• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The Hard Heart Of Pharaoh

April 2020

The characters to whom, as readers, we’re the most unendingly attracted, are those into whose depths we have the longest way to plunge. Superficiality, in the opinion of so penetrating a reader, will never suffice—especially when his grasp is capable of exceeding the stunted limits of his reach. Nor should it, so long as depth remains to him an option, and beckons to him as a goal. It’s for this reason that God—whose bottom, much like his beginning, is completely untouchable and unknown—is the force in the midst of whose magnetism we’re all inextricably drawn. Probe though we might, his is a floor with whose profundity and immeasurable span we’ll never come into full contact. Yet we seek for it still.

Pharaoh, as presented in the Exodus narrative, isn’t nearly so deep. That said, no one else, in defense of the putative grandeur of the literary merit of which he thinks himself possessed, can make the claim that he is. Yet, where so many other biblical figures fail, Pharaoh does succeed in demanding and keeping our attention—at least throughout the first two-thirds of this fantastic and addictively vertiginous book. He entices us with a certain depth of character, an ambiguity of motivations, a paucity of words, an incongruity of actions, and a complexity of thought over which, though we be partisans on the side of Moses and God and the thousands of Judaic wretches of whom they were the tireless liberators, we’d be remiss to look.

Pharaoh, a man whose stature was commensurable with that of a god (in not only his own inflated opinion, but in that of his entire country and, what’s more, the ancient tradition to which they were all devoted as well), speaks in this narrative but a few times. More strikingly, he does so with but a few words—of which many are repeated at the heels of one plague, to the start of the next. He’s responsible for nothing poetic, scarcely anything original. This, I think, is a point worthy of further consideration, as a synonym for Exodus might very aptly be loquacious. It is, if you will, a comparatively discursive and talkative text.

It is, at least when it’s contrasted to its noble predecessor, the book of Genesis, a slightly more taciturn text. Genesis, in the awesome chronicle of its events, employs both an economy of words and an abundance of action. It’s more muscle than it is mind, more mythos than logos. Most thinking, and therefore speaking, is retrospective. Action is the primary and unavoidable force. There is no superfluity of speech, no long-winded pronouncements by which the world’s ear, having just been assembled, was unnecessarily bent. The breath that might’ve been used for so garrulous an approach was instead directed to the vivification of man. It breathed him into life, and this life went about his past-times, his temptations, and his ways.

Exodus lacks this sense of disproportionality of action and speech by which the creation story is made to feel so acutely forceful and new. Its dialogue, as opposed to that of Genesis, is nearly equivalent to its many and various acts. Moses, though allegedly heavy of tongue and ineloquent of speech, is heard to be in perpetual conversation not only with his fellow man, but with his “jealous” (his words, not mine!) God. As plenipotentiary here on earth, he who was once “pulled from the reeds” speaks within the halls at the Egyptian court, out of which he’s repeatedly kicked; as religious sage, he preaches to the Jewish people by whose inveterate obstinacy he’s continually annoyed; and as prophet to God, he converses surprisingly freely and often about the tenuous fate of the latter’s chosen nation—to whom, in the age of Abram, endless fecundity and the hopes of Canaan were, at least until this point, rather unsatisfactorily promised.

God, for his part, is no passive recipient of the back-and-forth of this Mosaic chatter. Deipnosophist and deity, they’re both volubly engaged. Indeed, God’s the one by which the conversation is initiated, as he introduced himself to the frightened prophet in the outline of a burning bush. Some conditions (the doffing of his shoes) doubtless were required, but Moses had rather liberal access to the capacious ear of God. And God, in exchange, displayed no feeling of reticence in the return to Moses of a familiar or foreboding word. Eventually, the two spoke as if friends—a relationship to whose level of intimacy many religious zealots have since (if the conviction their inspired professions are to be believed) acceded.

Athwart these two scheming interlocutors stands Pharaoh, a king around whom a devout and sycophantic group of North African courtiers revolves. When he speaks, there’s but little in the way of subtlety. His pronouncements are only affirmations or denials; there is nothing else. His edicts are binary—vocalizations, though never variations, of a simple yes or no. I suppose this is in keeping with the questions by which he was daily accosted (whether or not the Hebraic people, a “minority” over whom, despite their illimitable growth, he exercised an absolute dictatorship, might leave). One wonders, however, precisely how Pharaoh might explain his decision-making process—by whose inconstancy and disagreeableness a single bothersome plague multiplied into a devastating ten.

We know, of course, that Pharaoh was repeatedly dispossessed of that trait by which we’re all made to feel uniquely human: personal agency. When he ought to have been at the strongest point in the career of his reign, when he should’ve been consolidating all of his magisterial power and might, he was stripped of the ability to pursue his individual choice. This African monarch, possibly the most powerful in the world, became yet another plaything of the Jewish God, a rather militant and capricious deity to whom, as it was, an entire bonded nation was already tethered. This was a god—a coequal, you might even say, so far as it concerned Pharaoh’s assessment and gaze—of whom the Egyptian king was understandably dismissive, if not outright contemptuous. He cared little for the imperious demands of a religion that was not his own. He cared everything for his own divine right.

