The Connection Between “Grace” and “Abuse” in the Story of Passover


Conceptually, there is often an implicit division of God’s personality into the pre-Yeshua God of Law and the post-Yeshua God of Grace. In reading the story of Pesach (Passover), of God’s miraculous rescue of His people from the hand of Pharoah in Egypt, there does appear to be a dissonance between the seemingly vengeful God who humbles Pharoah and the Reformation understanding of God’s grace (largely based on Martin Luther’s teaching). In fact, most English translations actually downplay the full scope of God’s intentions in Egypt!* The Hebrew word which God Himself uses to describe His actions, “התעלל” (hitalel) means to abuse (Exodus 10:2).

The most obvious example of this “abuse” is in the various plagues which God sends on the Egyptians, which ruin their crops, their water, their health, and ultimately kill their firstborn sons. Similarly, it has often been a subject of debate why God actively hardened Pharoah’s heart throughout the story, each time punishing Pharoah’s hard heart with another plague. In looking at Exodus 10:2, it is understandable why many have characterized the God of the Torah as a God of anger and judgement.

Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV) tells us that God is One, and if we accept this verse as true, whether in the Exodus from Egypt, or now by the grace of Messiah, then we must also accept that there is unity between God’s “abuse” of the Egyptians, and His salvation of His people.

Arguably, much of the conceptual separation of God’s character comes from misunderstanding the Hebrew word חסד (hesed). In better understanding the meaning and origin of this Hebrew word, one can better understand God’s actions throughout the story of the Exodus as well as the Unity of His character and actions throughout the Scriptures in their entirety.

The Hebrew word חסד (hesed) appears 248 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis through Second Chronicles (according to the Jewish order of the Scriptures). Hebrew words are based on three- and four-letter roots which can illuminate connections between seemingly unrelated words, and interestingly, חסד comes from the same root as the word “righteous,” (Hasid – חסיד).  חסד (hesed) is most often translated as “mercy,” or “lovingkindness,” but its true meaning is somewhat different.

“Lovingkindness” is defined as “tender and benevolent affection.” This definition calls to mind a magnanimous, wealthy and possibly portly older gentleman. When God is described as full of “lovingkindness,” it is easy to see God similarly. “Lovingkindness” does not call to mind a God who would die for His people. It also seems unconnected to righteousness. So clearly, the Hebrew wordחסד  is much deeper than the English word “lovingkindness.”

A better translation of חסד (hesed) is “grace.”

According to Merriam Webster, grace is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” By understanding that grace and righteousness come from the same Hebrew root, it is much easier to reconcile the two understandings of God. Furthermore, since grace is “unmerited” and its purpose is “regeneration or sanctification,” the purpose of grace appears to be the cultivation of righteousness.

The book of Hebrews says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as His children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? … No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11, NIV)

God, in sending the plagues to Egypt, in actively hardening the heart of Pharoah, actually had grace on the people of Egypt. In His “abuse” of them, they saw His glory and holiness revealed on the earth and the mightiness of His salvation of His people. Despite the unpleasant reality of the plagues, they were an opportunity for the Egyptians to recognize the One true God, repent, and turn to Him.

In the New Covenant Scriptures, the misunderstanding of what grace is and where it comes from has led specifically to a misunderstanding of the personality of Yeshua, who is often portrayed as “meek and mild,” despite His divinity. While Yeshua actively demonstrated the outpouring of God’s love for His people, His grace and mercy on those around Him come from a place of strength and righteousness, of “hesed.” It is ultimately Yeshua, the Pesach lamb, who died for His people, Jew and Gentile alike. This was an act of heroism and strength, not of weakness.

God’s character has been the same throughout the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, from the first Passover sacrifice to the ultimate Passover sacrifice. God is a God of strength who has grace on His people by love, by choice and to cultivate their righteousness.

For the record, it is worth noting that God does give Pharoah a chance. It is only after the first four wonders that the Biblical text cites God as actively hardening Pharoah’s heart. Before that, it appears that Pharoah hardened his own heart without God interfering. Again, before the 7th plague, it says, “And he [Pharoah] continued to sin and to make heavy his [own] heart, he and his servants.” Furthermore, before sending the angel of death to kill the firstborns of the Egyptians, God issued a warning, so that the Egyptians who already believed the Lord could also find protection through the blood of a Pesach lamb.

This Pesach, as we joyfully celebrate Israel’s great redemption as a people from Egypt, and our great redemption as individuals from sin, let us not forget the duality of God- that He is righteous and fierce and simultaneously merciful and gracious. Pesach is the most amazing reminder of God’s Oneness!

Happy Pesach, and may we merit to celebrate next year in a renewed Jerusalem!

*The NIV and ESV translations come the closest to expressing the true meaning of the word, translating it as “to deal harshly.” NASB translates the phrase to “made a mockery of,” while ASV and KJV omit the phrase entirely. 

Share this Post

2 Comments on “The Connection Between “Grace” and “Abuse” in the Story of Passover”

  1. Great blog, friend.
    Relentlessly Righteous is our God – towards all. Always.
    This is a good and accurate article, and wisely our understanding of how God deals with His covenant people and even other covenant nations deserves to be factored into – how He relentlessly and righteously addresses sin, so that people might return to holy-Him.
    Proof-text (one of many)
    Amos 3:2-3
    2 “You only have I known of all the families of the earth;
    Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”
    3 Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *