Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

Daniel W. Hardy, Cambridge University

The commentaries by Shaul Magid, Stanley Hauerwas and Basit Koshul are very helpful, and merit our gratitude. By addressing Exodus 4-14 from within the richness of their traditions, they enable us to see the meaning of the text in these traditions alongside and intersecting with each other, and thereby enrich the readings available in any one. Since, however, texts-in-traditions are necessary but not sufficient for the appropriation of these traditions in the present, or for full understanding of the mutual relation of these traditions, more questions must be asked.

The questions I wish to pose have to do with the identity of God, the implications of the covenant, the effects of not knowing or obeying God even in the presence of mighty acts, the “hardening of the heart” of Pharaoh and – by contrast – how the reversal of Pharaoh serves to identify the people of Israel by placing them within the remembered covenant of the Lord with Abraham – with implications for their response and participation. Pharaoh’s treatment of the Israelites is closely bound up with his ignorance of the identity of God, or the obedience and free response due God, his further punishment of the Lord’s people Israel, and his reassertion of allegiance to “our God.”

First of all, there is the question of the meaning, significance and provenance of “free will”; these seem to me to be much more primary than the presence or absence of free will. Agreeing with Maimonides (as recounted by Magid) and Hauerwas, it seems clear that any freedom is not absolute. It is important to recognize that freedom is relative to its own formation and direction: what we find, whether in God or in human beings, is formed and directed freedom. Correspondingly, the hardening of heart we find in Pharaoh is not as such the loss or removal of freedom, so much as its direction elsewhere – exemplified in sacrifice to “our God” – and a correlative punishment of those the formation/direction of whose freedom lies elsewhere. Ironically, it is this misdirection that occasions the formation and direction of the freedom of Moses and Israel: a false formation/direction presents a “foil” for a true one. It seems to be the conflict of these kinds of “formation” that is central to the narrative of Exodus 4-14.

Interestingly, however, the formation/direction of Pharaoh’s heart is – because originating otherwise than in the Lord – expressed in an act of idolatry, with correlative cruelty to the people of the Lord; it is a self-formed heart (too familiar in modernity) – as Pharaoh “hardened his heart” (8:32) – and followed by willful cruelty. The appropriate response by the true God to such a “self-determined” heart, however, is the verdict that even this self-formation is in truth accomplished by God, who “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” (7:3). We might say that this stands as the emblem of the transcendence of the Lord over all other formations of the human heart.

What of the covenant? It is clearly seen as antecedent to this episode, and the more embracing truth in which the exodus is to be seen. It is surely formative for the Lord, and for God’s people, and hence the goal of the Exodus: “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” (9:1) Although this raises the – for many Christians – troubling issue of the universality of salvation, it is difficult not to agree that, if this is true of God, it is also universal to creation, as the Qur’anic perspective makes plain – “covenantal ethics is … even prior to the birth of [the] very first human child” (Basit Koshul) . If so, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened not simply by human standards (as if he were the prototype of autonomous man) but within the context of the work of the covenantal God. The question is how this hardness can occur and persist in the presence of Pharaoh’s “‘instinctive cognition’ of the existence of the Supreme Power” (Muhammad Asad), or the mighty acts (the plague, etc.) exemplifying the faithfulness of God? Implicitly, that raises all the deepest questions of theodicy, including how our hardness of heart is explained, including its ramifications in triumphalism (and guilt-feelings). One very important response is to say that the covenant allows “space” for self-discovery on the part of human beings, and even for “trying out” our humanity by resisting it. This is an enlarging, not a diminishing, covenant. The formation/direction of God’s and human beings’ freedom is as “large,” indeed, as their fullness.

Nonetheless, the formation of these “freedoms” is not abstract, but occurs through concrete historical situations. And necessarily the formation of God’s freedom in the covenant occurs in crucial episodes of redirection. In this case, the reversal of Pharaoh serves to form the people of Israel and their future within the remembered covenant of the Lord with Abraham, while also – for the Egyptians – providing a set of “alternative circumstances” that demonstrate what is necessary for mutual covenantal responsibility between God and humanity. As realistic history, this is not ‘logically neat’, and involves suffering for all – Egyptians, Israelites and God – in the process. Struggle and suffering are the “stuff” of covenantal ethics.

These dynamics are extremely important for Christians, who see in them the realistic ways through which the Lord continued to operate in history “to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship you without fear, holy and righteous before you, all the days of our life,” and continues to do so in the Christ who is prophet, “gives God’s people knowledge of salvation” and is the shining of God “on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:73-79).