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Sorry folks, but Pharaoh ain't the only heavy in this drama. Oh, no doubt, the Egyptians abused and mistreated their Hebrew slaves. The brutal slaying of male Hebrew children was an abomination (though one wonders just how many died as opposed to how many were saved by the heroic efforts of the midwives like Shiphrah and Puah?) So Pharaoh isn't innocent. But he is a pawn in this game.
Gd makes it quite clear that Pharaoh's heart will be hardened, so that, even though he may be inclined to let the Hebrews go, he won't. It's quite likely that Pharaoh, has his heart not been stiffened by gd, would have relented early on in the plagues, and let the Hebrews go. Not a few times was he inclined to do this and then changed his mind--under the influence of Gd. This is Gd that, for me, is Gd at Gd's worst--Gd as puppetmaster.
How much is enough? If Pharaoh was ready to relent, why not spare the Egyptians further suffering? But, nooooooooooooo. Gd has to make a point. Gd blatantly says that the intention is to make a great example of (and for ?) the Egyptian people. See verses 7:3 and 9:16 for examples. Gd says unequivocally that Gd will harden Pharaoh's heart--for PR purposes!
So Moshe and Aaron go do the little serpent trick. The Egyptian magicians duplicate it, but Aaron's serpents swallow the Egyptian magician's serpents. And Pharaoh's heart stiffened. (vs. 7:10-13.)
Ands then we have 7:14. A verse that has always troubled me, but I've never had the courage to come right out and say it blatantly. In this verse, Gd could be fibbing. Or at least shades the truth a little bit. Gd says to Moses that Pharaoh is stubborn, that he refuses to let the people go. Um, excuse me? Did Gd conveniently forget that Gd is doing the heart hardening here?
Oh, there's an easy out here. This staff--serpent incident is part of the official ten plagues. It's just the precursor. So maybe it wasn't Gd that hardened Pharaoh's heart in this case. OK, maybe I'll give Gd the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, as we go on through the story of the plagues, there is no mention again that it is Gd that is hardening Pharaoh's heart. We read that "Pharaoh's heart stiffened" (7:22); then "he became stubborn" (8:11); "Pharaoh became stubborn again this time also" (8:28); "Pharaoh remained stubborn" (9:7). Finally, after the plague of boils, we read that "the Lrd stiffened the heart of Pharaoh (9:12.)
So maybe Gd didn't harden Pharaoh's heart in the earlier plagues. Except, once again, in the next plague, hail plague, we read that "Pharaoh's heart stiffened" (9;35) with no mention of Divine interference.
So I'm confused. Is Gd responsible for all the heart stiffening or not? Are we playing a little game here to try and pin most of the responsibility on Pharaoh, who perhaps was inclined from the start to stiffen his own heart? At the end of the parasha there's some support for that idea. See verse 9:34.
And after the hail plague, Pharaoh was really ready to give in, so it seems (9:27-28.) Yet by this time, even Moses was buying into Gd's little puppet show by saying, in 9:30 "But I know that you and your courtiers do not yet fear the Lrd Gd."
I love the verse that follows, in which it is explained that only the flax and barley crops were ruined. Finally the text takes notice of some of the inherent ridiculous circumstances that have occurred. If all the beasts died of plague, and all the crops ruined by the hail, what were the Egyptians eating? Were they eating the Hebrew's animals? No, the text goes in for all this exaggeration for effect, like the best of tall tales, and sort of assumes the reader realizes these are exaggerations, and that they should ignore some of the obvious complications that arise if one takes the story at face value.
Speaking of loose ends, have you ever noticed that the first plague, blood, never really officially ends. In verse 25 it simply says that "when a full week had passed...." and then Gd goes on to describe the frog plague to come. It never says the plague of blood ended, as it does with the other plagues. Pharaoh never asks Moses to ask Gd to make it stop. Did it? Is there some connection with the fact that it never really officially ends, and the sacrificial lamb's blood used during the tenth plague?
Anyhow, now that my musing has mused and meandered in all sorts of directions, I want to get back to my confusion as to when and where Pharaoh was self-heart-stiffened, and when Gd was responsible for it. Taken at face value, it seems Gd only did it once in these first seven plagues.
One wonders what might have happened if Pharaoh had not been predisposed to be stubborn. Is this a case of "you can't make someone do something they don't really want to do?" Surely that wouldn't be a problem for Gd. Or would it?
Then again, does any of this matter? I can and do have these questions and doubts about the Torah and what it says. Still, it remains for me at the core of who and what I am. I also know myself well enough to know that, if the Torah didn't raise all these questions, and have all these ambiguities seeming contradictions, et al, it probably wouldn't be what I would want at my core. All hail (no pun intended) the most perfect of imperfections, and the most imperfect of perfections, our holy Torah.
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
- Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You
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