Torah Portion Vaera
Exodus 6:2 - 9:35
Ezekiel 28:25 - 29:21
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Vaera, God hardens Pharaoh's heart over and over. Why is this? Was God denying Pharaoh free will? Discovering the cultural message behind God's hardening actions is important to understanding this Parashah.
- Ancient Near Eastern Texts by Pritchard
- "Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?" by John Currid (BAS Article database)
- "AN EXEGETICAL AND THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATION OF THE HARDENING OF PHARAOH'S HEART IN EXODUS 4-14 AND ROMANS 9" by GK Beale
This is the fourteenth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing Ezekiel's prophecy against Egypt and Pharaoh who claimed to be a god.
The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot by Michael Fishbane
- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton
- Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David DeSilva
In Vaera, we will discuss the covenant promises of YHWH to Israel and what the "hardness of heart" in Scripture actually means.
*****There is a correction I need to make: In the video, I said that Anubis ate the hearts that weigh more than a feather. That is not correct, Anubis leads the deceased person to the scales and it is Ammit that eats the heart if it weighs more than a feather.*****
- The Bible
- The Ancient Near Eastern Text by Pritchard
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
We live in a science-driven society where microscopes and mathematics give us vast insight into the world in which we find ourselves. We are raised up from an early age with awareness of the mechanisms behind the natural world that were a mystery to ancient man. Second millennia Egyptians were not. Instead, they believed in a pantheon of gods who were associated with the various aspects of life. There was a god of the sun, a god of the nile river, a god of justice, a god of death, and many other gods. The proper worship of these gods was paramount to maintaining the cosmic order that ensured life would continue along its proper course. These gods did not like having to profane themselves with the duties of looking after humanity, and so Pharaoh was to be god to the people; he was proclaimed to be the son of the sun-god Re or the primordial god Atum, depending on the time period and theology. For example, an inscription to Amenemhet III (Nimaatre, c. 1840-1790 B.C.) reads,
Worship King Ni-maat-Re, living forever, within your bodies and associate his majesty with your hearts. He is Perception which is in men’s hearts, and his eyes search out every body. He is Re, by whose beams one sees, he is one who illumines the Two Lands more than the sun disc…
The Pharaoh we meet in Exodus likewise would have been considered to be a god to his people, perhaps the most important one to please since his displeasure would be felt immediately by those who dared cross him. As the son of the supreme god Re, Pharaoh was perceived by his subjects as being incapable of wrongdoing, a sinless man. But that was about to change, Pharaoh was about to meet a new, more powerful God.
Then YHWH said to Moses, “See I am making you God to Pharaoh and Aaron, your brother will be your prophet. Yes, that’s right, not “like God,” but making Moses to be God to Pharaoh. Egypt’s world was about to be flipped upside-down. The narrative that follows begins with Moses’ staff turning into a serpent and eating some other serpent-staffs and then is followed by ten famous plagues. These acts are not random acts of violence though, they are a carefully orchestrated attack on the very core of Egyptian society; they are meant to emasculate the so-called gods of Egypt, especially Pharaoh. What follows is nothing less than the revelation of the true Creator to an ancient world who had distorted God’s image into false gods in their pursuit of power and self-made happiness.
During the course of the plague narrative and even in the chase scene following the Passover escape, there is one theme that persists, the condition of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart becomes the subject of three verbs, hazaq “to be strong” (12x), kaved “to be heavy” (5x), and qasa “to be difficult” (2x). This theme is often referred to as “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” since hardening is a good English word that captures the essence of how these three verbs are used here. What does it mean though, for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened? This has been the subject of much debate for a very long time and often revolves around the question of whether God was controlling Pharaoh like a puppet (thus removing his free will) or God was simply increasing a quality that already existed within Pharaoh’s heart. I am going to be a bit radical and suggest that the question is best answered culturally, rather than philosophically.
