Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the LORD.”
Consider how strange this scene is. Moses is told by God to warn Pharaoh of further plagues, which he will not respond to. because God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why is this happening? So in future generations this story can be retold. The purpose of the events to tell a story in the future. Why is telling a story so central? Why is the story essential to “knowing” God?
Avivah Zornberg thinks that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart creates a fundamentally unanswerable question in the heart of Exodus. While it is possible to create provisional answers, none of them are ultimately fully satisfying. It creates an opening for alternative answers — alternative narratives — which keeps us engaged with Exodus and which forces us to confront the otherness of God — in her words, God resists gentrification.
Perhaps the answer that will close the mouth of the heretic does not exist? Perhaps each successive question will deepen the sense of disorder and bring into being new, but provisional answers? … The drama staged here is an exemplary drama, modular, to be replicated and continued. … This “hardness” (kasheh) is the core-idea of the kushiya: the question, in Rabbinic Hebrew. Hardness is fraught with mystery and pain. It resists language … A true kushiya has something of the Sublime … it disturbs order, it is limitless, terrifying — and yet evokes its own kind of pleasure, even of enthusiasm. … God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart may indeed open the mouths of questioners, in the process creating counterworlds, counter-narratives that are never finally harmonized with the master-narrative. We notice, too, that the question of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart relates to the possibility of what is classically called teshuva – repentance. The word basically means “response, answer.” The “response” of Pharaoh, his answer to the questions, disturbing both to him and to he Israelites, is the central issue of the story.
At the core, there is a tension between the demonstration of God’s omnipotence, on the one hand, and, on the other, the resounding voice of Pharaoh, that is never entirely silenced.
Pharaoh is enacting our resistance to God, or our inability to know God.
God wants Pharaoh to come to a personal recognition of His power; it is his narrative that God desires, his awareness that his own starting point — “I do not know God!” (5:2) — has been repudiated. Such a narrative will surely be worth having. The narrative of conversion, then, is God’s desire. It justifies the risk involved in the ambiguous, repetitive, and protracted narrative of the plagues — the risk, that is, of generating an adversary narrative, telling of weakness and inability to accomplish His will.
Rashi describes this moment:
He cried out to Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Get up, get out from among my people … Go, worship God as you have spoken! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you have spoken …”(12:30-31)
Rashi: “As you have spoken” All shall be as you said, and not as I said.
Yet Pharaoh is not completely defeated. His worldview remains among the Israelites, fearing that they have simply replaced one slave-master with another.
the Egyptian interpretation transmutes the story of Exodus and all that follows it into a farcical bloodbath. This is not the Moses story of love, redemption, and promise. It is, rather, a story of hatred, of sinister intent by a god whose relation to the Israelites is one of malice and anger. … “God hates us”: this is the narrative of hatred in condensed form. … This doubt, that haunts the people throughout the redemption and wilderness epochs, is a doubt about being loved. … this “hate” is engendered partly by their pervasive understanding that they have merely exchanged masters, while they still remain slaves …
Why create this tension? What comes from struggling against the Egypt within?