Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Shemot 5764/ January 17, 2004
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Va'era 5764/ January 24,
Pharaoh's Freedom of Choice
Department of Bible
Every year the account of the plagues which the Lord brought
on Egypt raises anew the question of Pharaoh's free choice, due to the
oft-repeated expression that the "Lord stiffened his heart." Usually
a discussion of this issue focuses primarily on the stated opinions of exegetes
and philosophers. This article proposes to provide a different answer by
closely examining the progression of events. Concisely stated, our thesis is
that G-d does not intervene to prevent freedom of choice; rather, He encourages
human beings to continue acting and thinking as they have always acted and
thought; it is this encouragement that does not subvert free choice, which the
parasha calls "stiffening the heart."
Our approach follows the idea presented in the gemara,
Tractate Makkot 10b:
Rabbah, son of Rav Huna quoted Rav Huna, and others said, Rav
Huna quoted Rabbi Eliezer as saying: We know from the Torah, the Prophets and
the Writings, that in the path a person wishes to walk, there he is led. From
the Torah, from the text, "Do not go with them" (Num. 22:12) and,
"you may go with them" (Num. 22:20); from the Prophets, from the
text, "I the Lord am your G-d, guiding you in the way you should go"
(Is. 48:17); and from the Writings, from the text, "At scoffers He scoffs,
but to the lowly He shows grace" (Prov. 3:34).
The example given from the Torah comes from the story of
Balaam, where G-d consents for Balaam to go with Balak's dignitaries. It
is this freedom of action which the Lord provided that leads him into trouble,
since Balaam of his own free will tries time and again to curse Israel, and time
and again he is proven powerless to perform in his area of expertise. Had he
been forbidden to go altogether, he would not have been disgraced in this
In the case of Pharaoh, as well, it would have been easy to
persuade him to listen to the voice of the Lord, if G-d had immediately shown
him His mighty hand. Instead, we count twelve separate methods which are
employed to enable Pharaoh to continue in his own way:
- From the outset, the request to leave Egypt is made in such a way as to
imply weakness: Moses' words are a request for permission to worship G-d,
not a demand for total emancipation of the slaves. Clearly Moses did not demand
compensation for the suffering that had been caused them undeservedly.
request itself puts Pharaoh in the position of approving the exodus of the
Israelites or preventing it; Moses' petition is presented as if he were
heading a diplomatic delegation, with the etiquette of
such a meeting.
- Moses only gives a general declaration regarding the overall divine plan,
without detailing before Pharaoh the full range of means that will be used to
carry it out. Consequently, Pharaoh cannot know later on whether indeed G-d
carried out His threats.
- Even when the primary means that G-d will use to
implement His plan are mentioned, it sounds like an empty threat, simply using
boastful language, due to the imagery employed: "Then you shall say to
Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said
to you: "Let My son go, that He may worship Me," yet you refuse to
let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son'" (Ex. 4:22-23).
"Your first-born son" is perceived as referring to all of
Pharaoh's people, in line with the parallel construction, "My
first-born son," in the previous verse. Further, since Pharaoh was
perceived as the national god of Egypt, it makes sense to call all the Egyptians
- In the first encounter between G-d's
representatives and the Pharaoh a trivial sign is given, which neither reflects
nor presents accurately the full force standing behind Moses and Aaron; so
trivial, that the Egyptian magicians, representatives of the supernatural powers
of the Pharaoh, are able to imitate it.
- The lack of any divine response to
the deterioration in the condition of the slaves after the first meeting
actually conveys a message of weakness, as if proving to Pharaoh that the threat
made in the first contact with him was an empty
- The third, sixth, and ninth of the
ten plagues come without any advance warning from Moses, leaving the way open to
conclude that the plagues had not been brought on through the mediation of
Moses, but had occurred naturally. The remark made by the magicians,
"This is the finger of G-d" (Ex. 8:15; see Ibn Ezra's Long
Commentary on this verse), could be taken in this light.