Ancient literature that speaks of the heart (Hebrew: lev, Egyptian ib) rarely refers to the actual organ in the human chest cavity. The heart was believed by ancients to be the place of intellectual, emotional, and especially volitional decision-making. We use the heart in metaphorical terms today as well. When you tell your significant other that you love him/her with “all your heart,” you are letting them know that your love for them extends to every aspect of the decisions you make in your life. It is the container of one’s worldview; the set of beliefs and ideals upon which an individual acts. This concept of the heart was emphasized in Egyptian cult even more than in Hebrew culture. Egyptians viewed the heart as the “seat of destiny” which determined one’s life and was the divine instrument through which the gods spoke to direct a man. The condition of one’s heart became extremely important in death. The believed chain of events after dying are depicted on the papyrus of Hu-nefer, dated to the New Kingdom (1550-1090 BC). Upon dying, Egyptians believed that the deceased would be led to the scales of Ma’at, the goddess of justice, by the jacket-headed god Anubis. There, the heart of the deceased would be placed on the scales and weighed against a feather. It was believed that sins and wrongdoing during one’s life would cause the heart to become heavy, thus a sinful person’s heart would cause the scales to tip towards the heart. If this happened, the Devouress Amenit would eat the deceased, thus denying them access into the afterlife. A just person whose heart weighed less than a feather would be spared such a fate and would enter into the afterlife along with whatever possessions with which they were buried.
In the plague narrative, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is most frequently described with the verb hazaq, “to be strengthened.” From our perspective, this strengthening meant that his resolve to continue in rebellion against YHWH was increased, but from the perspective of his Egyptian subjects, this strengthening of heart would have been viewed positively. Egyptian livelihood was built upon cheap slave labor and Pharoah’s determination to not be swayed from this institution would have been perceived as evidence of his great power. It is not too hard to imagine Pharaoh giving an emotionally-stirring speech proclaiming that he would never surrender to these terrorists and being met with wild applause by his subjects. But as Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened (Exod. 7:13), YHWH reveals to Moses that Pharaoh’s heart is actually heavy (kaved, 7:14). As the plagues progress, Pharaoh’s sin increases which causes his heart to become even heavier (9:34). This weighing down of his heart is accompanied by a strengthening of his heart as well (9:35). The cultural message was clear; the strengthening of Pharaoh’s heart was actually making it heavy, a symbol of severe injustice and sign of the judgment that was coming. The king who was supposed to be incapable of wrongdoing was being exposed as nothing more than a sinful man.
The question remains, was this all Pharaoh’s evil will or did God actually control Pharaoh like a puppet, forcing him to harden his heart? If God did force him, what about Pharaoh’s choice? What about his soul? Such questions are really not fair to ask of the text, because they are not the concern of the narrative. In this narrative, Pharaoh - supposedly a god himself - is shown to be nothing more than a man under God’s control, something very shameful for someone who claims so much power. YHWH tells Moses that it is He who has indeed hardened (kaved) Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his servants in order to perform the devastating plagues among the greatest nation on earth at that time, so that generations from now people will still be talking about how YHWH made a mockery of the Egyptians (Exod. 10:1-2). Part of the mockery of the Egyptians is the fact that their king was so powerless that the God of the slave-race of Hebrews was able to force him to do His bidding! As the Proverbs later tell us, the king’s heart is like canals of water in the hand of YHWH; He directs them in whichever direction He desires (21:1).
YHWH’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart would have been culturally understood as His judgment against Pharaoh. Like the scene depicted in the papyrus of Hu-nefer, Pharaoh’s heart was heavy with sin and he was being destroyed. In our final scene with this Pharaoh, YHWH again strengthens Pharaoh’s heart so that YHWH will be honored through Pharaoh and his army (Exod. 14:4). Ironically, the word here for “honored” is kaved, which also means “honor.” Pharaoh’s sin-laden heart is contrasted with YHWH’s mighty honor in this final contest between Pharaoh and the Almighty. YHWH’s judgment comes in the form of crushing waves which drown Pharaoh and his army. While not quite the same as being devoured by Amenit, the effect is the same in Egyptian thought. Pharaoh’s body is lost at sea; he is not able to be embalmed and buried with all of his possessions. YHWH has denied this Pharaoh access to the afterlife.
Please log in to your premium account to view the audio and video content