Who’s The Terrorist God or Pharaoh

Answering An Atheist

Original arguments are found in the post “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories
On the web site “Not A Potted Plant” (NAPP)

In a previous post I began responding to an atheist’s (TL) criticisms of certain Bible stories and the first one focused on Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians when they queried him about Roman taxation. TL suggested Romans were the enemy and Jesus’ response was collaboration. You can read his arguments here and my response here.

Since atheists are not believers and usually judged as indifferent by those who are, some might wonder why I bother responding. It might seem like a waste of time.  But, the truth is, an atheist will often ask openly what believers only wonder about quietly. And these questions need to be explored.

It is only the fearful and insecure that react defensively and run.  So, we should be thankful the criticisms are made and diligent in our efforts to think through them.

The next criticism (number 2 on his list) involves God’s handling of the Egyptians during the Exodus, particularly in the matter of the Passover. You are probably familiar with the story.

At midnight on the evening of the Passover any family who failed to comply with the ceremony (evidenced by no blood on the door post) suffered the death of their firstborn child as well as the first born of all cattle.

Cattle were included because the bull was the Egyptian symbol of deity and owning cows was a symbol of status. In response, TL accuses God of terrorism. His words…

Terrorism is good if God says it is

In developing his argument he makes several observations some of which are misaligned with the facts and others just plain miscalculated. The arguments are:

  • God instigated the whole thing by hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
  • He compares Israel’s deliverance to California seceding from the union.
  • He questions the accuracy of the biblical account in two places: one, he says Israelite assassins and not God killed the first born and two, marking the door posts with lamb’s blood had no theological import but was necessary only as a guide for the assassins (terrorists).
  • He accuses God of using others to do His “wet” work and refers to several incidences as proof: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Satan inflicting Job and Israelite citizens stoning gay men.
  • He accuses the Israelites of theft.

God instigated the whole thing by hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

The implication is, God had unjustified evil intent from the start, knowing in advance that He would destroy Pharaoh, and therefore is a terrorist.

The real question, however, is how does God’s sovereignty work? Does He override human will or does He honor it? It is a sticky point even among Christians.

There are those who suggest that God can and does do whatever He wishes to any person He wishes at any time and is completely just whether we understand it or not even when the circumstances seem brutally cruel.

The people who hold this view are generally referred to as “Calvinists” or “Reformed” and they have had a lot of influence in Christian circles. They, however, are not the only voices to consider.

Respectfully, I, along with many others, disagree with the historic Calvinist position and for that reason see God acting only in conjunction with human will. Let me explain.

Firstly, Pharaoh’s heart is said to be hardened twenty times in the Book of Exodus. Ten times the hardening is attributed to Pharaoh and ten times it is attributed to God. The first two references are ascribed to God but only prophetically, i.e., it was going to happen, God at some point in the future was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but He had not started doing that when the prophecy was stated. And…that doesn’t automatically presuppose God made decisions on Pharaoh’s behalf against his will.

In the next six references Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart and it is somewhat back and forth after that. Sometimes Pharaoh and sometimes God.

The point? Pharaoh had opportunities to acquiesce but he willfully chose to do otherwise. All things considered, the terms at every point in the negotiating process, barring the last plague, were very generous. Greater leaders have surrendered with far less reason. What Pharaoh finally got is what he asked for and deserved. Even if his evil actions in the past did not qualify him as worthy of destruction his stupidity during this process did.

Second, we need to understand the figure of speech known as “metonymy” which associates actions and outcomes more directly than they really are. Let me illustrate.

In baseball we say that pitchers:

  • Strike out batters, or
  • Make them swing, or
  • Make them hit into a double play and so on

In actual fact, no pitcher has the power to do any of those things at will. They can play skillfully enough to achieve these outcomes more ofthen than not, and we reward them when they do but they don’t force batters to act against their will. They can only coerce them by throwing pitches of varying speeds, planes and shapes. In the end both pitcher and batter act in character and willfully. To say a pitcher struck a batter out is attributing an outcome to a person or action more directly than is actually the case, metonymy.

The same is true with God and Pharaoh. God was forcing the issue knowing exactly how Pharaoh would respond and it didn’t require that much foreknowledge to figure it out. Pharaoh’s obstinate nature and abusive, murderous intentions toward Israel were well known. His psychological bent was solidly formed.  God didn’t make Pharaoh assume an attitude he didn’t already have but He did bring it to a head.

