Did Pharaoh Soften His Heart?
The story of the exodus is one that is associated with Pharaoh's stubbornness and hard-heartedness. Throughout the story, God informs Moshe that Pharaoh will harden his own heart. At certain points, we hear that Pharaoh voluntarily hardens his heart; eventually, God actively hardens Pharaoh's heart for him. Although the question of Pharaoh's free will is interesting, as well as theologically important, this question will not be the focus of this shiur. (For more on this issue, see Nechama Leibowitz, "Studies in Exodus" vol. 1, p. 149-160.) Our focus, instead, will be on one instance in which it seems that Pharaoh is ready to free the Israelite slaves. Chapter 10, verses 7-11 read as follows:
"Pharaoh's courtiers said to him, 'How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?' So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, 'Go, worship the Lord your God! Who are the ones to go?' Moses replied, 'We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord's festival.' But he said to them, 'The Lord be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! See that there is evil (ra'a) in your faces. No! You menfolk go and worship the Lord since that is what you want.' And they were expelled from Pharaoh's presence."
Judging from this conversation it may be difficult to claim that Pharaoh actually softened his heart. However, it seems that Pharaoh may be ready to relent to the pressures of the plagues and of his servants. Before analyzing the conversation more closely, we should note an interesting point. This is the first and last time that Pharaoh suggests freeing the Israelites while not under immediate duress. During the plagues of frogs, wild animals, locusts and darkness Pharaoh begs for mercy, declaring his intentions to free the Hebrews. Here, however, he seems ready to relent based only on the suggestions of his servants. At no other time does Pharaoh listen to his servants. When they suggested earlier that the "finger of God" was at work (Ex. 8:15), and that Pharaoh should therefore be wary, the verse specifically informs us: "And he did not listen to them." Had the situation reached such a point that Pharaoh was ready to give in? Or was Moshe called back to Pharaoh for another reason? Although most commentators do not deal directly with this issue, most of the questions they raise regarding this encounter between Moshe and Pharaoh will help us understand the real motivations behind this conversation.
The discussion between Pharaoh and Moshe seems to begin rather plainly. Pharaoh's servants have successfully convinced him that the plagues have almost complete destroyed Egypt - why wait for further proof of the ruin of Egypt before releasing the slaves? (Within the statement of the servants "ha-terem teda," we find an argument among commentators as to the translation of the term terem. According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) and others, the phrase should be translated as "do you not already know." Following this approach, the phrase "you know" is understood in the past tense. According to R. Sa'adia Gaon (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942) the phrase should be translated as "before you know that Egypt is destroyed;" he reads the phrase in the future tense.) Moshe and Aharon are called back to the palace and Pharaoh informs them they may go worship their God, if they provide a satisfactory account of who exactly will be going. Moshe responds that the entire nation will be going on the journey. After this apparently tranquil beginning, in the next two verses the conversation becomes complicated. Pharaoh seems willing to allow the people to leave, yet at the same time also warns very strongly against their attempt leaving Egypt. While Pharaoh continues his monologue, Moshe stands by silently, perhaps already anticipating the end of the conversation, in which Moshe and Aharon are thrown out of the palace. Various commentators have suggested different understandings of these verses. The two verses that will demand the greatest attention are verses 10 and 11. We will view them separately here for reference:
"But he said to them, 'The Lord be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! See there is evil (ra'a) in your faces. No! You menfolk go and worship the Lord for that is what you want.' And they were expelled from Pharaoh's presence."
We will follow a few commentators to discover how they analyze the more difficult verses, as well as how they interpret the entire conversation between Moshe and Pharaoh.
Although Rashi does not tell us how he understands the opening of verse 10, there seems to be a consensus among various commentators that this verse should be read in a sarcastic vein. The verse would be understood to mean: "just as I would send out your people, so too your God will be with you." In this manner, Pharaoh intends to curse the people, intimating that just as he would never send away the Hebrews, their God would never be with them.
