Hard hearts and the overplayed ‘hand’

Pharaoh, Hamas and the Houthis.

By David Shishkoff | | Topics: Hamas, Weekly Torah Portion, Houthis
Photo by Nati Shohat/FLASH90

In poker card games, one who gambles everything while possessing only a weak “hand” will eventually lose.

If you will forgive the irreverent reverie, strangely enough the current Torah readings of last week and this coming week are reminiscent of a high stakes gambling game between Pharaoh King of Egypt and YHWH King of Israel, represented by Moses and Aaron. The faceoff is one of the highest climaxes of the scriptures. Who is bluffing and who is truly powerful?

The Exodus story is the great historical, national-scale, geopolitical, sudden in-breaking of the God of Israel on the world stage.

Here in the midst of the ten great plagues…
Here in the midst of the divine challenge to the great Egyptian Empire…
Here in the midst of the epic judging of the idols of Egypt…

Here it is surprising to find one of the Bible’s highest concentrations of the word “heart.” Somehow, in the midst of this massive divine invasion felt by millions, the very intimate and personal word “heart” appears in the Hebrew no fewer than 20 times between Exodus 4:21 and 14:17.

Whose heart is being examined? The heart of the king of Egypt, in the midst of these ten plagues. During the initial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, and up through the second plague, Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler of his time, will not soften his heart, but hardens it and will not listen.

Not to the plight of his slaves…
Not to the request of Moses…
Not even to the displayed power of the Creator.

Then, at the third plague (lice), Pharaoh’s advisors and magicians implore him, in so many words, to soften his heart. They have concluded that Moses is not bluffing and that he holds the “stronger hand.” Pharaoh’s advisors conclude that this plague at least has been the actual Finger of God (Exodus 8:15, Luke 11:20).

Yet Pharaoh does not soften his heart. And the inexorable, thundering procession of disastrous judgments continues to beat down, to hammer away. Eventually, there is a tipping point, after which God Himself starts to harden the heart of Pharaoh. At that point, human arrogance has overplayed its hand. And I wonder if this is not a general principle that happens throughout history – nationally, to groups of people and to individuals. As wicked deeds grow fully ripe, the scales tip.

For example, the Yemenite Houthis seemed to have overplayed their hand by attacking random cargo ships instead of “just” ones connected with Israel. If they had only picked on Israeli ships or ships that were once partially owned by an Israeli investor, then maybe they would have been winked at by the international community and allowed to continue persecuting Israel. Hamas hardened its heart and overplayed its hand on October 7th. If they had “only” killed and not raped… If they had “only” killed and not taken hostages… If they had “only” taken a few hostages and released them for a “reasonable” concession… then Israel might not have been able to maintain enough internal resolve to follow through to a resounding victory.

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