Pharaoh and the Plague Paradox
This week we read that there were plagues in Egypt because Pharaoh didn’t agree to Moses’ request to free the Israelite slaves from Egypt. My question: Was it fair to punish Pharaoh in this way since God “hardened his heart” and taken away Pharaoh’s free will to decide whether or not to free the Jewish slaves? Thank you.
Great question! It is actually a question that has been raised in Jewish study halls throughout millennia. There are a few excellent approaches that are found among the classic commentaries as to why Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and yet the plagues were “fair”.
Maimonides explains (in The Laws of Repentance) that Pharaoh’s heart was made hard – taking away his free will – as a punishment for not letting the Jewish People leave Egypt willingly. God would take them out one way or another. The hardening of the heart was done in order to inflict even more punishments on Pharaoh in order to show God’s mastery of the world. A lesson for then and for all times.
Nachmanides explains that the extra plagues weren’t a punishment for Pharaoh’s stubbornness; rather, they were punishment for previous actions, such as oppressing innocent people, throwing babies in the river and attempted genocide. All these actions were done with free will. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was merely a pretext, so to speak, for the timing of Egypt’s punishment. It was timed so as to impress indelibly and historically upon the collective consciousness of the Jewish People that God controls everything. But Pharaoh and company got only what they deserved, based on their previous bad deeds.
The Sforno, one of the classic commentaries on the Torah, explains that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart wasn’t taking away his free will. Just the opposite! The plagues had taken away Pharaoh’s free will in the opposite direction by making God’s existence too obvious. Pharaoh saw the existence of God and His power over the world and had no “power” to not believe this. However, by God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God was merely restoring Pharaoh’s “balance” of free will to the point it had been prior to the plagues. That is, God didn’t force Pharaoh to say “No.” He simply gave Pharaoh the opportunity to do so. Nothing but his own stubbornness stopped Pharaoh from repenting.