Bo - Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I recently enjoyed an exchange on Facebook with a total stranger about what is without question one of the most philosophically complex dilemmas in the entire Torah:

Firstly, if God ‘hardened’ Pharaoh’s heart, thereby essentially suspending his ability to make an independent choice, where is the justice in subsequently holding Pharaoh accountable for making the ‘wrong’ decision and refusing to let the Jewish nation go? Indeed, isn’t it paradoxical to even begin speaking about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decisions? 

Secondly, where is the justice in allowing the collateral suffering of the wider Egyptian populace to come about as a direct result of Pharaoh’s poor decision-making when those decisions were apparently not his to make? It is clear that as early as before the plague of locusts, even the highest-ranking Egyptian officials have totally abandoned Pharaoh and want nothing more than to call time on the spiralling madness:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him: ‘How long will this Moses entrap us?! Send out the people so that they may serve the Lord their God! Can’t you see that Egypt is utterly lost?!’” (Exodus 10:7).

  While the Nuremberg Trials firmly did away with the notion that ‘I was only following orders’ is a valid excuse for even the most heinous crime, the context of Ancient Egypt is decidedly hieroglyphics to 20th-Century Europe. The Pharaoh was worshipped as a god. His word was god’s word. His will god’s will. To disobey didn’t simply forfeit your life, it stripped you of the core of your identity, rendering your existence meaningless. If so, why is it fair that they are caught up in the cauldron of insanity that Pharaoh brews as merely a utensil in God’s hand?

It should come as no surprise to hear that there is a broad range of answers to these questions. I’d like to explore two. The first is based on the writings of Nachmanides (d.1270, Israel) and Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (d.1550, Italy) to Exodus 7:3. The second is based on an idea that I heard a number of years ago from Rabbi Todros Miller.

Biblical Hebrew is a rich language, vividly poetic and bursting with nuanced imagery. For this reason, we must pay close attention to the particular verbs used by the Torah in describing the process of God apparently stripping Pharaoh of his ability to act freely. Watch closely for the subtle differences:

On the three occasions that God directly interferes with Pharaoh’s free will (9:12, 10:20 and 10:27), the verb CH-Z-K is utilised. This word is most accurately translated as ‘strengthen’ or ‘embolden’, and is used in Scripture almost universally to connote a response to fear. See for example Joshua 1:9:

“I have indeed commanded you, ‘Strengthen (ch-z-k) and embolden yourself’. Do not fear and do not be afraid, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you may go.”

This stands in contrast to the two occasions that God speaks to Moses, informing him of the inevitability of Pharaoh’s senseless obstinacy. Exodus 7:3 employs the root verb K-SH-H, a word most accurately translated as ‘hardened’ or ‘made stubborn’.[1] Meanwhile Exodus 10:1, spoken just prior to the plague of locusts, utilises the verb K-B-D[2], a word most accurately translated as ‘cumbersome’ or ‘immovable’, sharing its root with the word ‘honour’.[3]

Three verbs. All similar and yet at once, very different. When describing the scene from Moses’ perspective, we see Pharaoh as a ‘stubborn’, ‘immovable’ tyrant, obsessed with honour and determined to prevent change to the system he has used and abused for so many years. But when the Torah shifts its focus to speak from God’s perspective, the subtleties become apparent. Pharaoh may well be stubborn, obstinate, egocentric and worse. But he is also in need of the ‘strengthening’ heralded by CH-Z-K.

The question is: why?

Nachmanides and Seforno insist quite firmly: God did not take away Pharaoh’s capacity to choose freely. He took away his capacity to make the right choice for the wrong reason.

Utterly overwhelmed by the ferocity of the plagues, there is no question that any intelligent person will make the correct decision. Let them go and all will be well! But that is the wrong reason. The plagues were meant to inspire feelings of true remorse and regret in Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his counsellors, to realise: ‘we should set these people free because it is the right thing to do. Because the abuse and exploitation of our fellow man is simply wrong’. Pharaoh has a choice: he can let them go out of selfish convenience or out of selfless compassion.

