Shemot–Hardened, Part 1

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that  I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so  that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)

Having reassured Moses that he will be present with him and that his mission will eventually succeed, God now has to tell him that it will not be easy and that he should expect the most stubborn resistance from Pharaoh.  It is in this context that the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” motif first appears.  It invites Moses to reinterpret what could be seen as an obstacle to God’s plan as another proof that that plan is unfolding as promised.

To the extent that the story is a narrative of national triumph, one could say that God needs Pharaoh’s recalcitrance in order to demonstrate his power.   But Pharaoh’s character has already been well-established.  It is he who initiated the abusive enslavement of the Israelites, and who decreed death for all their male children.  One could even say that this “toughening” or hardening of the heart is a natural and predictable response when the authority of someone like Pharaoh is challenged.  That God is presented as the agent or cause of this hardening is not surprising in the light what we just heard God say to Moses: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not  I, the LORD?” (4:11)

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