Why Pharaoh's Heart Hardened

Why does Torah use three different words to describe what amounts to a single description of his stubborn obstinacy?

Dr. Moshe Dann,

Judaism חדשות אורח
חדשות אורח
צילום: iStock

The dramatic duel between Moses and Pharaoh in Torah is depicted in ten plagues which God inflicted on the Egyptians in order to convince Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews, as they were then called, to leave Egypt, become a free and independent nation, receive Torah and resettle in their homeland, Eretz Yisrael. But, although he acknowledges God, Pharaoh resisted until the end.

Biblical commentators have understood this process as a growing awareness by Pharaoh and his court, the Egyptian people, and the Jewish people of a revolution in the history of mankind: freedom and the importance of human dignity. Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the Jews to leave, however, is complicated by God’s intervention: He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (7:3) It would seem, therefore, that Pharaoh did not have true free will.

Rashi notes that the process of increasing punishments was necessary to demonstrate God’s power – not only to the Egyptians, but the Jews as well. He notes that during the first five plagues Pharaoh himself was responsible for his hardening heart.  In addition, Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened.” (7:13) and then became “heavy.” (7:14)

Why does Torah use three different words to describe what amounts to a single description of his stubborn obstinacy? We will answer this shortly. 

Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva) insists that everyone has free will; one can choose to do good, or evil. The ability to choose freely defines us as human beings; our choices define us as individuals. Freedom to choose is an essential and inherent right, but it is not absolute; actions have consequences.

This explains why three different words are used to describe Pharaoh’s heart. He changes his mind, perhaps from lack of awareness and fear of losing a valuable commodity; it’s understandable, given his position. That is what is meant by “hardening,” and “heavy.” He refuses to change, even though he recognizes God’s existence. But then he becomes a fanatic, recalcitrant and arrogant– which is described as “his heart was strengthened.” 

The key to understanding this psychological debilitation – and what Torah teaches -- is Pharaoh’s lack of self-criticism. The ability to exercise free will gives one the confidence to act, even if it is wrong, for example, an addiction, or abuse. Honest self-examination and self-awareness allows for change. But without such introspection change is impossible, and then free will becomes destructive to oneself and others. In Pharaoh’s case, he led his army and his nation to disaster.

That is the meaning of Socrates’ teaching: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

There will always be Jew-hating national leaders and those who serve them. They can be overcome by our unity, by caring for each other, and by our commitment to the ideals and principles that have guided the Jewish people for millennia.

Rather than despair, the story of the Exodus suggests that we watch the “hand of God” at work, and never forget that – despite difficulties – we are not alone. A modern miracle, the Jewish people have returned to its homeland, established Jewish sovereignty, and are building the third Jewish civilization and commonwealth.

We have much for which to be thankful. We are blessed with wise and caring teachers and with courageous soldiers who risk their lives to defend and protect us. Millions of true Zionists refuse to be intimidated by threats from foreign enemies. Many good, decent people throughout the world want our Isaiah nation not only to survive, but to prevail. 

We are, after all, in God’s hands.  


The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist.