Running With the Weight of Gold — Letters to a young man
15: Hard-Hearted Pharaoh
Jerusalem — 13 January 2019
Dear D –
This week’s Torah reading (Exodus 10:1–13:16) starts with the puzzling word “Come.” (10:1) “And God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart heavy and the heart of his servants in order for me to place these signs of mine in his midst.” Commentators ask whether it shouldn’t instead be “Go”? Does God stand at Pharaoh’s throne? There is a second anomaly in the opening verse, which is the use of the pronoun “I.” Hebrew verbs define the person, number and gender of the subject — the one performing the action. When God says “I have made his heart heavy,” the action “I have made heavy” is expressed in a single word. Why, then, also use the pronoun “I”? As if to say, “Because I — I alone have made Pharaoh’s heart heavy…”
What is commonly referred to in English as God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is the most problematic sequence in the Torah, because it shows God directly interfering to take away a person’s freedom of choice.
At the moment of Creation, God introduces humans “in Our image and Our likeness.” This is the creative aspect and is bound up with free choice. The one decision upon which our humanity rests is the way in which we choose to relate to the world. Now God removes Pharaoh’s free choice, making Pharaoh mistreat the Israelites, and making him and his people pay with their lives as punishment.
In their first encounter at the bush, God told Moses (Ex. 3:19) “I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go out except by a strong hand.” Then, as Moses is on the road (4:21–23) “… and I shall strengthen [Pharaoh’s] heart and he shall not send the people. And you shall tell Pharaoh, thus says God: Israel is my firstborn son. And I am telling you, send my son so he shall serve me, and you refuse to send him; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son.” God’s plan is all laid out well in advance.
Pharaoh repeatedly refuses Moses’ plea to liberate the Israelites. The first time (7:13) “And Pharaoh’s mind was strengthened and he paid them no heed, just as God had said.” Pharaoh has rejected Moses countless times, through signs and wonders, and through seven plagues. The difference this time is the revelation that God has stepped in. Here for the first time God announces “I have done this.” Up to now, Pharaoh did not need any assistance in hardening his own heart. He carried on his own escalating stubbornness through the plague of the cattle. It is only after the boils (9:12) that the text tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and only now (10:1) that God informs Moses that it is fact God who is causing this to happen.
In the Egyptian religion, the Pharaoh went through a test after death, in which his heart was weighed in a balance against a feather. Purity of soul was the key to Pharaoh’s entrance to the eternal afterlife. If Pharaoh’s heart was heavier than a feather, the afterlife was closed to him for all eternity. The Hebrew verb in the first verse of this reading literally means “to make heavy,” thus “I have made his heart heavy.” Through Divine intervention, Pharaoh loses not merely his kingdom in this world, but his royal access to the afterlife as well.
The first time death is mentioned is when Pharaoh reacts to the plague of locusts (10:12–20). For the first time, he appears ready to repent. (10:16–17) “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. Now please forgive my sin this once and entreat God, that God remove from me this death.’ But God reinforced Pharaoh’s resolve and he did not send forth the Israelites.”
Pharaoh approaches Moses with the language of repentance — and God leaps into action to ensure that Pharaoh does not repent, but reverts to his cruel ways.
Moses beseeches God to remove the locusts, which God does (10:19) by means of “… a very strong West Wind and it bore up the swarm of locusts and hurled them to the Sea of Reeds so that not a single locust remained within the borders of Egypt.” The one time Pharaoh refers to “death” is in conjunction with the locusts. God makes a west wind carry them off to the Sea of Reeds. Note that in next week’s reading (14:21) “… Moses stretched out his hand over the sea [the same Sea of Reeds] and God moved the sea with a strong east wind all night long and God turned the sea to the damp land and the sea split.” The east wind pushes back the sea. When the east wind stops, the sea returns, bearing with it the certain death of Pharaoh and his army. Nothing in the Torah happens randomly. Pharaoh begs Moses to remove death from him. Moses obliges. But death has already been decreed upon Pharaoh. God sends death (the locusts) to the Sea of Reeds, where Pharaoh’s fate waits patiently for him to arrive.
