God Wrestles

Scripture: Exodus 6:28-7:13

Title: God Wrestles


  • Introduction
  • God wrestles with Moses – trust
  • God wrestles with Pharaoh – despair
  • Conclusion


Please turn with me to Exodus chapter 6, page 65 toward to front of your pew Bibles

  • Today we continue our series on Moses
  • Last week we heard how Moses & Aaron confronted Pharaoh for the first time and Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go
  • This week Moses & Aaron go back to ask Pharaoh again
  • Our reading this morning begins at verse 28 of Exodus 6 and continues to verse 13 of chapter 7…

[Read Exodus 6:28-7:13]


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

I’ve given this morning’s message the title: God Wrestles, because in today’s Scripture passage we catch a glimpse of the way God wrestles with human will

  • Both Moses’ freewill and Pharaoh’s freewill

God doesn’t programme people to do what he wants, like robots or computers

  • God gives human beings genuine choice and he respects our choices
  • This doesn’t mean God just stands back and lets us have what we want
  • Sometimes God challenges our will – sometimes he wrestles with us
  • But God’s purpose in wrestling is not to overpower us with brute force
  • His purpose is to train our will – to make it stronger and better informed so we will make better choices
  • Wrestling with God exercises our faith

First let us consider how God wrestles with Moses…

God wrestles with Moses – trust:

Just prior to this morning’s reading, in the second half of Exodus 6, the narrator gives us Moses’ & Aaron’s family tree, going back to Jacob

  • Jacob is famous (among other things) for wrestling with God

In Genesis 32, as Jacob was preparing to return home and face his brother Esau, a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak

  • When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he struck Jacob on the hip and it was thrown out of joint.
  • The man said, ‘Let me go; daylight is coming’
  • ‘I won’t, unless you bless me’, Jacob replied
  • ‘What is your name?’ the man asked
  • ‘Jacob’, he answered
  • ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have struggled with God and with men and you have won; so your name will be Israel’
  • Jacob said, ‘Now tell me your name’
  • But he answered, ‘Why do you want to know my name?”
  • Then he blessed Jacob
  • Jacob said, ‘I have seen God face to face and I am still alive.’

Moses is like his ancestor Jacob (aka ‘Israel’)

  • Moses doesn’t give in to God’s requests too easily
  • He shows some resistance, so God must wrestle with Moses’ will
  • But God’s wrestling is not violent where Moses is concerned
  • God doesn’t force Moses – God works with him gently to strengthen trust
  • This isn’t WWF or On the Mat, it’s more like Tai Chi – slow and graceful

The first thing God does to strengthen the bond of trust, is to say…

  • ‘I am the Lord’ or ‘I am Yahweh’ in other words
  • It’s interesting that while God did not reveal his name to Jacob – he did reveal it to Moses
  • By sharing His name God is opening up to Moses in vulnerability and intimacy
  • It’s like God is saying, ‘Here I am sharing something personal about myself, something I didn’t even share with your ancestor Jacob, so you know you can trust me Moses’

The next thing God does to create trust is to ask Moses to do something for him

  • He says to Moses, ‘Tell the king of Egypt everything I tell you’
  • Be my spokesman to Pharaoh
  • By asking Moses to speak for him God is trusting Moses with His reputation – when someone shows trust in you it helps you to trust them

Furthermore, God doesn’t beat around the bush in making his request

  • God is open and up front with Moses about what he wants so Moses isn’t left second guessing God’s motivation
  • There is no hidden agenda, no manipulation, no smoke screen
  • Honesty goes a long way in building trust

Moses responds to the Lord by saying…

  • ‘You know I’m such a poor speaker; why should the king listen to me?’
  • This is dejavu – Moses has already had this conversation with Yahweh, at the burning bush
  • It shows us that Moses is still reluctant to do what God says

