The question is ancient. If G‑d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then it was G‑d who made Pharaoh refuse to let the Israelites go, not Pharaoh himself. How can this be just? How could it be right to punish Pharaoh and his people for a decision – a series of decisions – that were not made freely by Pharaoh himself? Punishment presupposes guilt. Guilt presupposes responsibility. Responsibility presupposes freedom. We do not blame weights for falling or the sun for shining. Natural forces are not choices made by reflecting on alternatives. Homo sapiens alone is free. Take away that freedom and you take away our humanity. How then can it say, as it does in our parsha that G‑d hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
All the commentators are exercised by this question. Maimonides and others note a striking feature of the narrative. For the first five plagues we read that Pharaoh himself hardened his heart. Only later, during the last five plagues, do we read about G‑d doing so. The last five plagues were therefore a punishment for the first five refusals, freely made by Pharaoh himself.
A second approach, in precisely the opposite direction, is that during the last five plagues G‑d intervened not to harden but to strengthen Pharaoh’s heart. He acted to ensure that Pharaoh kept his freedom and did not lose it. Such was the impact of the plagues that in the normal course of events a national leader would have no choice but to give in to a superior force. As Pharaoh’s own advisers said before the eighth plague, “Do you not yet realize that Egypt is destroyed.” To give in at that point would have been action under duress, not a genuine change of heart. Such is the approach of Yosef Albo and Ovadiah Sforno.
A third approach calls into question the very meaning of the phrase, “G‑d hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” In a profound sense G‑d, author of history, is behind every event, every act, every gust of wind that blows, every drop of rain that falls. Normally however we do not attribute human action to G‑d. We are what we are because that is how we have chosen to be, even if this was written long before in the divine script for humankind. What do we attribute to an act of G‑d? Something that is unusual, falling so far outside the norms of human behavior that we find it hard to explain in any other way than to say, surely this happened for a purpose.
G‑d himself says about Pharaoh’s obstinacy, that it allowed him to demonstrate to all humanity that even the greatest empire is powerless against the hand of Heaven. Pharaoh acted freely, but his last refusals were so strange that it was obvious to everyone that G‑d had anticipated this. It was predictable, part of the script. G‑d had disclosed this to Abraham centuries earlier when he told him in a fearful vision that his descendants would be strangers in a land not theirs.
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