Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Recently, I received some timely questions regarding the biblical Exodus from Egypt and the vexing problem of Pharaoh's "hardened heart." Here's a sampling:
During the Passover celebration, in the prayer book at our table, there was a phrase: " . . . and God hardened the Pharaoh's heart," thereby causing him to go back on his promise to free the Jews, and then God leashed more plagues on Egypt. Somehow, this doesn't seem logical or in keeping with free will — to harden the Pharaoh's heart and then punish the Egyptians as a consequence. Is my version of the prayer book incorrect or incomplete, or am I not viewing this text correctly?
-- A., via email
Why did God tell Moses to ask Pharaoh to let his people go, then say he'd "steel" Pharoah's heart so he'd say no? After Pharaoh does what God made him do, God punishes him. I'm sorry, but this whole story makes no sense to me. I've been told events occurred as they did to show God's power. The God I love and worship is not so vain and illogical. Do you threaten people with all kinds of horrors so they'll love and obey you?
-- P., via email
The problem here, as both readers correctly observe, is that we don't hold people accountable for coerced actions; only for actions freely chosen. If Pharaoh had no choice but to refuse Moses, then God had no right to punish Pharaoh for his refusal. There are two ways to reconcile this very difficult part of Exodus.
The first is to see the story as God's way of delivering a totally just and appropriate punishment on Pharaoh and the Egyptians (who assisted Pharaoh) for imposing 400 years of crushing brutal slavery on the Jewish people. You can't just say, "Oops, I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking" any more than Hitler could have said that in 1945.
According to this interpretation, some crimes are so heinous that they must be punished, and the hardened heart is just a literary device to describe what justice demanded. It was also a way of showing spiritually primitive slaves that God was clearly more powerful than Pharaoh.
Don't forget that all of this came about before the revelation at Mount Sinai, where God's commandments were revealed. I don't favor this interpretation because it presents God in a morally compromised manner. Why harden Pharaoh's heart? Why not just crush him? It makes no spiritual or moral sense to me, either. This is not the God I know.
My interpretation of the story is, to simply say: Pharaoh hardened his own heart through a lifetime of evil. The biblical text is a metaphor for the way evil freezes us to the possibility of doing good.
Think about how people turn bad. They descend into the depths of evil and depravity one step at a time. They begin by doing one small bad thing. Perhaps they're revolted by their own actions, but not enough to stop them from doing something bad again. Eventually, they lose any shame, guilt or moral pangs of conscience at doing evil.
Over time, evil freezes our hearts, makes them hard and we die. Pharaoh was dead inside — and that's what is meant by God hardening his heart. He could no longer change because he'd been bad too long.
What the story teaches us is that repentance is theoretically possible for everybody, but impossible for truly evil people. God says to Moses at the beginning of his mission: "But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him." (Exodus 3:19). That was the reason for the plagues. Pharoah could only be defeated; he could not be changed.
In this hopeful season, during which we focus on salvation, it's sobering but necessary to remember that some, by their own accumulated moral lassitude, are forever hardened and forever lost.