His Love Endures Forever

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever.

To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt.
His love endures forever. - Psalm 136:1,10

What a bizarre thing to say. From my perspective, killing children is not a demonstration of love. I would call it cruelty, murder, perhaps genocide.

I suppose the author considered God's love (particularly his enduring love) to be more or less exclusive to Israel. The killing of every firstborn male in Egypt for the sake of Israel is seen as a cause for celebration and worship. This idea that's God's love is foremost or exclusively for the chosen people (chosen, not more obedient) crops up often in the Old Testament. Malachi even tells us we can see God's love by comparing Israel to those he hates.

I've mentioned before (point 5) that nations in the Bible seem to be only as good or evil as their kings. When righteous kings rule, the people are obedient and God blesses them. When wicked kings rule, the people are wicked, and God pours out his wrath upon them. I somehow doubt that all the people of a nation suddenly became moral or immoral when a new king was crowned; more likely the rise of a wicked king meant that the wicked people became wealthy and powerful, and with the rise of a righteous king they were killed or removed. Unless human nature has changed drastically since Bible times, I can't believe that there was ever such a thing as a wicked or righteous nation, only nations in which the ruler allows either wickedness or righteousness to prosper. If this is true it seems horribly cruel and unjust for God to bring judgment on a nation like Egypt. There was never a referendum on whether to let God's people go, and even if the majority of the Egyptians were resolutely opposed (which they weren't, as we'll see) the minority would not deserve continued judgment. (Someone might argue that God judges nations as a whole because it is not possible for him to pick a specific kind of person, such as "the wicked", out of a group and kill only them, but Exodus says that it is.)

But it gets worse. The Bible says that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" so that he would refuse to release the Israelites. I've heard people defend God by claiming that first Pharaoh hardened his own heart several times, and then at a certain point God started hardening it for him. This is supposed to show that if you rebel against God for too long, eventually he gives up on you and makes you an object of his wrath or something like that. (So much for "His love endures forever".) Aside from not addressing the problem of judging a whole nation for its ruler's irrational obstinacy, the main problem with this claim is that it's not true. God planned to harden Pharaoh's heart right from the start. Look:

The LORD said to Moses, "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'" - Exodus 4:21-23

And He says it again. (This is still before Moses has come before Pharaoh for the first time.)

"You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites." - Exodus 7:2-4

Sure enough, Pharaoh's heart is hardened. This is referred to at least a dozen times between Exodus 7 and 14. Sometimes it says Pharaoh hardened his heart, and sometimes it simply says that his heart became hard, or was hard, but mostly it says that God hardened his heart. I suspect that the writer of Exodus doesn't pay particular attention to who was responsible for each instance of hardening. The point seems to be that both Pharaoh and God are responsible.

It's strange that God goes through this long, brutal charade of demands and plagues and heart-hardening. The text seems to indicate that at several points God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart actually prevented Israel from being released, so clearly all this suffering is not an unfortunate-yet-necessary means to the deliverance of Israel. It seems that God's only reason for sending at least the last three plagues (those that occur after the last mention of Pharaoh hardening his own heart) was to demonstrate his power. God killed thousands of children just to prove that he could. And it gets worse:

Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. - Exodus 11:5

If the death of a child was a just punishment (which it isn't, according to the God of Ezekiel), the death of Pharaoh's firstborn might be considered just. You'd have to argue that it was punishment for his general cruelty, rather than for his final, God-forced refusal to free the Israelites, but we'll let that pass for now. It might even be possible to argue that the Egyptians in general deserved this punishment for their cruelty towards Israel, although I would vehemently disagree. But what possible reason could God have for killing the sons of slave girls?

Forget about God hearing the cries of the oppressed. That's not what this is about. Far from concerning himself with their liberation, God is perfectly willing to bring suffering and destruction on Egypt's non-Jewish (i.e. non-Chosen) slaves. I suppose the reason is that the death of their firstborn slaves, along with their livestock and their own sons would make a more impressive demonstration of God's power for the Egyptians. That's God's goal here.

Bear in mind that by the time the tenth plague rolls around, no one wants the Israelites in Egypt anymore. The Egyptians have been made "favorably disposed" to them. (Which seems to mean scared to death.) Even Pharaoh's officials are urging him to let them go. And the Israelites themselves are still in slavery. The only one who's interested in delaying the exodus is God, who is intent on further proving his power by killing children.

By the way, I've often heard the argument that God refrains from performing great miracles in our time because of his great respect for human free will. The idea is that if God openly and miraculously intervened in our world, we would be forced to believe in Him. I have several objections to this argument. Is simply believing in God's existence what He wants from us? Isn't it obedience? Disbelief in the existence of God is quite a recent development; did humans have less free will before the advent of atheism? And most importantly, where is this concern for free will in the Bible? Jesus doesn't refrain from performing miracles for fear that it might force someone to believe in him. Signs and wonders are a staple of evangelism is Acts. And in the Old Testament, miracles are continuously performed not in spite of but for the purpose of proving the existence and power of God. (Remember Mount Carmel?) Here in Exodus, not only is God not concerned that his miracles will compromise free will, but he repeatedly overrides Pharaoh's free will in order to to preform more spectacular (and more horrible) miracles, and he does this explicitly for the purpose of proving his existence and power.

