Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart -- and Does it Still?

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Perhaps the greatest archetypal tale in all of human culture about addiction to top-down, unaccountable power -- and the path it shapes to self-destruction -- is the story of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus.

We have seen, are still seeing, this tale lived out before our own eyes. For eight years, the government of the United States became so addicted to its own power, so swept away by its own arrogance, that it played out the tale of Pharaoh and brought disasters on the very country that it claimed to lead, as well as on the wider world.

Even though the US government has begun to change, there are still Pharaohs blocking the way to a "promised land" of justice and sustainability, a rhythmic sharing of the earth's abundance with each other -- "adam" and "adamah" -- all earthy-humankind and all the living, breathing beings of the earth. . What can we learn from the ancient story to guide our steps today to do that sharing?

Heard through 21st-century ears, the Plagues that beset ancient Egypt in the Torah's story of liberation from Pharaoh are ecological disasters. (Exod . 7:13 to 11:10). They are not magical miracles performed by a God Who stands outside our earth and earthy humankind, but the consequences of oppression. Oppress humanity, says the story, and the earth itself is twisted out of shape -- and then rebels. If disaster's what ypou sow, the disaster's what ypu reap.

What are the "Plagues"? The rivers become undrinkable, locusts consume the crops, a climate disaster of unprecedented hailstorms assails the country, mad cow disease descends upon the herds, a sandstorm of impenetrable darkness - a darkness you could actually feel, not only see - holds prisoner the land and its inhabitants.

All brought on by Pharaoh's stubbornness, his arrogance, his dependence and insistence on horse-chariot armies to subdue other peoples abroad and slave-driving overseers to subdue workers and ethnic minorities at home.

So go the major outlines of the story. But within these stark, boldly inscribed black-letter texts is hidden a more subtle chiaroscuro of the psychology of power. Why did Pharaoh act in such self-destructive ways? (Remember, "Pharaoh's army got drownded, deep in the Red Red Sea.")

When Moses first invokes Divine power --- showing Pharaoh that he can turn a stick into a snake -- Pharaoh is dismayed, but after his court experts perform the same trick, he "strengthens" his own heart and moves forward on his imperial course. When Moses raises the ante and has his stick swallow the sticks of the Egyptian, again Pharaoh is taken aback, but strengthens his own heart and refuses to let the Israelites make a festival for themselves.

And then what we call the "plagues" begin. Moses strikes the Nile, the life-blood of Egypt, with his stick --- and now no mere magic trick follows but a major eco-catastrophe: a "red tide" ironically drowns the Nile into what tastes and smells like blood. The source of Egypt's life becomes undrinkable, and all its fish die. This time Pharaoh is frightened --- but when his own magicians show they too can pollute the streams, he strengthens his heart against the poor - and God.

Then come the frogs, and Pharaoh surrenders for a moment; but when the frogs vanish, he toughens his heart. Again, when swarms of mosquitoes infest the land, he wavers but toughens his heart again. Mad cow disease strikes the herds, but Pharaoh toughens his heart.

Boils erupt on the bodies of Egyptians - and now for the first time in response to any of the plagues, YHWH -- the Breath of Life Itself - strengthens Pharaoh's heart.

When hailstorms far worse than had ever afflicted Egypt shatter crops, Pharaoh strengthens his own heart.

Then Moses warns Pharaoh of a plague of locusts that will eat away not only the present crops but their seed for the future, and the will of Pharaoh's courtiers finally breaks. "Do you not see that you are destroying Egypt?" they cry out to Pharaoh. But once again the Breath of Life toughens Pharaoh's heart, and he overrules even his own advisers, so bent is he on reasserting his own power.

There comes a darkness so thick it could be felt -- perhaps a three-day sandstorm - but once again, though Pharaoh trembles, God hardens Pharaoh's heart. Only the deaths of all of Egypt's firstborns push him over the edge into ordering the Israelites to leave -- notice that he orders them, rater than permits them -- and even then, when he awakens in the morning to see his land devastated and his economy torn to shreds, he cannot bear his humiliation, his powerlessness. He orders his army to reenslave the departing Israelites. He and the Army end up drowned in the Sea of Reeds.

We might well ask, Why does God intervene to harden, toughen, stiffen Pharaoh's heart? At those late moments in the story, what has happened to "free will"?

We might similarly ask, "What has happened to the free will of a heroin addict?" The first shooting-up, the fifth, even the tenth, may be acts of free will. But at some point, Reality (call It "God" if you like) takes over. The body has so deeply responded to these acts of free will that it loses its freedom.

And this is what happens to Pharaoh. He chooses hard-heartedness so often that he loses his ability to choose. He -- the most powerful man in the world --- has lost his freedom in order to deny freedom to those he has enslaved. The heart that he himself has chosen to harden, he becomes unable to soften. -- For God, Reality, begins to harden his heart. Addiction takes over. The most powerful army, the most brutal police cannot save him: indeed, they are exactly what destroy him.

There is a teaching, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Torah teaches, "Absolute power addicts absolutely -- and self-destructs absolutely." And this is a warning to all leaders and peoples, not a mere historical chronicle but an archetypal tale of what happens when top-down, unchecked power becomes not an instrument for change in the service of life but an addiction. Who and what today are the institutional pharaohs that are bringing plagues - ecological disasters -- upon the earth, and serfdom - economic disasters - on the people?


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