Hardening the Heart: Thoughts on Parashat Va’era

The notion of hardening the heart occurs 20 times in the book of Exodus.

Ten of these occurrences state either that Pharoah hardened his [own] heart (8:28, 9:34) or say that Pharoah’s heart hardened, suggesting that this was something that Pharoah did on his own (7:13, 7:14, 7:22, 8:11, 8:15, 9:7 , 9:35). The other ten occurrences attribute the heart hardening to God (4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17).

The idea that God intentionally hardened Pharoah’s heart has always troubled me. Why would God do that? And how, if God made this happen, can we blame Pharoah and hold him accountable for his actions?

We discussed this during Torah study last Shabbat (Jan 13) and Rabbi Julie suggested two possible interpretations in her introduction to the Torah reading. One (according to Maimonides) was that God caused Pharoah to further harden his heart as a punishment because Pharoah had already hardened his heart during the first five plagues. A second interpretation was that God did not purposefully make Pharoah harden his heart but deliberately provoked the heart hardening by a display of power. Both interpretations suggest that God as well as Pharoah himself was responsible for the hardening of Pharoah’s heart.

Rabbi Julie invited us to provide a different interpretation. I found myself thinking about this off and on all weekend. These are my musings.

Let’s first look at the verbs used to express the heart hardening. My thanks to Jennifer Moses, who led the Torah Study session last Shabbat, for pointing out that the Hebrew verb is not the same throughout all of the verses. There are actually three different Hebrew verbs used to express the heart hardening and these get translated differently in the Chumash.

The most direct verb is kesheh (קשה), from the word root ‘hard’ and literally translated as ‘harden’:

And it was when Pharaoh hardened [his heart] against sending us free, that Adonai killed every firstborn throughout the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast (Ex 13:15)

This verb kesheh is only used twice. However, this word root is previously used as an adjective to characterize the Israelites’ labor:

… they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field … (Ex 1;14)

Moshe spoke to the Israelites but they would not listen [because] their spirit was crushed by cruel bondage [alternative translation ― hard labor, avodah kesheh] (Ex 6;9) 

Use of the verb kesheh thus connects the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart with Pharoah’s infliction of increasingly brutal working conditions on the Israelites. 

The most frequently used verb for the heart hardening is hazak (חזק), from the word root ‘strong’, which gets translated as ‘stiffen’:

Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as Adonai had said (Ex 7:13)

This use of the verb hazak (stiffen) ― to make stronger or more steadfast ― rather than kesheh (harden) suggests that Pharoah started with a hard heart, which became increasingly set in its hardness.

The third verb is kavod (כבד), which derives from the root word for ‘weight’ or ‘heavy’ and gets translated as ‘becoming stubborn’: 

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers (Ex 9:34)

A more literal translation of this verse might be ‘his heart became heavy’’.  Pharoah’s heart is heavy with stubbornness and he becomes implacable in his refusal to free the Israelites. 

But Kavod has another meaning. It is more typically translated as ‘honor’ or ‘glory’. Combining honor with heaviness add a further dimension to what is motivating Phraoah. Phraoah’s heart is heavy with the perceived assault on his honor by the display of God’s power.

Now let’s look at the verses that attribute the heart hardening to God. 

The first two references to heart hardening occur before the plagues as God is instructing Moses to speak to Pharoah ― first with the verb hazak and then with the verb kesheh:

I, however, will stiffen [make strong] (hazak) his heart so that he will not let the people go (Ex 4:21).

But I will harden (kesheh) Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt (Ex 7; 3)

Both verses are in a future verb form, apparently reflecting intentionality on God’s part to affect Pharoah’s actions. However these references could instead be predictive. God could, in fact, be telling Moses that Pharoah will react to what God does by becoming increasingly hard in his heart (kesheh), not just to the plight of the Israelites but to the suffering of his own people, and by staying strong (hazak) in his resolve and persisting in his chosen course of action. God further may be letting Moses know that God will not be deterred by this reaction but will persist in his plans to free the Israelites.

