Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart: Cruel and Unusual Punishment and Covenantal Ethics

Shaul Magid, Jewish Theological Seminary

I. Introduction: What is a “Jewish” Reading?

I understand that my assignment in contributing to this conversation is to offer a “Jewish” reading of the Bible’s description of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the exodus narratives (Exodus 4-14). Before embarking on this task, my first difficulty was to define for myself what constitutes a “Jewish reading.” The Hebrew Bible is a sacred text for at least two religions, each claiming to provide the necessary apparatus required to understand it correctly. One could argue that the question of hardening Pharaoh’s heart, being that it deals largely with God and Pharaoh (a villain in both traditions), would be a bipartisan issue. In fact, this may indeed be the case and hopefully the other essays in this panel may bear that out. However, in order to understand the questions this narrative raises for those interested in a Jewish reading, one must first establish a working definition about the text(s) in question, their intended audience, pedagogical goals, and ethical objectives. This is where a Jewish reading or, more accurately, “Jewish” readings may inform the larger conversation among Scriptural Reasoners. Jews and Christians obviously construct different answers to these foundational questions. In fact, traditional Jewish exegetes, while many share basic assumptions about the text (i.e., it is God-given, etc.), have markedly different reactions to these second-tier questions. The different Jewish approaches to these questions, which underlie many Jewish commentaries, will form the foundation of my analysis.

For this particular task I have concluded that a “Jewish reading” is best illustrated (although not exclusively so) as a reading of readings, built on the comments of traditional Jewish exegetes. Therefore, my analysis will be an examination of various lenses through which this biblical story has been read. These lenses share certain general principles (e.g. the Torah is from God; Pharaoh is deserving of punishment; the Israelites, as slaves, are innocent victims; etc.) but differ on certain fundamental questions such as the intended audience of the narrative, the orbit of covenantal ethics in the Bible (does it include humanity or only Israel?), and the limits and boundaries of human nature.

My general conclusions can be summarized as follows. The philosophical problem of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart requires two distinct presuppositions. (1) That the Bible be understood outside the orbit of its own literary and theological world-view. That is, to assume that the Bible speaks to every generation and contains wisdom for any readership. (2) That there be no absolute ontological distinction between the Israelite and non-Israelite in the Bible. For our purposes this means that the reader pre-supposes that all human beings are created in the image of God with free-will and all have the capacity to repent for their errors. Moreover, it implies, free-will is a necessary, perhaps central, part of covenantal ethics, including but not limited to the Sinai covenant. Therefore, God’s removing the possibility of repentance (hardening Pharaoh’s heart) fairly raises the question of ethical reciprocity and just desserts. But, God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart raises the possibility of God hardening anyone’s heart, nullifying the reciprocal nature of covenantal ethics and rupturing the foundation of God’s relationship to humanity in Scripture. Therein lies the philosophical problem.

Alternatively, if we view the Bible only as a literary document, limited in its historical and cultural scope, the “problem” of hardening Pharaoh’s heart may be “our” problem (i.e., the modern reader) but not the Bible’s. That is, to examine the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an ethical dilemma is a question of constructive but not biblical theology. Many source critics who are adamant about drawing strong lines between constructive theology and biblical studies adopt this approach. This is perhaps best (and most disturbingly) summarized by Umberto Cassuto; “?the Torah does not address itself to the thinkers but to the entire people, and it expresses itself in language understandable to the masses and adopted to the thinking of ordinary folk. Hence we must not consider here the elucidation of the aforementioned philosophical problems as such, but only to explain the meaning of the passages and to understand the Torah’s intentions ? what it wishes to convey to us (Casutto, Commentary on Exodus , p. 56). He continues, “?if we read these passages according to their simple meaning, and according to the reason of that period, and not in light of concepts that came into existence at a later epoch, we shall see in the final analysis there is no problem or difficulty here (my italics), and that everything is clear in light of the original ideology of the Israelites.” The only “problem” for source critics is when the Bible doesn’t make sense on its own terms.

