The statement that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (e.g. Exodus 9:12) usually sparks theological discussions about free-will, but can also raise a more down-to-earth question: What were the rest of the Egyptians thinking, as plague after plague ravaged the countryside and its people and animals while their king remained supernaturally stubborn?
At one point, with the threat of locusts on the horizon, Pharaoh’s officials plead with him: “Send the people ... Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?!” (10:7) They know defeat when they see it and can’t understand why their king doesn’t.
The next chapter further develops the view of the officials, and of Egyptians on the street. They display not just resignation, but respect. With one plague left, Moshe is to instruct the Israelites to ask their (Egyptian) neighbors for gold and silver. The positive Egyptian response might be subject to some of the same theological questions as Pharaoh’s hardened heart, since 11:3 indicates God played an active role in it. However, it also offers important insights into paths toward respect between enemies.
One stunning insight on a national level is that of Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; Italy, 19th century):
Because it is the way of those “soaked” in success to not see the poor and unfortunate as humans like them … But when the miserable ones begin to rise a little from their lowly depths, then the successful begin to consider them and have mercy upon them and love them.
Too often, those in power view the powerless as inherently inferior. Shadal argues that as the tables began to turn, as the Israelites rose up a bit, the Egyptian populace began to understand the wrongs they had committed against those they’d seen as subhuman, sparking a dramatic transformation in their perspective – even to the point of “love.”
Other commentators note the emphasis on Moshe; as 11:3 continues, not only did the Egyptians view “the nation” favorably, but “also the man Moshe was very great … in the eyes of Pharaoh’s officials and in the eyes of the nation.” Moshe played a central role in Egypt’s suffering, yet the Egyptians didn’t resent him. Why? The Netziv (Volozhin, 19th century) suggests: “They saw Moshe prayed for them zealously and had great compassion for them; with this, his honor increased in their eyes.”
Moshe had never expected Pharaoh, the Egyptians, or even the Israelites to listen to him. But slowly, steadily, his people came around (Ramban suggests “the nation” in 11:3 might refer to them) and his integrity gained respect even from (most of) his enemies.
Sarah Rudolph of University Heights is a writer and editor, Jewish educator and director of TorahTutors.org, editor-at-large for Deracheha: Women and Mitzvot and learns online with students all over the world through WebYeshiva.org.