Pharaoh’s murderous directive to drown every newborn Hebrew boy seems rather out of place in the bible, especially for a book written to proclaim the faithfulness of God.
You can find the story for yourself at the opening chapter of one of the oldest books of the Bible. Exodus is an account of God’s faithfulness in delivering His people from slavery. Their suffering was severe and their oppressors were evil. It was an injustice based on racial fears, magnified by a history purposefully forgotten by a powerful leader. How powerful was Pharaoh? Powerful enough to take the threat of the Israelites seriously enough to legalize mass infanticide, all without a hint of remorse.
I don’t know what’s worse. Is it the part where babies die by virtue of their race and gender? Or is it the fact that a leader can have that kind of unchallenged power to begin with?
Actually, I think I know what bothers me most about this story. It’s an age old question:
Why does God let bad things happen?
It seems to me like this is the master question for all suffering, be it Hebrew Infanticide or any other evil injustice carried out on planet earth. This is what I wrestled with as I worked through Exodus 1:8-2:10, which happens to be the Old Testament reading for the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday, August 27, 2017.
Listen: I’m a pastor, so I know the “answers” and even find myself dishing them out. Stuff like “well… God works it out for the good…” or “we just have to trust…” and the like. But cliches weren’t cutting the mustard today (another cliche).
I started asking God really hard questions about injustice, evil, and suffering.
He first reminded me that as a white male in a rich country, I know very little about suffering compared to the majority of the world, let alone recent and ongoing racial injustices we see carried out in this nation before our eyes every day. With gratitude and a renewed fire to push back against the injustice of racism, injustice, and the disgusting hatred on display which knows nothing of the Gospel, I nevertheless kept asking God hard questions. Though I didn’t hear God’s voice (what a terrifying thought), I was impressed by a clarifying truth as it washed over me:
There’s a difference between having power and embodied power.
In this story, Pharaoh has power. It is a real power based solely on fear and the risk of losing control, and it is potent enough to kill innocents en masse. But that doesn’t mean that God loses His power, right? In fact, that’s the reason for our question: if you, Lord, have power, why don’t you overcome Pharaoh? But that, too, was the wrong question.
Pharaoh has power, but God is power.
God is power. Pharaoh has a few seconds at the controls, but God is power. Pharaoh has a limited authority because of God’s limitless power. Pharaoh has some sway at that moment of human history, but God is God, and God is power, and all of human history belongs to Him.
So, then… why does God entrust bad guys with power? I’m going to avoid the cliches here and just acknowledge the mystery of divine will and human freedom.
Are you reading this? If so, congratulations: you have power! Not just electrical, either. You have some level of autonomy, a freedom to choose to read and an energy to read it. Who decides what you do with this power? You do!
Pharaoh made a really bad decision on what to do with his power. He’s a free agent who chose evil. But God, who is power, will bring justice and carry out His plan.
People suffer because evil people have temporary power. God is power: eternal, permanent, good There is no evil that will overcome the power of God, because every evil carried out by temporary power will be exhausted. Evil lost on Easter Sunday.
I suppose, cliche as it sounds, that everything will be ok! Still… let me press more:
Our tendency is to seek comfort over justice, and that’s not the social reality of Kingdom of God.
No, this approach simply won’t do because it’s far too safe and, quite frankly, underwhelms the audacity of the Gospel. This isn’t just about finding peace for yourself. It’s a post about fighting for peace in an evil world. Do something — with the temporary power entrusted to you — to bring reconciliation, healing, and life. That’s the way of the Kingdom and its citizens.
I often wonder if God bugs me with stuff like this so that I despise my own comfort. The more I think about it, the wiser it seems to include this story in the bible because it’s like real life: raw, heartbreaking, motivated by fear, and makes God look bad. But God is not silent in this. It’s like He’s saying “here’s what happened, here’s what I did, here’s how I win. Join me.”
Sounds remarkably uncomfortable. It challenges my own clamoring for power and autonomy. It dissuades me from trying to build an empire for myself. And, most uncomfortable of all, it takes a question about human suffering and compels me to be part of the solution. Christ is victorious, and that should be apparent now in how I live and what I fight for.