Parashah of the week: Beshallach

“And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he pursued the Children of Israel… and the Egyptian army chased after them, and caught up to them as they were encamped by the sea” Exodus 14:8-9


If God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, essentially suspending his ability to make an independent choice, where is the justice in subsequently holding him accountable for making the wrong decision by refusing to let the Israelites go?

Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language, saturated in nuance. Let’s pay close attention to the particular verbs used by the Torah in describing the process of God apparently stripping Pharaoh of his free will. Common wisdom understands that process as an act of “hardening”; a blunt tool of Divine intervention. But that is only partly true.

The verbs used on the occasions that God speaks to Moses are as follows: The root k-sh-h, a verb meaning “hardened” or “made stubborn” (Exodus 7:3), and the verb k-b-d, a word meaning “cumbersome” or “immovable” (Exodus 10:1). Both of these lean toward the assumption that God annulled Pharaoh’s independence by temporarily rendering his heart “hardened” or “immovable”.

But this is only from a human perspective - that of Moses. What happens when the Torah switches to the perspective of the Narrator?

With this shift in focus, a totally different verb is introduced: ch-z-k. This word is actually translated as “strengthen” or “embolden”, and is used in Scripture almost universally to connote a response to fear.

Three verbs. Casually similar and yet on closer inspection, very different. From Moses’s perspective, Pharaoh is seen as a “stubborn”, “immovable” tyrant determined to preserve the system he has used and abused for so long. But from God’s perspective, Pharaoh may well be stubborn, obstinate, egocentric and worse. But he also needs the “strengthening” of ch-z-k. Why?

God did not take away Pharaoh’s capacity to choose freely. Rather, he took away his capacity to make the right choice for the wrong reason.

Overwhelmed by the plagues, the conclusion is pretty easy: let them go and all will be well! But that is the wrong reason. The plagues were meant to inspire true remorse and regret in Pharaoh’s heart, to realise “we should free them because it is the right thing to do”. Pharaoh’s choice is: let them go out of selfish convenience or out of selfless compassion.

But he is afraid. His empire is crumbling, his power disintegrating. Therefore, God “strengthens” his heart, giving him the courage to not be completely overawed by the enormity of the plagues and instead make the right choice for the right reason.

Even so, Pharaoh doesn’t. He has only ever acted out of self-preservation and self-indulgence. His heart isn’t hardened. It is dead. And he was the one who killed it.

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