Exodus Revisited: Pharaoh’s “Hardened Heart” and Contemporary “Criminal Justice”

Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” plays a big role in Exodus, providing a framework for the ten plagues, the eventual freeing of the Israelites from bondage, and serious disaster for biblical Egypt. Policies like “zero tolerance” in schools and mandatory sentences in the United States today are a kind of judicial “hardened heart.” It’s our job to find a way to “let the people go.”

Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

Throughout the tale (Exodus 4 – 15), Pharaoh’s stubbornness is mentioned 20 times, using words with three different roots, sometimes with Pharaoh himself exhibiting resistance and sometimes with God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart.

Many commentaries over the centuries have struggled with God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: Isn’t God interfering with Pharaoh’s free will? Where’s the option for repentance? Was this fair to the Egyptian people or the Israelites?

There are many schools of thought on these issues. Here are a few:

  • Exodus is an ancient tale of powerful forces in epic battle, not a book of religious philosophy. Umberto Cassuto reminds us to read it in that context, “not in light of of concepts [free will, repentance, and fairness, e.g.] that came into existence at a later epoch.” He also notes: “In early Hebrew diction, it is customary to attribute every phenomenon to the direct action of God. [E.g: a woman is barren=’God shut her womb.’]” Therefore, he argues, whether Pharaoh or God is the subject of the sentence, it is, ultimately, God who is acting in biblical terms. (A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, p.57, p.55).

  • “The language of art enlarges, makes the hidden visible,” according to Avivah Zornberg’s psychological approach:

    The words for Pharaoh’s heart — kasheh, kaved, chazak, hard heavy, dense — are the words for “What is already given,” for “the way it must be.” They express the density, the cumulative weight of the past, of the system. The individual voice has no power against them.
    The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, p.55

  • Nehama Leibowitz is among those who struggle to understand rabbinic ethics in the biblical text:

    …man is free to choose any path of action he desires….It was Pharaoh’s own doing. Once he persisted in his course of action it became more and more irresistible. God had built this response, as it were, into man’s make-up. The more he sins, the more his sins act as a barrier between him and repentance.
    — Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Exodus

See Source Materials for complete citations.

Narrowing Circumstances

Leibowitz makes a compelling case for how Pharaoh, or any individual, might face difficulty in turning from a bad path:

…man is free to choose any path of action he desires. He is afforded equal opportunity to do good or evil. But as soon as he has made his first choice, then the opportunities facing him are no longer so evenly balanced. The more he persists in the first path of his choosing, shall we say, the evil path, the harder will it become for him to revert to the good path, even though his essential freedom of choice is not affected.

In other words, it is not the Almighty who has hampered his freedom, and made the path of repentance difficult. He has, by his own choice and persistence in evil, placed obstacles in the way leading back to reformation….

God did not force Pharaoh to choose evil. It was Pharaoh’s own doing. Once he persisted in his course of action it became more and more irresistible. God had built this response, as it were, into man’s make-up. The more he sins, the more his sins act as a barrier between him and repentance.
— Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Exodus
(quoted less fully above)

Leibowitz thus nudges a philosophical question about Pharaoh’s free will into a cautionary lesson, one that I believe rings true for many of us: Narrowing circumstances, following poor choices, and forces of habit can make a good path difficult, even as our free will remains intact.

But what if individuals are not the ones narrowing the circumstances of their own lives?

Who Does the Narrowing?

The American Civil Liberties Union encourages readers to play this educational game to explore how a minor infraction at school — bringing a cell phone to communicate about a family emergency — can push a student quickly down a path where “opportunities facing him are no longer so evenly balanced.”

Moreover, black students are punished more frequently and more severely than white students, according to much research and acknowledged in recent guidance on racial discrimination from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education. (See also ACLU post)

Tavis Smiley also investigated the the School-to-Prison pipeline and the uneven impact of race.

The NAACP describes how race plays a huge role in determining what opportunities face any individual in this country. Just a few examples:

  • White citizens use drugs at a rate five times that of Black citizens, but Blacks are TEN TIMES MORE LIKELY to be incarcerated than Whites.
  • African Americans are incarcerated at a rate SIX TIMES that of Caucasian citizens.
  • As of 2001, ONE IN SIX black men had been in prison.

Multiplying this effect — so that “opportunities facing [a black child in the U.S.] are no longer so evenly balanced” — research (see Pew study) also shows:

  • Students with an incarcerated father are expelled or suspended at a rate more than five times that of their peers.
  • Children with an incarcerated parent are seven times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves.

Let Our People Go

The U.S. criminal justice system, with its deadly school-to-prison pipeline, is narrowing the options for millions of citizens. It is extremely difficult to extricate oneself from this path — which is too often filled with limited education, incarceration, subsequent loss of economic opportunities and other negative consequences — because the system has rigged the choices. This has left whole generations trapped in a kind of bondage.

This is Pharaoh’s hardened heart today: the “cumulative weight of the past, of the system.”

Systemic changes are required. Now.

And this text calls us to pursue them. Now.

Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

God hardens Pharaoh’s heart ten times:
4:21. 7:3. 9:12. 10:1, 10:20, 10:27. 11:10. 14:4, 14:6, 14:17.

Pharaoh exhibits his own obstinacy ten times:
7:13, 7:14, 7:22. 8:11, 8:15, 8:28. 9:7, 9:34, 9:35. 13:15.
— from note in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 337

The Hebrew uses three different verbs to express the action on Pharaoh’s heart: “harden” [hikshah], “toughen” [chizek], and “be heavy” [kaved] (which does not have the regretful or sorrowful connotations “heavy heart” carries in English).
— based on Alter’s Five Books of Moses, p. 345

See Source Materials for full citation.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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