An intellectual in the 18th century Enlightenment era once wrote “Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain.” It is tempting for us living in this not-necessarily-enlightened age to embrace such a pessimism toward our God, to think that Hashem is on his throne worrying because he is unable to get through the stiffnecked people of our generation. But in parashah Va’eira, we see him most definitely not contending in vain with foolishness, in particular the foolishness of Pharoah. The exact opposite is going on.
Hashem gives away his whole plan to Moses in Exodus 7:1-5
See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.
God planned all along to harden Pharoah’s heart. Jacob Prasch points this out in his message The Spirit of Truth – The Spirit of Error, one of my all-time favorite sermons. As plague after plague befalls Egypt, we see the refrain go from words translating as “Pharoah’s heart was hard” or “Pharoah hardened his heart,” to “Adonai made Pharaoh hardhearted, so that he didn’t listen to them — just as Adonai had said to Moshe.” A reasonable person would have almost certainly relented by the time all his subjects were infected with the sh’chin of the sixth plague, but here we see Pharaoh bizarrely, cartoonishly refusing to come to terms with Moshe.
So how much of Pharaoh’s stubbornness is from Hashem and how much from Pharaoh? Prasch rejects applying the Calvinist/Predestination view of God to Pharaoh, saying “God doesn’t harden his people’s heart because he elected them to hell, he hardens their heart in response to their own persistent rejection of the truth.” This is when, Prasch says alluding to 1 John 4:6, God gives them over to a Spirit of Error. “No, you cannot cast out the Spirit of Error because God sent it. When he shuts, no man opens.” At some point when someone exhibits recalcitrant stubbornness against God and the truth of his word, the resistance itself becomes the punishment.
But why? What is the tipping point of sin that leads to such a fate? What is it that God sees when he deems a person a lost cause? This things are, of course, a mystery, but we may be able to discern a pattern in the life and death of a satanically stubborn individual. Pharaoh’s stubbornness and destruction in Egypt is eerily like that of Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Jim Jones in French Guiena, David Koresh in Waco and so many other madmen who lead themselves and others to self-destruction. Except in their own eyes, they were not madmen but martyrs. One might very well imagine Pharaoh seeing himself as a stalwart of his people and the Egyptian way of life, standing firm against that usurping magician Moses and his attempts to steal the manpower of his kingdom away into the wilderness.
But even then, what could possibly make someone follow a course leading the death of yourself and all your followers? One easy answer is that the leader was insane or chemically intoxicated. Hitler, Jones and Koresh could certainly qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis and/or abused drugs. Another easy answer is belief in a false god or false cause, as if a person would have lived for Hashem rather than died for Allah if they had only known better. But these answers are unsatisfying for a number of reasons, the biggest being that it simply excuses the atrocity and ignores the role of human agency–a very strong human agency in the case of cult leaders.
A person who is punished at the hands of men and does not back down for the sake of God is said to be committing kiddush Hashem or being a martyr, a witness for the Lord. But what about the person who is punished by God and does not back down? As we read in Revelation 9 (which I reference in another post) after a horrific outpouring of wrath from God similar to the plagues on Egypt
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.
Why not?! How could this eyes-wide-open resistance to God possibly be an acceptable course of action? The best answer I can see is that these people worship self, and resisting God unto death, become martyrs to self. And for those who worship self, a God trying to make someone commit to love towards Heaven and towards others would seem like a devil. Such was Pharaoh and such will be people in these last days who refuse to let themselves go from this present bondage that they may sacrifice to Hashem.