Passover: Why did god harden the Pharaoh’s heart?

If the pharaoh is not allowed to repent, why go through with the charade of giving him an option? If the point is a display of divine power, why does one need to go through the pharaoh at all?

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. On this occasion, each Jew is expected to consider herself as having personally participated in this historical event; because if the exodus had not happened, Jews would still be slaves in Egypt. Therefore, this event has contributed to every Jew’s liberation in perpetuity.

Taken literally, this logic may seem flawed, considering that thousands of years have passed, and it is unlikely that history would have frozen in its tracks. As a metaphor, however, it points to a constitutive moment in the Jewish people’s history, when they were transformed from a group of slaves to a political collective of free people.

However, when you read the biblical book of Exodus, the bulk of the story describing the Israelites’ emergence from slavery to freedom is devoted to the ten plagues, the variety of disasters god inflicted on Egypt, in order to ensure the Jews’ liberation.

Except, this was not their purpose at all, and the bible makes this very clear. In the story, it is stated, no less than eight times, that God had “hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt”. This hardening caused the Pharaoh to refuse emancipation for the Israelites, leading in turn to more plagues.

Scholars of the bible have struggled with this element of the story. There is an explanation provided in the text: “I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him”. Some interpreters have accepted this claim at face value. Maimonides offered a more creative explanation. According to him, Pharaoh’s sins were so heavy he was given the ultimate penalty: revoking his ability to repent.

None of these justifications gets at the heart of the matter. The fundamental problem is that God’s hardening of the Egyptian king’s heart makes the whole episode seem like Kabuki theatre on steroids. If the pharaoh is not allowed to repent, why go through with the charade of giving him an option? If the point is a display of divine power, why does one need to go through the pharaoh at all?

I would like to offer an alternative exegesis. The exodus, as mentioned above, is not just a liberation of Israelite individuals from slavery, it also marks the formation of a new political body. For the first time in history, Jews must create their own government as a nation. The most salient example they can draw on is their experience of the Egyptian state under pharaoh. It is an absolute, even totalitarian, monarchy, completely submissive to one man’s whims.

By hardening the king of Egypt’s heart, god is attempting to show the Israelites, on the cusp of forming their own political system, the dangers of an arrogant and centralized regime, in which power is exercised arbitrarily. A polity in which hardening the heart of one man, or even a few men, can bring disaster on the heads of the entire collective, is inherently flawed. Jews have suffered from this system for a very long time, but ultimately, it was bad for everyone. In a country where some can be enslaved, none can be truly free or prosperous.

The spectacle of the ten plagues was meant to teach this lesson to the Israelites, as they embarked on a journey to form a polity of their own. This is the meaning of remembering the exodus: each generation of Jews must regain its freedom by recalling the evils of Egypt, and making sure their own state does not go down the same path.

This post is dedicated to Lisa Goldman, who is spending this Passover in Egypt, chronicling the modern day liberation of a people from life under tyranny towards freedom