Perhaps, at this point, more sinned against than sinning, Pharaoh was thrust, quite unwittingly, into the most troublesome part of his life. He’d provoked the wrath of a foreign deity in whom neither he nor his native countrymen held anything close to a belief. Yet Yahweh cared for the nuances of these differing religious perspectives not. He was to exact upon Pharaoh his fury, and clemency was in rather short supply. Intolerant to the impudence of Pharaoh’s incompatible creed, and always keen on making an awful and memorable display, Yahweh decided to punish the royal fiend in every imaginable way. And yes, the ten plagues of which he was the author required no shortage of imagination. He wanted, perhaps more than anything else, to make of Pharaoh a lesson, one of which all mankind—should ever its swelling ego outpace its low position—could take heed. He wanted, at Pharaoh’s expense, to make an instructive display, a force majeure by which any other, pseudo-divine monarch—for whom outright deification was considered a natural “next step” along the ladder of life—might be stifled in the pursuit of his heavenly aim.

Even those most modestly educated—for whom, despite the pious exhortations of their Sunday school teachers, the bible is but a peripheral document about which little beyond a few proverbs need be known—recognize in an instant the story of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It is an enduring and incredible tale by which, admittedly, I’m both puzzled and infatuated. Being that it’s so vital a part of the exodus from Egypt of the now enslaved, now wandering Jews, it’s not a tale of which any mind, especially one endeavoring toward cultivation, should be ignorant.

It is, on its surface, an inscrutable event, and a theme around which scholars of both religion and philosophy have the greatest difficulty wrapping their busy heads. Indeed, throughout the course of what can be a frustratingly esoteric text, this idea of the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart is perhaps its most perplexing. In the process of inflicting His “ten plagues” on the land of Egypt—by whose disbursement the country’s livestock, main water supply, cropland, atmosphere, and people were absolutely ravaged—the Lord repeatedly intrudes into Pharaoh’s mind. He penetrates it with a swiftness and an ease of which a toiling psychologist would be envious. As he does so, time and again, he proceeds to dictate the dictator’s thoughts, to commandeer the autocrat’s mind.

By so doing, Yahweh prevents Pharaoh from acting not only in the best interest of himself and his family, but of his country as well. Even the most absolute of monarchs, the most plenary of kings, must be attentive—if not genuinely sensitive—to the needs of the populace over which he’s in control. Pharaoh, though already proven to be rather unfeeling toward the inviolate sanctity of life (he’s the same man, after all, who ordered the infanticide of all the new-born Jewish boys), surely recognized the link between his continued prosperity and that of his people. He must’ve felt, should both survive, the mutual reinforcement they’d enjoy. He could expect from them taxes and adulation, worship and gold. He could give to them protection and pomp. To be seen as responsible for their famine, suffering, injury, and death would be impossible for him to countenance, as much as it’d be impossible for them to bear. Surely, in the final analysis, a king, even that of Egypt, is no one if not for the populace over which he reigns; he simply doesn’t exist without them, as God exists not without us.

God, so often subtle, is disconcertingly open about his intentions as they pertain to Pharaoh. Before unleashing upon Egypt the plague of locusts, from whose insatiable appetite no crop in the field would be rendered safe, he says, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Lord”.

What candor. What pith. The earnestness with which God discloses his motivations to Moses is as striking as it is succinct. Never is he so egoistical and honest, so omnipotent and blunt. God wants not only to defeat, but viciously to mock those by whom, albeit by a diminishing fault of their own, he’s been opposed in this weeks-long battle. It all seems a bit gratuitous to me. Surely, this is not the same, gentle God to whom all our mild supplications are directed. This can’t be the same being in whose loving-kindness and in whose caring image we were all originally created. I ask, in response, if so gloatingly cruel a God is really worth the knowing? Reading through his life, I suppose, we haven’t really a choice; we know him intimately, almost involuntarily, through the course of our study of his book. Claims to ineffability, in passages such as this, fall somewhat flat, as we feel that we know not too little, but too much of his mind—a mind that feels familiarly vindictive and anthropomorphic. All that being said, our acceptance, as opposed to our knowledge of him, is a movement over which we have a bit more control. While we can’t avoid knowing, we can withhold our belief.

Apologists for God, as though he requires for his actions a defense, have argued—and not without great erudition but scant persuasion—that God was not hardening Pharaoh’s heart in the sense of making it frigid to the clamorous appeals of suffering men. Rather, their contention is that Pharaoh’s heart was being hardened in the sense of it being “steeled”—as if it were being readied for some trying experience for which intrepidity and resilience would be needed above all else. The argument, at this point, somewhat tenuously carried forth, is that Pharaoh maintained the ability to act freely all throughout this series of events, but simply chose the wrong path. Personal agency, then, would be a trait of which he was always actually retentive, and never fully dispossessed. His heart was simply hardened and made strong, chiseled and steeled, in such a way that it freely could choose and commit itself to his unwaveringly Anti-Semitic agenda—by whose implementation, countless of his countrymen died.

While this attribution of autonomy to Pharaoh’s decision-making process strikes the modern reader as an enticing proposition (especially for those of us for whom the concept of “free will” is held to be vitally important), it isn’t convincingly sustained. The text, in this situation, is altogether clear—indeed, dispiritingly so. God’s intention, unabashedly, was to humiliate the land of Egypt, to add insult, if you will, to an already devastating injury for which the Egyptian people could find neither succor nor reprieve. Shorn of his agency, his free will, and—absent those two things—his ability to attend to his people and let, as Moses demanded, the Jewish population go, Pharaoh isn’t an entirely blamable figure. Far from guiltless, he must be considered in a more sympathetic view. There is to him greater depth, should we only be willing to look.

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