A D’rash on “I Will Harden Pharaoh’s Heart
By Bernard M. Zlotowitz
It was not until I stood at the foot of the colossi of Rameses II in Abu Simbel, a village in southern Egypt, that I fully understood the verse, ‘And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he shall follow after them; and I will get Me honor upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord . . .’ 1
The phrase, ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart,’ which is ascribed to God occurs nine times 2 in the Torah and has always troubled me as it has many theologians. How could a just God exact punishment from Pharaoh for disobedience when God deliberately prevents him from obeying Him? Under these circumstances, how can Pharaoh be reckoned as guilty? Where is the free will that is basic to Judaism? Predeterminism is more akin to Calvinism than to Judaism. Surprisingly enough, the m’forshim and the Jewish philosophers circumvent the issue and do not deal with it head on for it is a loaded question. There is a contradictory issue here with how God operates in the world. If God operates in the world, there is no human freedom. If God doesn’t operate, why do you need Him? If God does operate, repentance becomes impossible (cf. Amos ‘. . . For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not reverse it. . . .’), 3 and all of us become our own sin. Just as Pharaoh could not change, neither can we. Just as he could not repent, so can’t we either. Hence Jewish theologians and philosophers were faced with a thorny issue and were on the horns of a dilemma. For them, the best way to face up to the issue was to go around it or play down the issue of free will.
For the Jewish philosophers, free will in this case did not seem to be a major issue. Maimonides (1135’1204), for example, teaches that Pharaoh deserved it. He was evil of his own free will and he had to be punished. Though Maimonides contends there is free will, yet in the case of Pharaoh he justifies God’s action in withholding free will from Pharaoh ‘Because at the beginning he (Pharaoh) sinned of his own free will, and meted out evil to Israel who sojourned in his land, as it is said, ‘Come, let us deal wisely with it’.’4 Thus justice demanded that repentance be withheld from him, so that just punishment might be meted out to him. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, hardened his heart . . . to make known to future generations that whenever the Holy One, blessed be He, withholds repentance from a sinner he cannot repent, but must die in his evil which he committed at the beginning of his own free will.’5 Thus according to Maimonides, man must accept responsibility for the wrong he does without arguing.
Saadia Gaon (882’942) has a sanguine view of the whole situation. He interpreted the phrase ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ to mean ‘Give courage; buoy up the spirit,’ so that Pharaoh would not weaken in his resolve to defy God. 6 According to Moshe Greenberg, ‘A nuance of the same notion is expressed by Joseph Albo that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was the ‘removing from his heart the softening effect which comes from misfortune, so that he may return to his normal state and act freely without compulsion.’7 Greenberg contends that ‘Both [Saadia and Albo’s] views are ingenious answers to the objection that God’s intervention made the punishment of Pharaoh for obduracy unjust.’8 But Greenberg’s comment begs the question because both Saaida and Albo basically avoided the issue of freedom of will in order to justify God’s action in hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
The other traditional commentators, by and large, also avoid the problem. To them, the issue of free will is of no concern. Pharaoh deserves to be punished because he is wicked. By exacting retribution from Pharaoh, Israel becomes aware of God’s might and fears and obeys Him (Rashi, 1040’1105). 9 Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezediah ben Manoah, 13th century, France) skirts the issue: Pharaoh’s heart is hardened to make sure he will suffer from all the plagues.10 S’forno (Rabbi Obadiah S’forno, ca. 1475’1550) similarly teaches that God hardened his heart so that he would endure the plagues and not permit the children of Israel to leave Egypt until he totally surrendered his will to God.11 Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194’1270), on the other hand, contends that it was to assure Moses in advance that Pharaoh’s failing to heed God’s request was not due to his lack of persuasiveness and he shouldn’t think he was a failure, but it was all because God hardened his heart.12
Modern biblical commentators such as J. H. Hertz attempts to deal with the issue by explaining it was really Pharaoh who gradually hardened his own heart 13 ‘until it seemed (italics mine) as if God hardened his heart.’ W. Gunther Plaut discusses the problem and concludes, ‘All explanations attempting to ‘absolve’ God will remain forced.’14 Harold Kushner, in his commentary on Exodus 7:3, quotes Eric Fromm that ‘Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil. It hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible.’15
The Midrash seems to be concerned with the issue when it raises a very profound point, ‘Does this not provide heretics with ground for arguing that he had no means of repenting’?’16 The Midrash admits that God intervenes but only after a person persists in his stubbornness and refuses to repent after several warnings from God. In fact, the Midrash teaches God made Pharaoh’s heart as hard as liver ‘into which even if boiled a second time, no juice enters; so also was the heart of Pharaoh made, like liver, and he did not receive the words of God.’17 So the Midrash also does not come up with a satisfactory answer. It leaves us hanging in mid air as to the moral and ethical question of God’s behavior.
So here were all these questions running through my mind as I stood in awe and wonder before Rameses II’s statues in the desert in Abu Simble. How much more so must have been the awe and wonder of the ancient Egyptians as they looked up at these statues believing they stood before the god-Pharaoh?
Since the people believed he was a god, his powers must have been unlimited. Pharaoh could loose the bound and bind the loose. This being the case, God wanted to prove that Pharaoh was not a god but a human being, just like his people. If he were truly a god and omnipotent, then he could loosen his heart which God had hardened. But if he were unable to do so, he was not a god and the Egyptians would know that the Lord is God.