The Ethical Problem of Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart
Whether the Hebrew Bible is a philosophical text or not has been debated, but in this piece I wish to read it as if it were one, especially as the text is read through the lens of Jewish medieval commentators. This is not because I accept the mythic origins of the Torah as a single document dictated by God to Moses. Rather, it is because my “text” as it were, is less the Bible per se and more the ways , readers grappled with some of the issues it raises, in particular philosophical issues, in this case the question of ethics.
Pharaoh’s Hard Heart in Its Literary Context
Plagues as Motivation to Allow Israel to Leave
The exodus narrative arguably begins with Exodus 3:16 when God informs Moses, still in the wilderness of Midian, that God has heard Israel’s cry, will take them out of Egypt and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. As a prelude to the event, God says to Moses (Exodus 3:19, 20):
וַאֲנִ֣י יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֠י לֹֽא־יִתֵּ֥ן אֶתְכֶ֛ם מֶ֥לֶךְ מִצְרַ֖יִם לַהֲלֹ֑ךְ וְלֹ֖א בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה: וְשָׁלַחְתִּ֤י אֶת־יָדִי֙ וְהִכֵּיתִ֣י אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּכֹל֙ נִפְלְאֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֖ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶֽם:
Yet I know the king of Egypt will not let you go without a strong hand. So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.
God’s warning to Moses that Pharaoh will not listen seems quite plausible. Why would the king of the most powerful nation on earth agree to liberate his slave population merely because a turncoat Egyptian asks him to? God’s “knowledge” of Pharaoh’s response and solution is equally reasonable. God will bring about wonders that will cause enough suffering in Egypt that Pharaoh will grant Moses’ request.These verses do not imply that God wants anything more from Pharaoh than to simply liberate Israel.
Plagues as Divine Wonders: An Essential Part of the Exodus
The function of the plagues becomes problematic in the following chapter, when God adds a new explanation for them (Exodus 4:21):
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֘ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֒ בְּלֶכְתְּךָ֙ לָשׁ֣וּב מִצְרַ֔יְמָה רְאֵ֗ה כָּל־הַמֹּֽפְתִים֙ אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בְיָדֶ֔ךָ וַעֲשִׂיתָ֖ם לִפְנֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה וַאֲנִי֙ אֲחַזֵּ֣ק אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָעָֽם:
And the Lord said to Moses, When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Viewing this verse as a reformulation of Exodus 3:19, we now learn the source of God’s “knowledge” of Pharaoh’s recalcitrance: God will make Pharaoh unable to liberate Israel “so that” the plagues can continue. This “so that” is an important part of the verse because it essentially re-writes Exodus 3:20. The plagues are, now, more than merely a military tactic to overcome Pharaoh’s stubbornness; they are arguably the centerpiece of the entire episode. In almost every instance in which God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, the verse includes the clause “so that,” “in order that,” “to show that,” “to make known,” or “shall know.”
Both the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (which seem to be inextricably intertwined) are now given pedagogical value.
Unpacking the Problem of God Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart
Most readers are familiar with the problem: how is it fair of God to harden Pharaoh’s heart against the plagues and then punish Pharaoh for his obstinacy?—but allow me to unpack this a little more. For the sake of this philosophical analysis, the reader must “accept” three distinct presuppositions.
Equality of all Humans – The Bible assumes all human beings are created in the image of God (even as some later traditions may subvert that claim) with freewill and all thus have the capacity to repent for their sins. In other words, no ontological distinction between Israelite and non-Israelite exists in the biblical narrative.
Holistic Reading – The Bible should be read as a whole with a consistent message and no contradictions. I suggest that in principle, taking a source critical approach, and assuming that the Torah has no one approach to an issue or version of a story, undermines, or at least problematizes, the reading of the text as a philosophical “treatise.”
Ahistorical reading – The Bible should be understood outside the orbit of its own literary and theological world-view. If we were to view the Bible only as a literary document, limited in its historical and cultural scope, the “problem” of hardening Pharaoh’s heart may be “our” problem (i.e., that of the modern reader) but not the Bible’s. As Umberto Casutto writes (Commentary on Exodus , 56):
If we read these passages according to their simple meaning, and according to the reason of that period, and not in light of concepts that came into existence at a later epoch, we shall see in the final analysis there is no problem or difficulty here, and that everything is clear in light of the original ideology of the Israelites.
