Pharaoh’s Hard Heart Vs. The Hebrew’s Only One God – OpEd


It sometimes seems impossible to understand how a rational human being can persist in a course of action when he sees clear signs over and over again that his actions lead only to disaster after disaster. Yet that is exactly what Pharaoh (King Rameses) of Egypt does; because the God of the Hebrews has hardened his heart. Many people are disturbed by the often repeated remark in Exodus that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, so Pharaoh would not let the Jewish People go free no matter how many plagues befell Egypt.

There are two ways to understand Pharaoh’s extremely stubborn will. The Qur’an says that Moses himself requested God to harden the hearts of Pharaoh and his assembly; “And Moses said, “Our Lord, indeed You have given Pharaoh and his establishment splendor and wealth in the worldly life, that they may lead [mankind] astray from Your way. Our Lord, obliterate their wealth and harden their hearts so that they will not believe until they see painful punishment.”

Allah replied, “Your supplication has been answered.” So remain on the right course and follow not the way of those who do not know.” (Qur’an 10:88-9) In other words, power tends to corrupt, and it does so whenever humans claim Divine powers.

We do not know why Prophet Moses made this request, but Moses most likely knew how hard it would be for the Hebrews, who had been raised in a slave society, to break free and journey into the wilderness, toward the distant goal of freedom in the Land of Israel. 

The Hebrews had to be convinced by repeating clear signs that Egypt’s magnificent material civilization was impotent spiritually; and that Pharaoh was not a God as the Egyptian people believed. Prophet Moses knows that the God speaking to him out of a bush, a God he has never before encountered, a God who has (according to the Torah) ignored his people for two or three generations of oppression, is the one with the responsibility to fight this divine battle.

Nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures does the God of the Hebrew’s harden any heart. God gives free will to mankind; and never again will the Bible say that God hardened the heart of any human being. But there can be no free will when gods in human or animal form go to war with the one and only God. And the Torah admits that Pharaoh himself after surviving several light plaques says “Pharaoh became stubborn this time and would not let the (Hebrew) people go.” (Exodus 8:26)

So why did Pharaoh start to oppress the Jews in Egypt? French Egyptologist Alain Zivie points to Pharaoh’s vizier ‘Abdiel whose Semitic name means ‘a servant of [the god] El’. 

‘Abdiel’s name is unusual. In Egyptian, it is ‘Aper-El. ‘Aper is the Egyptian way to render the Semitic word ‘abed, which means “servant.” So, Alain Zivie believes that the vizier’s name actually would have been pronounced “‘Abdiel.” 

The second part of his name consists of the name of the god El, the head of the Syro-Canaanite pantheon. Thus, “Abdiel” means “servant of [the god] El.” El is also the generic Semitic term for “god” and one of the names of the Israelite deity in the Hebrew Bible.

In 1980, Alain Zivie began excavating a rock-cut tomb in Saqqara, Egypt (near Cairo). In 1987, he discovered the tomb’s burial chamber with the remains of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, his wife Tauret, and his son Huy. Each had been buried in three coffins.

Extraordinary grave goods filled the room: canopic jars, a diadem, and a wood cubit listing some of ‘Abdiel’s prestigious titles. These items, along with the tomb’s inscriptions and illustrations, help paint a picture of ‘Abdiel’s importance in ancient Egypt.

In his article “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” published in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Alain Zivie explores this intriguing figure,  who lived in the 14th century B.C.E. and who likely served two pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (better known by his later name Akhenaten).

Akhenaten is famous for his attempt to push the Egyptian court and nobility into worshipping the Solar disc Aten, instead of all the traditional Gods that Egyptians had worshipped for over 2,000 years.

This was the most revolutionary event in Egypt’s religious history, and it failed because Akhenaten died as a young man, and his young son also died a few years later. The general who was acting regent then took over; and at his death the next general started the 19th dynasty and ruled in his own name; Rameses.

The Torah states, “When a new king (dynasty), to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt” Pharaoh said to his court nobles, “Look, the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if a war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” (Exodus 1:8-10)

That is what Pharaoh (Ramses I) said, but what he really meant was: although the Egyptian  nobles outnumber the Israelites, their belief in only one God has already influenced two previous Pharaohs (Amenhotep III and Akhenaten).

If the Israelite belief in only one God spreads from some of the nobility into the general population, many people might stop believing that Pharaoh himself is the son of God, and that would be very dangerous for the traditional authority of our religious and political establishment, so we should oppress them. 

Pharaoh Ramses then engages in what today psychologists call projection. Ramses takes his own semi and subconscious desires to push away the dreaded monotheistic ideas that denied Pharaoh’s divinity as a son of God; and projects these desires on the Children of Israel. 

The Qur’an reveals the true thoughts of Ramses when it states: The Chiefs (Nobles) of Pharaoh claim that Prophet Moses’s plans are to get them (the Egyptians) out of their land. (7:110) and Pharaoh claims that Prophet Moses’s plan is to drive his (Pharaoh’s) people out of the land. (7:123)

The Qur’an also explicitly reveals: “He (Pharaoh Ramses) said: “Have you come to drive us out of our land with your magic, O Moses?” (20:57) and “They (the Nobles) said: “These two (Prophet Aaron and Prophet Moses) are certainly magicians: their object is to drive you (Pharaoh Ramses) out from your land with their magic, and to do away with your most cherished institutions”. (20:63)

Thus, the well meaning but erroneous attempt of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, ‘the servant (prophet?) of El” to influence Pharaoh Akhenaten and the royal court to forcefully spread monotheism among Egypt’s nobility and then the general population: failed. 

The Torah is silent about this shameful episode because ‘Abdiel, ‘the servant of El” should not have encouraged Pharaoh Akhenaten to pressure people to become monotheists. As the Qur’an proclaims: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut, and believes in Allah, has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it; for Allah Hears and Knows. (2:256)

‘Abdiel had many titles, including “chief of the town, vizier,” “general of the horses,” “chief in the entire land,” “messenger of the king” (ambassador), and “father of the god” (a senior advisor who knew Pharaoh as a child). ‘Abdiel is the only vizier in the history of ancient Egypt to be called “child of the kap” (someone palace raised or educated). He also bears the title “first servant of Aten in …” 

Although this title’s ending is not readable, the surviving part shows that ‘Abdiel was connected to the Egyptian god Aten, whose worship rose to prominence during Akhenaten’s reign. In 1320 B.C.E., after Akhenaten’s religious revolution failed, the pro-Israelite monotheistic inclined notables were sent into exile in the Canaan province, more specifically in Shechem and Urushalim (Jerusalem). The discovery by Alain Zivie of the tomb of Akhenaten’s vizier Abdi-El at Memphis suggests a close family relationship between Abdi-Heba, Mayor-Governor of Urushalim, and Akhenaten’s top officials.

The Qur’an makes the thoughts and fears of Pharaoh clear and explains why the Children Of Israel inherited the land of their ancestors Prophet Ibrahim and Prophet Ya’kub/Israel.

“We made the (Children Of Israel) people who were deemed weak. to inherit the Eastern lands and the Western of it (Arabic: wamagharibaha) which We had blessed (Arabic – Barakna Fiha); and the good word of your Lord was fulfilled in the Children of Israel because they bore (sufferings) patiently; and We destroyed what Pharaoh and his people used to make and what they built” (7:137)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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