God’s actions were patiently merciful not capricious. Everyone was better off, even the Egyptians, though Pharaoh’s obstinance cost them dearly in the end.

God did not make decisions for Pharaoh. If that were the case it would have much more efficient to mash him and all Egypt immediately and walk out of town with His people in tow, no questions asked or discussion entertained.

Instead, He, like a skillful lawyer drawing out a guilty defendant, bandied with Pharaoh to show his true colors for judge, jury and the whole world to see. If anything, this approach respected Pharaoh’s individuality and honored his independence.

LT compares Israel’s deliverance to California seceding from the union.

Israel, unlike California, was not a sovereign state. In fact, they were nothing but slaves in the worst way. Pharaoh had been systematically killing their firstborn sons for at least eighty years just to keep them from gaining enough strength to revolt.

Many more died under the imposition of unreasonably harsh demands. For double protection, he placed impossible work quotas on them and the pyramids no doubt were built on the back of their hard labor. He provided a new perspective on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

If California was enslaved to the same degree, they would be fighting for deliverance not negotiating secession. LT suggested we should see things from Pharaoh’s perspective but I think it would be easier to sympathize with Saddam Hussein.

The people who see this differently are all the groups or classes of the oppressed.  They cheer Moses on, turning his political cry, “let my people go,” into songs and some of them don’t believe the Bible either.

LT questions the accuracy of the biblical account in two places: one, he says Israelite assassins and not God killed the first born and two, marking the door posts with lamb’s blood had no theological import but was used only as a guide for the assassins (terrorists)

This suggestion actually opens up many logistical problems. For several reasons the Israelites would have found it impossible to accomplish this task.

  • Being a nation, not a city, Egypt was too large a territory to cover in one night. The Israelites were poor and had limited transportation but even with the best it would have been impossible to cover the area in the time allotted. The Israelites lived apart from the Egyptians anyway.
  • Even if they could cover the distance it would have been difficult to identify the firstborn without time-consuming interrogation.  Not possible.
  • Terrorist operations, even small ones, are meticulously planned and organized. Given the spontaneous manner in which this plague was executed it would be miraculous for such an enslaved and operationally unskilled group to pull this off.

For the record, blood on the doorpost identified believers not Israelites. Egyptians could participate in the Passover also and Israelites did so only if they chose to. Egyptians left in the Exodus as well. There may have been some Israelites left behind.

LT accuses God of using others to do His “wet” work and refers to several incidents as proof: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Satan inflicting Job and Israelite citizens stoning gay men.

Abraham and Isaac
No one died. No “wet” work.

Satan inflicting Job
Satan didn’t kill anyone and it is very possible that before Job’s troubles, his family had been protected, overly so, by God. This incident represented a lifting of protection rather than a command to kill.

Humanity has never had a shortage of people willing and capable of murder and the lesson is, God makes no guarantees of protection just because we seem to be His favorites. That still holds true today. Believer or not the same troubles befall everyone and are usually the result of things not directly controlled by God.

Israelite citizens stoning gay men
To my knowledge this never happened, ever.

He accuses the Israelites of theft.

This is a bit of a hoot.

  • If it hadn’t been for Joseph, an Israelite, Egypt wouldn’t have existed.
  • If it hadn’t been for free labor for a very long time (80 plus years) Egypt would not have excelled.

Please note that Israelites represented a high class version of slaves. They were very resourceful having to accumulate their own materials for making brick and there is no doubt their superior intelligence contributed to the building of the Pyramids, the mechanics of which we haven’t figured out yet.

Egypt owed Israel everything. What they gave them was just a token.

Terrorists don’t communicate diplomatically

Terrorists are basically cowards and always operate under the cover of darkness.  Their suicides are motivated by strong delusion and in some cases drugs.  God didn’t operate that way.

At every point Pharaoh and his people knew exactly what to expect and they had every opportunity to avoid it.  God forced the issue but Pharaoh determined the outcome.  The Egyptians were terrorized by Pharaoh’s actions not God’s.

Pharaoh might have felt terrible but he wasn’t terrorized. He was getting a taste of his own medicine.

What do you THINK!AboutIt?


  1. says

    Mr. Leibniz sums up my thinking quite accurately and I know that is a bother for some. I do assume at the start that God is only benevolent but I don’t, however, think God makes choices which bend the moral rules.

    That is the usual assumption made. If God is only good then He must not be subject to the same moral guidelines as the rest of us. There are Christians who would suggest that. I’m not one of them.

    That means we must work very hard to investigate each event and consider every question before we can “prove” anything. This happens in courts of law everyday and we don’t always get it right.