In reflecting on Moses’ resistance to God’s will, Terence Fretheim observes…

  • “God is clearly not in absolute control of Moses. For all of God’s powers, Moses is not easily persuaded to take up his calling… [but] God relates to Moses in such a way that his will is not overpowered”  [1]

Just as God did not overpower Jacob in the midnight wrestling match, so too God does not overpower Moses in this verbal wrestling match

  • To the contrary, God further strengthens trust by listening to Moses
  • God takes Moses’ concerns seriously and adjusts His plan to accommodate Moses by allowing Aaron to help

The Lord goes on to say to Moses…

  • “I am going to make you like God to the king and your brother Aaron will speak to him as your prophet. Tell Aaron everything I command you and he will tell the king to let the Israelites leave his country”

There is a real tone of affirmation in what God says to Moses here – just as there was affirmation for Jacob

  • God raises up the lowly and humbles the proud
  • Moses is lowly and Pharaoh is proud
  • Moses may not have much faith in his own ability
  • But God certainly believes in him
  • God gives Moses a dignity and a status greater than that of Pharaoh

God wrestled with Moses’ will in a firm but gracious way

  • God did not bellow orders at Moses, nor did He try to manipulate Moses
  • God essentially built trust with Moses
  • And He did this in four main ways…
  • By revealing something personal about himself – His name
  • By asking Moses, in an honest & direct way, to do something for Him
  • By listening to Moses’ concerns and providing Aaron as a helper
  • And fourthly, by raising Moses up with words of affirmation – ‘you will be like God to Pharaoh’
  • In all these ways God showed Moses He was trustworthy and Moses responded by doing what God asked of him

God used a different approach, however, in wrestling with Pharaoh’s will and this is because Pharaoh was stubborn and hard of heart

God wrestles with Pharaoh – despair:

The prophet Amos describes God’s justice like a river

  • Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream [2]

The image of God’s justice flowing like a river is multi-faceted

  • A river is a source of life for the land and creation generally
  • Sometimes the river of God’s justice is flat and calm, moving slowly
  • Other times it is wild and rough, moving quickly
  • Always though it is powerful and deserves respect

In verses 3 & 4 of Exodus 7 the Lord God says to Moses…

  • But I will make the king stubborn, and he will not listen to you, no matter how many terrifying things I do in Egypt. Then I will bring severe punishment on Egypt and lead the tribes of my people out of the land.

If we read that (in isolation) we could come away thinking that God isn’t being fair to Pharaoh

  • Because it sounds like God is determining Pharaoh’s response
  • That would be a false conclusion

As I keep saying, God respects the freewill of human beings – he doesn’t force people against their will

  • So how are we to understand this statement about God making the king stubborn?
  • Because, as we read through the cycle of plagues, we will keep hearing how God hardens Pharaoh’s heart – it comes up again and again

Well, the first thing to say is that the text describes the stubbornness of Pharaoh (his hardness of heart) in three ways…

  • Sometimes it says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (e.g. 7:3)
  • And sometimes it reads like Pharaoh hardens his own heart (e.g. 7:14)
  • Then there are other times again where the text couches it in more passive or neutral terms by saying that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (e.g. 7:13)

This tells us that both Pharaoh himself and God have a hand in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart – so we can’t attribute Pharaoh’s stubbornness entirely to God

  • Pharaoh must take some responsibility also

Put up your hand if you’ve been to Huka Falls

  • Just above the falls there is a gorge which runs for about 800 metres with some pretty significant rapids in it
  • And just above the gorge there is a large wide flat area of relatively slow moving water, so if you are a kayaker you can easily avoid going into the gorge if you wish – but once you enter the gorge there is no turning back
  • The only way out is through the chaos of white water and over the falls

Terence Fretheim makes the point that…

  • [Pharaoh’s situation] …is not unlike a boat on a fast moving river, headed for a gorge or a waterfall. As often in history, human decisions… can bring human affairs to a point where there is no turning back, no possibility of getting the boat to the shore before it goes over the waterfall.
  • In such cases, history’s possibilities are… narrowed to a single one.  [3]