Circumventing these kinds of “problems” is not limited to the source-critical approach but can sometimes be found in traditional exegesis. Another way to circumvent the “problem” of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is to view Pharaoh as one who will not repent because he cannot repent. In this case, God’s intervention does not prevent Pharaoh’s ability to repent and erase his agency. Because Pharaoh could not repent, God’s actions are not viewed as a breach of covenantal ethics and should not impact the Jew or Christian or Muslim reader of the narrative who claims to be in a covenantal relationship with God. The ontological distinction drawn between Pharaoh (as the archetype of the non-Israelite) and the Israelite alleviates the ethical problem in this narrative. This is expressed in various talmudic statements, one of which is adopted by R. Shlomo ben Isaac, known as Rashi (Northern France, 11th century) and the most widely read medieval Jewish exegete. By accepting an ontological distinction between the human nature of the Israelite versus that of the non-Israelite, Rashi implicitly rejects drawing any conclusions about covenantal ethics (i.e., between God and Israel) from this episode. God has disregard for Pharaoh because he is not a partner who can perform in a relationship with God ? not as a result of his behavior (and choices) but as a consequence of his nature. However, as I will argue below, Rashi is not fully comfortable with the talmudic conclusion and, while citing this passage, partially subverts it in his commentary to the story.

My analysis is based on three medieval Jewish commentators. The first, Rashi, represents one position that avoids the ethical problem by viewing Pharaoh as an inadequate covenantal partner. The second, Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), draws this episode into the orbit of covenantal ethics and interprets God’s actions as just in light of Pharaoh’s sinful behavior. The third, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), goes farther than Nahmanides by viewing this episode as integral to God’s covenantal relationship with humankind and more specifically, Israel. Both Nahmanides and Maimonides view God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an act of cruel and unusual punishment, justified in light of Pharaoh relinquishing his free-will, making him a tool for a lesson about the limits of God’s patience and partnership. For these philosophically-inclined exegetes, covenantal ethics includes the loss of free-will resulting from continued unremorseful sin, after which the individual loses the right of partnership with God and can be used as a tool for teaching others of the limits of covenantal ethics. For Maimonides, at least, this does not mean that one is excised from the covenant. Rather, the covenant includes, in extreme cases, the justification for such cruel and unusual punishment (i.e., relinquishing free-will) in order to administer retribution for previous behavior, especially in cases (such as this) when such punishment can be a public display for others.

II. Pharaoh’s Hard Heart in Context

The exodus narrative arguably begins with Exodus 3:16 when God informs Moses, still in the desert of Midian, that He has heard Israel’s cry, will take them out of Egypt and bring them to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” As a prelude to the event God says to Moses, “Yet I know the king of Egypt will not let you go without a strong hand. So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.” (Exodus 3:19, 20). God’s warning to Moses (Pharaoh will not listen), and his subsequent solution (wonders), seems quite plausible. Why would the king of the most powerful nation on earth agree to liberate his slave population merely because a turncoat Egyptian asks him to? God’s “knowledge” of Pharaoh’s response in this verse is both predictable and reasonable. His solution is equally reasonable. God will bring about wonders that will cause enough suffering in Egypt that Moses’ request will be granted, if only to restore order to Egyptian society. These verses do not imply that God wants anything more from Pharaoh than to simply liberate Israel.

God’s lecture to Moses in the desert becomes problematic in the following chapter. In Exodus 4:21 God appears to reiterate what he previously said to Moses, now adding a new dimension, one that becomes a returning trope in the entire plague narrative. “And the Lord said to Moses, ?When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21). If we view this verse as a reformulation of Exodus 3:19, we now know the source of God’s “knowledge” of Pharaoh’s recalcitrance. It is not, as previously thought, simply a logical conclusion of a ruler’s reluctance to free his slaves and de-stabilize his economy. It is, rather, that God will make Pharaoh unable to liberate Israel “so that” the plagues can continue. This “so that” is an important part of the verse because it essentially re-writes Exodus 3:20. In Exodus 3:20 God says that He will bring plagues (wonders) upon Egypt as a response to Pharaoh’s unwillingness to liberate Israel. In Exodus 4:21 God will “stiffen Pharaoh’s heart” in order that He can bring plagues upon Egypt. In the first verse, the plagues are introduced as a necessary tactic (a response) to achieve an intended goal (i.e., Israel’s liberation). In the second verse, the plagues are an essential part of the exodus. God needs Pharaoh to continuously reject Moses’ request “in order that” the plagues can be decreed and a lesson can be learned (either by Israel alone or by Israel and the Egyptians).

