In the book of Exodus, the stories surrounding the Hebrews’ captivity in Egypt and their subsequent release after the Egyptians are afflicted by ten plagues from God creates problems theologically and philosophically. The stories raise questions about man’s free will and why man is held accountable for actions that he has no control over. In other words, if God makes a person commit a specific act, is that person responsible for that act, either good or bad? These questions have been addressed by many Jewish theologians and philosophers who, while not being able to definitively solve the perceived problem, have presented some possible solutions.
The way most philosophers seem to approach this topic is by focusing on whether or not Pharaoh had a choice when choosing to let the Israelites leave his territory. The phrase used in the text of Exodus says that at various times, God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart after he suffers from a plague. While under the influence of that hardened heart, he considers Moses’ demand to let the Israelites go free and, of course, denies him (Frank, et al. 46-48). Having a “hardened heart” implies that Pharaoh’s free will was affected and he was not able to make a choice about whether or not to let the Israelites leave. Instead, the choice was made for him by God. Can Pharaoh be held accountable for his actions if he was not given a choice?
Maimonides looks at the broader story of the Hebrews becoming oppressed and enslaved by Egypt in order to understand why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He understands the question to be one of predeterminism and addresses whether or not Pharaoh had the free will to make a choice based on Abraham’s earlier conversation with God, in which God tells Abraham that Egypt will oppress Israel. Maimonides argues that man retains free will and that God does not preordain or compel disobedience (49). He clarifies this position by looking at proscriptions and punishments in the Torah. Just because a law and a punishment are listed does not mean that God has compelled a person who breaks the law to commit the sin. Instead, the man who breaks a law has free will, but God saw fit to inform us in advance of what the punishment would be for breaking a particular law.
Maimonides’ argument makes sense, but not for the situation he is trying to address. He is arguing that just because something is in the Torah, that does not mean it was directed specifically at any particular person, thereby compelling that particular person to act. However, the situation in question is indeed specific. God specifically stated that Egypt would oppress and enslave Israel. If one is to understand that God cannot contradict himself, then Egypt had no choice but to oppress Israel. It was preordained specifically by God (48-49). One could argue that the specific Egyptians who did the oppressing were not named and no specific date was given, but that is merely sidestepping the fact that at some point Egyptians would have to oppress Israel in order for God’s word to not be false. In other words, even if it had been another Pharaoh that chose to oppress Israel (if we’re assuming Pharaoh was able to make the choice), then it would be that Pharaoh in the story rather than the one currently being discussed. In order for God’s word to not be false, it would not be a question of whether something happened, but when it happened. Regardless of when Egypt oppressed Israel, we can reasonably believe that God would have followed through with the rest of the scenario he had already set in motion during that conversation with Abraham.
Another argument that Maimonides presents to justify God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is to claim that Pharaoh essentially earned that punishment by deciding beforehand to “deal shrewdly” with Israel. God prevented Pharaoh from repenting in order to punish him for past wrongdoing (49). Is this really an argument that we want to want to make about God’s nature? Maimonides is essentially arguing that God will prevent a person from repenting if it suits his interests. That idea lacks the sense of justice that we attribute to God and that Maimonides himself recognized when he wrote that “…all of His ways are just” (50). It also denies man the free will to choose between good and evil that was, supposedly, obtained after consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3 (9-10).
Another philosopher, David Shatz, acknowledges that in order for someone to be held accountable for an action, the action has to be performed when not impaired by an outside force. Shatz argues that free will is something that is valued in Judaism given the fact that the argument surrounding Pharaoh is brought up in the first place (51-52). Shatz states that even if we assume that free will is not as important an idea in Judaism as we would like to think, we are still left with three problems: responsibility, repentance-prevention, and the causation problem. Maimonides would say that Pharaoh was responsible because Pharaoh always had free will in the situation. Arguing that Pharaoh had free will would also solve the repentance-prevention problem, but Maimonides’ arguments on these points are unconvincing and ignore the problem of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. If Pharaoh was unable to choose, then why would he be responsible for his actions? If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then how can we know if Pharaoh would have changed his mind? Why would God prevent someone from repenting when Judaism teaches that God wants sinners to turn to him and repent?
