I have been thinking a lot about “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in Exodus and how it relates to the Signs (or Plagues). It is easy to think of Pharaoh as God’s puppet and that God’s plan is to so callous Pharaoh’s will that Pharaoh will play into God’s trap. With this reading God is acting on Pharaoh in such a way that Pharaoh has no ability to choose. But as I have thought about the events of Exodus more I have come to the conclusion that we tend to read the story rather one-sided. Let me walk through this as it came to me.
First thanks to great scholars like Carmen Imes (watch her Torah Tuesday videos on the subject), I recognized that God was not hardening Pharaoh’s heart as in callousing it, rather God was strengthening Pharaoh’s heart. God was working to strengthen Pharaoh’s resolve. Such a metaphor, as in English, is usually a positive and implies that God was helping Pharaoh to do what he already wanted. Now, since Exodus tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was burdened by his injustice toward the Hebrews it became somewhat clear to me that God was not creating a calloused resolve in Pharaoh but was simply helping Pharaoh down the path he had chosen.But even this seems somewhat off, because while stories like the Flood or Sodom & Gomorrah depict God as accelerating the results of sin, those are on a corporate level not an individual one.
It certainly is possible to read Exodus in a way where the individual Pharaoh represents the whole of the Egyptian people and so his heart represents the heart of the Egyptians. There is certainly something to be said for reading Exodus as God accelerating justice (through plagues) against an Egyptian people who hard hardened their collective heart against Israel. But I still find this view needs God to be the cause of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart so justice can be achieved. But this line of thinking breaks down slightly when we get to 10:1 and recognize that even the Egyptians think Pharaoh has lost his mind and needs to relent.
What shifted my thinking on the issue was when I started to think differently about the signs themselves. The first sign 7:8-13 is simply a demonstration of God’s presence and in this God using the symbols of Pharaoh’s divinity (the rod and serpent). God challenges Pharaoh and says the Hebrews are my people and I want them. Now, in 7:3 God had told Moses “I will strengthen Pharaoh’s resolve” and looking at the challenge in 7:8-13 God is not simply displaying divine authority God is presenting Pharaoh with a choice. God showed up in the uniform of the one who holds Egypt together, and is saying to Pharaoh either give me the Hebrews or loose control over your world. God is offering Pharaoh a choice between his power over Egypt or his power over the Hebrews. Pharaoh’s choice is to hold on to the Hebrews and so forfeit his control over Egypt. The series of signs (or plagues) that follow are not the punishment on Egypt, they are the natural consequence of Pharaoh’s choice. God has said to Pharaoh you can either reign over the Hebrews or hold the Egyptian world together but you cannot do both. Pharaoh chose to hold maintain power over the Hebrews and so God slowly takes away Pharaoh’s ability to hold the world together. The signs that follow 7:8-13 gradually undermine Egypt’s stability and show that Pharaoh has failed to maintain his divine authority over the land because chaos reigns. Throughout the series that follows Pharaoh is given chances to change his mind, but he refuses. I think, in part, Pharaoh sees each sign as the height of God’s power and thinks that if this is all the more power this God has then Moses is no threat to me. When Pharaoh’s advisors think Pharaoh is mad in 10:7 they see that Pharaoh’s desire to maintain his control over the people has caused him to loose control over the land.
To me the problems we run into in understanding the relationship of God to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart stem from the fact that we view the signs against Egypt as plagues meant to punish Pharaoh for making the wrong decision. I find re-framing our thinking to see God presenting Pharaoh with a choice of which power he cares about more helps reconcile the tension of God’s strengthening of Pharaoh’s resolve. God is not overriding Pharaoh’s desires, God pushing the logical outcome of Pharaoh’s will. Pharaoh’s desire to possess the Hebrews and that resolution will ultimately cost him stability in his realm.
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