God’s prediction is born out. Pharoah’s heart hardens after witnessing a display of God’s power (Aaron turning a rod into a serpent and then the swallowing by Aaron’s rod/serpent of the rod/serpents of Pharoah’s magicians):

Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (hazak) and he did not heed them, as Adonai had said (Ex 7:13)

And Adonai said to Moses, “Pharaoh is stubborn (kavod); he refuses to let the people go (Ex 7:14)

This initial hardening involves both hazak and kavod ― Pharoah’s heart hardens and becomes heavy from the perceived assault on his pride.

The hardening continues after the 1st plague (blood):

But when the Egyptian magician-priests did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (hazak) and he did not heed them—as Adonai had spoken (Ex 7:22)

After the 2nd plague (frogs):

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn (kavod) and would not heed them, as Adonai had spoken (Ex 8:11)

After the 3rd plague (lice):

and the magician-priests said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (hazak) and he would not heed them, as Adonai had spoken (Ex 8:15)

After the 4th plague (insects):

But Pharaoh became stubborn (kavod) this time also, and would not let the people go (Ex 8:28)

After the 5th plague (cattle disease):

When Pharaoh inquired, he found that not a head of the livestock of Israel had died; yet Pharaoh remained stubborn (kavod), and he would not let the people go (Ex 9:7)

As well as after the 7th plague (hail):

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he remained stubborn (kavod) and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers (Ex 9:34)

The verb continues to vary between hazak and kavod. Pharoah’s heart becomes harder and harder, not only in his cruelty to the Israelite slaves but in the lack of empathy for the suffering that the plagues are causing to his own people. Pharoah becomes increasingly intransigent in response to the plagues, determined to maintain his pride at all costs.

There are now additional verses attributing the heart hardening to God, starting after the 6th plague (boils):

But Adonai stiffened (hazak) the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not heed them, just as Adonai had told Moses (Ex 9:12)

And continuing into Parashat Bo after the 8th plague (locusts), 9th plague (darkness) and 10th plague (killing of first born):

But Adonai stiffened (hazak) Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go (Ex, 10:20)

But Adonai stiffened (hazak) Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go (Ex 10:27)

Moses and Aaron had performed all these marvels before Pharaoh, but Adonai had stiffened (hazak) the heart of Pharaoh so that he would not let the Israelites go from his land (Ex 11:10)

The verb form is in past tense, apparently stating that God caused Pharoah to harden his heart. Alternatively, the verses could be interpreted as resultative, meaning that Pharaoh increasingly hardened his own heart in reaction to the plagues as he witnessed God’s power and experienced his own lack of power.

However, although God might not have actually made Pharoah harden his heart, God might have purposefully acted in a way that would provoke Paroah to harden his heart. I think this is what Rabbi Julie was suggesting in her second interpretation. Two verses in Parashat Bo and B’shallah suggest why God might have done so:

Then Adonai said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened (kavod) his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them (Ex 10:1).

Then I will stiffen (hazak) Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them, that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am Adonai (Ex 14:4)

Although it is translated as ‘harden’ rather than ‘become stubborn’, use of the verb kavod in 10:1 links the heart hardening to Pharoah’s ego. God is about to escalate the devastation wrought by the plagues to a famine caused by locusts, the trauma of darkness and ultimately to death. And just as he has in response to the previous plagues, Pharoah heart will grow even harder, he will be overcome by his pride and ultimately will set off in pursuit of the Israelites. This will provide more opportunities for God to demonstrate his power and become known, thus accomplishing God’s purpose.

This interpretation of events is particularly compelling to me as I think about the current situation in Israel and Gaza. Let’s just say that Hamas knew who they were dealing with in the current government of Israel. Hamas staged a brutal attack designed to provoke an explosive and intransigent response and they succeeded. Hamas did not make Israel respond as they did. Israel did not have to respond in that way.

Back to ancient Egypt. God did not make Pharoah harden his heart. God might have anticipated how Pharoah was likely to respond and acted anyway to free the Israelites. God might even have tried to provoke Pharaoh. However Pharoah did not have to respond the way he did. He made a choice. It did not end well.


image: “Prisoner with chain around hands” by JobsForFelonsHub is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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