Weighing Pharaoh’s Heavy Heart
The exodus story features protracted negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses first approaches Pharaoh with the request that the Israelites go into the wilderness for a three-day festival; Pharaoh responds by refusing and making the work of the slaves more difficult (ch. 5). Distraught, Moses asks YHWH why he was sent to Pharaoh if all he accomplished was to make things worse.
Before sending Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh again, this time to threaten Pharaoh with the first plague, YHWH offers an evaluation of the situation:
שמות ז:יד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כָּבֵד לֵב פַּרְעֹה מֵאֵן לְשַׁלַּח הָעָם.
Exod 7:14 YHWH said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is heavy; he refuses to let the people go.”
“Heavy heart” is an idiom that contrasts with the other expression found in this story, “strengthen” or “fortify,” using the root ח.ז.ק. For example, after Aaron turns his staff into a serpent, and it swallows all of the Egyptian sorcerers’ staff-serpents, Pharaoh remains stolid in his refusal to release the Israelites:
שמות ז:יג וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה.
Exod 7:13 Pharaoh’s heart was fortified, and he did not listen to them, just as YHWH said.
Only Egyptians Have Heavy Hearts
With one exception, the expression “heavy heart” appears only in the book of Exodus (7:14; 8:11, 28; 9:7, 34; 10:1). In 1 Samuel 6, the exception that proves the rule, the Philistines have defeated the Israelites in battle and have taken the ark. As a consequence, their cities have been struck with plague. Their leaders ask advice from the local priests and magicians, who respond that they should return the ark and offer gifts to the Israelite God:
שמואל א ו:ו וְלָמָּה תְכַבְּדוּ אֶת לְבַבְכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּבְּדוּ מִצְרַיִם וּפַרְעֹה אֶת לִבָּם הֲלוֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלֵּל בָּהֶם וַיְשַׁלְּחוּם וַיֵּלֵכוּ.
1 Sam 6:6 Don’t make your hearts heavy as the Egyptians and Pharaoh made their hearts. As you know, when He (=YHWH) made a mockery of them, they had to let Israel go, and they departed.
The reference to Pharaoh’s heavy heart here clearly derives from Exodus. Thus we must wonder: Why is the term “heavy heart” unique to the exodus story and applied only to the Egyptian Pharaoh and his ministers?
Weighing of the Heart: An Egyptian Concept of Judgment
In 1984, Sarah Ben-Reuben, who taught Bible at Kibbutzim College, published a note arguing that the idiom “heavy heart” should be understood against the backdrop of Egyptian religious culture.
In Egyptian theology, when a person died, he or she was brought into the Hall of Two Truths by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and afterlife. Here the deceased would announce their innocence of all crimes before the gods.
To help them make their case, wealthy Egyptians would be entombed with a book of spells that the deceased would recite. Spell 125 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead is the most complete example of such a recitation. Through a negative confession, the speaker pleads innocence to 42 crimes, each addressed to a different god. The following are the first five:
O Far-strider, who came forth from Heliopolis, I have done no falsehood.
O Fire-embracer, who came forth from Kheraha, I have not robbed.
O Nosey, who came forth from Hermopolis, I have not been rapacious.
O Swallower of shades, who came forth from the cavern, I have not stolen.
O Dangerous One, who came from Rosetjau, I have not killed men.
After the recitation, the individual’s heart would be placed on scales opposite maʾat, the Egyptian personification of truth, justice, social order, and harmony. Maʾat is pictured either as an ostrich feather or as a goddess wearing the feather. These judicial proceedings would be overseen by Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, magic, and wisdom.
If the heart was found to be lighter than maʾat, the judged was shown to be righteous and would be allowed into the afterlife, and would be referred to as “vindicated.” If, however, the heart outweighed maʾat, the heart would be devoured by a monster called Amenti/Amut (“the flesh gobbler”), and the person cast to oblivion.
Egyptologist Jan Assmann of Heidelberg University sees a dramatic interplay between the weighing of the heart and the negative confession. He suggests that the confession was recited while the heart was on the scales, and the heart moved up or down depending on the truth or falsehood of each confession of innocence:
With every lie, the pan in which his heart lay would have sunk, and his lying heart would have been swallowed by a monster. In this monster, we are to see the personification of the second death.
