Commentary for Bo

10 Feb

To many modern readers the most morally troubling aspect of the story of the exodus is the idea that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This phrase (or a variant thereof), appears four times in the narrative- once in last week’s parshah and three times in this week’s- and is always followed by Pharaoh refusing to let the Israelites go, resulting in more plagues befalling Pharaoh and the Egyptians, bothers many readers because it seems like God is stacking the deck against Pharaoh. Even when Pharaoh might be willing to let the Israelites go as God has been commanding him, God is seemingly forcing Pharaoh to refuse to do so, which results in more punishment for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If Pharaoh was prepared to let the Israelites go after just six plagues, then doesn’t God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” so that he does not do so mean that all of the remaining plagues constitute unnecessary suffering that only occurs because of God’s manipulation of Pharaoh?

The first time that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” is after the sixth plague: the plague of boils. Before this point, whenever Moses and Aaron initiated a demonstration of God’s might as a warning to Pharaoh, they were usually opposed by Pharaoh’s “magicians” who would attempt to replicate the feat, with varying degrees of success. With the sixth plague, however, “The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the other Egyptians (Ex. 9:11).” Then, in the very next verse, we are told that “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses.”

The second time the phrase appears is after the seventh plague- or perhaps more appropriately, before the eighth plague. The exact timing of this is important for two reasons. The first is the timing of the plague in context with those that came before it. The past few plagues- cattle disease, boils, and hail- have caused enormous suffering to the Egyptians. First their livestock were killed, damaging their supply of food. Then they themselves became sick (although midrash teaches that the only ones who died from this affliction were the magicians). Then the hail damaged their crops, further taxing the food supply. To put it simply, the Egyptians are really starting to feel the effects of God’s wrath. Frogs and lice were surely annoying, but they did not cause much death or suffering. Now is when the plagues have really started to kick it up into high gear.

The second reason the timing of this is significant is because during the seventh plague Pharaoh appears to have had an epiphany that he and the Egyptians are in the wrong and that God is right and the Israelites should be set free. He asks Moses to ask God to relieve the plague and God does, but “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and continued to sin; he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (Ex.9:34-35)” all on its own and he refused to let the Israelites go.

God responds to this by hardening the hearts of not only Pharaoh, but of his courtiers as well (Ex. 10:1), then instructing Moses and Aaron to go warn Pharaoh that if he does not let the Israelites go, the next plague will be locusts that will wipe out the crops that survived the hail. When Moses and Aaron leave, Pharaoh’s courtiers beg him to give in to God’s demands, or at the very least try to negotiate a deal where some of the Israelites will be allowed to leave, saying “How long will this be a snare for us?… are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost (Ex. 10:7)?” After Pharaoh’s attempt at negotiation fails, the plague is brought on, and soon enough, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron again, admitting that he is in the wrong and begging for the plague to be lifted, asking them to “Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that God will but remove only this death from me (Ex. 10:17).” God removes the plague, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he does not let the Israelites go.

The final mention of this phrase occurs after the ninth plague has been lifted and Pharaoh attempts to negotiate with Moses once again. Pharaoh finally agrees to let all of the Israelites go, but insists that all of their flocks remain in Egypt. This would rob the Israelites of what would have been their main food source, which would all but ensure that the Israelites would be forced to choose between returning to slavery in Egypt and dying of starvation in the desert.

The common theme between all of these events is Pharaoh’s lack of compassion. While he himself suffered from the boils, his loyal magicians all perished, but even upon seeing this he did not summon Moses and Aaron back and begs them to remove the plague as he often would. Then, after the finally realizing that he is in the wrong during the seventh plague, he reverts right back to sinning, knowing that it will only continue the cycle of punishment being brought down upon him and his people. When he is warned about the eighth plague- the second in a row to target the crops- Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go because he knows that he will always be able to afford food. It is Pharaoh’s courtiers- who also had their hearts hardened- who realized the great suffering this plague would cause to the Egyptian people and begged Pharaoh to seek some kind of settlement. Pharaoh agrees to do so, but offers terms that he knows will be unacceptable to Moses because he has no interest in the negotiations succeeding. When the plague hits, Pharaoh notably begs Moses to ask God to “but remove only this death from me.” Not from “us” or “my people,” but from “me.

After the ninth plague, Pharaoh once again enters into negotiations intending to offer terms he knows will result in the breakdown of negotiations and God once again hardens his heart in preparation for the final plague. The purpose of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not to have an excuse to inflict more suffering by making Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelites, but rather to increase Pharaoh’s own personal tolerance for the conditions of the plagues in the hope that, as his courtiers come to do before the eighth plague, this will cause Pharaoh to focus less on his own suffering and more on the suffering of others, so he will understand what he has done wrong by enslaving the Israelites and so he will learn to pay attention to the needs of his subjects, as any good ruler must do. After the smiting of the first-born there is “a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Ex. 12:30),” and Pharaoh, hearing this “loud cry” of all of Egypt, finally understands the suffering he has caused to both the Israelites and his own people, and sets the Israelites free.

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