- G-d ignores the
instances in which Pharaoh breaks his promise, proving to him that the threat of
punishment is not real. This disregard is especially significant in the first
instance, after the plague of frogs, when the plague was removed in exchange for
Pharaoh's promise to release the Israelites; when Pharaoh disregards his
promise, G-d does not call this to his attention, rather He instructs Moses to
bring on the next plague against Egypt. The Torah does not draw any connection
between the new plague and Pharaoh's blatant violation of his
- The first nine plagues are rather limited in nature and could
easily be interpreted as natural phenomena that occur in Egypt from time to
time, albeit not with such high frequency and great
- The temporary nature of each plague
and the role played by units of time measured in threes and sevens, familiar
from magical rites, can lead one to think that these are magician's
tricks, or alternatively, a natural chain of
- The appearance of the plagues is
clearly cyclic (dividing into three series, each paralleling the other in the
manner in which they come: the first is announced to Pharaoh early in the
morning, at the water's edge, the second
is announced in the palace, and the third comes unannounced). The cyclic
characteristic creates a sort of natural rhythm, as if a law of nature were
- The plagues' escalation in force is not necessarily
accompanied by a greater blow at human beings, and therefore it is not
troublesome or thought-provoking. True, each series concludes with a plague
that involves injury to human beings, but the next in the series only affects
the inanimate or plant world, causing the threat to human beings to be forgotten
(after lice comes a plague on beasts, and after boils comes hail). Therefore,
Pharaoh has no reason to fear for his own life or the life of others, and he
sees no real threat in Moses'
The way the plagues are handled enables Pharaoh to adhere to
his preconceptions, which supports our thesis about how G-d operates
"around" the free choice of Man. However, our interpretation raises
the opposite question: How will Pharaoh ever come to realize that the hand of
G-d is at work here, if G-d hides His might and enables Pharaoh to delude
himself into thinking that he is dealing with hollow demands? In response, we
can point out at least five things that could have opened his eyes, had Pharaoh
simply allowed himself to consider them more closely:
- The supernatural rate of increase of the Israelite population,
unprecedented in Egypt - "But the Israelites were fertile and
prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was
filled with them" (Ex. 1:7) - indicates that a powerful and
exceptional force was with them, and that one should think twice before getting
into a confrontation with this force.
- The inability to hold back this
extremely high rate of birth: "But the more they were oppressed, the more
they increased and spread out" (Ex. 1:12). Contrary to the laws of
natures, the hardships did not reduce fertility, rather increased it; hence it
would not be wise to tangle with such a people.
- Requesting that an entire
nation of slaves be freed is in itself bold and brazen and historically
unprecedented. Only someone confident in his own abilities could present such a
request without fear of it backfiring on him.
- The courageousness of Moses
and Aaron should also have led Pharaoh to think: how could two people be
prepared to take on a super-power when they have no visible military force or
armaments to back them, and the means at their disposable are scant and
unimpressive - no more than a staff and a handful of dirt?
precision with which Moses' and Aaron's threats are carried out and
the reliability of their word also demand attention. Such precision is not
characteristic of magic, and calls for another
Yet if our approach is correct, the question remains why
Scripture repeatedly states that G-d stiffened Pharaoh's heart? Maimonides
(Guide for the Perplexed 2.48) offers an answer that accords with our
It is perfectly clear that no new thing can exist without
having a proximate cause, and that cause in turn has its cause, and so on and so
forth, until one arrives as the original cause of everything, that is to say:
the will of G-d and His choice. Hence sometimes the words of the prophets omit
all the intermediate causes and the relationship of human innovative action in
respect of the Creator, and simply say that the Almighty performed the
In our context, the import of Maimonides' statement is
that the stiffening of Pharaoh's heart, even if it happened indirectly and
involved decisions taken by Pharaoh himself, would be ascribed directly to G-d.
This message was important to convey, especially for the account of the exodus
from Egypt, for it expressed the idea that the history of the Jewish people is
special and is directed by G-d. Drawing a direct relation between
Pharaoh's actions and G-d's plan was essential, so "that you
may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons' sons how I made
a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them - in
order that you may know that I am the Lord" (Ex. 10:2).
This surely is also the
reason why Moses, G-d's emissary, finds this state of affairs intolerable
and complains about it to G-d.
For example, see the
explanations given in the encyclopedia, Olam ha-Tanakh
, Exodus, pp.
The idea that the plagues
came in a natural cycle is found in the Sages' description of the course
of events: "'When seven days had passed after the Lord struck the
Nile' (Ex. 7:25) - Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah were discussing
this verse; one of the said, 'He warned them for twenty-four days before
bringing on the plague, and the plague itself lasted seven days.' The
other said, 'He warned them for seven days, and the plague itself lasted
twenty-four days.' According to the one who said that G-d warned them for
twenty-four days, a full seven days of plague ensued; according to the one who
said G-d warned them for seven days, seven full days ensued after the plague,
and the warning referred to another plague" (Exodus Rabbah
Indeed, in the third series
the water is not explicitly mentioned, but the expression, "Early in the
morning present yourself to Pharaoh" (Ex. 9:13) recurs just as in the
second series and calls to mind the first series, where it says, "Go to
Pharaoh in the morning" (Ex. 7:15).
Recall the words of the
Adversary in Job (2:4), based on observation of human behavior: "Skin for
skin - all that a man has he will give up for his life."
18:14-15 presents realization of a prophecy as indicating a true prophet, as
opposed to a sorcerer or necromancer, mentioned in the same passage.