Instead, we will treat the biblical text as speaking to every generation and containing wisdom for any readership. (Some would dub this “constructive theology” for working under this assumption.) Once we accept these premises, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which removes from Pharaoh the possibility of capitulation to God’s will or repentance, understandably raises the question of ethical reciprocity and just desserts.
Rashi: God Gave Pharaoh a Chance
In his gloss on Exodus 7:3, Rashi states,
ואני אקשה - מאחר שהרשיע והתריס כנגדי, וגלוי לפני שאין נחת רוח באומות עובדי עבודה זרה לתת לב שלם לשוב, טוב לי שיתקשה לבו למען הרבות בו אותותי ותכירו אתם את גבורותי.
“And I will stiffen” – After Pharaoh acted wickedly toward Me, and it was clear to Me that the idolatrous nations (‘umot ) do not have the sensitivity (nahat ruah) to repent with a whole heart. It is therefore good and just (tov) that God harden his heart in order to multiply His signs so that you will recognize His might.
וכן מדתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא מביא פורענות על האומות עובדי עבודה זרה כדי שישמעו ישראל וייראו. שנאמר: הִכְרַ֣תִּי גוֹיִ֗ם נָשַׁ֙מּוּ֙ פִּנּוֹתָ֔ם הֶחֱרַ֥בְתִּי חֽוּצוֹתָ֖ם מִבְּלִ֣י עוֹבֵ֑ר נִצְדּ֧וּ עָרֵיהֶ֛ם מִבְּלִי־אִ֖ישׁ מֵאֵ֥ין יוֹשֵֽׁב: אָמַ֜רְתִּי אַךְ־תִּירְאִ֤י אוֹתִי֙ תִּקְחִ֣י מוּסָ֔ר וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֣ת מְעוֹנָ֔הּ כֹּ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־פָּקַ֖דְתִּי עָלֶ֑יהָ אָכֵן֙ הִשְׁכִּ֣ימוּ הִשְׁחִ֔יתוּ כֹּ֖ל עֲלִילוֹתָֽם:
This is the way of God (midato shel Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu). He brings calamity upon the nations in order that Israel hear and fear Him. As it says (Zephaniah 3:6-7), “I wiped out nations: Their corner towers are desolate. I turned their thoroughfares into ruins, With none passing by; Their towns lie waste without people, Without inhabitants. And I thought that she would fear Me, Would learn a lesson And that the punishment I brought on them Would not be lost on her. Instead, all the more eagerly They have practiced corruption in all their deeds.”
ואף על פי כן בחמש מכות הראשונות לא נאמר ויחזק ה' את לב פרעה, אלא ויחזק לב פרעה:
Even so, in the first five plagues, it does not say “and God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart” rather, “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.”
Rashi’s comment is made up of three parts:
- An observation about why God would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Rashi’s own reading).
- Proof that this fits with God’s treatment of gentiles in general (Talmud).
- An observation that God waited until the 6th plague to do this (Midrash Tanchuma).
In the first part, Rashi claims that God knows, due to Pharaoh’s previous wicked behavior, that he will not repent. God is thus justified to use this individual or collective as a tool to teach and benefit those who can learn (i.e., Israel), and make sure that the Israelites get to see numerous plagues and learn about God’s power.
Invoking Pharaoh’s past wickedness, however, does not appear to be sufficient justification for Rashi. Thus, he appends a final point that he takes from Midrash Tanchuma, that Pharaoh had ample opportunity to comply, but that after a certain time, God punished him by refusing to allow him to repent. In my view, this addition suggests that Rashi is uncomfortable with the ontological distinction in the Talmudic position upon which his prooftext is based, and needs to justify this position in the narrative itself. Tanchuma helps him do that.
When read as a whole, Rashi’s comment tells us that Pharaoh only lost his ability to comply with God’s demands after he had five chances to do so and because God knew in advance that he wouldn’t. This modifies the Talmudic dictum that God punishes the nations for the sake of Israel by adding the caveat that God does so only when they deserve it and have been given the opportunity to repent and avoid the punishment.
Nahmanides: Making Sure Pharaoh Is Sufficiently Punished
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Nahmanides’ gloss on Exod. 4:21 suggests that Moses might be upset at God’s decision to harden Pharaoh’s heart and might actually feel some sympathy for him.
