One of the more perplexing aspects of the Exodus story is the repeated “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. This phrase — together with another that is equally mysterious — is the key to understanding the true miracle of the Exodus.
When Moshe is commanded to set out on his mission to free the Israelites from slavery, God tells him that it’s going to be a long and arduous process:
|You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aharon shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the children of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the children of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. Then the Egyptians will know that I am HaShem, when I bring out the Israelites from among them.||אַתָּה תְדַבֵּר, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּךָּ; וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ יְדַבֵּר אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, וְשִׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ. וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה; וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת-אֹתֹתַי וְאֶת-מוֹפְתַי, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
וְלֹא-יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה, וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-צִבְאֹתַיי אֶת-עַמִּי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בִּשְׁפָטִים, גְּדֹלִים.
וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה’, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִיי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם.
Variations on this enigmatic phrase appear nine times in the story of the Exodus; at times, Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, while at others, God is the one “strengthening” the monarch’s resolve. Does this mean that Pharaoh has no free will? And if he does not, then why is he, his household, and the entire Egyptian society punished by plague after plague?
Free will versus habit
But this isn’t the only repetitive phrase. Virtually every encounter with Pharaoh involves a dialog between two key concepts: the hardening of the heart is paired with God’s showing Pharaoh, the Egyptians, or the Israelites “that I am HaShem.” Why is it so important that the Egyptians learn the mysterious name of God? Surely the primary target for this lesson would be the Israelites themselves!
The solution to both questions is bound up in the true miracle of the Exodus—and it isn’t what we commonly think!
When Moshe and Aharon first approach Pharaoh, they don’t request an end to the enslavement of the Israelites. Instead, they request that the slaves be given time off for a religious festival—a seemingly modest request. Pharaoh’s answer is a firm “no”: “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them.”
Pharaoh compounds his first mistake by becoming further entrenched in his determination not to let the slaves go free, even for a brief holiday. Each escalation leads him to harden his resolve; his mindset has become his own prison. The fact that Aharon and Moshe start out with easily replicated tricks plays into this entrenchment: once assured that his own magicians can reproduce their “signs and wonders”, Pharaoh has no reason to believe that anything unusual is afoot. The challenge to the status quo can be reasoned away.
Even when things escalate to a plague of lice, which Pharaoh’s court wizards are unable to reproduce, Pharaoh continues to “strengthen his heart”—habits of thought are hard to break. Only when a plague strikes which the court wizards not only can’t reproduce, but from which they can’t even save themselves, does the text say, “HaShem strengthened Pharaoh’s heart.” The Midrash Rabbah, noting the change of language, says:
When G-d saw that Pharaoh did not relent after the first five plagues, He said: Even if Pharaoh now wished to repent, I shall harden his heart, in order to exact full punishment from him. (Exodus Rabbah 11:6)
Pharaoh’s problem is known as confirmation bias: once a way of thinking becomes habituated, each time we resist change, we further lose our ability to see contradictory facts. Pharaoh’s dismissal of the evidence at hand, at first a conscious act, is now out of his hands; he has become a slave of his own “concept” and can no longer see what is obvious to everyone else. There is a lesson here about how those in power can rationalize their decisions—even disastrous decisions—in order to avoid acknowledging past mistakes.
But of course, what happened to Pharaoh in the realm of the mind had happened to Egyptian society in a more concrete sense: they had institutionalized slavery. It had become a permanent feature of their economy, which they would not willingly abandon.
The miracle of the improbable
For both Pharaoh and his people, it would, quite literally, take a miracle to shake them out of their habits and make them do the right thing. And this is the solution to both riddles. At every major turning point, God tells Moshe that Pharaoh will not listen to him, and will inevitably bring about the next escalation, until finally the results can no longer be reasoned away. By highlighting the institutionalization of the slavery, the eventual emancipation is shown for the miracle that it is.
“By this you’ll know I am HaShem”—by the fact that something will happen that could not normally come about in the natural course of things. A whole people will be freed from the iron grip of institutionalized slavery, not because the slave-holders have seen the error of their ways and not because the “peculiar institution” is no longer profitable. The emancipation will happen against the will of society and its leaders, long before social norms develop against slavery, and long before human-rights organizations and lobbies exist that might fight the institution on its own ground. And yet, it will happen.
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a sign that what happens next is a miracle. It is a lesson in seeing God in the improbable and seemingly impossible.
But for whom is this lesson intended? Obviously, the Egyptians are the immediate audience, since only when they are convinced that they’re dealing with something outside of their experience can they be induced to take action. But the broader lesson seems aimed at Bnei Yisrael themselves:
…and you will know that I am Hashem your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
It is through His direct intervention in Egypt, an event that seems to go completely against the natural course of history, that Israel will know what their God is all about. Nor is this lesson confined only to the generation that actually experienced it: the same miracle is evident in the survival of Am Yisrael as a people through two and a half millennia of exile, persecution, and assimilation. The lesson in “knowing God” taught by the seeming impossibility of the Egyptian emancipation is applicable to our own day, as we come out of another, much longer and harsher exile. Today’s miracles are more subtle, but their message remains the same.