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Passover: Why did god harden the Pharaoh's heart?

If the pharaoh is not allowed to repent, why go through with the charade of giving him an option? If the point is a display of divine power, why does one need to go through the pharaoh at all?

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. On this occasion, each Jew is expected to consider herself as having personally participated in this historical event; because if the exodus had not happened, Jews would still be slaves in Egypt. Therefore, this event has contributed to every Jew’s liberation in perpetuity.

Taken literally, this logic may seem flawed, considering that thousands of years have passed, and it is unlikely that history would have frozen in its tracks. As a metaphor, however, it points to a constitutive moment in the Jewish people’s history, when they were transformed from a group of slaves to a political collective of free people.

However, when you read the biblical book of Exodus, the bulk of the story describing the Israelites’ emergence from slavery to freedom is devoted to the ten plagues, the variety of disasters god inflicted on Egypt, in order to ensure the Jews’ liberation.

Except, this was not their purpose at all, and the bible makes this very clear. In the story, it is stated, no less than eight times, that God had “hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt”. This hardening caused the Pharaoh to refuse emancipation for the Israelites, leading in turn to more plagues.

Scholars of the bible have struggled with this element of the story. There is an explanation provided in the text: “I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him”. Some interpreters have accepted this claim at face value. Maimonides offered a more creative explanation. According to him, Pharaoh’s sins were so heavy he was given the ultimate penalty: revoking his ability to repent.

None of these justifications gets at the heart of the matter. The fundamental problem is that God’s hardening of the Egyptian king’s heart makes the whole episode seem like Kabuki theatre on steroids. If the pharaoh is not allowed to repent, why go through with the charade of giving him an option? If the point is a display of divine power, why does one need to go through the pharaoh at all?

I would like to offer an alternative exegesis. The exodus, as mentioned above, is not just a liberation of Israelite individuals from slavery, it also marks the formation of a new political body. For the first time in history, Jews must create their own government as a nation. The most salient example they can draw on is their experience of the Egyptian state under pharaoh. It is an absolute, even totalitarian, monarchy, completely submissive to one man’s whims.

By hardening the king of Egypt’s heart, god is attempting to show the Israelites, on the cusp of forming their own political system, the dangers of an arrogant and centralized regime, in which power is exercised arbitrarily. A polity in which hardening the heart of one man, or even a few men, can bring disaster on the heads of the entire collective, is inherently flawed. Jews have suffered from this system for a very long time, but ultimately, it was bad for everyone. In a country where some can be enslaved, none can be truly free or prosperous.

The spectacle of the ten plagues was meant to teach this lesson to the Israelites, as they embarked on a journey to form a polity of their own. This is the meaning of remembering the exodus: each generation of Jews must regain its freedom by recalling the evils of Egypt, and making sure their own state does not go down the same path.

This post is dedicated to Lisa Goldman, who is spending this Passover in Egypt, chronicling the modern day liberation of a people from life under tyranny towards freedom

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    1. Jed

      By hardening the Hamas’ heart, god is attempting to show the Gazans the dangers of an arrogant and centralized regime, in which terrorism is exercised arbitrarily. It is a punishment for the Gazans for supporting murder. A lesson many already learned, but not all.
      It is also a lesson to Israel, not to feed and trade with its enemies. A lesson yet to be learned.
      Liberate us from Gaza, close the border, let the pharaoh of Egypt teach them some lessons.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Leonid Levin

      Roi, thanks for bringing up this important story from the Torah. I like it when people attempt to reinterpret the age-old myths and relate them to the current events. I believe that these stories were written down to pass over to us the wisdom of the many generations that came before us. It is hard to know for sure what lesson the sages had in mind when they created these stories. Your interpretation is interesting and daring.

      I personally would agree with Maimonides that this story teaches us that the more evil we do, the easier it is to do more evil and the harder it is to do good. The famous psychologist and thinker Erich Fromm, who was also very well versed in the Torah, writes: “Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil. It hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible. . . . The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes . . . until there is no longer any freedom of choice left to him.” Fromm says in psychological terms, what Maimonides says in religious ones. Perhaps God had an active role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Or, perhaps, Pharaoh’s heart hardened naturally, as a result of humanity’s God-given psychological makeup. I believe Fromm also applied this notion to Adolf Hitler in his book “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”.

      Anyhow, this is a reminder to all of us that a person, an organization or a state can reach a point of no return, when doing the good and right thing becomes virtually impossible and the only outcome is self-destruction.

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    3. Kyle

      One thing I find very annoying is that when trying to prove the bible you Christians ignore the very question that’s being asked and go off on a tangent.

      You didn’t answer why God harden pharoh’s heart because it clearly says so in the bible that YOU Christians refuse to pick up and read.

      From my experience I belive that the reason why God seems to answer some people’s prayers more then others is because he DOES favor Isreal more then other nations so if your blood is more pure you’ll be listened too.

      The Bible is often quite clear that other deities exist and that *other* realm is quite busy but that’s another debate.

      Science has proven that there are other realms of existence but we cannot see it as we are not tuned into it just like animals sense things humans do not.

      I actually picked up the bible and found the passage. I have read the story and Dad has found records where there were a bunch of people named Moses and one of them in particular ran away for a very long time after killing someone.

      Now the funny thing is It really DOES say in future tense that God will harden his heart in clear black and white which means the actions of Pharaoh hasn’t happened yet.

      There is lots of proof in the bible and in world culture that this *God* and other deities are likely advanced beings from another realm that plopped us here for whatever reasons and left.

      Now the question isn’t if these *beings* are real but WHY did the leave and will they return?

      Do they even give a rats ass about their creation anymore or have they gone on to better things?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kyle

      Here is an interesting website that talks about the Holy Ark as likely being some kind of *communication device* connecting to that other realm that only certain people are authorized to use.

      A lot of the wording is out of my league but I get the basic idea of what he is saying and when I compare it to the bible it makes a lot more sense as a whole.

      I personally believe these *beings* are creating tension to see if we will act peaceful to work things out or fight with each other.

      I bet these *beings* are getting a good laugh out of all this but when I kick them out I’ll be the ones giving them the last laugh and we won’t have to go thru this crap-o-rama anymore.

      My goal is to rise over these beings and hold them responsible for crimes against humanity.

      Reply to Comment

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