This question comes from a “Stump the Priest” message that I received: “How do you interpret the differences between the love for all men that comes from Jesus versus the Jealous and Angry God of the Old Testament?” His question arises from a discussion with his son about the Exodus, specifically the fourteen (or so) times wherein Holy Scriptures says that the LORD “hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” So it is a fair question to ask why, in the New Testament, God loves the world so much that He gave His only Son, but, in the Old Testament, He refuses to allow Pharaoh to release the Hebrews and, therefore, brings calamitous destruction upon all Egypt.
The first and most important fact to recall when addressing this situation is that the Incarnation and, more specifically, the Resurrection of Our Lord are the very climax of all Creation. Everything that God ever did pointed to the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. The battle is over; the victory is won. Satan and his firstborn, Death, have been defeated. From a cosmic point of view, the epoch of history in which we live is simply cleaning up the last remnants and stragglers of a battle that was an overwhelming victory.
Creation, the Fall, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all happened for the sake of pointing to, foreshadowing, and, ultimately, enlightening our understanding what happened between Good Friday and Easter Morning. The Passover itself is an incredible foreshadowing of the death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The faithful, being sprinkled with the blood of the Lamb, did not die when the Angel of Death came to their doors. Does this previous sentence refer to the Israelites… or to the Church? It refers to both! On the night of the Passover, the Jews sprinkled the blood of the lamb on their doorposts and lintels so that when the Angel of Death came through Egypt, he would, literally, pass over the children of Israel. St. John declares that we have been “washed… and made [them] white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:19) The Blood of Jesus is the perfect atonement for our sins. We who have been washed in His most precious Blood, do not die when Death comes knocking at our door. One brief sleep and we awaken to eternal life with Our Lord forever. The Passover was done to foreshadow the crucifixion of Jesus Christ!
This happened that the Apostles might look back on the events and recognize the majesty of God Almighty and understand some small inkling of the love He had for them… and for us as well! Remember that God ordained an everlasting ordinance that Israel “relive” the Passover each and every year. He wanted them to be sure they were familiar with the event so that when Jesus came they would understand the significance.
So why did God make all of the firstborn of Egypt die? Why couldn’t he have stopped with plague number 9? If one investigates each of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, one finds that each and every plague was a deliberate slap in the face to one of the pagan gods of Egypt. Their principal god was Ra, the god of the sun. Our God made the sun dark and blotted the sun from out of the sky! The Nile River was sacred to the Egyptians and associated with gods Knum and Hapi. The Egyptians also considered blood to be unclean, so what did the LORD do? He turned their sacred river into blood! The list goes on.
But why did the firstborn sons of Egypt have to die? They died to show Our God’s majesty. Remember that they viewed Pharaoh as a god. Pharaoh’s firstborn son died… and stayed dead, as did the firstborn sons in all Egypt. Our God’s firstborn son chose to lay down his life, he died for us… and rose again from the dead!
God used the people of Egypt and the Pharaoh to show us how much He loves us. He used the kings and armies of Assyria, Babylon and Persia for the same reasons. Even if the pagans reject Him, they are still His creation and, essentially, His to do with as He pleases. This may seem harsh to us, but, as Isaiah prophesied:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.
or as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,
And do not return there,
But water the earth,
And make it bring forth and bud,
That it may give seed to the sower
And bread to the eater,
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (55:8-1)
The LORD used the people of Egypt to show us just exactly how much He cares for His chosen and beloved people. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh in order to make sure that His plan happened the way it did so that the incredible love which God has for His people might be revealed.