go.
Things are really okay at this point. With the next sentence, though, they begin to turn south. Keeping reading with me: “But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” And at this point if you are paying very close attention it is time to call a full stop to the wheels of literary progress. He said what?!? Let me get this straight. God is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart (an idea that might be more culturally expressed with something like “strengthen his resolve”) so that he isn’t willing to let the people of Israel go in spite of Moses’ command—from God—to do so. Then, He’s going to punish Pharaoh for not letting the people go. Do I have that about right? What on earth are we supposed to do with that? How is that just of God? How is that loving of God? How is that holy of God?
Well, let’s apply our principles quickly and see if that turns anything up for us. If we look back a bit earlier in the section we see that God clearly has designs on getting His people out of Israel. But, this involves removing them from the land in which they were held in bondage: Egypt. Pharaoh probably wasn’t going to be very happy about losing a gigantic source of cheap labor no matter how you square it so perhaps the text here is really talking about Pharaoh making up his own mind to oppose God.
And indeed, when you read the rest of the story very closely you discover that the idea of Pharaoh’s heart being hard to God’s will is a major theme. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is mentioned a total of 19 times over the next 10 chapters. When you examine all of these you discover that things are evenly split between God being the cause of the hardening and Pharaoh being the cause. God is described three times as actively hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and six times as having done it. On the other side, Pharaoh is described specifically as hardening his own heart three times and in another seven places his heart is merely noted to be hard without specifying who did it but the implication in each of these is that Pharaoh was the cause.
Now, culturally we know that the Pharaoh of Egypt during this period was considered by the people and in fact considered himself to be a god. So the great likelihood, again, is that he wasn’t about to bow to the commands of another god, particularly not the God of the people who he was currently holding in bondage. Conflicts between nations like this were understood to be fronts for larger conflicts between the gods of the respective nations. One nation prevailed over another because their gods were more powerful. Usually, the conquered nation switched gods and began worshiping the gods of the victorious nation either by choice or by force. Well, since Pharaoh understood himself to be at least a god of his people if not the god of his people, he would have understood this as a conflict between himself and the God of the Israelites. But, since he was currently holding them in bondage, he was the superior god. To let the people go once Moses raised the stakes by commanding Pharaoh in the name of the God of Israel would have been to concede that He was more powerful. As far as it depended on Pharaoh, then, that wasn’t going to happen.
Seen through the lens of our first couple principles, then, it would appear that Pharaoh is really the one who hardened his heart and brought all the suffering of the plagues on him and his people. And that sounds really good…but…we have this thing in 4:21 where God says that He is going to be the one to do it. If we are going to acknowledge God as sovereign then He could do it, but that would seem to badly contradict His character of justice because God making somebody do something wrong and then punishing them for doing something wrong is not just. We can hold tightly to God’s character of justice and blame Pharaoh for putting himself and his people in this mess all we want, but that doesn’t change the text.
So then, which is it? Did God do this? Did God cause all this seemingly senseless suffering to make a point? Did He harden Pharaoh’s heart such that even if he had wanted to relent and give in he couldn’t have such that God was able to demonstrate conclusively that He was the more powerful of the two? Or, is Pharaoh really to blame for this mess? Pharaoh was too prideful and brought all this on himself and his nation because he was convinced he was something he was not. Was God acting sovereignly (seeming to make Him unjust) or was Pharaoh acting out of his free will (which is hard to swing since the text attributes the hardening specifically to God nine times)? How do we resolve this tension?
The answer the Bible seems to give: Yes. No, no, no. This is an either or question: either God or Pharaoh? Who was it? Yes. No, no, you see by answering “Yes,” you are implying that both options could be correct at the same time. The problem of course being that these are mutually exclusive responses…or are they? What if this is a place where there isn’t a full resolution to the tension? What if this is a tension that is simply going to linger in spite of our best efforts to make it go away? How do we handle that? What do we do when we come across parts of the Bible that in spite of our best efforts just don’t make any sense? The only options they leave are either logically flawed or moral corrupt.
