Does pharaoh harden his own heart, or does God do it for him?

This question goes back before the plagues show up. In Genesis 3, God simply says that “I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.” (3:19) In other words, he foresees that pharaoh won’t just let the Israelites go by asking nicely. But he doesn’t actively promise any heart-hardening. Later passages in the plagues will repeatedly emphasize that God foresaw this, but didn’t necessarily cause it. (8:15, 8:19, 9:35)

Flash-forward to chapter 7, and God says “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.” (7:3). All of a sudden God is actively causing pharaoh’s heart to harden to give him more time to show off his power. This is repeated in chapter 10: “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord.” (10:2-3) In other words, God is prolonging the suffering of Egypt to let the Israelites see and remember how powerful their God is.

That’s kind of…awful. I can buy that God isn’t showing off for his own divine ego, that it’s to drive home a point into the Israelites’ collective memory. But that only works if you forget that living human beings are the target of these plagues.

One of the things I liked in Prince of Egypt that you can see in the plagues clip is its depiction of a compassionate Moses: “This was my home / All this pain and devastation, how it tortures me inside / All the innocents who suffer from your stubbornness and pride.” Having lived his early life in Egypt, he still feels empathy for his first people, even though he’s embraced his true identity as a Hebrew.

The Ten Commandments avoids this dilemma by basically portraying all the Egyptians as dicks. The handful that aren’t, like Moses’ foster mother, get taken in by the Hebrews. I suppose there’s a point to be made that a society is culpable for the crimes it commits. Standing by and watching the genocide of chapter 2 is a sin itself, and depicting the adults as culpable parts of that system isn’t morally repulsive. But then you bring in children who haven’t been systematized yet…

But which is it? Does pharaoh harden his own heart, or have it passively hardened by events; or does God actively harden pharaoh’s heart? Plagues #2, 4, and 7 follow the former pattern, while Plagues #6 and 8 follow the latter? Why the contradiction?

Is it the effect of layers of tradition? In which case, which is older? Did later writers find a heart-hardening God horrible, and try to shift blame to pharaoh? Or did later writers not like how God’s plan seemed up to the whim of a tyrant, and placed him back in total control? I could see either as a possibility, or maybe there were two conflicting versions, and the final text decided to compromise and give both.

In my two selected Hollywood midrashim, both go with pharaoh hardening his own heart (probably because it would make God much less sympathetic to any modern audiences other than hardline Calvinists), and both give psychological reasons for it. In The Ten Commandments, it is not clear who will be King Seti’s heir, and Rameses views his half-brother as a rival, not just for the kingship, but for the hand of Nefertiri. He’s ecstatic when Moses is exiled, as it clears his path to the throne and to Nefertiri’s bed. When Moses returns and challenges him again, and as it becomes clear that Nefertiri still has (not reciprocated) feelings for Moses, he relives his old rivalry: he can’t lose to Moses. Nefertiri even mocks him for it after the final plague, to goad him into hunting down Moses.

Prince of Egypt takes the opposite approach, imagining Rameses and Moses as close brothers, with Rameses as the clear heir. Their father, however, is a demanding and cold parent, and Rameses feels he can never live up to his expectations. When Moses returns, it feels to him that his beloved brother has betrayed him – and that by bowing to Moses’ demands, he would never live up to the standard set by his father.

The Ten Commandments makes Rameses’ less likable, but still understandable. In fact, both movies seem to want to explain how God could have known ahead of time why this wouldn’t be easy. Because God knows Rameses.

This brings up the idea of whether foreknowledge is the same as predestination. Does God knowing what will happen in the future means that God intends everything in the future? I’m sort of a predestinationist in the sense that I think events and actions have inevitable consequences, and that omniscience plus extratemporality means that God should know the course of history. But I’m not a predestinationist in the sense that I think God wills every disaster just as a sign to show his awesome power.

So I guess that I’m with the version of events that pharaoh hardens his own heart, and God sighs and prepares for what’s coming.

The Japanese: hirugaesu “to reverse, to turn away from” (v 6), shingen “proposal, counsel,” otoshiireru “to entrap,” sakkoku “immediately, instantly” (v 7), inago “locust” (v 12), nozomu “to face, to look out on” (v 21), ikenie “sacrifice, scapegoat” (v 25), hidzume “hoof” (v 26).

I’m not sure why the NCT uses nozomu for the darkness covering Egypt. Also, they don’t bother with any of that “Red Sea” nonsense, going for the literal “Sea of Reeds,” i.e. the lakes and marshlands that were eventually turned into the Suez Canal.

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