The “Hearts” of the Exodus

William Wesley Elkins, The Theological School, Drew University

When the symbol of the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” gives rise to thought, one possibility is to read it in relation with the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14. For example, Andre LaCocque, in a text written with Paul Ricoeur ( Thinking Biblically, University of Chicago Press, 1998) has noted that Moses’ question in verse 13 is not an innocent question. In addition, God’s response to Moses is not without its problems, semantically and theologically.

But Moses said to God, “if I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you” (NRSV).

Although the extensive exegesis of the phrase “I AM WHO I AM” would certainly reshape any interpretative musement, limitations of space prevent it from being mentioned here. It is clear, however, that Moses is reluctant in his response to God. In some accounts his reluctance is part and parcel of an attempt to manipulate God. Moses’ reaction to God’s manifestation could be interpreted as an attempt to use God’s name, magically, against the dangers he imagined he would face in Egypt. In addition, and more seriously, Moses’ desire to know God’s name could be an attempt to manipulate God into revealing the inner purposes of God. This God was doing a new thing. The “God of…Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” was doing something that had not been done before. So, Moses wants to know what is the name of this God. As LaCocque notes, this possibility implicates Moses in the royal theology of Egypt: In Egypt different gods (with different names) do different things and prove their power in conflict with and conquest of other gods. This new thing (where was this god when the God of the Fathers permitted the sons and daughters of Abraham to be enslaved?) may mean that this god is a different god with different powers. So, Moses wants to know the real name and the real power in and of this name.

When these two possibilities are interpreted in terms of Israel’s covenantal task to manifest God’s name and this calling is defined by the events of “the revelation of God’s name”, it appears that Moses’ future, (like the future of disciples of Jesus in the gospel of Mark) does not look altogether promising. In addition, it is also instructive for us. Despite the manifestation of divine mystery, we, like Moses, are often into magic or metaphysics. Our hearts, if not hardened, are hardly fully responsive to the revelatory possibilities of God’s name. But this is Moses (and us). What about Pharaoh? Isn’t there a difference between them (and us)? It seems that Moses gets the point of the narrative: God will liberate God’s people. Pharaoh does not get it. He refuses to free the Exodites and all this was because Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened”. What could this mean?

There are three possibilities (I am told) for interpreting uses of the Hebrew at this point: (1) God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, (2) Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and (3) (passive) Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened” without reference to whom or what hardened his heart. However the Hebrew is interpreted (and this is not an unimportant point) one thing is clear: whatever is going on, it is not a matter of free will. It is not as if Pharaoh (and Moses) were motivated by factors that inclined to but did not necessitate a particular response. This is our problem. This is our solution. It is not a problem or a solution for this text. As sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, we read the problem of free will into a text that is narrating a conflict between the gods of Egypt and their representative and the representative of I AM WHO I AM, Moses. The question that shapes the text is who is more powerful. In the narrative, the fact that, I AM WHO I AM has the power to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” and thus delay the plot and in this way manifest to the people that God is God, is simply the most powerful demonstration of who is really in charge. Although it appears that Pharaoh is representing the power of his gods, his power to do or not to do, (and in the end) to be or not to be, is a matter of power (permission or persuasion) of I AM WHO I AM. God will be God even when God utilizes the lives of some, at their expense, to benefit others.

But isn’t this just the problem? If I AM WHO I AM, is really in charge, why is it that the liberation of the Exodites takes so long, elicits so much opposition and, despite its success, requires so much suffering? Why not simply get to the point: the God of the Exodus is the ruler of all Creation. So, let it be, and the God of the Exodus will transform the world into the world that fully manifests God’s reign. Why parcel out manifestations of the divine in ways that have no, limited, or at best incremental effects?