ואני אחזק את לבו, ואל תתיאש אתה מלעשותם בעבור כן, ועוד תזהיר אותו במכה האחרונה אשר בה ישלחם.
“And I will stiffen his heart” – Moses, do not hold back from doing exactly what I say because of this (=my hardening his heart). Also, remember to warn Pharaoh about the last plague (the killing of the first born), the plague that will eventually set you free.
Implied here is that Moses will recognize Pharaoh’s desire to liberate Israel and his inability to actualize that desire. While this could easily (and justifiably) result in Moses’ protesting the ethics of this unfolding event, and the implications for Israel in the future, God warns him to not allow Pharaoh’s suffering (his inability to change his mind) and God’s torture (hardening his heart) to derail the process of Israel’s liberation.
I use the term “torture” knowing it is understandably problematic and intentionally provocative. However, I think it suitably describes God’s “cruel and unusual” punishment—as understood by Nahmanides—for two reasons:
- Moses is warned not to have mercy on Pharaoh, implying that mercy would be warranted given that Pharaoh was at the mercy of a God who is causing him to suffer.
- God reminds Moses to tell Pharaoh that he, through his obstinacy, will be the murderer of his own son, resulting from Israel’s continued bondage, and that Pharaoh is powerless to reverse that decree.
Needed to Accomplish Sufficient Punishment
Nahmanides deepens his investment in the notion of cruel and unusual punishment in his gloss on Exod. 7:3:
והנה פירשו בשאלה אשר ישאלו הכל, אם השם הקשה את לבו מה פשעו, ויש בו שני טעמים ושניהם אמת.
I will answer the question that all who read this narrative are want to ask; “If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart what is his sin?” There are two reasons both of which are true.
האחד, כי פרעה ברשעו אשר עשה לישראל רעות גדולות חנם, נתחייב למנוע ממנו דרכי תשובה, כאשר באו בזה פסוקים רבים בתורה ובכתובים, ולפי מעשיו הראשונים נדון.
The first reason is that Pharaoh, in his wickedness, committed unwarranted acts of evil against Israel. As a result, his ability to repent was removed. There are many verses in Scripture that suggest that one can be judged by one’s earlier actions (ma’asav ha-rishonim ) [justifying the removal of repentance that would alleviate or soften the punishment for those earlier actions - SM].
והטעם השני, כי היו חצי המכות עליו בפשעו, כי לא נאמר בהן רק ויחזק לב פרעה (להלן פסוק יג, כב, ח טו), ויכבד פרעה את לבו (להלן ח כח, ט ז). הנה לא רצה לשלחם לכבוד השם, אבל כאשר גברו המכות עליו ונלאה לסבול אותם, רך לבו והיה נמלך לשלחם מכובד המכות, לא לעשות רצון בוראו. ואז הקשה השם את רוחו ואמץ את לבבו למען ספר שמו...
The second reason is that his sin was his unwillingness to liberate Israel resulting in the first five plagues, where it only says, “Pharaoh’s heart was stiffened,” or “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” This exhibits that he did not want to liberate Israel to honor God. However, when the plagues intensified and he began to suffer from them, his heart was softened and he was wont to free them because of the plagues and not in recognition of divine will. At that point, God hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart in order to make His name known…
The first reason could simply be an example of just punishment (mida k’neged mida ). Pharaoh enslaves Israel and, in doing, so, takes away their free will, as slavery is the loss of agency. God then punishes Pharaoh by taking away his free will. Pharaoh becomes a slave to God as a punishment for enslaving Israel.
But why would God have to relinquish Pharaoh’s free will in order to “punish his earlier actions”? Couldn’t God just punish Pharaoh for his earlier actions after liberating Israel while allowing him to retain his free will? Apparently, according to Nahmanides, if Pharaoh had repented as opposed to simply given up and let them go, God could not have punished him as severely for his previous actions.
The second reason suggests that Pharaoh’s sin was (also) his unwillingness to liberate Israel out of recognition of God, since in the first five plagues Pharaoh was aware of God’s demand and chose to ignore it. But this answer seems problematic.
Why is it not sufficient for Pharaoh to liberate Israel by recognizing the force of the plagues alone? Why must he do so because he recognizes God?
