Pharaoh's "hardened heart": Passover and the nature of biblical justice.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 18 2011 4:42 PM

Sympathy for the Pharaoh

If God hardened Pharaoh's heart, was it fair to punish him?

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Perhaps because it's such a troubling episode, much of the literature on Pharaoh's heart simply sidesteps the question of God's culpability. In a speech delivered to commemorate the second anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. said Pharaoh's hard heart "tells us … that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of a persistent, almost fanatical resistance." Seeing the Pharaoh within us all, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm speculates that "Pharaoh's heart 'hardens' because he keeps on doing evil; it hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible." What of the fact that Pharaoh does waver, and that God that steps in to make certain he doesn't relinquish power? MLK and Fromm don't weigh in.

There have, finally, been some strangely literal responses to the state of Pharaoh's heart, that don't wade into morality at all. In a 1930 Popular Mechanics article, mummy hunter and amateur historian Harold T. Wilkins attests to finding "calcified patches on the large vessel of [Pharaoh's] heart," proving, to his mind at least, that "his heart was really hardened."

So where does this leave us? No matter what you believe, the question of Pharaoh's heart forces us to engage with the Passover story from the villain's perspective, compelling us to meditate on difficult questions about the nature and source of evil. As we ponder Pharaohs ancient and modern, large and small, we can see them as evil people, corrupt and vicious tyrants, or we can seek to consider the larger forces behind them, hardening their hearts, propping them up, and multiplying suffering for everyone involved.