Let me make an observation here that won’t be very comfortable, but is true nonetheless. There are some issues in the Bible which are held in tension without resolution. We want to see this tension resolved, but it remains there all the same. The only way we are ever going to get past these places is to learn to live with a little bit of tension. Perhaps the banner issue for which this applies is the long-running debate over just how sovereign God is and just how free we are. The various writers of Scripture in both the Old and the New Testament seem to be consistent on the fact that God is totally and absolutely sovereign over His creation. He’s numbered the hairs of our head and not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His permission. If He really is this sovereign over creation, though, this would seem to make Him at the very least complicit in if not the source of all the evil in the world. These writers make emphatically clear, however, that this is not the case. He is absolutely good and has no part of any evil. On the other hand, the same writers seem to be consistent on the fact that humans are able to make truly free choices with meaningful consequences and that we are fully responsible for bearing the outcome of these decisions.
Well, if you think about it very long or hard, it quickly becomes clear that these two positions are logically incompatible. And while there have been many creative proposals for how these two ideas can be reconciled, a rigorous logical harmonization is still not forthcoming. The result of this is tension. And the conflict between God and Pharaoh here beautifully puts this tension on display. As Moses relates this conflict he seems to simultaneously hold that God was totally sovereign over the whole affair, including Pharaoh’s hard heart, and also that Pharaoh was totally responsible for his refusal to submit himself to God and the ensuing consequences of this refusal. What more, he doesn’t show any signs of being bothered by the obvious tension this creates. Meanwhile, we’re left holding the bag. So again, what do we do about this?
Answer: We learn to live with the tension. Here’s why: Many people think the God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures is basically like us but more powerful and immortal. This is not the case. That’s what most of the gods and goddesses of the various ancient peoples were like. People worshiped them because they believed the gods would squash them like bugs if they didn’t, not because they were particularly worthy of worship. The God of the Israelites, though, was different. He was described as perfectly holy. He is logically consistent (indeed, all logic flows from His character), but His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. His ways are higher than our ways. He wants to be fully known by us, but the limitations of our finite minds allow us to only go so far. By simple virtue of who He is there are going to be some things about Him that will at least in this life remain a mystery to us. Sometimes God is a mystery. And sometimes that mystery comes out in the Scriptures.
Now, is this an emotionally satisfying answer? No, it’s not. I’ll gladly confess that. I would much rather have something that would resolve all the tension. A lot of grief over the last 2,000 years of church history could have been avoided had this tension been resolved, but it hasn’t. Because, sometimes God is a mystery. Now on the one hand, this is really frustrating. We want easy answers to tough questions. I mean, the whole point of this series was to make hard places in the Bible easier to swallow, wasn’t it? But, life’s not really like that. There’s a lot of life that’s a mystery. Things happen that we just don’t understand. And, if we can’t figure life out all the time, how is it that we think we should be able to understand everything about the God who created life? Sometimes God is a mystery, and frankly, while that’s often a frustrating thing, it’s actually a good thing. Think about it: would you serve a God you could totally understand? That kind of a God wouldn’t be worthy of our worship. This lingering mystery brings with it the promise that with God there’s always more to learn. We will never fully plumb the depths of who He is. This means that the Christian faith never has to be boring or routine. If it gets boring and routine, that’s our fault, not God’s.
So then, here’s what we do when we come upon one of the few hard places in the Bible where the mystery of God comes to bear and there simply aren’t any easy answers: We rely on what we know about God from all the parts that are understandable and trust in the fact that His character doesn’t change. Sometimes God is a mystery, but that doesn’t mean He’s inconsistent or that His character ever changes. When we stand in the face of a mystery of God we don’t run and hide or turn away in frustration. When we face an irreconcilable tension like what we’ve seen this morning, we hold tightly to what we know of God’s character and not let a single (or even a few) challenging apparent exceptions throw us off. We trust that God will make sure we are able to understand what we need to understand when we need to understand it in order to continue serving Him faithfully. Sometimes God is a mystery. But as we learn to live with some tension, we will find that the mystery is part of what makes Him worthy of our worship. This, friends, is a God worth serving.