Two Passover questions came across the i–transom this morning: Why did the Egyptians turn on the Jews? and Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Here are my answers to them.
Why Enslave the Hebrews?
We Jews like to imagine that our presence in Egypt during the time of Joseph was benign and even beneficial. After all, didn’t Joseph save the people from starvation during the seven years of famine? Yes, he did, but at what cost?
Over the seven years of plenty Jacob didn’t merely instruct the Egyptians to save grain for the coming famine, he forced the Egyptians to store their surplus grain in Pharaoh’s silos. Then, during the years of famine, he sold this grain—grain that was rightly their grain in the first place—back to them. And when they ran out of money to pay for the food, he confiscated their ancestral lands and gave them to Pharaoh: “So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh. And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. (Genesis 47: 20–21)
This last line is rarely noted, but it is essential: Joseph forced the people to leave their ancestral lands and move to other cities to work land that once belonged to other now displaced Egyptians. His goal was to break any claim the people may have to their ancestral land. He destroyed communities, and forced people to leave the only place they had ever called home.
Only two groups escaped the policies of Joseph: the priests of Egypt (Genesis 47:22) and Joseph’s own family. While Joseph as stripping the people of Egypt of lands that had been theirs for millennia, Joseph’s family bought more and more land in Goshen, the richest most fertile part of Egypt, that had gone untouched by the famine, and prospered (Genesis 47:27).
Again: can anyone be surprised that the Egyptians blamed the Hebrews for their lot: famine was not new to them, but having their lands confiscated and their families uprooted and forced to settled in other parts of Egypt was a horror they had not known before the coming of Joseph. So when they could, they backed a challenger to the throne who overthrew the Pharaoh who benefited from Joseph’s plan, and who himself had had no dealings with Joseph (Exodus 1:8).
It was now time for revenge, and Pharaoh did to the Hebrews what Joseph had done to the Egyptians: stripped them of their lands and forced them to work for Pharaoh. We may not like what happened to our ancestors, but let’s not pretend they were innocent victims.
Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?
Torah makes no secret as to why God did what he did: God says to Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” (Exodus 7: 3-5, JPS)
God hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to inflict more suffering on the Egyptian people! This is God’s version of “shock and awe,” and the whole point of this terror is to leave no doubt in the minds of the Egyptians that YHVH is the real God and Pharaoh and the other Gods and Goddesses the Egypt are false Gods. This is Torah’s version of “My Dad can beat up your Dad.”
• • •
Now if I believed that Torah was the word of God, and that the God of Torah was in fact the God of the universe, I would not be celebrating Passover tonight. But my Judaism is cultural rather than theological. I don’t celebrate Pesach recounts an historical event, nor do I look to it for insight into the nature of God. For me, the story of Passover is just that, a story, and a pretty good one at that. The doings of Joseph and the ego of God only add to the story, making it all the more rich and complex. If this were history or theology, I would have a problem, but it isn’t, so I don’t. It is literature, and as such it is worth reading and discussing.
I am put off by the jingoism of my youth when we saw the Hebrews as “us” and the Egyptians as “them,” and proud to be the people of a book so honest that it dares to show us our own shadow side.
So here is what we should be talking about tonight: Where are we enslaved and where are we enslaving others? Are our Gods concerned with power or with justice, and how can we topple the former and promote the latter? And how can we live this new year so that next year there is peace in the City of Peace and wholeness in the City of Wholeness (Jerusalem means both)?
Hag sameach Pesach.