I've always loved the account of the 10 plagues (who doesn't?), but I always felt a little odd about the several times (7, in fact) Pharoah's heart was made "hard/heavy" by G-d because I'm a strong believer in free-will, and that didn't seem fair/just to me. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that Pharaoh was a good guy -- he was given plenty of chances, and time and time again, he was stubborn and did not obey G-d, but this makes it all the more peculiar to me. Why would G-d need to make Pharaoh's heart heavy if it already was?
For years, I just accepted Maimonides comments in the Laws of Teshuva: "yes, there is free will... but if your sins become colossal, grievous, frequent, etc. enough, then the courtesy of free-will will be revoked" (I'm, of course, paraphrasing here). It wasn't the perfect answer, but I accepted it because "hey, Pharaoh, was indeed a bad guy. It probably would have happened anyway, and Maimonides knows what's up."
But lately, I've been working with an Egyptologist, help teaching an Egyptology course to undergraduates, and new ideas have occurred to me. Now, I work at a public university so for the most part, we were looking at it from an Egyptian point of view, and a light bulb went off in my head. Was the 10 plagues a symbolic "show-down" (in addition to physical miracles leading to the redemption of the Hebrews) between the Egyptian pantheon and G-d? In antiquity, Egypt was well known as a polytheistic nation, with more than 80 deities being worshipped throughout the land. Even pharaoh was considered to be a god, along with a host of insects, reptiles, mammals, fish, the sun, and so forth. Could each plague actually be a personal attack against one of the Egyptian gods?
For example (choosing just a few):
- Plague 1--water turned to blood: The Nile was the lifeblood for the Egyptians and a prominent god was Hapi -- this would be a direct attack against Hapi.
- Plague 5--disease of livestock: Hathor, Cow goddess and fertility, was not able to keep her livestock alive. Her powers proved fruitless.
- Plague 9--darkness: Attack against the sun god of Ra. His powers were clearly overshadowed by G-d's.
- Plague 10--death of first-born: Pharaoh (who was considered divine) is unable to save his own child from death's grasps, demonstrating that there is only one true divine Being.
Now G-d and the Israelite would know that these so called "gods" were not real, but could it be a symbolic attack on (as well as demonstrating G-d's gradneur and commitment to His people) the Egyptian Pantheon, accentuating His power over their hierarchy of gods?
Now with that said, going with this premise, could one make the argument that G-d made Pharoah's heart harden/heavy because it would be the apex of a symbolic battle between G-d and Pharoah since the Egyptians believed that in the Afterworld, the heart would be weighed against a feather, and if the heart was heavier than the feather, it would be gobbled up by creatures literally known as the "gobblers", sealing Pharoah's fate in the Underworld, and ultimately emphasizing that there is but one G-d.
I'm not saying that this whole account be taken symbolically because I think it can operate on two levels: physical and symbolic. So maybe Pharoah's heart became hardened on his own (as we read he does), but the parts where it mentions G-d making it hard, indicates the symbolic aspects? Does that make sense? Is there room for interpretation here?