Accountability and Free Will: Did Pharaoh Have a Chance?

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.

 

Works Cited

Frank, Daniel H, Oliver Leaman and Charles H Manekin, The Jewish Philosophy Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Book.

 

 

Where Does Fate End and Free Will Begin?

Note:  The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class.  It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis.  Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters.  The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.

Introduction

Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.

Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.

Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail

Adam and Eve stained glass window.

Adam and Eve stained glass window.

The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.

Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.

God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).

God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.

(Image of Adam and Eve from The Rector’s Corner)

Laius and Oedipus Ruined Their Own Lives

Oedipus the KingIn Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).

Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.

Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.

When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.

(Image in this section from KevinStilley.com)

It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.

(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)

Conclusion

These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.

References

Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
Orgel, Stephen. Macbeth. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000.
Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.