It astounds me that God did not simply kill Pharaoh himself, and anyone else who would prevent Israel from leaving. This would be more effective, more just, at least as easy and no less spectacular than killing firstborn sons. Why target children? That's movie-villain stuff. Even in war, the death of children is a ghastly thing, and anyone with a shred of decency will try to avoid it. That God kills thousands of people at the same time, and kills only firstborn males, and kills every one of them except those in houses with lambs' blood on their door, shows that He strikes with a precision that no earthly force could dream of. That He directly targets not those who deserve punishment or those who present and obstacle to the freedom of his people but children, even the children of slaves, and that he planned to do this from the beginning, and hardened his adversary in order to make this possible, and did it simply to demonstrate the magnitude of his power, makes him a monster.

To clarify, I do not believe that God is a monster. I believe in a good and compassionate God; a God whose love endures forever. But I do not believe that the God described here and in similar Bible stories is my God. (If you think this is an isolated incident, see Joshua 11.) It amazes me that anyone can believe in the God described by Moses and Joshua. It amazes me even more that people can describe this God as loving.


Katie V. said...

Well, i'm sure you are way beyond this point in your search but i have a few questions. Just coming from being fairly extreme on the fundamentalist side of things (what, no dating without the specific intent to marry?) I'm sure that I have used most of the defenses you wrote about in this last post. I did it to protect my own faith from having to admit that maybe the OT and NT don't always match. Anyway, what allows you to believe in a compassionate God when the stories don't add up? Is it not a necessary condition for the purpose of the death and resurrection to be true the creation story must also be true?

Jacob said...

For me belief in a compassionate God is just something I choose to believe, or believe naturally. I have no good argument against the existence of a malevolent God, or no God. God's goodness is just something I assume. It gives me a starting point.

Regarding your second question, "true" can mean a lot of things. If we find that a story like the creation story does not fit with our idea of historical truth, it's worth asking whether it was intended to convey a different kind of truth, such as theological truth. Certainly it's easier to interpret the Bible if we believe that everything in it is true in all the ways we would expect it to be true (including historically and perhaps scientifically) but I don't think "whatever's easiest" is a very good hermeneutical principle. I'm not sure why the truth (of any kind) of the creation account would be necessary for the truth (of any kind) of resurrection account. Can you explain this to me?

Katie V. said...

thanks for the reply. To explain: The argument goes that the need for salvation comes from the fact that we are fallen. We are fallen, not because we were created that way, but because of Adam and Eve's sin. therefore, everything was truly good in the beginning. Also, the punishment of sin being death did not enter the world until after 'the fall'. If God had, for example, actually created the world over millions of years through evolution then there would have had to be death and destruction to eventually create the first humans (ie. natural selection) meaning that death came before sin and everything was not good/perfect at the start. I guess we don't have to know exactly how the world was created to believe in God but without those pre-conditions of death entering by an initial sin, the world having been in a previous state of perfect communion with God, why would Christ have to come and die at all?

Hmm, even as I type that it doesn't seem as sound of an argument as it had before. i would still be interested in hearing your opinion.

Jacob said...

Ah yes, the Fall. I have trouble with the idea that the world was perfect, then Adam screwed up, then everything went to shit. It doesn't make sense to me why one man's sin would have such a great impact on all future generations, and even on all of creation. Did Adam's sin change human nature, cause the evolution of diseases and the beginning of natural disasters, even drastically alter of the physiology of carnivores? If innocents suffering for the sins of others is a big part of the problem of pain, it seems to me that the Fall exacerbates the problem, rather than solving it. (See this post.)

I don't have an alternative theory on why the world became imperfect, or wasn't perfect in the first place. That's way beyond me. I do believe that Jesus' death had profound metaphysical consequences - that in some sense he saved us - but I couldn't tell you exactly how, or from what. But I believe that Jesus' death, like his life, was an act of love, which has consequences not only in eternity, but here and now. I believe Jesus came and lived and died in large part to change the way we live, the way we think, the way we interact with each other and with God. Does that make sense?

Lucid Elusion said...

funny :) You must find me amazing, Jake, since I can believe (and follow and love) the God described by Moses & Joshua as well as continue to call that very same God perfectly loving.


Jacob said...

Ya, I really don't understand that. Do you honestly think a loving God would do what Exodus claims he did? Or do you just believe that whatever the Bible says God did, that must be loving? Is it a Romans 9 thing, like "God can do whatever he wants because He's God and if He says He's loving then He's loving and who are you to talk back to Him?" Or have I misread the text?

Filth- Man said...

Dating without specific intent to marry? Can there be such a thing? (Kidding, Katie, it just amuses me that Christians get so worked up about this.)

