Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart: Some Christian Readings

Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

As far as I am concerned this is all Peter Ochs’ fault. I should not be doing this. I am, of course, sympathetic to what the Society of Scriptural Reasoning is about. My only problem is that I know so little scripture. Notice I did not say I know so little about scripture. Like most people educated in the regimes of knowledge known as Protestant liberalism, I actually know quite a bit about scripture. My problem, like most Protestant liberals, is that I do not know the text of scripture, which is an embarrassing admission for anyone from the South to make. If only I knew the text of scripture the way Southern fundamentalists know scripture.

Of course one of the advantages of being a theologian is the ability it gives you to turn a failure into a virtue. Thus my argument in Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America that fundamentalism and historical criticism are but two sides of the same coin. They are, in quite different ways, reading strategies sponsored by Enlightenment politics to divorce the scripture from the church. This development, of course, is at least partly due to the Protestant heresy of sola scriptura which, through the invention of the printing press, became sola text . This results in the distinction between what it meant and what it means, a distinction necessary to underwrite the authority of the guilds of biblical scholars. Even worse these guilds often assume that the texts of scripture have a meaning. Against these developments I take my stand with the Catholics arguing for the authority of the tradition. All of which may be an elaborate self-justification for my failure to know as well as use the scripture as the heart of any theological argument.

However, Peter told me I have to do this and I think you have to do what your rabbi tells you to do. I do not know if this is or is not a violation of my “free will,” but that is not a great problem for me since I have never been convinced that the notion of free will does any useful work. I know it certainly does no useful work for helping me understand my life. Anything I may be that is any good I have never chosen, but rather has been forced on me. Like Pharaoh I have a hard heart that only responds by having the shit kicked out of it. Yet if Shaul’s account of the reading of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by Jewish sources is correct, my lack of concern about free will may indicate I represent the habits of Christian readers.

It is not for me to question Shaul’s account of Jewish readings of this text as representing a “philosophical problem” concerning free will, but I would like to know more about why God’s covenant with Israel requires the presumption that “all human beings are created in the image of God with free will.” Shaul notes, for example, that Nahmanides recognizes the need to justify God’s action in a way Rashi does not, but he (Nahmanides) does not see the need to justify God’s action outside this particular narrative. But I should have thought that is the whole point – why would you ever be led as a reader of scripture to think the creature can assume a stance that puts God in the dock? Surely that is why, as Shaul teaches us, Maimonides saw that freedom is never absolute. “To be in a covenantal relationship with God is to live knowing that retribution of willful acts may include the loss of the will to act. In this, Pharaoh is our teacher.”

Origen, I think, has a position quite like Maimonides. He begins ( Exodus Homily IV ) noting that in the first five plagues Pharaoh is said to have hardened his heart, but in the last plagues God is said to have “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Origen is also quite well aware of Exodus 4:2l. Origen observes that we should not regard the divine spirit so lowly as to suppose this distinction was made by chance. Yet he notes that he is “not fit or able in such difference to pry into the secrets of divine wisdom,” but he thinks Paul is. Appealing to Romans 9:l4ff, Origen quotes Paul’s claim that “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.”

Origen observes that Paul rightly refuses to provide a “solution” to anyone that might think they stand in a position to question God’s action. Therefore Paul concludes his argument by observing in Romans 9:20, “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” It should, therefore, be sufficient for us to observe and examine these things and to have shown how many things in the divine Law have been submerged in deep mysteries before which we ought to pray: “From the depths I have cried to you, Lord” (Ps. l29.l). Augustine also begins his discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by appealing to Romans 9:l8. He comments that when we hear that the Lord has “deceived the prophet” (Ezekiel 14:9) we should believe that in the case of those whom God permits to be deceived or hardened, their evil deeds have deserved the judgment. Therefore, according to Augustine, we should not take away from Pharaoh free will because in some of the passages God says “I have hardened Pharaoh.” For “it does not by any means follow that Pharaoh did not, on this account harden his own heart. For this, too, is said of him, after the removal of the fly-plague from the Egyptians, in these words of the Scripture: ‘And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go.’ Thus it was that both God hardened him by his just judgment, and Pharaoh by his own free will.” ( On Grace and Free Will )

In his Commentary on the Psalms , Augustine comments on Psalm 78 and in particular how that Psalm harkens to Exodus 4:21. According to Augustine “when God is said to made this most iniquitous and malignant obstinacy, He maketh it not by suggesting and inspiring, but by forsaking, so that they work in the sons of unbelief that which God doth duly and justly permit.” He elaborates this judgment by quoting Romans 1:24, “God gave them over into the lusts of their heart, that they should do things which are not convenient.” God, therefore, punished the ungodliness of the Egyptians with “hidden justice” which is inflicted on the offenders by the “power of evil angels.” Nothing can deliver men from the power of such angels except the grace of God. The same grace of which the Apostle speaks in Colossians 1:13, that is, the grace that “‘hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love:’ of which things that people did bear the figure, when they were delivered from the power of the Egyptians, and translated into the kingdom of the land of promise flowing with milk and honey, which doth signify the sweetness of grace.”