    We struggle with God’s actions for the same reason we struggle to make things right in everyday life. “What is a moral principle?” is not a difficult question to answer but “how does it fit into a particular life scenario?” is never easily resolved.

    It is always wrong to murder another person but it isn’t always wrong to take a person’s life. Superficially speaking, what turns gang members into criminals turns soldiers in to heroes.

    “Mercy killing” is another example. Is it murder? Does it disrespect human life? Is it merciful or just a cop out? I’m not arguing the pros and cons of the issue but it does illustrate the difficulties we have in applying the rules.

    Concerning God’s actions we are either lazy or dismissive. Those who believe He is benevolent before investigating (my perspective) see no reason to investigate further (lazy). Those who disbelieve (your group) tend to dismiss Him on superficial grounds (dismissive).

    The way we discuss God’s actions person to person in everyday life, on blogs and such, would not be sufficient for a court of law. Neither side would win or if one did it would be based on inconclusive evidence one way or the other.

    As you mentioned, there are several instances when God’s action, on the surface, begs the question. But, I would be no less wrong in assuming God’s goodness without explanation than accusers would be without the same.

    Each case must be taken on its merits and diligently studied before conclusions are drawn. The Abraham-Isaac event is often raised as an example of God’s immorality. I will discuss it in a future post.

    One last question. How do you think Egyptian newscasters would report the Exodus? I will post a humorous version on my blog.

  2. says

    I look forward to your tackling of the execute-the-gays issue.

    As to the issue of the “veracity” of the text, bear in mind that there is functionally zero archeological evidence for the Exodus, zero archeological evidence that Hebrews were ever slaves in significant numbers in Egypt. And the Egyptians have left behind substantial written records of even very mundane aspects of their lives for the entirety of their history as an organized political entity from Narmer, the first Pharaoh, all the way to Cleopatra VII, the last.

    So we have to take the story as a legend, as a myth. So what moral lesson does this myth teach us?

    In the story, God authorizes Moses and the Israelites to do things that, without God’s blessing, would have been very immoral. Indeed, God himself may be one of the direct perpetrators of these immoral acts, although I’ll concede that the various translations floating around out there vary as to God’s personal involvement, and so that facet of the story is somewhat obscured.

    But the core question remains, and it is the same one with which Socrates confronted Euthyphro: does God’s blessing, alone, transform an otherwise-immoral action into one which is morally acceptable? I understand the point of your argument is to put a moral gloss on God’s actions. But this issue comes up frequently (e.g., the Sacrifice of Abraham, the Massacre of the Midianites, Yael’s murder of Sisera, the list goes on and on).

    If the answer is “yes,” (which is the fundamental moral lesson of the Passover story) then morality becomes an exercise in constructing a post hoc rationalization of what are ultimately arbitrary commands — commands which in theory come from God but which in practice are delivered by human beings in positions of political power, with all that implies. And ultimately, if we answer the question “yes,” then any moral inquiry into the Bible ultimately must resort to special pleading — “God is different, the rules of morality do not apply to Him.”

    If the answer is “no,” then morality becomes something independent of God and God himself becomes capable of immoral behavior. We cease to be arrogant when we morally judge God’s own actions. This says nothing about the question of whether God created the world or takes an active involvement in human affairs, by the way, but it does suborn even God to questions of morals, and substantially negates much of the lessons of the Bible.

    This strikes me as a very difficult question for an apologist to confront. Even the possibly smartest man the Western world has ever produced, Gottfried Leibniz, could not answer it adequately without a fallacious resort to first principles (see sections 3 and 4 of the linked text).

  3. says

    Unless we argue the veracity of the text we will have to argue within the details presented or we cannot argue for or against anything God did (or anyone else). If we use the statements and actions of God (as recorded in the text) against Him then we must use other details recorded elsewhere to justify or explain. So, I accept that Israel went to Egypt willingly, that Joseph was instrumental in negotiating that transition and their relationship with Egypt initially was economically reciprocal because that is what we are told.

    Yes, you are correct, there was a significant attemtp to disobey Pharaoh’s edict to destroy Israelite sons and I probably overstated the issue in my arguments. But, evil intent is established and as I said many probably died under hard labor.

    We do know that Israel’s enslavement was cruel enough to drive Moses to take their deliverance into his own hands which not only failed completely (he was rejected by Egypt and Israel) but he would have been destroyed by Pharaoh had he not run. There is no reason to believe that any of the Pharaohs were hesitant to destroy resistors.