Rashi does give us an interpretation of the second half of the verse. The evil or ra'a that Pharaoh warns them about has two possible understandings. First, Rashi tells us that the verse could be understood according to the Aramaic translation of Onkelos. Following this interpretation, Pharaoh warns Moses and Aharon that they should be careful that the evil that they are planning (running away) should not turn around and hit them in the face. According to this understanding, Pharaoh fully understood the intentions of the Israelites and hence warned them against attempting an escape. Rashi also provides a more midrashic interpretation of the verse. Pharaoh tells Moshe that the constellation ra'a (some have suggested this refers to the Egyptian god Ra) which is a symbol of blood and murder, awaits their arrival in the desert. (Rashi continues to explain that later in the desert, after the sin of the golden calf, Moses would implore God not to destroy the people for the Egyptians would sense vindication in their warning. Moses pleads: "why should Egypt claim 'He took them out in ra'a.'" (Ex. 32:12)) Rashi interprets verse 11 to mean that Pharaoh actually would allow the men to go out in order to worship, for after all their request to leave is only so that they may serve God. When he finds that they will not be satisfied with this, Pharaoh kicks them out of the palace.
The Rashbam basically follows this interpretation. While he does not accept the midrashic understanding of ra'a, he interprets the verse to mean that Pharaoh claims that the Hebrews have evil in their hearts which shows clearly on their faces. Abraham ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) is similar to the Rashbam with one exception. The term in verse 11 "for that is what you want" is not to be understood as referring to the "worship," but rather that the "evil" is that which you seek, the evil of escaping from Egypt. According to Rashi and Rashbam one may believe that Pharaoh is still considering allowing them to leave. Since they wanted to serve God, they would only need the men for this and Pharaoh may have been willing to acquiesce to this request. Based on the interpretation of the Ibn Ezra, however, it is clear that Pharaoh has no intention of allowing the people to leave. He had no plans of freeing anybody, since he is aware that their whole desire is to escape. Hence, the final banishment of Moshe and Aharon from the palace should not be understood as a response to the fact that Moshe and Aharon will not accept his offer, but rather an expulsion based on anger at their plotting to escape.
These two interpretations are important in that they suggest two different perspectives to Pharaoh's stand in this case. According to Rashi and Rashbam, Pharaoh actually considered allowing the people to leave and when he finally recognized that there would be no compromise, he ended the discussion. However, according to the Ibn Ezra, Pharaoh never really intended to let the people go. He was only warning them not to try any form of escape. Following these two possible understandings of Pharaoh, we can now approach other commentators and judge how they have viewed this enigmatic encounter.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) is one of the few commentators who deals with the earlier verses in this story. Regarding Pharaoh's initial question as to who will be leaving, the Ramban notes that Pharaoh had a hidden agenda, hoping that Moshe would only ask that the leaders could go. In response to this, Moshe insists that ALL would go out of Egypt. It is already clear within the interpretation of the Ramban that he believes that Pharaoh did not really intend to allow the people to go. On the phrase ra'a, Ramban explains that Pharaoh denies all possibility of the people leaving and says that he would make the people pay for wanting to leave. Pharaoh says to them: "See, (that due to your intention to escape) there is evil coming to you." According to the Ramban, Pharaoh had no plans to allow any of his slaves to leave for any length of time. The whole purpose of the meeting was to warn them against any thoughts of escape.
The Chizkuni, (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) similarly seems to imply that Pharaoh did not really intend to allow the people to leave. On the verse referring to the ra'a, he interprets that the evil intended by the people - leaving with all their belongings - is clearly written on their faces. This interpretation is originally found in the Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12 century). On verse 11, the Chizkuni suggests a peculiar idea. He states that Pharaoh knows Moshe and Aharon's true intentions. When Pharaoh suggests that the men may go, but not the children, Pharaoh wants to hold the children as a collateral to ensure the return of the adults. This could be understood to mean that Pharaoh is allowing the slaves to leave, with an added condition. Yet, perhaps a more accurate interpretation would suggest that Pharaoh is ridiculing the request of Moshe and Aharon. After all, if Pharaoh knew the real intentions of the Hebrews, suggesting that they go and leave their children behind is clearly ridiculing the plight of the slaves. It seems that according to the Chizkuni, like the Ramban, Pharaoh did not really intend to free the Hebrews, he only wanted to warn them against leaving.
