Friday, January 14, 2005
This week's parshah is Bo, and it's a doozy: the end of the ten plagues and the beginning of the Exodus. Lot's of fun stuff.
Among other things, the parshah is responsible for one of the old Sunday school chestnuts: how could God punish the Egyptians for refusing to let Israel go if God hardened Pharaoh's heart in the first place? Doesn't that make it all God's fault? How is that fair?
I've written about this before, but I thought I'd repeat myself, hopefully more tersely this time, because I still think my solution to this particular conundrum is satisfying.
For the first few plagues, Pharaoh resists letting the Israelites go because he wants to keep them: they do useful work, letting them go would mean losing face, etc. Indeed, at first he even disbelieves that he's really facing a power capable of forcing his hand; the magicians, after all, can perform equally impressive miracles (or so it seems). And text relates that Pharaoh hardened his heart - girded himself to resist, so that he would prevail in this contest.
But over time it becomes clear that he is facing a power more awesome than he has ever reckoned with, more awesome than he can fully comprehend. He knows, by the time the last three plagues come around, that he is facing the God that Moses has announced, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
He responds by negotiating. Okay: you can take a day off for worship, but you can't leave Egypt. Okay: you can go, but you can't take their children. Okay: you can go, but you can't take your cattle. These are attempts to limit to sovereignty of God, to save face by elevating Pharaoh to the status of a relative equal. If the Israelites can worship their God, but not leave Egypt, then Pharaoh is still lord in Egypt, and God is lord elsewhere; allowing the Israelites a day to worship is like offering God an embassy on Egyptian territory. If the Israelites cannot take their children, then this experience of the Divine will die with this generation; God's presence will have come and gone, and Pharaoh will remain as lord of the Earth, if not of Heaven. If the Israelites cannot take their cattle, then Pharaoh will be conceding that he is not lord of God's people, that God is master of their souls, but Pharaoh is still the lord of the material world. These are all strategies to salvage the purportedly divine dignity of Pharaoh: okay, you, God, may be Lord, but I'm also a lord, also a sovereign, someone to negotiate with not someone to rule absolutely.
God does not negotiate, however. Pharaoh is not given an opportunity to save face by limiting God's demands. God, in effect, says to Pharaoh: if I am God, then you are not Pharaoh, the deified Man, but only a man, one of my subjects; and I am indeed God.
So what, in this context, does it mean to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? It means that Pharaoh's motivation changed. At first, he did not understand the power he faced, and sought to keep the Israelites for selfish reasons. But at the end, when he knows what kind of entity he is up against, when he knows what he must do, and what the consequences will be of resistance, he resists anyway. He resists no longer because he wants to keep the Israelites; he resists out of a perverse desire to oppose God, because the only way he can still be Pharaoh and retain his quasi-divine dignity is to defy God in the teeth of the most terrible promised retribution. Which, of course, comes, with the death of his own firstborn son, the symbolic end of his continuity through time on Earth, as Pharaoh sought to symbolically limit God's tenure on earth by keeping the Israelite children in Egypt.
I think it's worth noting in this regard that the first lines of the parshah are a bit peculiar. They don't say, "go tell Pharaoh to let my people go - and if he doesn't, then he's going to get it!" They say: "go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; and that you may tell in the ears of your son and of your son's son what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord." The purpose of the visit is to make it clear, to Egypt and to Israel, that God is the Lord, and that He is present on Earth. It is to expose the spurious and hollow nature of a dignity of opposition to God for the sake of opposition, for the sake of embodying a denial of God's sovereignty, and it is to establish, through the continuity of Israel as a family and a nation, the continuity of that sovereignty through time.