Naomi Graetz

Hardened Hearts vs Eternal Life: Pharaoh and Seraḥ

Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877) Wikimedia Commons


We are in the middle of the plagues at the beginning of Parshat Bo:

“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 10:1-2).

As we well know, the parsha ends with the 10th plague of killing the first-born sons of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:29-13:17). I believe that there might be a subversive message in retelling this story: namely, that God was wrong to harden Pharaoh’s heart.  There are even hints of this during the two preceding ten plagues. At one point Pharaoh seems willing to send the people off:

And Pharaoh said, “I myself will send you off, that you may sacrifice to the LORD your god in the wilderness, only you must not go far away. Entreat ha-atiru on my behalf.” And Moses said, “Look, I am going out from your presence and I shall entreat the LORD, that the horde may turn away from Pharaoh and from his servants and from his people tomorrow…And Pharaoh hardened his heart this time, too, and he did not send off the people (Exodus 8: 20-28).

Once again:

And Pharaoh sent and called to Moses and to Aaron and said to them, “I have offended this time. The LORD is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong. Entreat the LORD, and no more of God’s thunder and hail! And let me send you off, and you shall not continue to stay.” And Moses said to him, “As I go out of the city, I shall spread out my hands to the LORD. The thunder will stop, and the hail will be no more, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. And as for you and your servants, I know that you still do not fear the LORD God” (Exodus 9:27-30).

It would seem in our parsha that Pharaoh has learned his lesson after the plague of locusts:

And Pharaoh hastened to call to Moses and to Aaron, and he said, “I have offended before the LORD your god and before you. And now, forgive, pray, my offense, just this time, and entreat the LORD your god, that He but take away from me this death.” And he went out from Pharaoh’s presence and entreated the LORD. And the LORD turned round a very strong west wind, and it bore off the locust and thrust it into the Sea of Reeds, not a locust remained in all the territory of Egypt. And the LORD toughened ye-chazek Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not send the Israelites off (Exodus 10:16-20).

I have always been disturbed by the phrase that God hardened, or strengthened  Pharaoh’s heart. Why didn’t he allow him to repent? What was God’s agenda? (And the use of the word ye-chazek, is picked up when God takes the Israelites out of Egypt with a yad chazaka u-vezroa netuya, a mighty hand and an outstretched arm). Since the ability to repent (and return to God) is a central theme of the Jewish tradition, why was Pharaoh so different? I am not the only one to have noticed this and I will answer this question in a circuitous manner. Have patience, or if not, skip to the conclusion!


I have decided to combine two different characters from the Bible: one a despotic ruler and the other, a daughter and granddaughter. Of the former, Pharaoh it is said that “he knew not Joseph” and of the latter, Seraḥ, a life overlapped with Jacob, Joseph and Moses. What the two characters have in common is that the midrash gives them both eternal life and that is why I decided to look at both of them together to see if the depiction of Seraḥ and Pharaoh have something in common and can relate to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

Pharaoh in Midrash Va-Yosha

There is a fascinating midrash which comes from an eleventh century source Midrash Va-Yosha. In it are the details in which Pharaoh has a change of heart and believes in God. Gabriel who is not really buying this, tries to drown him.  After re-appearing, like Jonah, he shows up as the King of Nineveh who also has a change of heart and does teshuva, repentance and then lives on at the entrance of Gehenna, serving as witness to God’s presence in the world. Thus, despite the clear evidence of the text that there are no surviving Egyptian witnesses (Exodus 14:28), Pharaoh, according to many versions of the midrash, does survive the Crossing of the Sea (see too Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael –Beshallach 6).

Presumably the artists who depicted such biblical scenes in the Haggadahs and illustrated Bibles were influenced by these texts.

Pharaoh in the Koran

According to the Koran, the angel Gabriel was sent to Pharaoh in order to deliver in writing his divinely decreed fate. The angel holds out a written decree to Pharaoh. Pharaoh knows that his time is up and he cries out to God, acknowledging the power of God, “I have sinned, there is no God but Allah and Moses are his messengers.” Commentators on the Koran 10:90-92 disagree over the outcome: Some say that Pharaoh was saved because of his repentance; others claim that his repentance, under duress, was not deemed acceptable and therefore he also drowned. [See this site for an exact quote:].

Pharaoh in the Passover Haggadah

There is an illustration featuring the Egyptians and Pharaoh which appears in the Sarajevo Haggadah an illuminated manuscript from Spain, c. 1350.

My copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah

In this picture, the Children of Israel are crossing the sea along several different paths, while the Egyptians have already drowned, except for a crowned Pharaoh, standing upright in the waters on the far left side. It appears that this picture follows the tradition of Pharaoh being saved. Another representation appears in the Tripartite Mahzor (c. 1320.) It appears in an initial word panel to the piyyut Va-yosha, read on the seventh day of Passover. Here the Israelites cross on top while the Egyptians drown on the bottom as they enter the water. The mounted Pharaoh (to the left) is seen escaping on the other side. In this Mahzor, Pharaoh is sitting on his horse, having passed thru the water safely. He lifts his hands toward heavens to praise God. [See this site for picture:].

Finally, we come back full circle to the angel Gabriel. Did he or did he not succeed in drowning Pharaoh? According to Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 42 and Midrash Va-Yosha Pharaoh survived his being brought down to the depths of the sea and tortured for fifty days by Gabriel. Other sources say he did not! Just like we saw in the Koran.


