Exodus 14:4 – The Hard Heart

Before the splitting of the sea, God told Moses that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. This article looks closely at why God would harden Pharaoh’s heart at that time.

The Jewish people have left Egypt. In fact, the Egyptians are glad they left.

Psalms Chapter 105

38. Egypt was glad when they departed; for the fear of them had fallen upon them.

The 10 plagues and especially the death of the firstborn, have convinced Egypt that it’s better for the Jews to leave.

Splitting the Sea

But God has one more miracle to display to the world: the splitting of the sea.

God explains to Moses His plan to entice Egypt to chase after the Jewish people.

Exodus 14

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
2. Speak to the people of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal-Zephon; before it shall you encamp by the sea.
3. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, They are entangled in the land, the wilderness has closed them in.

It turns out there is one more ingredient needed in this plan. This is the verse I will analyze in this article:

Exodus 14

4. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he shall follow after them; and I will gain honor by Pharaoh, and by all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord. And they did so.

Why would Pharaoh and his army have any desire to “follow after” the Jews? After all, they were pleased when the Jewish people left.

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Background – The First Hardening

Even before God performed any miracles in Egypt, He told Moses that it would be necessary to harden Pharaoh’s heart.

Exodus 7

3. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.

This is the first time that hardening the heart is mentioned.

After this, hardening the heart is mentioned in relationship to almost every plague. Sometimes we’re told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

Other times, after Pharaoh showed how stubborn he was, God hardened his heart.

Free Will

If God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, what happens to his free will? One of the basic concepts in Judaism is that without free will a person cannot be help accountable for his actions.

Ramban in his commentary on Exodus 7:3 deals with that issue.

God was not preventing Pharaoh from repenting and letting the Jewish people leave Egypt. However, God hardened his heart so that he was able to withstand the pain of the plagues.

At times Pharaoh felt the pressure of the plagues and was considering letting the people leave. However, this was only a reaction to the plagues.

It was important that Pharaoh acknowledge God and accept His will. That was the only motivation that God would accept from Pharaoh.

Now let’s dive into our main verse.

Exodus 14:4 Phrase by Phrase

4. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he shall follow after them; and I will gain honor by Pharaoh, and by all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord. And they did so.

And I will harden

God will make it as if he forgot the plagues [Ibn Ezra].

Ramban points out that after the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh was afraid of the Jewish people and wanted them to leave Egypt. He had no intention of pursuing after them.

Therefore, it was necessary for God to harden his heart so that he would go after them and even follow Israel into the split sea.

Based on logic, it made no sense for Egypt to take such a risk. They only did this because God hardened their hearts.

As verses 14:2-3 make clear, God wanted Pharaoh to make a mistake and think “they are entangled in the land.” This would give Pharaoh a basis for thinking there was a good reason to pursue after them. [Daat Mikra]

and he shall follow after them

The word translated as “follow” in the Hebrew is a singular verb. Even so, the meaning is that Pharaoh and his army collectively will follow them. [Rabbi Sorotzkin]

and I will gain honor by Pharaoh

Then my honor will be seen in the world by drowning Pharaoh and his army. [Ibn Ezra]

Malbim writes that with the great miracles that will be done at the sea, the honor and glory of God will be proclaimed to the rest of the Egyptians and the entire world.

Parshat Beshalach Pharao chariot

by Pharaoh, and by all his army

Rashi comments that Pharaoh began with transgression and, therefore, the punishment began with him.

Rashi is referring back to Exodus 1:22. At that time, Pharaoh ordered that the male babies be thrown into the Nile River. Now God is leading Pharaoh and his army into the sea to be drowned.

and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord

Ibn Ezra comments that this refers to the Egyptians who were not in the army and remained alive after the splitting of the sea.

Daat Mikra writes that this means Egypt will recognize God’s might and God’s power.

This indicates that God displayed even greater might and power at the splitting of the sea than any of the other miracles in Egypt.

This point is emphasized in the Passover Hagadah in the passage where the sages calculate how much stronger and more numerous were the miracles at the sea.

Egypt was a world power at that time. Showing God’s glory and honor to Egypt also meant that the rest of the world would learn about it.

And they did so

This phrase links back to verse 14:2. The Jewish people turned back and returned the way they had traveled.

The more natural reaction would be to flee away from the army that was pursuing them.

Daat Mikra points out that this “journey” was significant enough to be counted as one of the 42 “journeys” recorded in Numbers:

Numbers Chapter 33

7. And they journeyed from Etham, and turned back to Pihahiroth, which is before Baal-Zephon; and they camped before Migdol.

My Summary

At first, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. (Do we sometimes harden our hearts and refuse to listen to good advise?)

We should also recall why God did all of this for His people. I already mentioned Psalm 105 earlier. Here is how that psalm ends:

Psalms Chapter 105

45. That they might keep His statutes, and observe His laws. Hallelujah!

The overall purpose of the Exodus was for the Jewish people to come into the Land of Israel and serve God by keeping and observing His Torah.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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