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Pharaoh's Heart

Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

One of the most intriguing elements of the Exodus story is the interplay between God and Pharaoh. Though they never actually speak directly, it is clear that they are the major players in the story. Moses for his part finds himself running back and forth between God and Pharaoh, relaying messages and prophecies.

Of course, God has the upper hand, and if not for Pharaoh's arrogance and delusions of grandeur, one could almost feel bad for him. Of course, the reader, observing from the outside, appreciates the absurdity of Pharaoh's position: He doesn't even know what he is up against, yet we see clearly from our vantage point that his arms are far too short to spar with God.

The cards are completely stacked against Pharaoh, for not only can God turn his beloved Nile into blood, but God can play havoc with all of nature and the rules thereof. Pharaoh does not have a chance.

The ultimate manipulation is where God controls Pharaoh's "heart." At this juncture we understand how futile a battle with the Almighty really is. Pharaoh is strung along like a marionette on a string, performing as dictated by God.

A simple, often-asked question presents itself:1 How can God punish Pharaoh, if he was not even acting on his own volition? Furthermore, why did the Divine Plan need to include this violation of natural law -- the suspension of Pharaoh's freedom of choice?

As far as the second question goes, we appreciate that this can be posed regarding all of the plagues. There is a certain similarity between the plagues on the one hand and the limitation of Pharaoh's freedom of choice on the other. One is a violation of nature, the other a violation of the nature of man.

Why did God violate natural law -- the suspension of Pharaoh's freedom of choice?

This question presupposes the centrality of freedom of choice in Jewish philosophy. This assumption, that we indeed possess such freedom, is the cornerstone of normative Judaism. According to Maimonides, life without such freedom would be meaningless, a veritable theological nightmare. If man were simply programmed to perform various actions, he would have no responsibility for those actions, and life itself would be futile at best, inane at worst.


* * *



The Midrash articulates this question, noting that it opens the door for heretical thoughts:

Rabbi Yochanan said: "Does this not provide heretics with ground for arguing that he had no means of repenting, since it says: 'for I have hardened his heart'? (Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 13:3)

The Midrash provides an answer:

To which Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish replied: "Let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up ... when God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does God close his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said: 'You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add to your uncleanness.'" (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3)

According to this response, the hardening of the heart was itself the punishment, and not, as we assumed, merely the impetus for Pharaoh's actions for which he was ultimately punished. The punishment Pharaoh actually receives is quite exact, measure for measure: Just as Pharaoh had closed his heart and ignored God, now Pharaoh was punished by losing the sensitivity of his heart, which he had hardened himself.2


* * *



The Midrash quoted above speaks of five occasions when Pharaoh did not heed God. An analysis of the biblical text shows that God did not harden the heart of Pharaoh during the first five plagues. Quite the opposite -- it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart and ignores the unrivaled might of God.



  1. Blood:


    And the magicians of Egypt did likewise with their enchantments, and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, nor did he listen to them, as the Lord had said. And Pharaoh turned and went to his house, nor did he set his heart to this. (Exodus 7:22-23)


  2. Frogs:


    But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and listened not to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 8:11)


  3. Lice:


    Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." And Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he listened not to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 8:15)


  4. Swarms of flies:


    And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go. (Exodus 8:28)


  5. Cattle:


    And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the people of Israel dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)



* * *



After the first five plagues, we note a subtle yet essential shift in language.


  1. Boils:


    And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he listened not to them; as the Lord had spoken to Moses. (Exodus 9:12)


  2. Hail:


    And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked..." And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders had ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart,3 he and his servants. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, nor would he let the people of Israel go, as the Lord had spoken by Moses. (Exodus 9:27,34-35)

    And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him. (Exodus 10:1)


  3. Locusts:


    But the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the People of Israel go. (Exodus 10:20)


  4. Darkness:


    But the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let them go. (Exodus 10:27)


  5. Death of Firstborn:


    "And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that he shall follow after them, and I will be honored over Pharaoh, and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord." And they did so. And it was told the king of Egypt that the people fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, "Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?" (Exodus 14:4-5)


Now it is God who is hardening the heart of Pharaoh.


* * *



This observation of the shift in language was made by Resh Lakish. The first five times Moses approached him, Pharaoh ignored the display of God's power. At that point, Pharaoh lost the ability to repent. This is part and parcel of the punishment, this loss of the ability to rectify his ways. The punishments he receives are for his earlier deeds, not for the later rebellion.

The murder of Jewish babies ordered by Pharaoh was sufficient reason for the punishment.

