“I [God] have hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians.”
The plague of locusts, to paraphrase a popular saying associated with the Exodus from Egypt, was different from all other plagues.
It begins with God’s usual command to Moses to go to Pharaoh to deliver news of the latest punishment about to hit him and his people. But unlike with the previous seven instructions, God additionally tells Moses that he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
This is a game changer. Until this point, Pharaoh has exercised free will. Now, his decision-making ability has been taken from him.
His actions are no longer voluntary; they are divinely ordained. He is a puppet, controlled by the God of the Israelites.
And why has the situation changed? God makes that clear in the explanation to Moses: it’s so that God can do all his brilliant miracles to humiliate Pharaoh and his servants and show how inferior they are.
It is appalling behaviour that undermines the message of the story of the Exodus, which is supposed to be one of the human triumph over injustice and the demand to seek freedom, not just for ourselves but for anyone who is enslaved.
If this doesn’t seem to you to belong in our holy scripture, bear in mind the story was written some 600 years after the events by a person or persons who were determined to exaggerate the powers of their divine leader and emphasise the uniqueness of their heritage.
And although he clearly wasn’t a nice person, on the basis of this Torah portion, poor Pharaoh really didn’t have a chance.
Pete Tobias is rabbi at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree