Sympathy for the Pharaoh

If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, was it fair to punish him?

Moses Before Pharaoh, from the Syriac Bible of Paris

Most versions of the Passover story depict Pharaoh as an archetypal villain, an arrogant tyrant who gets his just deserts for challenging God and stubbornly refusing to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt. Indeed, there is no denying that the Pharaoh of the Exodus story is a murderous, slaveholding despot. But a close reading of the text—particularly the climactic episode in which Pharaoh “hardens his heart” and repeatedly refuses to let the Hebrew people go—reveals a more complex character, a more subtle interplay between the forces of good and evil, and raises many thorny questions about the nature of biblical justice and free will.

A quick refresher, for the biblically illiterate: As per God’s instructions, Moses and his brother Aaron go to Pharaoh’s court and ask him to free the enslaved Hebrew people. Tyrant that he is, Pharaoh rejects the brothers’ request outright. In turn, God brings down the first of 10 plagues, the transformation of water to blood. On seeing the effects of this plague, Pharaoh seems to reconsider. But his wavering is short-lived. As the King James Bible puts it, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the Lord had said. And Pharaoh turned and went into his house.” Pharaoh’s hard-hearted refusal brings on the next plague, frogs. After seeing the frogs hopping around his bedchamber, Pharaoh calls to Moses and asks him to “intreat the Lord, that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go.” God obliges, calling the plague off, but “when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them.” And so the pattern continues.

Towards the beginning of the story, Pharaoh hardens his own heart (or it “is hardened” in the passive voice). Following the sixth plague, however, Pharaoh seems to lose his nerve and God steps in, hardening his heart for him. “And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” Exodus 9:12 reads. “And he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had spoken unto Moses.” Theologians have been grappling with these questions for hundreds of years. The first-century Rabbi Yochnan ben Zakai, for example, wondered whether Pharaoh’s lack of volition might provide “heretics with ground for arguing that he had no means of repenting.” Others have sought to defend God’s actions. The great Egyptian-Jewish scholar Maimonides argued that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart as punishment for previous sins, while Martin Luther interprets God’s interference as a necessary demonstration of divine power. “This is stern dealing,” wrote early 20th-century evangelist Reuben Archer Torrey, elaborating on Luther’s point. “But it is just dealing.” St. Augustine avoided the episode’s messy implications by positing that God did not in fact deprive Pharaoh of free will. “We should consider,” St. Augustine wrote. “Whether the phrase can be understood … as if [God] were saying, ‘I shall show how hard his heart is.’ ” Others, such as St. Paul, chalked the whole thing up to the inscrutability of divine will. “God has mercy on whomever he wishes,” the apostle wrote. “And hardens the heart of whomever he wishes.”

As theologians attempt to justify God’s behavior, some secular biblical scholars posit that the God of Exodus simply isn’t concerned with free will. For although the story’s moral logic, with “heart-hardening” leading inexorably to punishment, troubles modern readers, it is not inconsistent with other ancient texts. According to UC-San Diego history professor William Propp, there are many similarities between Pharaoh’s hardened heart and “what we find in the Homeric epic. The gods breathe cowardice or courage into mortals who are already brave or fearful; they punish humans for sins that ultimately should be blamed upon the gods themselves.” Similarly, Yale English professor Leslie Brisman argues that Exodus is not a unified text but, rather, a compilation of disparate sources. These offer competing visions of God’s character, none of which really meshes with the image of a fair, impartial arbiter. One source views God as a deity with limited power and a special affection for the Hebrew people, a god who acts “as a rival deity to Pharaoh.” The second views God as both benevolent (as long as you’re on his good side) and all-powerful, and it’s this later God that steps in after the sixth plague and meddles with Pharaoh’s heart.

Perhaps because it’s such a troubling episode, much of the literature on Pharaoh’s heart simply sidesteps the question of God’s culpability. In a speech delivered to commemorate the second anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. said Pharaoh’s hard heart “tells us … that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of a persistent, almost fanatical resistance.” Seeing the Pharaoh within us all, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm speculates that “Pharaoh’s heart ‘hardens’ because he keeps on doing evil; it hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible.” What of the fact that Pharaoh does waver, and that God that steps in to make certain he doesn’t relinquish power? MLK and Fromm don’t weigh in.

There have, finally, been some strangely literal responses to the state of Pharaoh’s heart, that don’t wade into morality at all. In a 1930 Popular Mechanics article, mummy hunter and amateur historian Harold T. Wilkins attests to finding “calcified patches on the large vessel of [Pharaoh’s] heart,” proving, to his mind at least, that “his heart was really hardened.”

So where does this leave us? No matter what you believe, the question of Pharaoh’s heart forces us to engage with the Passover story from the villain’s perspective, compelling us to meditate on difficult questions about the nature and source of evil. As we ponder Pharaohs ancient and modern, large and small, we can see them as evil people, corrupt and vicious tyrants, or we can seek to consider the larger forces behind them, hardening their hearts, propping them up, and multiplying suffering for everyone involved.