But he is afraid. His empire is crumbling, his power disintegrating, his honour and prestige dissolving. The true inevitability here is that he will let them go…selfishly. Therefore, God ‘strengthens’ his heart, giving him the courage and resolve to not be completely overawed by the enormity of the plagues and instead make the right choice for the right reason. But Pharaoh doesn’t. This self-styled deity has only ever acted out of self-preservation and self-indulgence. Without these as a motivating factor, he is immovable – a cold vacuum of merciless apathy.

His heart isn’t hardened. It is dead. And he was the one who killed it. 

But what about the collateral suffering of the Egyptians?

It is beyond the scope of this piece to fully do this (or indeed the first question) justice, but there is every possibility that the suffering of each Egyptian was entirely subjective. This idea is presented by Rashi (d.1105, France) in his commentary to the ‘Song at the Sea’ (Exodus 16:1-18). This time, we must pay close attention to the nouns used.

Verse 5 describes the Egyptians as drowning in the Red Sea “like a stone”, verse 7 “like straw” and verse 10 “like lead”. Each of these portrays a unique imagery. The very worst offenders were tossed around by the waves – ‘like straw’ – suffering an agonisingly slow death. The more merciful sank ‘like lead’, dying quickly and relatively painlessly. Thus, it is quite possible that although they were at the mercy of Pharaoh’s executive ‘decision’, the Egyptian people didn’t suffer excessively as a result.

One final thought is that it is intriguing to note that precisely after the first occasion of God ‘strengthening’ Pharaoh’s heart, the Plague of Hail, the Egyptians are quite unexpectedly given an escape route. Exodus 9:19-21 describes how they were able to gather themselves and their livestock indoors, and thereby avoid injury or death as a result of the deadly downpour. Is God here perhaps acknowledging the relative injustice of using Pharaoh as a puppet if that puppet’s strings are the noose around the necks of millions of people?

I’ll leave you with that to ponder.


[1] This root verb is made famous by its usage in the “stiff-necked (k-sh-h) people” of Exodus 33:5.

[2] Not to be confused with ‘KLBD’, the root verb used to connote a message of ‘this product may be slightly more expensive than the non-kosher equivalent’.

[3] There are in fact THREE occasions when God informs Moses of his plan to interfere with Pharaoh’s free will. Exodus 4:21 also uses the root CH-Z-K (‘strengthen’). I would like to suggest that this occasion is qualitatively different to the other two, as it is part of an interaction that takes place before Moses has returned to Egypt and faced Pharaoh. 

- January 18th 2018

About the Author

Rabbi Eli Birnbaum Eli studied in Talmudic College in Israel for six years before attaining rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Kollel. Eli completed a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. Together with his wife Naomi, Eli moved back to London to take up a position in the JLE’s campus department, setting up Lunch & Learns across London’s major campuses, as well as creating the ‘Genesis+’ program, aimed at older students and post-graduates. Following this, Eli taught Jewish Studies at Hasmonean for a year, before moving to Aish to work as an educator, primarily focused on the burgeoning Young Professional demographic and, more recently, as the Director of Education for Aish UK. Eli is a lifelong Spurs fan and an avid reader, citing his favourite book as ‘Legends of Our Time’ by Elie Weisel. Eli and his wife Naomi live in Golders Green and have three adorable children. 

More in this series

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

I Closed My Eyes….

Trial by Twitter

Track & Trace

What's in a Name

God's Jedi Mind Trick: A Star Wars Story (kind of)

The Dark Night Rises: Exodus with Tom Hardy

Gangs of New York

The Refugee Crisis: A Jewish Perspective

Smoke & Mirrors

Bo - Between a Rock and a Hard Place

#Fakenews - Parashat Vayigash

Vayeitzei - Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics

Toldot - Strength of a Thousand Men

Chayei Sara: The Sequel No-one Asked For

Vayeira: Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

Sitting on the Fence

Noah’s Sweet Fifteen

Uniting a Fragmented World

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