And so, why does God remove Pharaoh’s freedom of choice? The one characteristic which makes Pharaoh human is denied him taken away forever.
The simple answer, straight from the text, is that Pharaoh is to be made an example of. We see this week he has had enough. Just before the locusts arrive (10:7) Pharaoh’s counselors tell him, “How long will we continue to be caught in this snare? Send them out and let them serve their god — don’t you know that Egypt is lost?” Pharaoh is ready to concede and he tells Moses to go and take only the adult males. Moses rejects this and brings the locusts, which prompts Pharaoh to his one expression of repentance — repentance cut short by God’s heavy hand.
The rabbis consider the power of repentance among the greatest forces in creation, crucial to keeping the world in existence. The Midrashic literature says that repentance came into existence before the creation of the world, because God realized that humans would err, that our free choice would lead us to make wrong decisions. Thus, in order not to have to destroy the world, as an expression of God’s utter perfection, God had to imbue the fabric of Creation — the raw material of pre-Creation — with repentance. And God also had to create within God’s own self a receptacle for that repentance. It is not sufficient for humans to repent; God must also be willing to accept our repentance. God must be able to forgive.
Even for so great a villain as Pharaoh, God’s natural aspect of forgiveness can not be shut off. Thus God must deprive Pharaoh of the ability to repent. Put in theological terms, God must undo the nature of one human being, otherwise God will be forced to change the nature of God, which is seen as a theological impossibility.
So yes, depriving one human being of his freedom of choice is a dreadful thing. But how much more dreadful for the world if God’s fundamental nature changed!
Starting with Eve and Adam, there are many passages where God expresses rage, anger, sadness, displeasure over humanity’s inability to stick to the modes of behavior God has commanded. But not once does God say “I wish I were other than how and what I am.”
From a human perspective, we deal with a world which is unchanging, unpredictable, and frequently terrifying. But amidst the unpredictability, there is a dreadful and yet frighteningly comforting predictability to even the most tragic aspects of life. Death. Disease. Pain arising from other people’s wrong decisions, or from our own. All these are unavoidable. The inevitability of tragedy does not prepare us to deal with it, or even to accept it. But at the least it should push us to appreciate the good things we have, to cherish them while they are ours, and perhaps to be able to relinquish them gracefully when the time comes for us to lose them.
There is much suffering in life. Much pain which is unavoidable. Pharaoh starts out as a strong leader. His determination to hold onto power is understandable. Perhaps his determination to stand firm for his nation is admirable. At a certain point, though, he goes too far. The punishments are being meted out not against him personally, but against his entire nation. A leader who sacrifices his people for power, for revenge, in anger, this is not someone fit to lead a nation. Such a leader will bring disaster, no matter how loudly they proclaim their allegiance to their country. Throughout history we see leaders who come to power doing their all for their nation — and end by making their nation suffer merely for them.
God performs the most dreadful act of all, God un-creates God’s own greatest creation — a human being. In the Biblical context, its purpose is plain, which is to force the liberation of Israel, and to become an eternal reminder of God’s might exercised on behalf of the Israelites.
Let us take the lesson that none of us is immune to hubris. To carrying our own program to destructive extremes. “Come,” says God — and God weeps. I stand here beside Pharaoh, says God, Pharaoh was bent on evil, and I have made the evil in him weigh more than all the evil in the world. God seeks vengeance, it seems, yet God also weeps for the evil God brings into the world. Though it is God who has brought Pharaoh to this dreadful place, God also will not abandon him. “Come,” says God to Moses. “Come and see the madness and the dreadfulness and the utterness of My destruction.”
Whatever path we choose, God helps us along the way, propels us along. It is critical that we choose the right paths. While we may never know for certain, we at least have the ability to watch ourselves, to see the results of our act, the impact of our behavior. The message of God taking away Pharaoh’s free will is also: I will help you along the path, and every course of action you embrace with passion, I will propel you forward. Choose wisely, for a cause once set in motion is difficult to reign in.
Yours for a better world –