Pharaoh’s Heart, Divine Justice, and the Reading of Scripture: A Report on the 2000 Meeting of the National Society for Scriptural Reasoning

Dov Nelkin, University of Virginia

It is a communal text and a communal context that gives scriptural reasoning its distinctive voice. The papers by Magid, Hauerwas, and Cornell were joined by the written responses included in this journal and by a lively discussion at the annual meeting of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, held at the American Academy of Religion’s convention.

The discussions at the meeting, which considered both the particulars of the Pharaoh narrative in Exodus, Romans, and the Qur’an, as well as more general matters of textuality and readers’ relationships with scripture, were true to the SSR expectation of diversity within community. Even for discussants who are co-religionists, readings of the scriptural texts varied significantly. One Muslim scriptural reasoner suggested that the contemporary challenge was to read in the absence of God’s continuing revelation. Cornell responded that, per his reading, most Islamic traditionalists understand personal revelation to continue today (allowing for the cessation of revelation to apply only to book form). Magid’s Jewish reading of the Exodus narrative, already multivocal, was challenged by another Jewish scriptural reasoner who suggested that the logic embedded in scripture rendered problematic the exegetical tradition Magid cited. According to this reading, free will is not as central a category for Jewish scriptural or rabbinic tradition as Magid suggests.

Just how important the matter of free will is to the narrative of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart generated significant debate. Following Hauerwas’ paper, discussants argued that Christian readers tended to what Shaul Magid termed “very close readings” of the text – those that concern themselves with understanding the narrative in situ . Discussants were divided on whether or not that was a good thing. As a result, Christian readings of the text accept it as given that God hardens hearts (perhaps in response to one’s hardening of one’s own heart) and ask how one should respond in light of that fact. The Qur’anic narrative has Pharaoh rejecting God’s signs, despite God’s desiring Pharaoh’s repentance. Therefore, for Muslim readings, free will is a presupposition and not a problem within the narrative. The narrative then becomes an example of abuse of free will by man, rather than by God.

The second Jewish reading mentioned above notwithstanding, most Jewish discussants expressed concern over God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The conversation began and ended with concerns expressed by Jewish scriptural reasoners about the impact on one’s own heart of appropriating these texts as one’s personal and national exodus story (as Jews do in their daily liturgy and more powerfully during the Passover seder) in light of the violence embedded in the texts. This was in line with the tendency of Jewish scriptural reasoners to feel compelled to a much greater extent than their Christian and Muslim counterparts to argue with the text and its implicit ethics. Peter Ochs captured this sentiment in a comment to Shaul Magid, “You seem more at home in the Qur’anic text [where God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart] than in your own scripture, but you seem to feel comfortable in your discomfort because religiously, that’s what is expected of you.”

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