The Heart of the Matter: Free Will and the Story of Pharaoh

Jan 19, 2023

וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת־לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת־אֹתֹתַי וְאֶת־מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃

But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:3

By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz

People are complicated but God has us figured out, as the prophet Jeremiah said:

Most devious is the heart; It is perverse—who can fathom it? I Hashem probe the heart, Search the mind— To repay every man according to his ways, With the proper fruit of his deeds. Jeremiah 17:10

When God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, He warned him in advance that the Egyptian ruler would not let the Jews go free on his own accord (Exodus 3:19). But he also says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, in essence preventing Pharaoh from letting them go:

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. Exodus 7:3

So which is it? Did Pharaoh harden his own heart or did God do it for him? And if it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart but Pharaoh was still held responsible for his actions, how was this fair?

If you look closely at the biblical text it becomes clear that during the first five plagues it was actually Pharaoh who hardened his own heart. It was only during the last five plagues that God stepped in to seemingly influence Pharaoh’s actions.

The commentator Nachmanides, otherwise known as Ramban, explains that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart during the last five plagues as punishment for Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart during the first five plagues.

Hardening Pharaoh’s heart did not take away his free will. In fact, the opposite is true. Confronted by the plagues, any normal person would have sent the Jews away. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to give him the strength to withstand external pressures and act according to his own will. God wasn’t removing Pharaoh’s free will, God was giving Pharaoh the strength to maintain his free will and prevent the Jews from leaving.

According to this interpretation, Pharaoh’s heart was already hard. God was just helping him continue along the path he had already chosen. It is evident that Pharaoh really didn’t want to let them go because even after he gives in and sends the Jews away, he has a ‘change of heart and pursues them.

This is consistent with the precept expressed in the Talmud (Makot 10b) when discussing the actions of Balaam who, after God told him not to go with Balak to curse the Jews, went anyway. Rav Huna explained, “Along the path a person wishes to proceed, one leads and assists him.”

The story of Pharaoh hardening his heart, and God’s role in it, can teach us an important lesson about personal responsibility and the power of our own choices. It suggests that, ultimately, we are in control of our own actions and the paths we choose to take in life. Even in the face of external pressures or difficult circumstances, we have the ability to choose our own response. It also encourages us to reflect on the motivations behind our actions and to make conscious choices that align with our values and beliefs. In the end, we are responsible for the choices we make and the consequences that come with them.

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