The "final solution" which was plotted by Pharaoh at the outset of the Book of Exodus was sufficient reason for the punishment. This, coupled with the harsh, bitter slavery to which the Jews were subjected, provides ample justification for the torturous treatment of Pharaoh and his henchmen.

This idea is expressed more succinctly in a different Midrash. Note a subtle difference between this approach and that of Resh Lakish above.4

I will harden his heart ... to exact retribution from them. (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 5:7)

In the explanation of Resh Lakish, the hardening of the heart is the punishment, measure for measure. Thus, the question of the lack of free will is avoided. Men may only be punished for actions done of their own free choice, and here Pharaoh is indeed punished for crimes committed against the Jewish people by choice. The punishment: God revokes Pharaoh's free choice.

In this second Midrash, God hardens Pharaoh's heart not as punishment, but in order to punish. Had Pharaoh suffered through the various indignities of the plagues without God having manipulated his emotions and judgement, it is difficult for us to imagine Pharaoh not capitulating at some point to the awesome power of the Almighty.


* * *



We can now answer our previous question by turning the issue around. Surely it was the plagues which took away, or at least limited, the free choice of Pharaoh. Surely a beaten, abused Pharaoh does not have the freedom to make a rational, dispassionate decision regarding belief in God. In order to allow Pharaoh the freedom of choice to either accept or reject God, his heart had to be hardened, effectively restoring the equilibrium to Pharaoh's impaired, plague-ridden decision making process.5

This idea may help us understand the incident of the Golden Calf.

This idea may help us understand at least one specific event, as well as a general concept that held sway throughout the biblical period.

The Jews who stood on Mount Sinai were also certainly extremely impressed by their encounter with God. It is difficult for us to imagine that any person who witnessed the Divine revelation was not forever transformed by it. Hearing God declare "I am the Lord" and commanding "not to make graven images" must have had a lasting impact. Yet, a mere 40 days later, we find the Jews worshiping a Golden Calf. This nearly-impossible juxtaposition becomes more understandable when viewed through the prism of the free-will dilemma we witness in the case of Pharaoh.

After witnessing the revelation, the Jews lost a certain element of free choice. They were no longer at liberty to accept or reject God in their lives -- God's involvement in their lives was clear, immediate, palpable. This being so, their subsequent belief and performance of commandments would have been tainted, of lesser value; they would have been victims of Divine leverage.


* * *



The very same revelation that brings man toward God at the same time limits individual free will, making the actions of the individual, post-revelation, meaningless. God reestablished the equilibrium in His relationship with man by imbedding in his nature the desire to rebel against the word of God. This is the key to the Golden Calf debacle.

In general, throughout the era of prophecy, the same dilemma existed. When people heard direct communication with God, their freedom was effectively curtailed. Therefore, throughout the age of prophecy there existed a powerful urge to worship idols. Only in the Second Temple period, when prophecy became a thing of the past, did the urge for idolatry disappear.6

By then it was no longer needed; the relationship between man and God had changed.

Many of us hope for revelation, craving the simple, non-intermediate relationship with God that such revelation would ensure. We forget that any revelation of this sort carries a heavy pricetag, rendering subsequent belief almost meaningless unless accompanied by a counterbalancing temptation.

Man believes that freedom of choice is an unalienable right. We forget that, at times, this right may be forfeited, as part of a punishment or as part of a larger scheme. The Torah reminds us of this with the lesson of Pharaoh.7


    • Nachmanides writes: "the explanation of the question which everyone asks..." (Ramban Sh'mot 7:3) (return to text)



    • The Midrash introduces a play on words with lev meaning heart, and kaved meaning liver: Pharaoh's heart became like a liver.


      What does hikbadti imply? That God made his heart like a liver into which even if boiled a second time no juice enters; so also was the heart of Pharaoh made like a liver, and he did not receive the words of God. Hence "for I have hardened his heart." (Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 13:3) (return to text)

    • This reads as if Pharaoh had hardened his own heart, but based on the next verse, the reading shifts and it seems to have been the work of God. See the comments of the Chizkuni. (return to text)


    • See the comments of Nachmanides (7:3) where he brings both explanations, and declares that they are both true! (return to text)


    • See the comments of the Sforno in 4:21 where this idea could be understood, though perhaps the thesis stated here goes beyond the Sforno's intention. (return to text)


    • See Yoma 69b, Shir Hashirim Raba 7:8. (return to text)



    • The curious case of Aher, Elisha ben Avuya, the sage-turned-heretic and murderer, who ostensibly lost his ability for spiritual rehabilitation, will be considered at a later date. (return to text)





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