    When I say “they were slaves in the worst way,” I’m speakinig of their situation. When I refer to them as “high class” I’m speaking of their character-capabilities as individuals and as a community. Other nationalities were enslaved by the Egyptians. I doubt any of them retained an identify with their roots as strongly as Israel did with theirs.

    But, you seem to be contradicting yourself between the stories. Jesus collaborated with Rome because He paid taxes but God was being unreasonable to ask Pharaoh to let His people go – and He did ask. He could have walked in, pushed everyone arond and walked out (there would have been no less blood letting in that scenario) but He allowed Pharaoh to make his own choices.

    And, this was a judicial exercise. God went through the negotiation process with Pharaoh for the same reason we meticulously try serial murders. Justice is swift but judgment is accompanied by careful, time consuming attention to detail. And, God, like the judicial system today, is damned if He does and damned if He doesn’t.

    I also question the connection between “diplomacy” and terroism. “Thuggery” or “opportunism” but not dipolmacy. Terrorists communicate, yes, but not with great diplomacy and as the saying goes, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

    Yes, God did kill the firstborn but that was not the same as killing “children.” “First born” is not synonymous with “recent born.” It is very likely many of the first born were old enough to be conscripted soldiers and would have been the very ones to enforce violently a stay of the Exodus. Maybe we should see it as a military strategy and AWOL was an optin for these soldiers. There was nothing stopping them from participating in the Passover.

    Sorry, “Hoot” was a poor choice of words but let me explain “token.” What Israel “borrowed” may have represented at least a large percentage of what the Egyptians possessed but it was only a “token” of the enrichment they had received at the expense of the Israelites.

    I’m not prepared to discuss exact amounts but, yes, I think reparations are jusfied in both cases, US slavery and South African Apartheid. I have witnessed, first hand, both EEO in the US and BEE in South Africa and listened to both sides carping about it. In both cases it represents a token, affordable to one side and marginally helpful to the other.

    Your argument about slaves is valid and I don’t believe the Hebrews were models of benevolent slave ownership. But, I will talk about that in the next post about the excution of gays.

  4. says

    You assume God’s good moral intentions from the start, and you assume Pharaoh’s bad moral intentions from the start. This is equally as unwarranted as would be attributing an unjustified evil motive to God from the start. To that charge, I plead innocent. I think God’s actions in the story should speak for themselves.

    As to Pharaoh and his moral worth, it looks like you’re making an assumption that the Israelites came to Egypt of their own accord; that under the wise leadership of Joseph as vizier, that they became an integral part of the Egyptian economy; and that (possibly after a change of Pharaoh) they later became unjustly enslaved. Then there is the status of their slavery. At one point you say that “they were nothing but slaves in the worst way” and had been the victims of a pattern of governmental murder of their sons. But later you say that the “Israelites represented a high class version of slaves.” So which is it?

    I’m not attempting to morally analyze or defend Pharaoh and I think you’re wrong to suggest that this is my goal. Your assumption that Pharaoh is a bad actor seems predicated upon the order of his predecessor (Exodus 2:23) to kill the sons of the Israelites (Exodus 1:16) although he was disobeyed (Exodus 1:17).

    Indeed, Exodus and you both seem to assume without evidence that this new Pharaoh is a bad guy, that he had no “right” to keep the Israelites in Egypt as slaves. This proposition cannot be supported by the idea that the Israelites were slaves, because Mosaic law was replete with incidents of keeping slaves.

    The typical apology for Hebrew slavekeeping is based on the idea that the Israelites were benevolent masters and owners of their slaves, which I think is pretty convincingly belied by the idea that a slave’s owner could beat him with impunity so long as he did not strike the salve dead on the spot. So instead we must look elsewhere for the idea that this kind of slavery was wrong.

    Now, in the context of the Passover story, Pharaoh is the king of Egypt – a nation that has become wealthy and powerful thanks in no small part due to the contributions of the Israelites: you make the point that “If it hadn’t been for Joseph, an Israelite, Egypt wouldn’t have existed” and “If it hadn’t been for free labor for a very long time (80 plus years) Egypt would not have excelled.” This conforms to your suggestion that the Israelites were an integral part of Egypt. Thus my comparison of the request that the Israelites be allowed to leave to the idea of a state of the US seceding from the Union. What incentive could Pharaoh possibly have had to have allowed the Israelites – valued, intelligent, elite workers, who according to you helped create the pyramids and build Egypt into a powerful empire — to leave?

