Here in Connecticut all contracts require a three-day “cooling off” period, a time when all involved parties can examine their contractual obligations and determine whether or not they can honor them. This allows the parties involved to observe the considerations involved in the deal free from the duress that can be created by the pressure of the moment, and minimize the possibility of “buyers remorse”. It would appear that such a “cooling off” period might have been helpful to Pharaoh. As we observe in this parasha , “ When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services! (Ex.14:5)”
Of course it is debatable whether or not Pharaoh really ever had a choice, after all God had made him “an offer he could not refuse”, let the children of Israel go or suffer consequences that may be worse than the ten plagues which culminated with the death of all of the first born sons of Egypt. In fact we are told that it was God that had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, further evidence that dealing directly with God is more complex, urgent and compelling than say purchasing an automobile. It also raises the specter of a moral and theological quagmire. How can Pharaoh be held accountable when the omnipotent God seems to have overtaken his faculties? How can the King of Egypt be held responsible for that which God causes him to do? To this classic question Maimonides writes, “Sometimes a man’s offense is so grave that forecloses the possibility of repentance. At first Pharaoh sinned repeatedly of his own free will, until he forfeited the capacity to repent.” Through the first five plagues Pharaoh appears to harden his own heart, subsequently the text seems to convey God seems to arrange the confrontations. All of Pharaoh’s officials have already realized that he is no match for the God of Israel (10:7) but the king continues to recant his submission. Though the Torah tells a very linear story, the causation of Pharaoh’s actions are probably more complex. Though God “hardening his heart” may appear very deterministic, the events flow quite naturally from the king’s own desires, ambitions and ego. Can’t it be said that all of life’s events occur under the providence of the all-knowing God? Yet these same events always unfold according to human motive, still the ultimate will of God is always accomplished. Pharaoh lived under the delusion of complete self-sufficiency and therefore acted in conformity with his own Godless views.
It would appear from this parasha that Pharaoh was not the only one with “buyers remorse.” After observing all of the miraculous plagues wrought by their God it is not surprising that the children of Israel would give up their four hundred year old rent control hobbles in Goshen and head out on a trek toward a land flowing with milk and honey at his bequest. And it should be mentioned that they were more than passive participants, slaughtering lambs, placing blood on the lintels and doorposts, and lightening the treasures of Egypt all in response to divine suggestions delivered by Moses and Aaron. So how surprising is it that before they had actually fully embarked on their trip they wanted to turn back. When confronted with the sea in front of them and the chariots of Pharaoh behind them, faith in the reliability of an unseen God became more difficult. The children of Israel continue to exhibit a slave mentality. No matter how much God had done they still lacked confidence in His saving power. How ironic that they should cry out to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? (14:11) Of course there were graves in Egypt, it was the land of tombs, and they had built most of them for the past four centuries. What they were saying in effect was they would rather serve the tyrant they knew, than the benefactor they could not see.
It would be great if one more miracle would have done the trick and instilled confidence in their present arrangement, but of course it did not. The portion ends with Moses Song by the Sea, lauding the great works of God. But it would be mere weeks before the people would be completing about their lack of provision and warmly remembering the abundance of food in Egypt, even if they never actually got to partake of it. Memories can work in strange ways under duress, so sadly we have tried over and over again to ignore our contractual obligations with our God. But the covenant is sealed, and though we might try we cannot negate it, we can only place our vocation as a Kingdom of Priests in abeyance. How strange that we would choose of our own wills to build tombs for Pharaoh when we can build a kingdom for God.
Israel’s discontent has been documented over and over again throughout history, often self critically, and more often by those who wished to indict and supplant God’s chosen. But hasn’t this strange distrust of God been a sad part of the Church’s history as well. Less than three centuries after the Passover of Yeshua the Messiah, the Church struck an odd deal with the Emperor of Rome. Subsequently, the history of Europe is replete with Christians killing Christians in nationalistic zeal. Even today some so-called “pragmatists” tout an odd civil religion, advocating war and torture as acceptable responses to perceived threats. Is God not able to deliver? Moses appeal to “be still and see the deliverance of your God” might be well heeded. It would appear that under duress, some from the nations who are called to a vocation of intercession have also been misguided by their own ambitions, desires and fears. Like Israel, the historical Church has frequently chosen to build tombs for Pharaoh rather than a kingdom for God.
For those of us who are called in accordance to the purposes of the God of Israel, we should allow ourselves to be instead guided by faith in His saving power. The God who split the Red Sea can suspend all that threatens us. As we move from bondage to freedom, let us give our delusions of self and institutional sufficiency over to Him and commit ourselves to his purposes. After all, we have a contract to fulfill.