Comments on “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart”

Kris Lindbeck, Trinity University

I was fascinated and impressed by Shaul Magid’s and Stanley Hauerwas’s essays. Magid’s presentation of Maimonides and Hauerwas’s of Origen and Paul were particularly compelling.

I suspect that part of the difference Hauerwas notes between Jewish and Christian commentaries – in which Jewish commentaries are more concerned with the loss of free will as a philosophical issue – might come from differing concepts of covenant. Using some concepts I have rightly or wrongly understood from E.P. Sanders, I would reason that for Jewish philosophy, because the covenant with Israel is in a sense reciprocal, with the Torah as a vehicle of grace that graciously requires human response and participation, the abrogation of free will indeed becomes a serious problem. If God might indeed prevent someone from “choosing life” by obeying Torah, does this abrogate the gift of covenant? Maimonides (and Magid) convincingly argue that it does not, for “Abusing free-will is the calculated effort to deny the ‘image of God’ in other human beings. The punishment [for egregious oppression of others] is to lose the ‘image of God,'” free will. For many Christians, on the other hand, and certainly for Paul (at least in Romans 9), God’s grace is utterly unconditional, not only at its root but through and through, and therefore utterly mysterious, outside human concepts of reciprocity or justice: “he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.” Thus Pharaoh’s hardened heart is one of the mysteries of faith, testifying to God’s power, but not impairing God’s justice, which is beyond human justice, and sometimes necessarily beyond human understanding.

Another issue: these traditional Christian and Jewish resolutions of the problem of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart can be troubling to the modern believer – particularly the believer who has been taught that God loves and accepts and forgives us all, all the time. In the passages presented to us, Maimonides’ God is a just and awesome judge, and Paul’s God an im/personal lightning bolt of grace, illuminating some but leaving others in darkness. Both can serve to explain the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but today some believers don’t want those explanations. I am teaching an undergraduate seminar on Exodus this semester, and to speak in the voice of many of my students: “Why can’t God in Exodus be Good, the way S/He’s supposed to be? Not so arrogant, a sort of Divine Show-off, making people suffer so S/He will be known and worshipped, but merciful and patient the way S/He teaches us to act, the way we can understand?” It is relatively easy for me to imagine refutations for my students’ simplistic theodicies, but nevertheless I cannot satisfactorily answer their questions. I think of the “firstborn of the slave woman grinding at the mill,” whose grieving mother was surely innocent of Pharaoh’s guilt, and I realize I have some of the same problems as my students. Of course, my class is a non-denominational, ostensibly secular, “about religion” class, but if it were a “religion” class I doubt I could do much better at finding answers that made sense to them and also to me.

Perhaps in part on account of this quandary, I also found myself frustrated by the papers in as far as they seemed to address concepts abstracted from scripture, rather than scripture itself. Perhaps this happens frequently when philosophers read sacred text, whether in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, or on the brink of the 21st Century. There are other kinds of questions, I believe, which may allow one to break out of the philosophical problem of the abrogation of free will, a problem which inevitably arises when God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is abstracted from its textual and narrative context.

Therefore, meaning no disrespect, I present a number of questions (and a few tentative answers) about the texts themselves. They are questions that neither our authors, nor the traditional exegetes they discuss, nor the historical scholars they rightly critique seem to think are important – but which seem to me vital for understanding the text.

Exodus 4:20-25

So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand. And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. 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.’ “On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’s feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”

Why is this first mention of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart after the initial encounter between God and Moses in the desert? Why is it framed by the journey back to Egypt? Why does it use language of Israel as “firstborn son” (not used later in the actual incident)? Why is the only the firstborn of Pharaoh mentioned here, whereas in chapters 11 and 12 the emphasis is on all Egyptians “even to the firstborn of the slave woman grinding at the mill.” Why does Moses take both “his sons,” plural, to Egypt, but Zipporah is only said to circumcise “her son” in the singular? Is this to underline a parallel to “firstborn son”? Why is this last and most terrible plague predicted here, but not in chapter 7, where God also says he will harden Pharaoh’s heart? Might Israel say to God much as Zipporah says to Moses: “A bridegroom of blood you are to me” because God claims Israel for His own with the blood of the Egyptian firstborn? Who is this God who would seek to kill even Moses?

Exodus 6:6-9

Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.’ ” Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

Is it precisely the broken spirit of the Israelites that makes all God’s mighty acts necessary, even if they must come at the expense of the Egyptians and by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? (Even if Pharaoh had it coming, which he most likely did.)

Exodus 6:29-7:5

He said to him, “I am the LORD; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I am speaking to you.” But Moses said in the LORD’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like god to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.”

Why does this second prediction of the hardening come after “See, I have made you like god to Pharaoh?” Does it mean that Pharaoh, the self-named god, shall lose even his human free will by the agency of another human “god,” Moses? Why are the Egyptian people mentioned this time? Why is it important that they believe? Nowhere else in the Pentateuch is it important for a whole non-Israelite nation to acknowledge the LORD of Israel. Perhaps the ordinary Egyptians must believe in order to understand that the plagues are their punishment for the murder of the Israelite babies and therefore not suffer without understanding, like dumb animals. Whether their belief or their punishment is necessary, or both, it almost seems here as if God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart for the sake of the Egyptians’ understanding, as well as the Israelites’ faith. Perhaps the Pharaoh, the instigator of genocidal crimes, is made less human so that his human tools can become more human, by realizing their guilt and experiencing fear of God.

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