    So perhaps it’s a moot point as to whether God “made” Pharaoh’s heart hard when he negotiated with Moses. (But as I count the incidents in the story, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart eleven times (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, and 14:17) and Pharaoh hardens his own heart only twice (Exodus 8:32 and 9:34).) Perhaps it’s because I’m a lawyer and I find the idea of negotiating in bad faith to be an independently objectionable thing to do; others might not see that as a particularly bad thing for either Pharaoh, Moses, or God to be doing. But it’s quite clear from the start that God knows that Pharaoh will not be persuaded to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt short of a demonstration of overwhelming force and power. That being the case, why either God or Pharaoh should have engaged in anything more than a pro forma negotiation is beyond me.

    Nor do I have any problem with the idea that Pharaoh had a reputation as a bastard before then or that the negotiations revealed him to be stubborn and unreasonable. Although query as to why God would have needed to have involved himself in the negotiations were that the whole truth and nothing but the truth: “[God,] like a skillful lawyer drawing out a guilty defendant, bandied with Pharaoh to show his true colors for judge, jury and the whole world to see. If anything, this approach respected Pharaoh’s individuality and honored his independence.”

    In making this claim, you to address that the culmination of this act of “respect” and “honor” is not a judicial cross-examination but the death of tens of thousands of innocent children. But perversely, you maintain that demonstrating the quality of Pharaoh’s character is a sufficient moral justification for the murder of tens of thousands of innocent children. Although I do understand that you maintain that Pharaoh was “getting a taste of his own medicine” in the Passover murder, all this tells me is that Pharaoh and God are both mass murderers.

    As to the theft of the wealth of Egypt, you dismiss this as “a bit of a hoot.” But calling my argument laughable does not refute the merits of the argument. In fact, God had promised that the wealth of the Egyptians would be taken by the Israelites (“…and ye shall spoil the Egyptians,” Exodus 3:22; this sounds like more than “just a token” to me) and that is exactly what happened. It is no justification to claim that Israelite slave labor had contributed to that wealth, particularly if your legal code accepts slavery as a valid social institution. Further, if you will justify the Israelites taking the wealth of Egypt with them when they emigrated, you must also endorse reparations for slavery in the U.S. or reparations for apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps you do.

    I should point out that we do have a pretty good idea of how the Pyramids were built. While a remarkable feat of engineering and logistics, it was not miraculous – and if it was, it would make plenty of sense that a ruler would be reluctant to part with people capable of doing such things. It’s entirely possible that the engineers who figured out how to do this, and/or the laborers who did the work, were ancestors of the people who became Israelites.

    As for the other incidents of violence, my point is that God often relies on others to do his wet work for him. You claim that the deaths suffered by Job (Job 1:15-19) were not God’s fault but rather the result of God “lifting his protection rather than a command to kill.” Satan apparently wants to kill Job’s family and God holds Satan back. Then, God stops restraining Satan (perversely, as a game between himself and Satan meant to test Job’s faith). The difference you are trying to draw is that between affirmative intent to kill and reckless disregard of an imminent threat to human life. Your apology may acquit God of murder, but in so doing it convicts him of manslaughter. This seems but a faint victory.

    You also claim that terrorists don’t communicate diplomatically. That is simply untrue. Terrorists do communicate because doing so is the only way that they can transform their acts of violence into the political change they hope to achieve. Thus we see al-Qaeda claiming credit for 9/11, Hamas claiming credit for suicide bombing in Israel, and in living memory groups like the PLO and IRA blowing up cafes and pubs coupled with demands for the creation of a Palestinian state or the UK to withdraw from North Ireland. Diplomatic communication is an integral part of terrorism. We also see the terrorists in each instance blaming the victims or the victims’ government (that is, Pharaoh) for the deaths of the innocents rather than assuming that blame themselves. This apology for the murder of the Egyptian children sounds much like the justifications claimed by those bastards who continue to blow up cars in marketplaces in Kabul and Baghdad and later blame the United States for the deaths of their victims.

    You claim that God acted patiently and mercifully and that the Egyptians were better off for it. I beg to differ. God went out of his way to inflict plague after plague on Egypt, culminating in what looks to me like an act of terrorism perpetrated by Moses and his minions slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent children — and then proceeded to deprive Egypt of its entire army and its head of state in the Red Sea. Egypt is laid low by the end of the book of Exodus — and it’s the direct and intended result of God “forcing the issue” with Pharaoh.


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