One modern commentator leaves us wondering if Pharaoh really was ready to allow a brief journey by the Hebrew slaves. According to R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Lithuania, 1817-1893) in his Ha-Emek Davar, the ra'a described by Pharaoh is a suggestion to the Israelites concerning their journey. Pharaoh is saying to them, "you are looking for evil by bringing young into the desert, a place of drought and destruction." Rather, Pharaoh suggests that they only send the men, for only they would be able to withstand the conditions of the desert. This interpretation may actually lead us to conclude that Pharaoh was willing to allow the people to leave, and indeed even afforded them advice on desert travel!
One further interpretation that demands close consideration is that of the Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abarbanel, Spain, 1437-1508). While other interpretations we have offered lean towards one side or the other, Abarbanel considers a wide array of possibilities in interpreting this most perplexing dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh.
In the very beginning of the conversation between the two leaders, the Abarbanel is sensitive to the three sections of Moshe's reply. Moshe first claims that all the men would be going. He then enumerates the rest of the people and then concludes by including the livestock. The Abarbanel notes that Moshe was telling Pharaoh that if his question of who would be going was referring to specifically men, then all men would be going, both young and old. He then says that if the question was that if the rest of the nation would be going, indeed both men and women would be leaving. Finally, if Pharaoh's question was whether the people would be taking cattle and other livestock, yes, as well, they would be taking all. To this, Pharaoh responds that he would send no one at all. He was merely inquiring who amongst the men would be going and now that Moshe had informed him that everyone would be going, Pharaoh will allow no one to go. In terms of the claim of Pharaoh that God should be with them as he sends them, Abarbanel claims that this is a curse Pharaoh puts on the people, saying that God would not be with them. In this, he follows the commentary of Ramban and others. One of the most interesting parts of the Abarbanel's interpretation is his three-tiered understanding of the ra'a, and the subsequent statement of the banishment of Moshe and Aharon.
The Abarbanel chooses not to follow the midrashic interpretation offered by Rashi. The first suggestion of the Abarbanel is that Pharaoh can read in the face of the people that they intend to do evil by leaving him. The second understanding is that as the true intention of the people is to escape from Egypt, they should be aware that if they go they will be met with great danger and evil. The third interpretation is by far the most original. The Abarbanel asserts that Pharaoh first responds to Moshe and says that he has requested too much and therefore he will not allow anyone to go. Then Pharaoh turns to his servants who had been blaming him for stubbornness and says: "See the evil that is before your faces, see now, my servants and officers, the evil that he (Moses) has spoken before you; do not blame me any longer as you have, after you have seen the evil he speaks before you." This splitting of the verse is a most ingenious interpretation of a difficult verse! The Abarbanel continues to relate to all three of these interpretations of ra'a as he interprets verse 11.