What I find fascinating about Origen’s and Augustine’s accounts is their refusal to let the issue of “free will” get in the way of their telling of the story. Put differently, they assume that the story itself in the context of the total narrative of scripture, which of course includes the New Testament, determines what and how we will think of God’s justice and how that justice shapes our understanding of our status as creatures. In his Systematic Theology , Volume I, Robert Jenson makes some acute comments that I think confirm this way of reading. He observes that it is the metaphysically fundamental fact of Israel’s and the church’s faith that its God is freely, but truly, self-identified with temporal events. He continues:

The Lord is the one who rescued Israel from Egypt. It is therefore proper to ask, What if the Pharaoh had held out? We may want to say that if the Lord is God, of course he could not have been defeated. But that is to spoil Exodus’ story, which has its whole interest as a tale of contested victory. Again the biblical God is the Father of Jesus; what if Jesus had capitulated in the desert or the garden? We want to say this could not have happened, since the dogma of Nicea Jesus is of one being with the Father, and God cannot despair. But that again is to violate these stories of struggle and overcoming. The church must indeed read the stories of the temptation and the garden by the dogma, but if their narrative character is honored what they then tell is that deity might at those moments have broken – whatever metaphysical sense we are to make of this. The heart of the matter is that Jesus’ Resurrection appears in the New Testament not as an obvious consequence of his deity but as his Father’s amazing triumph. [1]

That God raised Israel from Egypt by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart I suspect Jenson would think must be read with the same kind of realism he finds in the resurrection. A realism that might be summed up quite simply by observing when everything is said and done the story is what matters. Of course the crucial question is “what is the story?” Where does it begin and does it have an end? How do the isolated sub-plots relate to other parts of the wider narrative? Difference between Jewish, Islamic, and Christian readings surely will be found in the retellings that stories like the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart require.

Origen is quite interesting in this respect because he goes into quite detailed descriptions of each plague, noting who was the instrument of the plague, i.e., Aaron or Moses, and what the nature of the plague suggests for how we understand Pharaoh’s reaction. Thus when the waters are turned into blood Pharaoh is not persuaded, but yields a bit when he has to deal with the frogs. Origen comments on each plague suggesting why the particular challenge they presented to the Pharaoh resulted in his response. In other words in his initial reading of the text he simply reads the story as it is given.

Yet after he has performed that task he suggests that, as far as he can perceive, the rod Moses used to strike Egypt with ten plagues “is the law of God which was given to this world that it might reprove and correct it with the ten plagues, that is the ten commandments which are contained in the Decalogue.” (I did find it interesting that Origen presupposes the rod is the law even though the law has not yet been given. One might think he might use this as an opportunity to say if and how the law may be written on each person’s heart, but he does not.) “But the rod by which all these things are done, by which Egypt is subjugated and Pharaoh overcome, is the cross of Christ by which this world is conquered and the ‘ruler of this world’ with the principalities and powers are led in triumph.” Origen so to speak defends this reading by noting that when the rod is cast down it becomes a “dragon or serpent” and devours the serpents of the Egyptian magicians. That the rod becomes a serpent representing wisdom is indicated in scripture where Jesus tells us to be as “wise as serpents” (Mathew l0: l6).

Origen thinks the songs of poets are indicated by the second plagues of frogs. He does so because the poets create empty and puffed up melodies that introduce deceptive stories to this world as if by sounds and songs of frogs. “For,” as Origen observes “that animal is useless except that it produces an inferior harsh sound.” In contrast the mosquitoes are so fine and small that we can barely see it except when it sits on the body and bores with the sharpest sting. Accordingly this animal can be compared with the art of dialectic, which bores souls with minute and subtle stinging words so shrewdly that the one who is has been deceived neither sees nor understands the deceptions. The plague of mosquitoes can, therefore, be compared to the sect of the Cynics who in addition to other depravities of their deception proclaim pleasure and lust as the highest good.

These examples of Origen’s “four fold method” of reading scripture (David Dawson in his Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria questions, rightly I think, whether Origen’s mode of reading should be called a method.) direct our attention away from the question of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but I provide them to indicate that Origen’s (or Augustine’s) reading of this story is not focused on the question of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. They read the narrative in relation to other stories in the scripture, which allows them to weave the stories of scripture into an ongoing narrative. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the “rule of faith,” which we now call the Apostles’ Creed, was the outline the church discovered for testing the many readings they knew scripture required.

Christians would, therefore, deny that such readings are “imposed” on the scripture. Rather they simply are following the mode of reading exemplified in scripture itself. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:27 – surely some of the most chilling warnings we can find in the Bible – Israel is threatened “with the boils of Egypt” if she does not obey the commandments. Does this mean that Israel can become like Egypt in her unfaithfulness? I would be fascinated to know if and how the Rabbis commented on this text. Can Israel’s heart, like the heart of Pharaoh, be hardened? Christians could, I believe, learn a great deal from such readings particularly if you believe as I do that Christian reading of scripture has for too long been shaped by Christian political power not unlike that of the Pharaoh.

I should like to end on that note, but I feel I need to raise one last issue that cannot help but be painful to Christian and Jew alike. The last and most horrible plague, the death of the firstborn, which finally it seems got Pharaoh’s attention cannot help but haunt us. Of course God is to harden Pharaoh’s heart one more time, but nonetheless we cannot help after the Shoah to feel the horror of the last plague. A Christian reading of the last plague is made even more difficult by our scripture. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:l6). If Jesus is the rod of Moses it seems those who have had to pay the price from the time of his birth are Jewish children. If I were Jewish I think I would find it very hard not to think of Christianity as one long plague.

Christians, of course, believe that Jesus is the blood that has been painted over the lintels and doorposts of the church. Yet as a homeless people desperate for security we have, I believe, far too often made Jewish children pay the price for our attempt to find a home in this world. Such a reading may be too “foreign” to questions surrounding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but in these times I do not believe Christians can afford not to raise them. If we Christians fail to recognize the way we have become Pharaoh to the Jews we risk not recognizing the hardness of our hearts–a recognition that seems unavoidable given God’s gracious gift of plagues.

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