The Shuvah Project #17 — Free Will to Follow

New to The Shuvah Project? Find out what it is and why it’s necessary.

Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

-Matthew 8:22 

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s parsha contained: the 8th, 9th, and 10th plagues, instructions on preparing for God passing over during the 10th plague, an interlude specifying the details of how to keep the Passover festival throughout future generations, how Israel left (e.g. with haste), more details about future Passover celebrations, and a speech by Moses about firstborns.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we were baffled about God’s involvement in hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Here, we’re about to ask a lot more questions to that effect.

Like, if the goal is to get Pharaoh’s permission to let the Israelites go, why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh does not listen (Exodus 9:12)? Or, if consent is irrelevant, why does God send Moses to ask and bargain for it in the first place?

The plagues, or miracles as we referenced them last week, are an opportune moment to reflect on how being equipped with new tools can change how we engage scripture and God. Two tools stand out on this occasion.

The first tool is the ability to ask internal questions (i.e. questions the Text can answer). Have you ever asked the above questions of the Exodus Text before? Rabbis have. In fact, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman aka Nachmanides aka the Ramban addressed these questions some 800 years ago. Modern day Rabbis like David Fohrman and the folks at Aleph Beta continue to elaborate on those ancient teachings. We’ll unpack more in a bit.

The second tool is Blue Letter Bible. With it, we can better understand the original Text and uncover more depth to the story. For example, across this and last week’s Torah portions, spanning 10+ signs and wonders, we are told that Pharaoh’s heart hardens 13 times. But, that hardening isn’t always the same Hebrew word. Two different words are used to describe the condition of Pharaoh’s heart. Recognizing the difference is important — it changes things.

Pharaoh’s heart is described as undergoing the processes of kavad or chazaq.

Kavad is to make heavy. It carries with it a negative connotation, like stubbornness.

Chazaq is to make strong or to strengthen. It carries with it a positive connotation, like courage.

What’s even more revealing is who does what when. Lets take a look!


Why would Pharaoh be encouraged? One possibility — if his sorcerers can replicate the signs and wonders then Pharaoh may think he’s dealing with something familiar and within his control.

But, Pharaoh also makes himself stubborn. Why would Pharaoh become stubborn? One possibility — he refuses, or completely misses, acknowledging the Truth about the power he’s dealing with; YHWH.

Now — to the heart of it 😉 — God’s involvement or intervening. Based on the table above, God changes Pharaoh’s heart after the plague of Boils. Why now?

Remember our discussion last week… the signs and wonders aren’t just about Israelite liberation. Rather, it’s about recognizing the one true Creator God.

So, ask yourself this… what could get in the way of that ultimate goal?

One answer — Pharaoh gives in for the wrong reason. That is, if Pharaoh surrenders and lets the Israelites go because he is overwhelmed by the power of the plagues, then he hasn’t actually acknowledged the Truth about YHWH. He’s just acting out of fear.

What happens during the plague of Boils? Pharaoh’s pagan priests cannot even stand before Moses because they’re overcome by YHWH’s power. It’s here the power of YHWH may cause Pharaoh to lack the courage to pursue his vision. To which God chazaq’s Pharaoh’s heart.

God doesn’t change Pharaoh’s will… God enhances Pharaoh’s will. God gives Pharaoh the courage he needs to continue with his vision — to pursue what he believes in. It seems God isn’t interested in Pharaoh surrendering to Him out of fear. As if God isn’t interested in breaking Pharaoh with His signs and wonders of precision and power. Rather, precision and power are a means to reveal to Pharaoh, and the world, there’s a Creator God.

It worked, kinda. We talked about the hail of fire and ice last week. It’s the very next sign and wonder after God encourages Pharaoh to continue. To which Pharaoh says, “I have sinned” and acknowledges the Creator God name, YHWH.

But then, after the recognition of YHWH, Pharaoh consciously makes himself stubborn and gives himself courage to continue. The Text emphasizes this as Pharaoh’s sin — conscious rebellion. This is the first time Pharaoh’s refusal is an act of conscious defiance.

From this point forward, the story-line shifts — the Text is no longer focused on getting Pharaoh to recognize YHWH. Instead, God tells Moses the signs and wonders are for future generations to know YHWH.

God seems willing to let Pharaoh endlessly pursue his vision, a vision that ultimately leads to his own destruction.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

As listed in the Midweek Reading Guide, the complement Gospel Text this week was just four verses — Matthew 8:18-22. The subtitle in my translation calls this short section: Following Jesus. Hmmm. That’s something I want to know how to do well.

Unfortunately, in the Matthew Text we find Jesus being cryptic in His responses. For example, in response to a disciple saying, “first let me go bury my father” Jesus says,

Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

-Matthew 8:22


What if there’s more to it? What if there’s midrash that focuses on a similar idea to Jesus’ statement and is also based on our Torah portion?

You ready?!? Check this out…

This particular midrash provides an explanation for why Jacob didn’t want to be buried in Egypt.

[Jacob] was afraid that the Egyptians might use him as an object of idolatrous worship. Just as punishment is exacted from the worshiper of an idol, so is it exacted from that which is worshiped (i.e. idol), as it is written: “And on all the gods of Egypt I will exact judgement.”

-Midrash Tanchuma

That quoted Text is from our Torah portion.

I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast. I am the Lord; I will execute judgement on all the gods of Egypt.

– Exodus 12:12; emphasis added

Nachmanides said that the deities of the Egyptians are mentioned in Exodus 12:12, because they are representatives of the heavenly throne of the people of Egypt.

What’s more, the Tur HaAroch adds to idol conversation of Exodus 12:12,

The fact that Torah writes, the Egyptians were busy burying their dead (Numbers 33:4) and that God killed their deities lends support to Nachmanides’ interpretation.

-Rabbi Jacob ben Asher; emphasis added

It’s as if, in Egypt, burying the dead and idolatry are hard to separate. It’s as if the Egyptians are burying their firstborns with their deities.

As if, the point being made is, Egyptians worshiped death and the afterlife.

Now, it’s almost as if Jesus is using the same source material as the Rabbis mentioned above 😉

Jesus’ statement — let the dead bury their own dead — invokes the past and speaks directly to the context of the world around Him. Pagans/gentiles/non-believers are focused on burying their dead; they are focused on the afterlife.

Jesus calls His followers to focus on this life, not the next one.

Section Three (missing the mark):

If you were to ask a pastor what the greatest commandment is, what would they say?

I hope, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

If you were to ask a Rabbi what the greatest commandment is, what would they say?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

If you were to ask a Rabbi what Christians love most, what would they say?

Well, one Rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and engages Christians regularly said: eternal salvation. 

So we don’t miss the point, after engaging Christians regularly this person came away with the observation that Christians love eternal salvation more than God.

Let the dead bury their own dead is echoing in my head right about now!

Where’s this misplaced first love come from?

A plethora of pastors pushing an agenda of getting people saved, and telling their congregations to do likewise.

When we focus on the misinterpretation of the Great Commission, we miss the whole point of our Greatest Commandment. 

Section Four (real-world applications):

Let’s apply all this new knowledge to our lives. Let’s ask ourselves some tough questions.

Why do we surrender to God? Out of fear? For eternal salvation? Or, out of acknowledgement of Truth and willingness to live out that Truth?

Are we fighting against recognizing God in places and people and moments? If so, when we finally recognize God… do we confess (like Pharaoh)? Do we repent (unlike Pharaoh)?

Lastly, it’s worth asking… do we love God or do we love salvation?

Next Week’s Readings: Exodus 13:17-17:16; Luke 5:1-11

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