Blessing and Curse Inside and Outside the Covenant: “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart”

Willie Young, Loyola College in Maryland

Can someone outside the covenant violate the covenant? I ask this to approach the question of the “ontological” or ethical status of those outside the covenant from a different angle. It is, in short, the question of whether or not God’s covenant with Israel enjoins certain responsibilities on those who are outside of the covenant. I am wondering if there might be another avenue of interpretation besides those set forth by Magid – one that neither limits the covenant (and possibility of repentance) to Israel, nor that simply universalizes the action of Pharaoh in a way that ignores the covenant’s specificity and historicity. Several points come to mind: first, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a response to his own hardened injustice toward Israel; second, his recalcitrance manifests itself not only in his refusal to let Israel go, but also in the continued restrictions upon their worship; and third, his hardened heart is destructive for the people of Egypt because it denies participation in God’s blessing to them. In all three cases, it would seem that the underlying fault is the violation of the covenant – Pharaoh’s attempt to disrupt or destroy God’s election of Israel and Israel’s capacity to respond. My hope in the following reflections is that taking what one could term an expressivist view [10] of the plagues as punishment will shed some alternative light on the problems Magid has raised, without necessarily resolving those problems cleanly.

First, with respect to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Clearly, Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Hebrews is unjust, and even more so his demand that they build bricks without straw. But Pharaoh’s primary offense seems to be his attempts to sever God’s covenant with Israel. Magid has shown clearly that for several Jewish interpretations of these phenomena, the emphasis is on Pharaoh’s loss of the ability to repent. I would suggest that when God says to Moses that the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” will deliver Israel, God invokes the covenant with Israel, including the following promise: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Does it make sense to read Pharaoh’s actions as a “cursing” of Israel, with God cursing Pharaoh in response? Pharaoh may choose to bless God’s election, or to curse it, and his course of action (seeking to destroy the Israelite people and oppressing them) would certainly fall into the latter category. It is true that Pharaoh would not have free will as part of the covenant; however, he may have free will toward the covenant. This may help to specify why he would lose the opportunity to repent, because he is using (abusing) his free will to destroy the covenantal possibility of repentance. While this sounds retributive, I will suggest an alternative reading of the plagues below. For, if God’s covenant is preferential but not exclusive – as one may read Romans 9-11 – then it is possible that Pharaoh curses the world, and his nation, in cursing Israel and their God, but that the plagues manifest this curse in order to bring about a reconciliation of the world to God.

Second, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is most clearly manifest in his negotiations with Moses over the Israelites’ ability to worship. Note that God’s demand for Israel’s liberation is first and foremost a demand for their freedom to worship. I would suggest the following corollary: Pharaoh would recognize the Lord as God if he let the Hebrew people be free to worship their God – if he blessed the people of Israel. However, in placing restrictions on who could worship, and how and where (for instance, Ex. 10:7-12), he refuses to recognize God’s sovereignty. His negotiations with Moses betray his utter lack of repentance and his inability to recognize what he has done wrong; he does not recognize his infringement upon God’s historical, concretely determined freedom. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, then, would seem to lie in his refusal to allow the worship of God. This hardening leads to his misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the plagues that confront him, in large part because he does not recognize what is truly wrong with his oppression of Israel.

I indicated earlier that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart may be a curse in response to Pharaoh’s cursing of Israel. This would seem to attribute to God a vengeance and retributive wrath that may strike readers as unbecoming – perhaps, in Christian terms, confirming the view of the “wrathful God of the Old Testament.” Yet, to put one of Peter Ochs’ “rules of scriptural reasoning” to use, such a reading would do little to repair suffering, particularly within this group, and so I reject such an approach. An alternative reading would be as follows: as God states throughout, the infliction of plagues and hardening of Pharaoh’s heart are intended to proclaim the Lord’s Name throughout the world. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is part of the Lord’s blessing of Israel, so that Israel may be a blessing to the world. Pharaoh’s sin does not simply seek to deny Israel its blessing, but denies Egypt its participation in God’s blessing as well. The plagues constitute what one might term an expressive punishment: God communicates to the world its blessing in the people of Israel, and shows the world both the wrongful character of Pharaoh’s actions and the good that resides in blessing God’s people through the plagues. The punishment communicates to the offender precisely why his action is wrong, and also – importantly – how the offender’s good resides in community with the offended party (this perspective would agree with Origen’s reading of the rod that gives the decalogue, as Hauerwas has discussed – a punishment that conveys the good which ought to be intended). In other words, the punishment is not simply intended to return evil for evil, but also to bring about a turn to the good.

If this is the case, then it may only be through the plagues as a whole that one fully communicates to Pharaoh what he was doing wrong: “I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son” (Ex. 4:23). Clearly, if God blesses the world through Israel, then the good of those outside the covenant resides within the covenant. Pharaoh, then, has offended God, Israel, and his own people – and only through the plagues does this become clear. Of course, as a hardened offender, Pharaoh does not recognize this, and the question of God’s justice toward Pharaoh may then be phrased as follows: is it just to punish someone in a way that precludes his or her own reconciliation? Expressivists tend to think not – but they also don’t address questions of idolatry, genocide, and oppression. In Pharaoh, we see an evil that exceeds the bounds of reason, as it seeks to destroy these aspects of human life and the covenantal possibility they represent. Perhaps the horrific punishment symbolizes just how horrific his offense has been. That may allow one to understand the punishment as communicating the wrong, but the justice of the children’s death would still remain incomprehensible. [11]

One final note: if we take Egypt as representative of Gentile attitudes toward God’s covenant with Israel, then the ontological status of those outside the covenant can only be fully understood if we look at some of the other figures in the narrative. From the beginning of Exodus – even before the signs of the plagues – some Egyptian midwives recognize the injustice of killing all of the Hebrew boys. Would not these midwives constitute another chapter in the unusual genealogy of the Son of David? I would be curious as to their status in the interpretations set forth by the authors from whom both Magid and Hauerwas have drawn. Likewise, many Egyptians tell Pharaoh that he does not understand what God is doing to Egypt, and is only ensuring their ruin. Pharaoh is diabolical precisely because he refuses to recognize the covenant, but in so doing he likewise seeks to destroy God’s blessing to the nations. So, the ontological status of those outside the covenant is one for which repentance may or may not be possible, but perhaps it is only possible through the recognition of God’s free election of Israel, which many Egyptians in the scripture appear to do.

My thanks throughout these reflections to all of the authors for their thoughtful and engaging papers.

Title Page | Archive
© 2002, Society for Scriptural Reasoning