One could ask, “Why does God need Pharaoh’s incalcitrance to decree the plagues? Why couldn’t He just decree the plagues at the outset? Or, why couldn’t He just free Israel without the plagues?” These questions underlie many of the verses that speak of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The plagues seem more than merely a military tactic to overcome Pharaoh’s stubbornness. They are arguable the centerpiece of the entire episode. More generally, the exodus is not presented in the biblical narrative as a tactical step toward Sinai. Rather, it is intended (1) to prepare Israel for human responsibility; i.e., covenantal ethics and (2) to teach to Egypt about the power of God; i.e., to uproot idolatry. In almost every instance where God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, the verse includes the clause “so that,” “in order that,” “to show that,” “to make known,” or “shall know.” Both the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (which seem to be inextricably intertwined) have pedagogical value. The audience this lesson intends to reach depends upon one’s predilection about the intended audience of the Bible; is it a document about and for Israel or about Israel and for the world? In two cases (Ex. 14:4, 14:18) the verse explicitly states God’s intention to reach the Egyptians, “that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his hosts; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 14:4) and “Let the Egyptians know that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 14:18). In most other cases, the intended audience is more ambiguous.

III – Exegesis and the Philosophical Problem

Like all close readers of the Bible, medieval Jewish philosophers and exegetes attempt to make sense of God’s immobilizing Pharaoh’s will in this episode. Unlike source-critics, most exegetes are not willing to circumvent the ethical and philosophical implications by positing literary or theological solutions to the problem. Perhaps this is because the assumption of these traditional readers is that the story has pedagogical value for future generations of readers (Israel and/or humanity) and thus cannot (or at least should not) be viewed solely within its own historical and literary orbit. As a prelude to Sinai, this episode concretizes some of the fundamental principles of covenantal ethics. If free-will underlies the possibility of covenant (an idea the sages surely maintained) and this story represents the germ of that relationship, hardening Pharaoh’s heart “in order that” he and his people be punished undermines the very nature of the covenant and shows God to be an untrustworthy partner in this relationship.

As mentioned above, one obvious solution to this last point is to make an ontological distinction between the Israelite and the non-Israelite by showing that the nature of the latter justifies God’s acting outside the realm of covenantal ethics. This position is mentioned in the Talmud and cited by Rashi in his comment to Ex. 7:3, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” The Talmud Yebamot 63a states,

After Pharaoh acted wickedly toward Me it became clear to Me that the nations ( ‘umot ) do not have the sensitivity ( nahat ruah ) to repent with a whole heart.” It is therefore good and just ( tov ) that God harden his heart in order to multiply His signs so that they will recognize His might. This is the way of God ( midato shel Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu ). He brings calamity upon the nations in order that Israel hear and fear Him.

This approach alleviates the problem of God’s covenantal injustice by claiming that such justice (requiring free-will and the chance to repent) only applies to those who can repent. If repentance is not possible, due to a lack of sensitivity ( nahat ruah ) on the part of the sinner (the ‘umot ), God is justified to use this individual or collective as a tool to benefit those who can repent (i.e., Israel). I would suggest that the lack of sensitivity in the passage cited is not a result of habit or behavior but part of the nature of the nations. According to the Talmud’s reading, Pharaoh is merely a pawn for Israel to recognize God’s might. No one can claim that God takes away Pharaoh’s chance to repent because Pharaoh (as an archetype of the non-Israelite) is understood as one who cannot repent. This offers yet another interpretation of Ex. 3:19, “I know that he will not let you go.” God’s knowledge is not because He will harden his heart (i.e., He is not telling Moses anything that He will do in the future) but because He knows that the nations (here, Pharaoh) cannot and therefore will not repent.