The final problem, the causation problem, is one that Shatz does not address, but which is also the most interesting. The causation problem is the problem of God committing evil through Pharaoh. Can God commit evil? Shatz does not seem to think this question is relevant to his topic, but that is debatable because it addresses the question of responsibility that Shatz raises in his first problem. If Pharaoh is not responsible for the evil he commits, then who is? If God is in control, then does that not leave blame for the deaths caused by the plagues with God? Pharaoh was not the only one to suffer from having his heart hardened. The Egyptian people as a whole bore the brunt of God’s plagues. It is hard to believe that every Egyptian bore personal guilt or responsibility for Pharaoh’s actions.
The story seems to be framed in a way that assumes a people or tribe is one conceptual unit and bears collective responsibility for actions committed against other tribes or peoples. This could well be the case, considering the fact that later Arab tribes held this view, executing a blood debt on any member of the offending tribe, but this brings us back to the point of responsibility and accountability. If, in Jewish theology, people are responsible for repenting for their own sins, then why did God punish or kill Egyptians who were not directly responsible for Pharaoh’s choices? In addition to preventing Pharaoh from repenting and taking responsibility for his actions, God creates an evil act through Pharaoh and causes the deaths and suffering of many innocent people. So, even if one believes that a person has the free will to choose to do good, one is left with the impression that we might be left to suffer or die just so God can prove a point, and perhaps not even a point about a situation in which we are directly involved. Because our neighbor needs to learn a lesson, God may destroy us as well. Is that justice?
Shatz presents a few solutions that were proposed by Jewish philosophers in an attempt to overcome some of these obstacles. He states that some people have attempted to argue for a redefinition of “hardening.” Instead, one should understand the term to mean keeping someone alive or providing respite. Shatz notes that this tactic is rejected by most interpreters. The “modest” solution argues that even if God had not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the plagues alone were coercive enough that had Pharaoh released Israel, it would not have been of his own volition so God did not change the outcome. Another claim is that by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God actually made him immune to the coercion of the plagues, thereby allowing him to make a choice freely, based on his character. Yet another theory is that the hardening itself was a punishment, meaning that the loss of free will and Pharaoh’s inability to repent was his punishment for not repenting previously. The naturalistic approach supposes that when it is stated that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, what is meant is that Pharaoh’s heart is reacting naturally due to his habitually bad choices.
In the solutions proposed above, there are still problems. If God’s influence in Egypt had no impact on the outcome, then why is God a part of the story at all? If God made Pharaoh impervious to the suffering of the plagues, what was the purpose of the plagues in the first place? If Pharaoh was unable to repent, again, what was the purpose of the plagues? And finally, if Pharaoh’s heart was hardened through a natural process and God knew Pharaoh would reject setting the Israelites free, why create a situation that knowingly leads to destruction? There must be a motive of some sort to follow through with this scenario. In the text of the story in Exodus, God says he is hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate his power before the Egyptians (46). Is that reasonable? Even if we assume that Pharaoh somehow deserved what happened, the plagues created devastation throughout Egypt, harming people that had nothing to do with Pharaoh’s decisions. Additionally, God’s stated motive implies that he seeks fame and is willing to both suspend free will and kill the innocent to obtain it. Besides anthropomorphizing God, the reason for the plagues stated in the Torah would mean that God victimized Pharaoh and the Egyptian people simply to show that he is the most powerful god in the region.
It is difficult to harmonize the idea that God would nearly destroy a whole people just to prove a point with our modern conception of what God is. However, this opens up the possibility of another solution to the problem of Pharaoh, free will, and accountability. Stories in the Bible often have some sort of moral or lesson to teach. Perhaps the story of Pharaoh was not about free will at all, but rather about God’s glory and power and his position as Israel’s protector. The use of Pharaoh as a framework for demonstrating that power may just be a literary device and, when the story of the Exodus was first told, it made perfect sense that the personal deity of a tribe would restrict or alter an enemy ruler’s ability to reason without that having implications for the Israelites because one’s enemies were not subject to the same deity. There is some indication that God’s actions were based on a tribal rather than universal scale in the sense that the Egyptians are seen as collectively responsible for the actions of their leader.
This does not, of course, solve the question of free will raised by the philosophers who have analyzed the story. In terms of whether man has free will or not, that is hard to say. I am inclined to say that if God takes any active role in history then man does not have free will, because, from the moment God influences events, later events have become predetermined as a result of those actions. Choices man might otherwise have made are influenced, or those choices never materialize and man is left with one course where there might have been two or more. Shatz argues that a man is not responsible for his actions if his free will has been affected. If that is the case, then I am inclined to say that there is no room for God to intervene in human affairs while still positioning man as responsible for his own actions.
Frank, Daniel H, Oliver Leaman and Charles H Manekin, The Jewish Philosophy Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Book.