These questions touch upon a mystery of the Exodus narrative that gets concentrated in “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” A powerful narrative, a narrative that shows us the power of God, should accomplish in fact and in the telling what it promises before and after being told. Tellers and hearers of the Exodus narrative, as Ricoeur has noted in his work on parable and narrative, are shaped by the world of the story. In reading a narrative our identities are implicated in and employed by the narrative through our identifications with the characters in the plot. Plot shapes character and the characters shape the plot. So, reading Exodus, we become both Moses and Pharaoh and are implicated in the intrigue between them and God. We can not, nor should we, resolve the tensions in the Exodus narrative, because our problem with “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” is the problem we discover when we recognize our opposition to the ways that God manifests God’s name in and for our lives. We would prefer to be a Moses, reluctant, at our worst, perhaps manipulative, formed in Egypt by a royal theology, representative but not paradigmatic of the way this ideology hardens our heart to the purposes of God. We would prefer to be among the people who are finally conformed to the will of God. However, in our heart of hearts, we know that however much we are open to the manifestations of God’s name, we are curved in on ourselves. Faced with a manifestation of the divine, we would rather make our worldview into “God’s will” and not follow God’s new ways and become what God will be for us for others.

This story: The Heart of Humanity is Not Free for God (for God’s sake) could take the form of a tragic narrative, if it were not the case that at times we recognize that we are freed by God from ourselves. One purpose of the Exodus narrative is not to show us that we are free to choose, but to raise the question whether we will be freed from ourselves to recognize manifestations of God’s name. This is, of course, the question that faces all Exodites, the sons and daughters of Abraham. It is a folk colloquialism you can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people. Scripturally this implies that our freedom is a gift but it is a gift given to someone from somewhere. Another common phrase embodies these insights: no matter where you go there you are. Shaped by the gift of God ((the economy of gift (Ricoeur)) what troubles our hearts is not whether we will be free, but whether and in what ways we will be freed, for we are not always free (for God or others) no matter what liberties we may enjoy.

In this perspective, “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” becomes part of a deeper mystery that can be narrated, interpreted, but not philosophically or theologically resolved. This is the mystery that Mark employs in the parable that Jesus embodies in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark.

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed feel on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundred fold.” and he said, “let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mk 4: 3-9 NRSV)

If we take this parable as one way of revealing the secrets of the kingdom of God (a way of naming God) it is both promising and problematic. First, it connects new possibilities with places that, ostensibly, do not show much promise. However, it also appears to waste much for want of good sense. Why would any farmer sow seed into rocky soil, into hardened hearts? One rocky ridge farmer once noted: “It all depends how long you intend to farm. The only way poor soil becomes good is to work it.”

If this common seed of wisdom illuminates Mark’s parable, a verse of Christian scripture might also seed and shape interpretations of Exodus 3:14 and “the hardening of pharaoh’s heart”. In Mark, Jesus references Exodus 3:1-15 in a dispute with the Sadducees over the possibility of the resurrection of the dead:

Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong. (Mk 12:24-27 NRSV)

For Jesus, the point and power “the revelation of God’s name” is the resurrection of the dead. Given this, could it be that, for Christians, the point of the Exodus narrative is not “the hardening of pharaoh’s heart” but the resurrection? If this is true, it is also possible to interpret the resurrection in terms of the commandments. For example, in chapter 12 of Mark, the passage that immediately follows Mark 12:24-27 is the passage on the “first commandment”:

One of the scribes came near and hearing him disputing with one another and hearing that he (Jesus) answered well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (Ml 12:28-31 NRSV)

If point of the “revelation of God’s name” is a resurrection (for Israel from Egypt, for the church from principalities and powers of this age), could it be that receiving the commandments and “loving God with all (our) heart, mind, and strength” and “loving our neighbor as (ourselves)” is constitutive of, or constituted by a resurrection from the dead? If so, for Christians, the Exodus narrative and the rough, rocky, places named by the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart,” need to be worked and reworked so that we may be freed by a resurrection, from time to time, and over time, from the hardness of our hearts.

The symbol of the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” gives rise to thought. If we continue to work with the narrative, let the narrative work with us, then we might discover that who we are has been shaped by the gifts that “the revelation of God’s name” reveals in the “hearts” of the Exodites.