Spell 30b in the Egyptian Book of the Dead begins with the person beseeching his own heart to be true to him and prove his innocence:
O my heart which I had from my mother! Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance... Do not tell lies about me in the presence of the god…
The spell continues with what Thoth should hopefully say:
I have judged the heart of the deceased, and his soul stands as a witness for him. His deeds are righteous in the great balance and no sin has been found in him…
Thus, even the proper preparation for death—mummification, food offerings, and a tomb—would not be enough to ensure an afterlife; only those judged by Thoth to be innocent were permitted to enter the afterlife in one piece. Mummification, therefore, was an optimistic statement about the person’s worthiness to live on after death. This, Assmann argues, is part of the dual meaning for the Egyptian term sʿḥ which means both “mummy” and “worthy.” Saying that Pharaoh’s heart was heavy was akin to saying that he was not “worthy” of an afterlife, a terrible curse for an Egyptian.
Judean Scribes Familiar with the Weighing of the Heart
Israelite scribes were likely aware of this Egyptian belief. As Yair Zakovitch, professor emeritus of Bible at Hebrew University, argues, a biblical expression found in Proverbs seems to evoke it:
משלי כא:ב כָּל דֶּרֶךְ אִישׁ יָשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו וְתֹכֵן לִבּוֹת יְ־הוָה.
Prov 21:2 All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but YHWH weighs the heart. (NRSV)
משלי כד:יב כִּי תֹאמַר הֵן לֹא יָדַעְנוּ זֶה הֲלֹא תֹכֵן לִבּוֹת הוּא יָבִין וְנֹצֵר נַפְשְׁךָ הוּא יֵדָע וְהֵשִׁיב לְאָדָם כְּפָעֳלוֹ.
Prov 24:12 If you say, “Look, we did not know this”—does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (NRSV)
The Scribe’s Subtle Playfulness
It seems likely that the author of this text, which scholars identify as J, uses this term to evoke this Egyptian imagery and call Pharaoh a sinner unworthy of an afterlife. The phrase “heavy heart” is thus meant to be understood on two levels: on a simple level, it means stubborn, but to those more cosmopolitan readers familiar with the Egyptian idiom, it was a clear allusion to Pharaoh’s sinfulness. This subtle polemic for those in the know reflects J’s wry sense of humor as well as his knowledge of non-Israelite culture.
Pharaoh Heart Sinks into Sin
Pharaoh’s heart is “weighed” throughout the J plague narrative. After the first request for Israel to be allowed to leave Egypt for a worship festival is turned down, Egypt is struck by blood and then by frogs. At this point, Pharaoh promises to let them go:
שמות ח:ד וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר הַעְתִּירוּ אֶל יְ־הוָה וְיָסֵר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמֶּנִּי וּמֵעַמִּי וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶת הָעָם וְיִזְבְּחוּ לַי־הוָה.
Exod 8:4 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with YHWH to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to YHWH.”
And yet, once the frogs are removed, we are told:
שמות ח:יא וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי הָיְתָה הָרְוָחָה וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת לִבּוֹ
Exod 8:11 When Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he made his heart heavy.
After the next J plague, that of swarms, Pharaoh again makes a promise:
שמות ח:כד וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדִי.
Exod 8:24 Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to YHWH your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me.”
Aware that Pharaoh has made this promise before and lied about it, Moses warns him:
שמות ח:כה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי יוֹצֵא מֵעִמָּךְ וְהַעְתַּרְתִּי אֶל יְ־הוָה וְסָר הֶעָרֹב מִפַּרְעֹה מֵעֲבָדָיו וּמֵעַמּוֹ מָחָר רַק אַל יֹסֵף פַּרְעֹה הָתֵל לְבִלְתִּי שַׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם לִזְבֹּחַ לַי־הוָה.
Exod 8:25 And Moses said, “When I leave your presence, I will plead with YHWH that the swarms of insects depart tomorrow from Pharaoh and his courtiers and his people; but let not Pharaoh again act deceitfully, not letting the people go to sacrifice to YHWH.”