Jacob, I suppose God's lawyer might argue that all the egyptian children were going to die anyway at some point, and that God has the right to pick the time... perhaps the kids get extra rewards in heaven. (Ya I know that you won't buy this argument at all.)

Some rather charismatic books I read would propose that heathen egypt, or Canaan, was thoroughly infested by demons. This makes the exodus or the conquest of Caanan a war between God and Satan. By killing the first born sons, God shows his clear victory(perhaps because first born sons were often sacrificed to gods?) By killing everyone in Canaan, God removed the demons infesting them, making the land inhabitable for Jews.

I don't think I buy the abovementioned explanation either, just thought it might by interesting. In fact, I have no clue why God would chose to smite Egyptian children, other than to say that the death of children in the OT is often seen as supreme punishment for the parents. Sucks for the kids, that's for sure.

Jacob said...

That is interesting. I don't pretend to know what goes on in the spiritual realm, but surely there's a better way of chasing out demons than killing everyone.

Lonni said...

Hi Jacob. I do think you may find it odd that someone like myself has not just a belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc. and also whose love endures forever - but I am utterly convinced of who He is. I would like to share some things with you - if you're willing to hear me out :)
Let me just say that it took me several years to come to that place - to reconcile the two, b/c they seem to be opposites. Can God be holy and judge sin, and also be full of love and compassion - to a point where the bible says He is, in fact, love itself?
The answer is yes...but that doesn't usually makes sense to us very easily.
Can I leave you some food for thought?
First of all, God knows, you, sees you, sees you when you lie in bed at night, knows your going in, coming out, no thought or way of yours is hidden from him, if the bible is true, right?
And His love for you is true - He will accept you and love you like no one else will...
But here's the catch:
Do you deserve that (and do I)? Look at your life - and truthfully consider this. What you are asking of Him - to love you, accept you, receive you, and even reward you...are you really deserving, and am I or anyone else?
The bible says we deserve death...and nothing more - eternal separation and punishment from our loving creator. And, Jacob, sin is ugly - no matter how you slice the pie. It hurts, kills, steals, and destroys from your life and from mine; small or large, it kills.
If you believe you are deserving, ask God to prove this to you - will He defend you - or are you trying to defend yourself before the one who gave you life and can take it away in an instant?
Do you know how many hairs are on your head? He does. Consider the reply of Job to God:
"But how can a mortal be righteous before God?
Though one wished to dispute with him, he could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it and overturns them in his anger. He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine; he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea...
When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
If he snatches away, who can stop him? Who can say to him 'What are you doing'?...
How then, can I dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him?

Consider this, if you are willing:
The same God whom Job knew he could not contend with - the God who could have killed Job at a moments notice, restored to him his fortunes - twice what he had before.
I don't understand Him fully - it's like looking "dimly through a mirror" (1 Cor 13) right now. But I know this: I can't change Him. I'm a blade of grass that's here one day and gone the next. "What is your life?"
While it doesn't make sense, our lives are valuable to Him...and all your sin and my sin that made us so undeserving was paid for on GOOD Friday...why else would a "LOVING" God sacrifice His own son? You talked about all the children of Egypt that God had cut down because of the people's sin - well, He let His own Son - His perfect Son who never sinned - be cut down for your sins, for your mistakes, and for mine. The one who deserved glory was crucified for our mistakes. He knows what it is like to lose His child - His innocent child.
If that's not love, I don't know what is.

Jacob said...

I appreciate the comment, Lonni. I'm aware of the position that says
1.humans are so wicked that we deserve to suffer intensely and endlessly
2.we deserve this from the moment we're born (because we are in some sense "guilty" of Adam's sin)
3.every moment that God chooses not to pour out his wrath against us is a pure, undeserved, and unfathomable act of grace
4.any time God does choose to smite someone, for whatever reason, he is completely justified in doing so, regardless of circumstances.
My problems with this doctrine run deep. For one thing, it derives from a particular reading of the story of "the fall", which I think causes more problems than it solves (see this post). But the case of the plagues against Egypt presents a special problem for this view.

If we suppose that even the infant sons of Egyptian slave girls were deserving of death, and thus that none of the plagues were unjust, then why didn't God just smite Egypt? Why did God go through the long charade of ordering Pharaoh to release the Israelites, hardening Pharaoh's heart so that he would refuse, and punishing Pharaoh's "disobedience" by pouring out His wrath on the Egyptians? (He does this repeatedly.) If all humans are, by our very nature, deserving of God's wrath, why does God need Pharaoh's (forced) rebellion in order to unleash his plagues and prove his power?

ron quin said...

I think, this will sound kind of rude, but among men this could be bared. First, the idea of not being able to understand ( i would use the word feel instead ) violence as an act of love, comes from men that did not have the chance to learn how to build or be part of a team of men. Who are usualy men that were raised without a father or were raised hating his father..So, the problem is not the bible

Jens said...

huh Ron?

I don't quite understand what you are talking about, but I know that Jacob has a father, and a good one. Maybe I am nissing your point.