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Bo: God Plays with Pharaoh

In Parshat Bo, part one of the exodus story — that’s “the exodus” with a small e, not the book of Exodus — comes to its exciting conclusion:  Everything will be ready for the first verse next week, Exod 13:17, to say, “When Pharaoh let the people go …”  But this week, the word of the week is הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙  hitallalti.  I’m not giving a translation of it here because that’s what we’ll be looking at this time.

As Exodus 10 begins, God is explaining to Moses something that has troubled exegetes and philosophers ever since this story began to be told:  Why did God “harden” Pharaoh’s heart?  The next time someone asks you that question, point them to Exodus 10, where God explains to Moses why he actually prevented Pharaoh from freeing the Israelites:

  • in order to set these signs of Mine in their midst
  • in order that you can tell the story for your son and grandson to hear

Telling that story “will let you know that I am YHWH.”  But what does hitallalti mean?

To make sure we’re understanding a biblical verb correctly, we need to make sure of two things: (1) the root of the verb; (2) the binyan of the verb.  I use the Hebrew name for binyan because Biblical Hebrew textbooks can’t seem to agree on an English word for it; it’s a phenomenon we don’t have in English.  We change words to change the meaning where Hebrew simply changes the pattern.

The root of hitallalti is easy: עלל.  The binyan is easy, too:  It is Hitpael, a binyan that usually refers to actions that are reflexive, done to oneself, or reciprocal, done to each other.  But what does this root mean in this binyan?  Our first step is to see where else in the Bible this combination occurs.  In the Torah, that is only one other place:

Balaam said to the ass, “You have hitallal’ed at me!  If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now!”

The NJPS translation of this verb is “to make a mockery of” someone.  Balaam thinks the ass has “made a mockery” of him, and God wants Moses to tell the family is “how I made a mockery of the Egyptians.”  Both actions are Hitpael because you are doing something for your own enjoyment.

A noun from this root, עֲלִילָה  alilah, can mean a deed or an action, and that is how Rashbam takes it in our verse: not “to make a mockery” of someone, but “to do a deed” involving them.  The Old JPS translation from 1917 takes it this way too: “what I have wrought upon Egypt.” “Wrought” is an archaic past tense of the verb “work,” but the essential meaning here is that the Passover story must recount “what deeds I have performed against Egypt.”

Examples from elsewhere in the Bible let us know that you would only use it for deeds of a particular kind.  One is the quite horrible story in Judges 19, where some men gang-raped a woman ‏וַיִּֽתְעַלְּלוּ־בָ֤הּ  va-yitall’lu vah, translated by NJPS as “and abused her.”  This is also the verb that Saul uses in 1 Sam 31:4 and 1 Chr 10:4, when he asks his squire to kill him lest he fall into the hands of the Philistines ‏וְהִתְעַלְּלוּ־בִֽי  ve-hitall’lu vi: “and [they] make sport of me” (NJPS).

What unites all of these is that you are doing something to someone for your own somewhat shameful pleasure.  An old-fashioned way of referring to this is “to deal with someone wantonly”; a more modern way, “to play a dirty trick on someone.”  Nahmanides seems to agree. He quotes Ps 2:4, “He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord mocks at them.”

Jewish tradition is uncomfortable with God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” — which, as you know from reading the story, does not have its English-language meaning of “making him cruel.”  Rather, hardening Pharaoh’s heart” means preventing him from changing his mind.  Tradition sometimes rationalizes this procedure by proclaiming that Pharaoh was stubborn on his own before God made him so.

Exod 4:21, however, more or less makes all such rationalizations irrelevant.  God tells Moses to do various tricks to shock Pharaoh into compliance and then adds, “Meanwhile I will harden his heart [that is, stiffen his resolve, using חזק ḥ-z-q ‘strengthen’] and he will not let the people go.”  God repeats the threat to “harden [using קשׁה q-sh-h] Pharaoh’s heart” in Exod 7:3, explaining, “I will multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.”

Our chapter, Exodus 10, gives the answer to the question of why Pharaoh is not allowed to respond to God’s actions intelligently by using a third root, כבד  k-b-d ‘make heavy’ — “I have made his mind thick, dulled his brain, so that it is unable to work properly” (v. 1).

Vv. 1-2 continue by explaining exactly why God has done this:

  • to display the signs and wonders
  • so that “you” (Moses and the Jews) will be able to tell about the dirty tricks I played on Egypt

The result:  You will know that I am YHWH.

It’s clear that the primary purpose of God’s actions in these chapters is not to get the Israelites out of slavery and move them to the land of Canaan.  That could have been done more quickly without hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  The primary purpose of it all is for God to toy with Pharaoh and to demonstrate that the Egyptian gods are not as powerful as the God of Israel.  The Israelites benefited, of course.  We were freed from Egyptian slavery as part of this story.  But the exodus from Egypt was not the main event, and we are not the stars of this story.  God was the star of this story and wants to make sure that everyone knows it.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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