Pharaohӳ Freedom

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






Pharaoh’s Freedom


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



From the beginning of the Moshe Rabbeinu’s mission to free his people from bondage, Hashem informs him that it will not be easy.  Only through the demonstration and use of overwhelming force will Pharaoh be brought to his knees:


19 And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go, except by a mighty hand.

20 And I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. And after that he will let you go.

21 And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty; (3:19-21)


The second time that Hashem speaks to Moshe, urging him forward to Egypt, He is even more explicit:


"God said to Moshe: 'When you return to Egypt, beware of all of the wonders that I have placed in your hand, and perform them before Pharaoh.  I WILL HARDEN HIS HEART, and he will not let the people go.  Say to Pharaoh: 'The people of Israel are My firstborn son.  I therefore command you to let My son go free to worship Me, for if you refuse, I will slay your firstborn son'"(Shemot 4:21-23).


However, we note that throughout his first discussion with Hashem, Moshe appears preoccupied with the reaction of the Jewish people to his message of hope than with Pharaoh’s.  Only after the disastrous first meeting does Moshe begin to understand who his real antagonist is.  As Hashem readies his plagues to bring upon Egypt, He reinforces this message one more time:


"I shall harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I shall lay My hand on Egypt, and I shall bring out My hosts, My nation - the children of Israel - from the land of Egypt, with great judgments … Hashem replied to Moshe, “See, I make you an oracle to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your spokesman. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh, to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt (7:3, 4, 13)4)


It is precisely this foreknowledge that Hashem imparts to Moshe, that Pharaoh would not or could not choose to free the people, that troubles us as readers.  Not because we sympathize with the downfall of an evil tyrant, whose decrees of infanticide nearly led to our people’s destruction – but for us, who believe in the primacy of free will, the spectacle of Hashem as an unjust an cruel being.  It is Hashem who began the process of ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ (see also 7:3,13, 9:12, 10:1, 20,27, 11:10, 14:4,8), making it impossible for any of the plagues that Hashem sends to have any beneficial effect.[1]  Reading the Torah, we note three distinct declarations are made with regard to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. First, the text states that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart (7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), and the hearts of the Egyptians (14:17). Second, it is said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15,32; 9:34), that he refused to humble himself (10:3), and that he was stubborn (13:15). Finally, the Torah uses the passive form to indicate that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without giving any indication as to the source (7:13,14,22; 8:19; 9:7,35). From this, we can suggest the following three possibilities: (1) Did Hashem harden Pharaoh on some occasions, while Pharaoh hardened himself on others? (2) Did Hashem do all the hardening of Pharaoh, with the references to Pharaoh hardening himself being the result of Hashem forcing him to do so against his own will? (3) Are all three declarations given in the text actually parallel expressions that mean the same thing?  With this in mind, we can begin to analyze the approaches of the commentators to this problem.


Maimonides, in both his Introduction to Pirkei Avot and in his legal code the Mishneh Torah, maintains that one of the punishments that Hashem may choose to inflict on a sinner is the negation of his free choice:


"It is possible that a person may commit a grave transgression, or several transgressions, such that the True Judge rules that the punishment for this sinner, for the transgressions that he has performed willingly and knowingly, is that teshuva will be withheld from him and he will not be allowed the right to turn from his evil, so that he may die and be lost in the sin that he performs... Therefore it is written in the Torah, "I shall harden Pharaoh's heart": because he first sinned on his own initiative, and did evil to the Israelites living in his land, as it is written, "Let us deal wisely with them..." - therefore it was ruled that teshuva would be withheld from him so that he may be punished; therefore Hashem hardened his heart. But why does He then send a message to him via Moshe, saying, "Let [My people go] and repent [your evil ways]," if He has already told him, "You will not send them out" - as it is written, "You and your servants I know..." but for this I have placed you?" In order to teach everyone that when Hashem withholds teshuva [the ability to repent] from a sinner, he is not able to repent; he dies in his wickedness which he performed at first of his own free will. Likewise Sichon: because of his sins he was punished by having teshuva withheld from him, as it is written, "For the Lord your Hashem hardened his spirit and toughened his heart." And likewise the Canaanites: because of their abominations, teshuva was withheld from them and they waged war against Israel, as it is written, "For it was from Hashem that their heart was hardened for battle against Am Yisrael, in order that they may be annihilated...." Hashem did not decree upon Pharaoh to cause evil to Israel, nor did He cause Sichon to sin in his land, nor the Canaanites to perform abominations, nor the Israelites to engage in idolatry. All of these sinned of their own accord, and all were punished by having teshuva withheld from them." (Laws of Repentance, 6:3)