The Abarbanel's first suggestion is that Pharaoh would allow the men to leave, if Moshe is indeed not planning the evil of which Pharaoh suspects him. This follows the first interpretation of ra'a, that the people were planning to escape. The second interpretation is that Pharaoh is backing down from the curse or threat that he placed upon them. Now, he is willing to allow the men to go, as Moshe had originally requested. (The Abarbanel asserts that in Moshe's initial response he listed the men first and separated them from the others through the words "we will go." In this writer's opinion this option seems a bit weak - Moshe had declared a desire for all the people to go.) This relates to the second interpretation of ra'a, that Pharaoh warned that he would bring harm to the people if they would go. The third interpretation of the final verse is also interesting. The Abarbanel claims that Pharaoh was indeed willing to allow the people to leave Egypt; however, he could not allow it on the terms that Moshe requested. The Abarbanel writes that the discussion between Pharaoh and Moshe was merely a business deal. Pharaoh first asked how many people would be going. (Pharaoh was hoping for a "low price;" only a few select individuals would be going.) Moshe responded that the price, in fact, will be very steep - everyone will be included. Therefore, Pharaoh in this final verse now reaches a compromise, allowing all the men to leave, a compromise position between only a few select leaders and the entire nation. Knowing, however, that Moshe would not agree to this, he banishes Moshe and Aharon from the palace. As the Abarbanel paraphrases: "the king has done much good and kindness for you (and you simply reject it)." This interpretation follows the understanding of ra'a as referring to the insolence of Moshe. Pharaoh says, I have offered to allow the men to go. However, I know that you are only going to respond with ra'a, therefore you should be banished from the palace. Based on this rather lengthy explanation of the Abarbanel, it is clear that he understood that Pharaoh, while warning the people against any attempt to leave, may have also been willing to consider a plan which would allow them to leave. Yet, he blames Moshe for his stubbornness in not willing to compromise.
One further enlightening opinion is that of the Ralbag. He notes that the ra'a to which Pharaoh refers is actually God. One must recall that the experiences that Pharaoh had with God were all evil, plagues and death. Pharaoh had no reason to ascribe any sort of goodness to God. With this understanding we can understand one additional verse. When Pharaoh initially rejects Moshe's request he says: "May God be with you as I send you and your children, see that there is evil in your faces." Whereas other commentators split this verse into two sections and were perplexed as to why Pharaoh would invoke the name of God, neither of these questions bother the Ralbag. For the Ralbag, God and evil are synonymous. Pharaoh is stating that if he were to send them out, they would be faced only with evil, for God would be with them. The Ralbag goes so far as to note that even some of the Jews in Egypt associated only evil with God. He notes that after the splitting of the Red Sea when God sweetened the waters at Mara (Ex. 15:22-26), God informs the people that He would heal them and not inflict them with the plagues of Egypt, provided that they follow the commandments. It was only then that the people realize that God was not only a God of destruction.
We have seen a variety of opinions among commentators regarding this perplexing conversation between Moshe and Pharaoh. Some imply that Pharaoh was even ready to allow the Israelite slaves to leave for their religious journey. In the end, however, he banishes Moshe from the palace. Others seem convinced that Pharaoh never intended to allow the slaves to go and merely spoke with Moshe in order to warn him against any attempted escape.
According to either approach we may suggest that ultimately, Pharaoh would never willingly allow the people to leave. If we look at the various incidents in which Pharaoh seems ready to relent, it never stems from a source of power. Whenever he is in control of the situation, he immediately retracts his offers, which have been made in a moment of weakness. In this case, as well, Pharaoh would never allow himself to give in if he could still remain standing. His servants begged him to "save face." Egypt ought to free the people while the nation still existed. Because of his ultimate stubbornness, in the end, after the plague of smiting the first born, Pharaoh ends up calling out in the middle of the night in order to free the people.
In this denouement, there is a profound sense of irony. In the beginning of the story of the enslavement, Pharaoh had said: "We must deal wisely with them (the Israelites). Otherwise, they may increase so much that if there is war, they will join our enemy, they will due battle with us and they will go up out of the land." (Ex. 1:10). Pharaoh originally feared an external enemy who would bring war and eventually the Israelites would escape. Instead, it was Pharaoh himself who would bring about the leaving of the slaves. Pharaoh so successfully battled himself and the good of his nation that not only did the Israelites leave Egypt but the land and people of Egypt were left in ruins and shambles. The scene we have analyzed in this shiur is a clear example of the stubborn battle that Pharaoh waged against himself, acting as the enemy who ultimately frees the Israelite slaves.