Pharaoh entered the gorge of his own freewill

  • No one forced him to attempt genocide against the Israelites
  • No one forced him to abuse the Hebrew people
  • But once Pharaoh had committed himself to that course of action – there was no turning back – he effectively narrowed his options to a single one
  • Pharaoh was in for a rough ride, but he could have avoided it by treating his subjects with fairness

Okay – so Pharaoh brought this on himself because he was hard hearted in the first place

  • But isn’t God making it worse by hardening Pharaoh’s heart even more?
  • Well, yes and no – first let me explain what hardness of heart is

Hardness of heart is spiritual blindness – spiritual deafness

  • The hard of heart cannot see God’s presence in the world
  • Such blindness results in pride, haughtiness and arrogance
  • To make matters worse those with hardened hearts are not aware of their spiritual blindness and so they are unable to repent and recover [4]

Jesus (quoting the prophets) described the hard of heart in this way saying…

Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand

  • In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
  • You will be ever hearing but never understanding
  • You will be ever seeing but never perceiving
  • For this people’s heart has become calloused;
  • They hardly hear with their ears
  • And they have closed their eyes
  • Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn and I would heal them [5]

[Set out one jug of water and two empty glasses on a tray – one glass open and the other covered over with tin foil]


Imagine these glasses represent the human heart

  • This glass without the tin foil on it is an open heart
  • And this one with the tin foil over the top is a calloused hard heart
  • Over here I have a jug full of water
  • Imagine that the water in this jug represents understanding

What happens if I pour the water of understanding into the open heart?

  • [Pour the water in from a jug]
  • It goes in – the water of understanding God’s Word fills the open heart

Now what happens if I try to pour the water of understanding into the closed hard heart?

  • [Pour water on the tin foiled glass]
  • It doesn’t go in
  • No matter how much understanding I try to pour into the hard heart, the glass remains empty

Many of the Pharisees had ‘calloused’ hardened hearts

  • They saw Jesus’ miracles and they heard Jesus preach but they still didn’t get it – they couldn’t see that Jesus was from God
  • They misunderstood Jesus so thoroughly that they thought he was the devil

The Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, said…

  • “The opposite of freedom is a hard heart” [6]
  • And he was right

We tend to think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want

  • But that is not freedom – that is just licence

If a hard heart is spiritual blindness, and the opposite of freedom is a hard heart, then it follows that true freedom is spiritual sight

Freedom is the open glass – the one without the tin foil which allows understanding of God’s Word to fill the human heart

So the truly free soul is ‘fit and pliable, open to truth and sensitive God’ [7]

  • The truly free soul recognises God’s presence in the world

By that definition Pharaoh is not free – and the tragedy is he doesn’t realise it

  • Now this may come as bit of a mind bender to many of us
  • We tend to think of Pharaoh as the most free because he gets to boss everyone else around
  • But actually he is the most blind and therefore the least free
  • Pharaoh has a thick layer of tinfoil over his heart

When God says to Moses, I am going to make Pharaoh stubborn – I’m going to harden his heart

  • What it means is that God is going to take away what little freedom (what little sight or understanding) Pharaoh still has
  • As Jesus said, Be careful how you listen; because whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even the little he thinks he has will be taken away from him [8]
  • In other words, if you listen to God’s Word with a hard heart (with the tinfoil on), no understanding will get in and so God will stop pouring
  • But if you listen with an open (sensitive) heart, God will keep pouring the understanding in

God is going to make Pharaoh even more blind so that he won’t be able to see or understand that God is behind the plagues

  • Pharaoh won’t be able to join the dots between his abusing people and God punishing him

As I asked before, how is that helpful?