Essentially, this view (found also in the Midrash Shemot Rabba (13:3)) declares that since Pharaoh was an exceptional sinner, he did not merit the human gift of free will.  In his commentary to this week’s parasha, the Ramban agrees with Maimonides.  However, he views the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart not as punishment for the subjugation, but for Pharaoh’s repeated refusals to listen to Hashem while he still had the ability to choose freely.  He notes that during the first five plagues, we read "Pharaoh's heart was hardened," "Pharaoh hardened his heart," etc.  At the beginning of the process, Pharaoh still had free choice. Once Pharaoh repeatedly refused Hashem's command, however, Hashem withheld the ways of teshuva from him, and thereafter the dominant expression in the final plagues is, "Hashem hardened Pharaoh's heart."

The Abrabanel in his commentary also maintains the approach that Hashem does not guarantee free choice to all at all times.  The withholding from Pharaoh is a punishment for Pharaoh’s refusal, not the cause.  He suggests three explanations why Hashem chose to withhold it from Pharaoh at this point in history:


1. When humans sin against Heaven … then they can find atonement through teshuva. Even when there is Chillul Hashem, for which there is no atonement, nevertheless death and teshuva bring atonement. However, for all the commandments between man and his friend, repentance does not prevent punishment from being meted out… the court inflicts fines and corporal punishment even when the culprit is sorry for his actions, regrets them and weeps over them. So too, the death penalty is applied to a murderer, even if he shows remorse … social sins are not given over to repentance; to allow otherwise would empty all their legislation of content and make a mockery of morality.


Now Pharaoh and all the Egyptians harmed and damaged Israel through bloodshed, sexual immorality and theft, when they cast the sons into the Nile and made their lives bitter. Pharaoh and Egypt did these things … only out of their own hate. In this they maliciously and from the evil in their hearts, added burdens on Israel, far beyond the decrees from the Berit Bein Ha-betarim … ”I will avenge Yerushalaim and Zion greatly against the nations. I punished Israel a little but they added to the evil manifold” (Zekhariya 1). Therefore they deserved to bear the full brunt of their punishment and there was no place to mitigate it; hence it was moral and in keeping with Hashem’s attributes for Him to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that this punishment would come about.


2 In truth, all people should die immediately upon sinning, and the gift of repentance is a special kindness that Hashem reserved for the Jewish people … [this does not mean that non-Jews cannot repent] for any nation to do true teshuva that is accepted in Heaven, they have to at the same time desire to save and help Israel, thereby showing that they truly wish to cleave to Hashem. Since neither Pharaoh nor his nation wished in any way to benefit or save Am Yisrael it was fitting that the gates of teshuva should be closed before them.


3. It seems that the most correct explanation is that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not the result of Hashem’s action but rather his own reaction to the plagues. When he saw that the plagues were only temporary phenomena, the text tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. We may query that since in the later plagues we read that Hashem hardened his heart. However, far be it from us to imagine that this means that He prevented Pharaoh from obeying and fulfilling His commandment. Rather, Hashem sent the last plagues, the severity and the permanence of their effects led to a difficult and hard resolve on Pharaoh’s heart; thereby leading the Torah to ascribe the hardening to God.


