Does One Crime Justify Another?

Understanding why God hardens Pharaoh's heart.


Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 10:1 presents a theological problem on two levels. First, if God is the agent of Pharaoh’s behavior, what does that imply about Pharaoh’s free will? Second, if God hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate God’s power, we must ask: At what price the Israelites’ liberation? Indeed, the ultimate result of Pharaoh’s stubbornness is the murder of every first-born Egyptian male. Even if we consider this to be retributive justice, payback for Pharaoh’s earlier order to kill all newborn Hebrew males, we still must ponder: Does one heinous crime justify another? And how do we come to terms with killing innocent children? The Torah: A Women's Commentary

Commentators, equally bothered by this thorny moral dilemma, have provided inspired interpretations. With regard to the question of free will, some interpreters note that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Only afterward does God take over, starting with the sixth plague (9:12), suggesting that Pharaoh has foregone the chance to operate independently. Modern psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes, “The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action … there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened … that he has lost the possibility of freedom.” This is an astute insight into human behavior, but it begs the question of the text’s plain meaning, which is that God causes Pharaoh’s stubbornness.

With Adversity Comes Strength

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart might also be viewed as a paradigm for what Fran Burgess calls the “transformative power of adversity.” According to this view, Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance is the condition necessary for Moses and the Israelites to emerge from their straits (the Hebrew name for Egypt, mitzrayim, is very close to the Hebrew for “straits,” metzarim). Indeed, it often takes facing overwhelming odds to make radical change. As Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong said, “Before cancer, I just lived. Now I live strong.” Pharaoh thus serves as a tool for the Israelites’ psychological and moral development. However keen, this interpretation too satisfies only on the level of metaphor.

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Rabbi Singer currently serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA as rabbi and educator.

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