The Stubbornness of Power
I can recall reading/hearing the Exodus story as a kid and teenager and thinking how stupid Pharaoh must have been. His people – including him and others in the royal household – lose crops. They lose drinking water. They get sick in ways that would keep them from doing pretty much anything of any kind. Thousands die directly in the plagues. Many more would die later since it isn’t like the crops and the livestock reappear. Some have even suggested that this Exodus was the cause of the decline of the Egyptian Empire. Finally, they lose their first-born sons which is enough to change his mind… briefly.
I’d like to think that if I was in Pharaoh’s position, just one plague would be sufficient to have me believing that I should let these people go. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it’s more complicated than that. I’d say the real lesson here is his stubborn addiction to power. Looking at it this way I actually began to feel almost sorry for him because he was caught in a lie that many of us fall for as well.
There is a common phrase: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see this many times throughout history, biblical and otherwise, but Pharaoh is definitely a primary example. Even most of those who weren’t slaves in the most brutal sense like the Israelites were still slaves in the sense of sharecroppers. And his nation at this time was one of the world’s most powerful with no real threats nearby. That’s pretty much the definition of absolute power.
On top of simply having and enjoying that power, he thinks he deserves it. The Ancient world, including Egypt, generally saw kings and their political systems as established by their gods. A god’s strength was judged based on the strength of his or her nation. Pharaoh is the leader chosen by the world’s most powerful gods to rule his Empire. Enslaving Israelites was part of this demonstration of the Egyptian gods’ power. So what we have here is a God of slaves – in other words, a very weak god – challenging the nation and ruler established by the much stronger gods of Egypt.
This battle shouldn’t be even close. Maybe the slave God and his slave people score some minor victories when the strong gods aren’t paying attention, but inevitably the stronger gods will reassert their dominance. The analogy it brought to mind is watching a sports game where you are cheering for the favourite, that favourite is losing but you still just assume they’ll come back. I’ve been in that mode and never even consider that my team might lose. Slowly that thought creeps up as the game gets closer to the end, but I fight it as long as I can because it just doesn’t make sense that the clearly superior team would lose to the clearly inferior team. That’s how I imagine Pharaoh. He has a ridiculous amount of power and he has, he thinks, the most powerful gods on his side.
It isn’t that he’s stupid. In fact, he’s operating completely on conventional “wisdom,” a wisdom that still is assumed by most today: being rich and powerful is proof that you are better than those who are poor and powerless. We could look at the years leading up to abolition in the United States – and to some degree in the British Empire which included Canada – for similar rhetoric. Of course they could have slaves, many argued, because God established their political dominance. It is often seen as proof that their political dominance is the way it should be simply because it is the way it is. Furthermore, since it is often the case that only those in power have the option to determine theology, that theology is inevitably slanted in ways that help them.
Instead, the Exodus story confirms for us that “this world’s wisdom is foolishness to God” who “catches the wise in their cleverness” (1 Corinthians 3:19 CEB). This God sides with the slaves for justice. The Exodus and many other cases in Scripture completely debunk the “might is right” myth we often call wisdom.