Interestingly, Rashi seems bothered by this talmudic assessment of the nations. While it does indeed circumvent the entire ethical problem, the implications are both unsettling and arguably untrue. This comment provides a good example of Rashi’s juxtapositional reasoning. Rashi’s commentary is almost exclusively built on the adaptation of rabbinic statements. Therefore, it is often difficult to determine what Rashi actually thinks any particular verse means. However, Rashi often includes more than one rabbinic dictum in his comment. In doing so, he juxtaposes two opinions that often represent two distinct rabbinic perspectives. One key to unlocking what Rashi may actually think is to examine why the second dictum is appended to the first, implying either that the first is correct but incomplete or that the correctness of the first opinion requires it to be viewed through the lens of the second. This assumes, of course, that Rashi is not merely an anthologizer who collects disparate rabbinic comments on any particular verse. Rather, he chooses carefully among a myriad of midrashic possibilities in order to best represent what he believes the verse means.

In our verse he appends a later midrashic statement (from the early medieval compilation Midrash Tanhuma ) to the end of his citation of the talmudic dictum cited above that softens the blow of the Talmud’s unequivocal and ontological assessment of non-Israelite human nature. “However, in the first five plagues it does not say ‘God hardens his heart,’ but ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.'” In my view, this clearly shows Rashi’s discomfort with the ontological distinction in the talmudic position stated at the outset. He needs to justify (or tweak) this position in the narrative itself. The first five plagues exhibit Pharaoh’s volitional recalcitrance only after which God intervenes. In a sense, what Rashi wants us to do is read the talmudic statement as only applying to half the story (after the fifth plague). The first half, when Pharaoh apparently did have the capacity to repent, is the background for the Talmud’s assessment. In doing so, Rashi covertly acknowledges the ethical dilemma that the Talmud ignores but resolves it by viewing God’s intervention only after Pharaoh proved himself unworthy. This interpretation ignores Ex. 4:21 where God tells Moses in the desert that He will “stiffen his heart,” even before Pharaoh refuses to listen during the first five plagues. Alternatively, Ex. 4:21 could relate only after the first five plagues. If so, we have to consider that God’s statement in Ex. 4:21 is a prediction rather than a proclamation, a notion Rashi would not find appealing. I would suggest that the ontological claim of the Talmud is the dominant position in Rashi’s comment and the appendage is more of a calculated response to those who would challenge the talmudic reading. That is, the first five plagues merely exhibit Pharaoh’s innate inability to repent or recognize God’s power.

The question that remains for Rashi is as follows: If it is the case that Pharaoh would not have repented, since he did not repent (or could not repent), why take away his ability to repent? Even if God had not intervened, Pharaoh’s heart would certainly have hardened on its own accord? Rashi never addresses this issue because, as an exegete, he doesn’t have to. By this I mean that the exegetical enterprise is devoted solely to making sense of the verses in question. The issues that arise from a sensible reading, while provocative and important, are beyond the assignment of the exegete. In this comment, Rashi claims to have made sense of two ambiguities; (1) what does the Bible mean when it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? and (2) why does the phrase only begin after the fifth plague? Our question as to why he needed to harden his heart in general is not needed to make sense of the verses in question and is thus left unanswered.

Although never acknowledging the question as such, Nahmanides offers a preliminary, albeit partial, response and serves as an important bridge between the pure exegesis of Rashi and the philosophical approach of Maimonides. Like Rashi, Nahmanides focuses exegetically on the text but unlike Rashi (and like Maimonides) he is committed to at least address issues born out of the text. In opposition to Rashi who is committed to having us view Pharaoh as an “ontological other” in relation to the Israelites, both Nahmanides and, in a different way, Maimonides, use Pharaoh as an archetype of covenantal ethics that includes the Israelites. In doing so, both must justify God’s actions from within the orbit of the covenant, presenting God as an honest broker and ethical partner. While never fully incorporating this narrative into the orbit of covenantal ethics, Nahmanides succeeds in turning us away from Rashi’s approach of viewing this as exclusive to the nations who “cannot repent.”