There is, however, another approach to the problem that others suggest.  Unlike the Rambam, who suggests that Hashem removed Pharaoh’s freewill entirely, or the Ramban, who suggests that the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was partial, a response to Pharaoh having hardened his own heart previously, others interpret the allusions to Hashem hardening Pharaoh’s heart as a form of figurative speech, known as “metonymy” (very closely associated with metaphor), where one name or word is employed for another.  R. Sa‘adiah Ga’on (882-942) states that the biblical statements about Hashem’s “hardening” or “making strong” or “making heavy” Pharaoh’s heart does not mean that Hashem caused him to disobey Him; rather, Hashem gave Pharaoh strength and fortitude so that he could withstand the plagues and “remain alive until the rest of the punishment had been completely visited upon him.”  In his choice of action, however, Pharaoh was a free agent.[2]


R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 or 1092/3–1164 or 1167), gives three explanations of the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh. In his longer commentary to Exodus 7:3 he quotes the explanation that R. Sa‘adiah gave, but attributed it to the “Rabbi Jeshua” (the Karaite). He adds, however, “But he has not spoken what is right.” In his longer commentary to Exodus 10:20, R. Abraham Ibn Ezra hints at another explanation. He writes there that the verse is in accordance with what our sages have said, “To him who desires to contaminate himself, doors are open [to go and act according to one’s free choice].”  What does this enigmatic sentence mean? First, the Ibn Ezra understands that the verse must not be taken literally. Rather, it means that because of his own free will, Pharaoh chose to disobey Hashem.  In response, Hashem let him follow the inclinations of his own heart. Only in this way did Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart.


We see a third approach of the Ibn Ezra in his Shorter Commentary to Exodus 7:3.  There, he adds that his own personal view will be gleaned from his commentary to Deuteronomy 5:26.  The verse states there: “May they [the people of Israel] always be of such mind, to revere Me and to follow My commandments, that it may go well with them and with their children forever!”  In his comments to that verse that as Hashem has singled out all human beings and given them the faculty of reason, he has also given them free will. Pharaoh thus really hardened his heart by his own free will. But it was Hashem who has given him freedom of will by which he could choose to harden his heart, Hashem is spoken of in Torah as the One who has hardened the heart of Pharaoh.  Accordingly, in the case of Pharaoh, “Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in the sense that Hashem provided the circumstances and the occasion for Pharaoh to be forced to make a decision. Hashem sent Moshe to place His demands before Pharaoh. Moshe merely announced Hashem’s instructions.


The response of R. Sa‘adiah Gaon, as well as that of the Ibn Ezra, in all its multiple variations, can be classified as maximalist answers from the perspective of free will. By reinterpreting the biblical verses regarding Hashem’s actions as figurative, they maintain traditional understandings of human capabilities.  Essentially, all four of the following statements are accurate: (1) Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart; (2) Moshe hardened Pharaoh’s heart; (3) the words that Moshe spoke hardened Pharaoh’s heart; (4) Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It all depends on the perspective taken.  Hashem is responsible for everything in the Universe, i.e., He has provided the occasion, the circumstances, and the environment in which all things (including people) operate. But He is not guilty of any wrongdoing for doing so. Pharaoh made up his own mind to resist Hashem’s demands. He stubbornly refused to comply of his own free will. Hashem provided the occasion for Pharaoh to demonstrate his unyielding attitude. Had Hashem not sent Moshe, Pharaoh would not have been faced with the dilemma of whether to release Am Yisrael from their cruel bondage. Yes - Hashem was certainly the instigator and initiator - but He was not the author of Pharaoh’s defiance.


[1] Eloquently expressed by Kendall Hobbs, in an essay titled “Why I Am No Longer a Christian”:

“There are plenty of other atrocities committed by God or at his command,” Hobbs comments, then lists “the Exodus story when the Egyptian Pharaoh was repeatedly ready and willing to let Moses and his people go, until God hardened his heart, and then God punished him for his hardened heart by sending plagues or killing children throughout all of Egypt,” available at

Clearly, we reject vehemently the conclusions reached by Hobbs, but we must respect the force of his question. 

[2] R. Sa‘adiah Ga’on says the same thing with regard to similar verses concerning Sichon the king of the Bashan. R. Sa‘adiah Ga’on similarly reinterprets a verse in the book of Yeshayahu (63:17) that implies that Hashem causes men to go astray. In his view, it really means only that Hashem found the wicked to have gone astray (due to their own free will). (See Emunot ve-De‘ot, Book IV, Chapter 6.)