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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Parashat Va'era 5764/ January 24, 2004

Pharaoh's Freedom of Choice

Yonah Bar-Maoz
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 manner.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 "his firstborn".
  5. 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.
  6. 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 one.[1]
  7. 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.
  8. 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 promise.
  9. 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 force.[2]
  10. 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 events.[3]
  11. 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,[4] 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 operating here.
  12. 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' actions.[5]

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. The 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,[6] and calls for another explanation.

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 theory:

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 action.

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).

[1] 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.
[2] For example, see the explanations given in the encyclopedia, Olam ha-Tanakh, Exodus, pp. 60-61.
[3] 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 9:12).
[4] 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).
[5] 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."
[6] Therefore Deuteronomy 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.