Interestingly, what both Nahmanides and Maimonides bring to the table is the apparent justification of cruel and unusual punishment as retribution for sinful behavior in the covenant. Implied is the notion that free-will is a preferred but not a necessary part of covenantal ethics. In Nahmanides’ first comment he suggests that Moses’ first lesson in covenantal ethics is to know that it does not require free-will. Commenting on Ex. 4:21-23, the first real mention of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, Nahmanides states:

And I will stiffen his heart (Ex. 4:22), “Moses, do not hold back from doing exactly what I say because of my hardening his heart ( ba’avor kein ). Also, remember to warn Pharaoh about the last plague (the killing of the first born), the plague that will eventually set you free.”

While still in the desert, God warns Moses not to have mercy on Pharaoh when he sees him unable to willfully enact Israel’s liberation. Implied is that Moses will recognize Pharaoh’s desire to liberate Israel and his inability to actualize that desire. While this could easily (and justifiably) result in Moses’ protesting the ethics of this unfolding event, and the implications for Israel in the future, God warns him to not allow Pharaoh’s suffering (his inability to change his mind) and God’s torture (hardening his heart) to derail the process of Israel’s liberation. The use of term torture as a description of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is understandably problematic and intentionally provocative. However, I think it describes God’s action as understood both by Nahmanides and Maimonides. Moreover, especially for Maimonides, the story is not only about Pharaoh but serves the pedagogical purpose of teaching Israel about the possibility of cruel and unusual punishment (i.e., relinquishing free-will) as part of covenantal ethics.

How does the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” stand up to God’s behavior according to Nahmanides? I think it is justified in two ways. First, in the above-cited passage, Moses is warned not to have mercy on Pharaoh, implying that mercy would be warranted given that Pharaoh was suffering without any recourse to alleviate that suffering, either by sincere repentance or freeing Israel. Second, Moses is reminded to warn Pharaoh, in the midst of his paralysis of will, of the last plague, the plague that will kill his first-born son. In essence, God is asking Moses to remind Pharaoh that he will be the murderer of his own son, resulting from Israel’s continued bondage, and that Pharaoh is powerless to reverse that decree. The torturous dimension here is not the decree itself but God’s using Moses to remind Pharaoh of the decree as it unfolds.

On Ex. 7:3 Nahmanides deepens his investment in the notion of cruel and unusual punishment:

I will answer the question that all who read this narrative are want to ask; “If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart what is his sin?” There are two reasons both of which are true. The first reason is that Pharaoh, in his wickedness, committed unwarranted acts of evil against Israel. As a result, his ability to repent was removed. There are many verses in Scripture that suggest that one can be judged by one’s earlier actions ( ma’asav ha-rishonim ) [justifying the removal of repentance that would alleviate or soften the punishment for those earlier actions]. The second reason is that his sin was his unwillingness to liberate Israel resulting in the first five plagues, where it only says, “Pharaoh’s heart was stiffened,” or “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” This exhibits that he did not want to liberate Israel to honor God. However, when the plagues intensified and he began to suffer from them, his heart was softened and he was wont to free them because of the plagues and not in recognition of divine will. At that point God hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart in order to make His name known. When God said to Moses before the plagues (Ex 4:21) I will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go, He made known to Moses what He will do in the latter plagues.