Moses does as he promises, and YHWH removes the swarms, only to find that Pharaoh goes back on his word again even after the warning:
שמות ח:כח וַיַּכְבֵּד פַּרְעֹה אֶת לִבּוֹ גַּם בַּפַּעַם הַזֹּאת וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם.
Exod 8:28 But Pharaoh made his heart heavy this time also, and would not let the people go.
In the next plague, cattle disease, Moses tells Pharaoh that YHWH will strike the Egyptian livestock with disease and leave all Israelite cattle unharmed. The next day:
שמות ט:ז וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וְהִנֵּה לֹא מֵת מִמִּקְנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד אֶחָד וַיִּכְבַּד לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם.
Exod 9:7 When Pharaoh inquired, he found that not a head of the livestock of Israel had died; yet Pharaoh made his heart heavy, and he would not let the people go.
Finally, in the next J plague, Moses warns Pharaoh that YHWH, amidst a fiery storm, will rain hail upon the Egyptian crops and destroy them. As a playful foreshadowing, J describes the plague thus:
שמות ט:כד וַיְהִי בָרָד וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד כָּבֵד מְאֹד אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָיָה כָמֹהוּ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָז הָיְתָה לְגוֹי.
Exod 9:24 The hail was very heavy—fire flashing in the midst of the hail—such as had not fallen on the land of Egypt since it had become a nation.
The plague is so frightening that Pharaoh falls into an all-out panic and accepts that he has been acting wickedly, and YHWH is in the right:
שמות ט:כז וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם יְ־הוָה הַצַּדִּיק וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי הָרְשָׁעִים. ט:כח הַעְתִּירוּ אֶל יְ־הוָה וְרַב מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד.
Exod 9:27 Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I stand guilty this time. YHWH is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 9:28 Plead with YHWH that there may be an end of God's thunder and of hail. I will let you go; you need stay no longer.”
Moses agrees to make the plague go away, but only to show YHWH’s greatness. As for Pharaoh, Moses knows that he will go back on his word, which indeed Pharaoh does:
שמות ט:לד וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי חָדַל הַמָּטָר וְהַבָּרָד וְהַקֹּלֹת וַיֹּסֶף לַחֲטֹא וַיַּכְבֵּד לִבּוֹ הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו.
Exod 9:34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased and continued in his guilty ways; he made his heart heavy, he and his courtiers.
This time, even his courtiers have joined in having heavy hearts. Note that here this behavior is explicitly identified as “guilty,” tying in heaviness more explicitly with the judgment of the heart.
Losing the Idiom
The analysis above follows the storyline of J, but in the final form of the Pentateuch, it is YHWH who fortifies Pharaoh’s heart not to let the Israelites go:
שמות יא:י וּמֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן עָשׂוּ אֶת כָּל הַמֹּפְתִים הָאֵלֶּה לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וַיְחַזֵּק יְ־הוָה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ.
Exod 11:10 Moses and Aaron had performed all these marvels before Pharaoh, but YHWH had fortified the heart of Pharaoh so that he would not let the Israelites go from his land.
A later redactor introduced the idea that YHWH is the cause of Pharaoh’s stubbornness and used it to reframe the entire story. This redactor reused the idiom of Pharaoh’s heavy heart in such a way as to nullify the implication of his guilt:
שמות י:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ.
Exod 10:1 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have made his heart heavy and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them. 
By applying the concept of YHWH’s control to this idiom, the term “heavy heart” lost its original meaning of sinfulness. Nevertheless, looking at J itself, we can recapture the point: Pharaoh will be judged not only by YHWH but by the scales of the Egyptian Thoth as well, and will be found wanting by both.
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Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker, D.D. is the Associate Rabbi at White Meadow Temple/Or Hadash in Rockaway, and President and CEO of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East. He holds an M.A. in Hebrew Letters, a Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) from JTS, and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR. A sampling of Zucker’s many articles on the Middle-East can be found on his blog, and he is the author of “He Said: ‘It’s an Event not Pure, for it’s not Pure!’ (I Sam. 20:26b) A Political Analysis,” published in JBQ (2016).
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