We now leave Pharaoh sitting at the gates of Hell, possibly still alive and come to Seraḥ, daughter of Asher, the ultimate survivor to bear witness who in midrashic sources lives on from the time of Joseph’s death and reincarnates herself as the wise woman in 2 Samuel  20. Unlike Pharaoh about whom we know a lot from the Bible, there may be some of you who have never noticed Seraḥ before, with good reason. She appears in the genealogical lists of Genesis, Numbers and I Chronicles, spelled with a Shin. In most of the midrash, she is spelled with a Samech, perhaps because of the spelling of Seraḥ in Exodus 26. The traditions of Seraḥ’s extreme longevity apparently have their basis in the fact that she is mentioned both in the count of those who went to Egypt and in the list of those who entered Israel. Her singular name may also have contributed to these traditions, since the meaning of the expression (Exodus 26:12): “Seraḥ ha-odef” is “something left over” (“the overlapping excess”).

Jacob Milgrom notes in his commentary on Numbers 26:46, that Seraḥ’s presence as one of the only females in the genealogical lists “remains a mystery.” The rabbis try to solve this mystery. According to them, if Seraḥ was mentioned by name in the census list of those who made the Exodus, she must have still been alive at that time.  Because the sages have to explain why Seraḥ appears in both the Genesis and Numbers list they give her a life and, in the process, also explain some of the passages that are difficult to understand. For example, to explain how Jacob believed the brothers that Joseph was alive the Midrash Hagadol created a persona, namely Jacob’s granddaughter, Seraḥ who played the harp and had a good voice. And for convincing Jacob that Joseph was still alive, he blessed her with eternal life.

There is still some debate as to whether she lives forever, but before we make any decisions about this, it is interesting that she resurfaces again at the Nile, where Seraḥ has secret knowledge handed down to her from generations, going back to Abraham and is able to tell Moses exactly where Joseph is buried, so that he too can resurface and the people of Israel can now go on their journey out of Egypt. We do not hear about her for many years until she shows up as the wise woman of Abel Beit Maacha and prevents a war by cutting off and throwing Sheva Ben Bichri’s head down, thus saving the town from Joab’s wrath.

The tradition of Seraḥ’s immortality is reflected in a narrative set in the time of the Rabbis, in which Seraḥ appears in order to resolve a disagreement in the academy (bet-midrash).   In this midrashic vignette, Seraḥ is an extremely old woman who can testify, in the first person, to the miracle of the parting of the Reed Sea. In her wisdom, she is capable of comprehending, and participating in, the aggadic discussion conducted in the bet-midrash. Her statement is preferred to that of R. Johanan, since she has first-hand knowledge of the facts (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 11:13).  Did Seraḥ die or is she still alive?  Many sources report that she entered Paradise alive, and thus transcended mortality. In the Zohar on parshat Shelach Lecha, she is till teaching Torah to women. In medieval Jewish mysticism, Seraḥ has a place of honor in Gan Eden.

Seraḥ and Pharaoh as Contemporaries

I have chosen to focus on Seraḥ and Pharaoh because both were alive at the same time as the exodus from Egypt (although Seraḥ is older than Pharaoh). Pharaoh knew not Joseph; Seraḥ knew everyone. Both interacted with Moses. Once Pharaoh let the Israelites go, they had to find Joseph’s bones and Seraḥ showed them the place in Nile. After Pharaoh chased Israel, his soldiers all drowned except for him.  Seraḥ lived on to be in Heaven; while Pharaoh who had a change of heart, lived on to be in the Gates of Hell. If you compare him with Seraḥ from a gender perspective, one could say that the rabbis have feminized Pharaoh from the unyielding king who would not change his mind (i.e., he didn’t ask for directions) to one who beseeched God for mercy and another chance.  The rabbis had Seraḥ acting in a way associated with women, namely indirection.  To get her goals she used womanly stratagems (music, secrets, wisdom).

Bearing Witness

What both Seraḥ and Pharaoh have in common is extreme longevity and the purpose of their survival which is to bear witness. Besides place, time, and water, why do these two survive? What purpose do the story tellers have in keeping them alive?  What is the purpose of the witness? Does their survival change them—do they gain insight? Pharaoh does—he is a baal teshuva, a born-again witness:

Even now, this Pharaoh lives at the entrance of Gehenna. As kings of the nations enter, he immediately makes known to them the great powers of the Holy One and says to them, “You are the biggest idiots in the world! Why did you not learn from me? See, [I] denied the Blessed Holy One, so He sent ten plagues against me. Plus, He drowned me in the sea and detained me there for fifty days. Then He drew me up from the sea and in the end, I believed in Him against my will.” [For entire midrash see Rachel S Mikva, Midrash vaYosha: Translation, Annotation and Commentary (Mohr Siebeck, 2012):182-189].

Everyone can change–even evil people. So, they had him believe in God, see him both as the King of Nineveh and as a Jonah figure, who also sank to the depths, changed his heart and went on preaching to the people at the gates of Hell.

What about Seraḥ? She shows up in many guises. It is not clear whether she undergoes transformation. But it is clear that for the sages and those who continued to worship her, she serves as a witness, perhaps exemplifying the people of Israel who in Zechariah 3:2 appear as “a brand plucked from the fire” and in Jeremiah 31:2 as “the people escaped from the sword”. Seraḥ, an example of a constant survivor, is a figure that holds out hope to the dispersed Jewish nation. Even though God has exiled the people of Israel, God will ultimately redeem these survivors.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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