One could argue that the first reason is an example of just punishment ( mida k’neged mida ). Pharaoh enslaves Israel and, in doing, so, takes away their free-will. God then punishes Pharaoh by taking away his free-will. Pharaoh becomes a slave to God as a punishment for enslaving Israel. While this is a viable reading, the parity between the slavery of Israel to Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s slavery to God is limited at best. While Pharaoh may have deprived Israel of the free-will to determine its fate, God, as absolute ruler, heard Israel’s cry and answered that cry. That is, Israel’s desire to be free was not muted. Pharaoh, however, being the slave of God, had no recourse to any other authority that could hear his remorse. In Egypt Israel had free-will. What they lacked was an authority to acknowledge that will. I would argue that this is different than God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Moreover, in Pharaoh’s case, why did God have to relinquish Pharaoh’s free-will in order to “punish his earlier actions”? Why couldn’t God just punish Pharaoh after liberating Israel while allowing him to retain his free-will? According to Nahmanides, the reason is that if Pharaoh had repented God could not have punished him as severely for his previous actions. This assumes that the reciprocity underlying God’s covenantal ethics with Israel also would apply to Pharaoh. Accordingly, God’s removing free-will from a sinner is a part of covenantal ethics in order that the individual not disable God from administering punishment. Perhaps this is analogous to a prosecuting attorney motioning to refuse a trial for an accused criminal for fear that the accused will plead guilty and soften the desired punishment.

Nahmanides’ second reason suggests that Pharaoh’s sin was (also) his unwillingness to liberate Israel out of recognition of God. This is puzzling for a few reasons. First, why should Pharaoh recognize God? God never reveals Himself to him nor does He make any promises to the Egyptians. The only consequence of Pharaoh’s recognition of God is the destruction of his economy. Although from the biblical perspective recognition of God is an absolute good it is hard to justify this from the vantage point of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Second, why is it not sufficient for Pharaoh to liberate Israel by recognizing the force of the plagues alone? In the end is that just cause to hardening his heart and use him as a tool to glorify God? Couldn’t God’s name be glorified in the first five plagues alone where, according to this, Pharaoh exercised his free-will? Finally, this second reason explicitly contradicts Nahmanides comment to Exodus 4:22 when God says to Moses in the desert that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart.

Nahmanides does not offer any answers to these questions. Perhaps this is due to his unwavering commitment to viewing this episode inside the unfolding story of Israel’s liberation, even as he acknowledges the more theoretical issues of covenantal ethics. That is, Nahmanides recognizes the need to justify God’s action in a way Rashi does not but he does not see the need to justify God’s actions outside this particular narrative. This is what I have called his philosophical/exegetical agenda. The result is that his justification entertains the viability of cruel and unusual punishment as part of divine recourse to sinful behavior, which may also include the sinful behavior of the Israelites (this is implied in Nahmanides and only explicit in Maimonides). However, Nahmanides is still cautious about drawing any overarching conclusions about God and humanity from these chapters focusing, rather, on Pharaoh’s particular behavior as justification for God’s actions. He helps us see an extraordinary case of sin (Pharaoh’s enslavement of Israel) and an extraordinary form of punishment (the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart). This may be difficult for those of us who live in a legal culture that unequivocally denies the viability of cruel and unusual punishment, even when the perpetrator in question shows no remorse or claims to live outside any system of justice. This is arguably true in the ethics of halakha as well. For example, the Rabbis explain that the cruel punishments in the Bible (stoning, burning etc.) apply when there is no remorse for one’s sinful behavior and usually do not apply when there is repentance. As far as I know, preventing one from repenting, by force or circumstance, is not a rabbinic ideal.

Nahmanides clearly wants us to view God’s actions here as part of covenantal ethics. He justifies Pharaoh being prevented from repenting to insure that he receive punishment for his earlier actions. This assumes that repentance would force God to erase the punishment that Pharaoh deserves. Therefore, unlike Rashi, Nahmanides assumes (1) that Pharaoh could repent and (2) that if he did repent, God would have responded with some degree of forgiveness. This, however, is not sufficient because, according to Nahmanides, God warns Moses in the desert (before he ever approaches Pharaoh) to make Pharaoh’s final punishment known to him at the outset. Pharaoh’s sin could not have been his volitional refusal to liberate Israel (the first five plagues, constituting disobedience to God) but must be the act of enslaving Israel in the first place.