  • Isn’t God making it worse by hardening Pharaoh’s heart even more?
  • Yes and no

You see, in some cases, the only thing that cures hardness of heart – the only thing that removes the blindness of pride – is despair

  • We think of despair as a bad thing
  • And, to be fair, it is not a pleasant experience
  • But sometimes God uses despair for our salvation
  • Despair is a kind of chemotherapy for the soul
  • Despair restores our sight by killing the cancer of pride
  • (Despair causes the tinfoil to come off the glass of our heart so the water of understanding can get in)
  • Unfortunately despair also kills joy – and so freedom (or spiritual sight & understanding) comes with a price

God loves Pharaoh and wants to set Pharaoh free – which means that God has little choice but to make things worse for Pharaoh

  • Pharaoh has hardened his own heart – now, in order to cure Pharaoh of his blindness and pride, God must make that hardness complete
  • God must bring Pharaoh to the place of utter despair so that Pharaoh can see reality as it is and be free


Abraham Heschel puts it this way…

  • It seems the only cure for wilful hardness is to make it absolute. Half –callousness, paired with obstinate conceit, seeks no cure. When hardness is complete, it becomes despair, the end of conceit. Out of despair, out of total inability to believe, prayer bursts forth. [9]

I don’t know how he does it – I only know that he can

  • God can make something out of nothing
  • God can bring order out of chaos
  • God can cause prayer to burst forth out of total dis-belief

“When all pretensions are abandoned, one begins to feel the burden of guilt. It is easier to return from an extreme distance than from the complacency of a good conscience.” [10]

God had to make things harder for Pharaoh so that he would ‘feel the burden of guilt’ and repent

The prodigal son discovered this didn’t he – that it is easier to return from an extreme distance than from the complacency of a good conscience

  • The prodigal son didn’t come to his senses until he hit rock bottom, a long way from home, in total despair
  • Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven  [11]
  • The older son, who never left home – well, his hardness of heart remained because he never tasted despair
  • He was blinded by the complacency of a good conscience
  • Woe to you when all men speak well of you… [12]

The hard truth is: God sometimes wounds us in order to save us

  • He sometimes hurts us in order to heal us
  • It is painful to remove the tinfoil or callous from a heart

As if to prove the point of Pharaoh’s blindness our Scripture reading this morning finishes with Aaron’s stick turning into a snake

  • Pharaoh’s magicians do the same trick, only Aaron’s snake eats their snakes
  • The message couldn’t be clearer – the best Egypt has to offer will be swallowed up, consumed
  • But Pharaoh doesn’t get it – he can’t get it – his hardness of heart prevents him from seeing

If we oppress people and abuse people, like Pharaoh did, we will lose our freedom, we will lose our spiritual sight

  • We will find ourselves in the gorge of God’s justice unable to turn back, quite oblivious to the fact that a pummelling waterfall awaits us

The king remained stubborn and eventually the first born of Egypt died and Pharaoh’s army was swallowed by the (waterfall of the) Red Sea

  • Only then did despair do its work so that Pharaoh’s eyes were opened and the tinfoil was removed from the opening of his heart


God wrestles, both with Moses and with Pharaoh – although his strategy with Moses is significantly different from his strategy with Pharaoh

In wrestling with Moses, God creates trust

  • He shows faith in Moses and helps Moses to see that He (Yahweh) can be relied on

In wrestling with Pharaoh though, God creates despair

  • The kindest thing God can do with Pharaoh is to remove his pride and conceit so that Pharaoh is free to see reality as it really is

Trust and despair are not God’s only strategies in wrestling with people

  • He has other ways of dealing with people too
  • But however he may deal with us we can be assured, God’s ultimate goal is our healing and salvation – our freedom

[1] Terence Fretheim, ‘Interpretation Commentary on Exodus’, page 102

[2] Amos 5:24

[3] Terence Fretheim, Interpretation Commentary on Exodus, page 101

[4] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, page 244

[5] Matthew 13:13-15

[6] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, page 243

[7] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, page 244

[8] Luke 8:18

[9] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, page 244

[10] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, page 246

[11] Matthew 5:3

[12] Luke 6:26