Theology in 3D

Was God Duplicitous with Pharaoh?

Layton Talbert | May 19, 2023

I know this question bothers even some seasoned Bible readers, because two have asked me about it recently. God had already informed Moses of his ultimate intention (Exod 3:8) and had told Moses to inform the Hebrew elders of his ultimate intention (Exod 3:17)—total emancipation, deliverance, and departure from Egypt. But God initially instructed Moses to pose to Pharaoh this request: “The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So now, please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God” (Exod 3:18).

How could Moses, let alone God himself, pose such a request when both knew that the plan all along was a permanent departure? Was Moses—and, worse, God—being duplicitous?

The systematic theological answer is, of course, simple and obvious. Paul would put it this way: “God forbid.” May such an aberrant theological impossibility never be contemplated. This is the “God who cannot lie” (Tit 1:2) and in whom there is “no unrighteousness” (Ps 92:15). And yet we cannot help reading the seemingly shady Exodus 3:18 in the searing sunlight of Exodus 3:8 and 17.

A little moral context is helpful for a start. Pharaoh had no legitimate rule over the Hebrews in the first place; it was only by sheer force that he enslaved those who were originally Egypt’s honored guests—the family of the man who (humanly speaking) had saved the nation from mass starvation. Moreover, the Hebrews had been treacherously betrayed and robbed of their original possession and status in Egypt (Gen 47:6, 11).

But God had already known and planned all this long before Exodus 3:8. Four centuries earlier God had informed Abraham of what was going to happen to his descendants (Gen 15:13-14; note the word serve). It is on that covenantal basis that the theological issue at the heart of this divine-human confrontation four centuries later is twofold: (1) servitude (‘abad)—“The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to serve rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of service in the field, all their service which they rigorously imposed on them” (Exod 1:13-14); and (2) ownership, or to be more precise, relationship—God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is My son, My firstborn. . . . Let My son go that he may serve Me” not you (Exod 4:22-23). That becomes the repeated divine demand: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” not you (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 4).

Why, then, would God (through Moses) present his initial demand in the ostensibly temporary terms of a three-day journey into the wilderness? The conventional answer is that God directed Moses to begin by putting forth a reasonable request, the foreknown refusal of which was quite unreasonable. Consequently, Pharaoh’s unreasonable rejection of Moses’ request (Exod 5:1)—not to mention his blasphemous denial of Yahweh himself (Exod 5:2)—eventually turned a reasonable request into a demand for total liberation resulting in Pharaoh’s own voluntary emancipation proclamation (Exod 12:31-32). In other words, “God deliberately graded his requests of Pharaoh from easier (a three-day journey, with an understood obligation to return) to more difficult (the total release of the enslaved people) in order to give Pharaoh every possible aid in making an admittedly most difficult political and economic decision” (Kaiser, “Exodus,” EBC, II:322). Since Pharaoh denied this initial request, God shifts to a demand for total emancipation. Like most who offer some version of this explanation, Kaiser assumes that if the initial request had been granted, Israel would have been obligated to return to slavery in Egypt. But why? More on that in a moment.

One objection to this explanation is that it is not clear that the original request actually ever changes. (Incidentally, of all the propositions put to Pharaoh, only Exodus 5:3 may be described as a “request”; every subsequent form of this proposition is a demand complete with threats!) The specification of “three days’ journey” still shows up even as late as after Plague 4 (Exod 8:27). For his part, Pharaoh keeps trying to negotiate for a temporary departure. His first acquiescence stipulates that they not go far (Exod 8:28), but then he reneges (Exod 8:32). When Plague 8 is threatened, Pharaoh insists that they leave behind their children (Exod 10:8, 10-11). Even after Plague 9 (!), he is still bargaining for their return by demanding that they leave their animals (Exod 10:24). In the end (to mix a metaphor), Pharaoh sees the handwriting on the wall and comprehends that there is no promise or guarantee of their return (Exod 12:31-32; 14:3, 5).

Some chalk up all this talk of “three days” to cultural negotiation norms. Douglas Stuart (Exodus, NAC, 124-25) argues that when Moses said “three days,” it was merely an accepted, diplomatic way of requesting complete emancipation: “the amount of time literally requested is miniscule compared to the amount of time actually expected. . . . ‘Three day journey’ was an idiom in the ancient world for ‘a major trip with formal consequences.’ Pharaoh would have heard it that way and would also have heard it as meaning ‘We want to leave Egypt for however long we choose.’” Consequently, Moses and Pharaoh both knew full well that this was no temporary proposition but a full-scale declaration of independence, and that’s why Pharaoh was so intransigent. I’m no expert in ancient cultural negotiation practices, but I don’t find that explanation entirely convincing. It seems to me that the answer may be even a little simpler and a little more obvious.

What was proposed from the beginning was not a three-day absence but a three-day journey “into the wilderness” outside the borders of Egypt (Exod 8:25-27), followed by a conspicuously undefined period of worshiping and sacrificing to God. In other words, the request was for freedom to depart without harm for a period of time that is left entirely open-ended (Exod 8:27). The proposition never makes any mention, nor entails any obligation, of a return.

Why would we assume that the original proposition somehow obligated them to return to slavery in Egypt, when (a) no such promise is ever stipulated, and (b) there was no obligation to enslavement in the first place? Laying out and tracing in succession all the texts demanding Pharaoh’s release is a very helpful exercise. At no point does Moses ever propose their return. The difference between this and Stuart’s view is that, rather than invoking cultural negotiating idioms that both sides “understood,” the proposition itself simply never foresees any return; we mistakenly assume a nonexistent obligation and implication.

Then why even mention “three days” in the first place? Why not just cut to the chase and say, “You have no right to enslave the Hebrews. They are My people. I am moving them back to the land I promised to them long ago. I demand that you release them”? I am not aware of a definitive textual answer to that question; that’s what the above suggestions are wrestling with. My provisional answer is that while the ultimate plan was complete emancipation (Exod 3:7-10, 16-17), the original phase of that plan (Exod 3:18; 5:3) was a three-day journey into the wilderness to hold a worship feast to the Lord, and then proceed from there under the Lord’s direction (cf. Exod 8:27). Pharaoh’s pursuit and the divine overthrow of Egyptian power altered the circumstances and obviated that original proposition.*

In short, there was never any deception because there was no promise or obligation to come back to enforced slavery. Whether or not Pharaoh caught that missing detail from the start or “understood” the true intent of the demand from the beginning, he repeatedly tries to negotiate a compelled return. In any case, what is true from the beginning becomes increasingly apparent: the only proposition on the table is a permanent one. Any perceived duplicity is the result of a mistaken assumption that the original proposition implied or obligated a return—an error set right by paying closer attention to the details of the text.

*I suggest this phenomenon fits into the category of prophetic contingency; God may pronounce a particular event but changing circumstances may alter that event. The classic expression of prophetic contingency is Jeremiah 18:7-10. Specific examples include Jonah’s definitive and unconditional pronouncement of judgment on Nineveh which was averted by Nineveh’s repentance, or God’s pronouncement of judgment on Ahab’s posterity (1 Kgs 21:21) which was delayed because of Ahab’s humility (1 Kgs 21:27-29), or even God’s certain knowledge that the inhabitants of Keilah would deliver David over to Saul, which never happened because David left before Saul arrived (1 Sam 23:11-13).

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