What is left unanswered by Nahmanides is how Pharaoh could have known that what he was doing (enslaving and oppressing Israel) was so egregious? Ironically, Pharaoh’s sin was in not rejecting the norms of his society and culture. In this sense, did he receive the harshest punishment imaginable simply because he wasn’t Abraham or Moses? For me, Nahmanides’ solution is not sufficient, either for interpreting the biblical narrative or for addressing the larger ethical issues that arise from it.

R. Moses Maimonides addresses this issue in two places: in the sixth chapter of his “Laws of Repentance,” part of his legal code Mishneh Torah , and in the eighth chapter of his “Eight Chapters,” the introduction to his commentary on the Mishna tractate Ethics of the Fathers . Maimonides repeats himself often in both sources, although each one, largely due to its intended purpose, offers different nuances and perspectives. In Mishneh Torah , Maimonides is concerned with constructing the parameters of the legal category of repentance and uses the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an illustration of the limits of repentance. In the Eight Chapters , Maimonides is concerned with the human disposition and, more specifically for us, the necessity of free-will as a foundation for covenantal responsibility.

For our purposes, it is significant that Maimonides does not function here as a biblical exegete. That is, he is not concerned with making sense of the verses in question (Rashi) or the story as a whole (Nahmanides). Rather, he uses these verses to illustrate a legal category (repentance) and a philosophical idea (free-will). In this sense, he serves as the anti-Rashi. The nullification of Pharaoh’s free-will must make sense legally and philosophically and, I would add, universally, for it to make sense exegetically. Maimonides explicitly states that this occurrence is not limited to the story or to the non-Israelite but is part of God’s covenant with Israel as well. Implied in this is that the public display of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart is precisely what God wanted Israel to learn from the exodus as a prelude to the covenant at Sinai.

In Mishneh Torah Maimonides very cogently elucidates free-will as the foundation of repentance:

When an individual or a collective willingly and knowingly sin it is fit that they be punished. God knows the fair and correct way of punishment. There is a sin that results in punishment in the next world, resulting in no retribution in this world, and a sin that is punished in this world and the next. In what cases does this apply? in cases where h/she does not repent. If they repent, repentance serves as a barrier against punishment. Just as one sins willingly and knowingly, one must repent willingly and knowingly ( Laws of Repentance 6:4).

Maimonides posits free-will as the correlation between sin and repentance. Because free-will enables one to sin it must also exist in order to enable one to repent. However, this is not without limits.

It is also possible that one commit a grave sin or many sins so that the true judge (God) determine that just punishment for such sins, done willfully and knowingly, is preventing the sinner from the way of repentance. God prevents the individual from repenting so that he dies and is destroyed in the sins that he committed. Therefore, it is written in the Torah I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 14:4), because he sinned earlier and acted wickedly toward Israel when they dwelled in his land, as it says Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they might not increase (Ex. 1:11). Therefore, God judged that they be prevented from repenting so that they be punished. Therefore, God hardened his heart ( Laws of Repentance 6:4-6).

Maimonides is keenly aware of the question raised earlier: why couldn’t God have liberated Israel without the plagues or simply enable Pharaoh the freedom to repent and free his slaves. He cites Ex. 9:15, 16, “I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose; in order to show you my power, and in order that My fame resound throughout the world.” Maimonides extrapolates, “To show the entire world ( kol boyei ‘olam ) that when God prevents the sinner from repenting, h/she cannot repent” He then cites numerous examples, including both non-Israelites and Israelites, who were prevented from repenting because of their sinful behavior, concluding, “[a]ll of them sinned willfully and deserve to be prevented from repenting.”

In the Eight Chapters Maimonides makes a similar argument. Here, he is more demonstrative and explicitly rejects the notion that God punished Pharaoh for not letting Israel free in the first five plagues.

Then [according to this assumption] He requested that [Pharaoh] set them free, though he was compelled not to set them free. Then he punished him and destroyed him and his followers for not setting them free. This would have been an injustice and contrary to everything we have previously set forth ( Eight Chapters , p. 90).

