One of the perplexing aspects of the human condition is when an individual behaves in a manner that is either destructive to themselves or to others. This kind of behavior can include phobias that impact the ability to live a normal life, or can manifest in a tendency toward aggression, anger, or other types of antisocial behavior. Psychologists and therapists often spend a good deal of their time helping people overcome various behavioral issues. From cognitive therapy to rational-emotive behavioral therapy, psychologists have tried many different ways to get people to change their fundamental behaviors and tendencies.
If we go back to the Bible, this is in fact what God was trying to do with the Pharaoh in Egypt. The Pharaoh had kept the Israelites enslaved for more than 400 years, and the Egyptian society came to rely on the free labor that the Israelites had provided. Enslaving another nation had become a deeply ingrained tendency and behavior on the part of the Egyptian society and the Pharoahs. In order to emancipate the slaves, the Bible tells us God sent Moses to try and get Pharoah to change his proclivity towards slavery. What followed were ten plagues, each more devastating than the one that preceded it, culminating in the death of the firstborn, in which each firstborn from every family in Egypt suddenly died. At this point, Pharaoh did an about-face and let the Israelites go.
What is intriguing about this story is that Pharaoh would have allowed the Israelites to go on his own volition at the end of plague six, but God hardened his heart and did not allow Pharaoh to exercise his own desire and free the Israelites. If God’s desire was to get Pharaoh to comply and free the Israelites, why would he prolong the matter by causing Pharaoh to go against his own better judgment and not free the slaves?
I suggest that God was using a technique psychologists call operant conditioning. Created by the famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner, one type of operant conditioning works like this: If you want to discourage a certain negative behavior, one can use a process called punishment by contingent stimulation. This means that whenever the undesired behavior occurs, one introduces an uncomfortable stimulus, which when done a number of times results in an avoidance of the negative behavior.
Research shows that this type of operant conditioning causes long-lasting behavioral changes where people will avoid situations that brought on the punishment stimulus even when there was no longer any possibility of such a stimulus occurring. The more deeply ingrained a particular behavior is, the longer one would need to use punishment by contingent stimulation successfully uproot the negative behavior.
In the case of Egypt, Pharaoh and the entire Egyptian society became accustomed to the negative behavior of enslaving an entire other nation. The goal was not to just get Pharaoh to relent and allow the Israelites to go free, rather God wanted to achieve the elimination of the negative behavior. Even after Pharaoh had been forced to relent and to allow the emancipation of the Israelites, his underlying behavior and tendencies had not necessarily changed. He therefore required additional therapy. Thus God stepped in and hardened his heart so that through the use of punishment by contingent stimulation therapy and Operant Conditioning, he could make a change in the fundamental behaviors and proclivities of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
There are real geopolitical lessons that one can take from this story. We are currently dealing with Iran, whose government has a tendency to support terrorism and terrorist organizations around the globe, while simultaneously threatening to wipe Israel off the face of the map, and building the capability for a nuclear weapon. The international community got together and imposed onerous sanctions upon the Iranian government and its economy.
This has resulted in them coming to the table to make an agreement on their nuclear program. Yet there is no evidence that the fundamental behavior and tendencies of the Iranian government have changed. We learn from how God dealt with the Pharaohs in Egypt, that it is important to keep up the pressure in order to achieve a permanent change in behavior. This will ensure that once the punishment by contingent stimulation is removed, the subject avoids the negative behavior on their own without the need for further punishment stimulus. I hope the international community takes note of this timeless biblical piece of geopolitical wisdom.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life