Moreover, doesn’t this second reason explicitly contradicts Exodus 4:22, in which God says to Moses in the wilderness—before Pharaoh refuses God’s demand in the first five plagues—that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. According to this verse, Pharaoh’s sin could not have been his volitional refusal to liberate Israel (the first five plagues, constituting disobedience to God) but must be the act of enslaving Israel in the first place.
In my view, Nahmanides’ solution is not sufficient, either for interpreting the biblical narrative or for addressing the larger ethical issues that arise from it.
Maimonides: Awareness of the Loss of Free Will and the Inability to Rectify It
Maimonides addresses this issue in two places: in his legal code, Mishneh Torah, the “Laws of Repentance,” and in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishna tractate Ethics of the Fathers, called the “Eight Chapters.”
Maimonides is not primarily a biblical exegete; he is not concerned with making sense of the verses in question (Rashi) or the story as a whole (Nahmanides). Rather, he uses these verses to illustrate a legal category (repentance) and a philosophical idea (free will). The nullification of Pharaoh’s free will must make sense legally and philosophically and, I would add, universally, for it to work as an exegetical solution.
In Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 6:2), Maimonides very cogently elucidates free will as the foundation of repentance:
...כשם שהאדם חוטא מדעתו וברצונו כך הוא עושה תשובה מדעתו וברצונו.
…Just as one sins willingly and knowingly, one must repent willingly and knowingly.
Maimonides posits free will as the correlation between sin and repentance, but not without limits. He cites numerous examples, including both non-Israelites and Israelites, who were prevented from repenting because of their sinful behavior, concluding (Laws of Repentance 6:2),
כולן חטאו מעצמן וכולן נתחייבו למנוע מהן התשובה.
All of them sinned willfully and deserve to be prevented from repenting.
In his Eight Chapters Maimonides makes a similar argument. Here, he is more demonstrative and explicitly rejects the notion that God punished Pharaoh for not freeing Israel in the first five plagues.
Then [according to this assumption] God requested that [Pharaoh] set them free, though he was compelled not to set them free. Then God punished him and destroyed him and his followers for not setting them free. This would have been an injustice and contrary to everything we have previously set forth (“Eight Chapters,” 90).
That is, the loss of free will is only a punishment resulting from free will (i.e., the continuous choice to act wickedly) and functions inside as well as outside God’s covenant with Israel.
According to this, the exodus has a three-fold purpose:
- to liberate Israel from bondage,
- to show non-Israelites the power of God, and
- to show the Israelites that the covenant they are about to enter, while based on reciprocity (mitzvah-sin-repentance), includes the provision that God can remove Israel’s ability to avert punishment through repentance.
This third purpose, I would argue, is the central one for Maimonides. The torturous element, according to Maimonides, is that the individual who loses free will is aware of that loss in the moment.
God may punish an individual by preventing him from choosing a certain action, and he knows it, but is unable to struggle with his soul and drive it back to make this choice (“Eight Chapters,” 91).
As I understand Maimonides’ point in this oblique passage, an individual may know that he or she cannot act in a certain way because God is preventing him or her from doing so (i.e., the punishment is the temporary erasure of his free will. Even that knowledge, however, is not sufficient for the individual to gain control of his behavior such that God will lift the punishment. That is, a person can be conscious that his inability to act is itself a punishment but still be unable to chose to do the very thing that would lift the punishment.
For Maimonides, for the Israelites to enter into a covenant with God properly, they need to understand that the power they are given to control their own actions and destiny is not fully their own, but still the property of God. That is, their autonomy is not an erasure of servitude but a particular expression of it. Abuse of this autonomous power through sin can result in the (temporary) loss of that power, i.e., the temporary removal of free will. But, the loss of power does not negate the covenantal relationship; it traps one side in the consequences of its own actions, acutely aware of that loss as they try hopelessly to enact their will.
In Maimonides’ reading of this story, freedom of the will is never absolute in the biblical imagination, and thus covenantal ethics cannot be fully reciprocal as it includes the caveat of servitude. Ironically, in my reading of Maimonides, we do not learn this from any interaction between God and Israel. For this important lesson, Pharaoh is our teacher.
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Prof. Rabbi Shaul Magid is the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and the former Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington. He is also the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Seaview, NY. His M.A. is from Hebrew University, his Ph.D. from Brandeis, and his ordination from rabbis in Israel. He is the author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press, 2013), Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2014), Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies press, 2019) and
The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Commentary to the New Testament (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
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