That is, the loss of free-will is only a punishment resulting from free-will (i.e., the continuous choice to act wickedly). It functions inside as well as outside God’s covenant with Israel. As a punishment, in both cases (with Israelites and non-Israelites) it is only temporary. Free-will returns after the punishments are complete. God’s actions in this regard are no different for the covenantal or non-covenantal partner.

According to this, the exodus has a three fold purpose: (1) to liberate Israel from bondage, (2) to show non-Israelites the power of God, and (3) to show the Israelites that the covenant they are about to enter, while based on reciprocity (i.e., mitzvah-sin-repentance), includes the provision that God can remove Israel’s ability to avert punishment through repentance. This third purpose, I would argue, is the central one for Maimonides. The torturous element, according to Maimonides, is that the individual who loses free-will is aware of that loss in the moment. “God may punish an individual by preventing him from choosing a certain action, and he knows it but is unable to struggle with his soul and drive it back to make this choice” (Eight Chapters, p. 91). The loss of free-will should be a lesson for the one punished as well as for those who witness the punishment. This is because the punished is still a part of the covenant even during the punishment and therefore needs to learn this lesson as well.

Maimonides understands Ex. 1:11 and 4:21 as the two poles of the entire episode. The liberation of Israel was the opportunity for God to punish Pharaoh. In fact, the exodus (as described in the Bible) was primarily intended to punish Pharaoh publicly so that Israel (and the Egyptians) should learn something about covenantal ethics. Maimonides would have us read the clauses “in order that,” “so that, “to show that,” in the Torah as pointing to an unusual component of covenantal ethics; that one partner can unilaterally take away the power of choice, and thus the ability to change, of the other partner in order to exact punishment for wicked behavior. When Israel enters into its covenant with God, it needs to know that the power they are given is not their own but still the property of God. The abuse of power will result in the loss of power. But, the loss of power does not negate the covenantal relationship; it traps one side in the consequences of their own actions, acutely aware of that loss as they try hopelessly to enact their will.

Maimonides’ use of Ex. 1:11 is important in this regard. In it he understands Pharaoh’s calculated oppression of Israel as growing out of fear for the sovereignty of his own society. Implied in midrashic literature is that Pharaoh knew something of Israel’s mission at the outset. Instead of confronting that fear he exercised his will in an attempt to thwart Israel’s mission by destroying them while in Egypt and thereby overcoming God’s will for them to be liberated. This is the sin that God could not overlook as it broke the backbone of covenantal ethics in that is was an unforgivable abuse of reciprocal power. When reciprocity is abused in an attempt to reverse the power structure in a covenantal relationship, the dominant partner (God) removes the power of reciprocity (free-will). This disempowerment manifests itself in other places as well. For example, Maimonides codifies a rabbinic dictum that states, “[I]f one would say I will sin and then I will repent’ (abusing the power of repentance to justify sinful behavior) God will make sure that individual has no opportunity to repent.” In Maimonides’ reading of this story, freedom is never absolute. To be in a covenantal relationship with God is to live knowing that retribution of willful acts may include the loss of the will to act. In this, Pharaoh is our teacher.

In conclusion, I have presented three perspectives on God hardening Pharaoh’s heart – the exegetical, the exegetical/philosophical, and the philosophical. The two philosophical views extend this episode beyond the scope of the biblical story. In doing so, both Nahmanides and Maimonides posit the prevention of free-will as part of covenantal ethics. Maimonides makes it the centerpiece of the exodus narrative. He is careful to point out that there is no difference between covenantal and non-covenantal partnership in this regard. Losing free-will is the result of abusing free-will. Abusing free-will is the calculated effort to deny the “image of God” in other human beings (Ex. 1:11). The punishment is to lose the “image of God.” I would suggest that taking away one’s free-will is an example of cruel and unusual punishment in that it dis-empowers the covenantal partner while still holding that partner covenantally responsible. In that sense alone, the story remains problematic.

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