Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations

Medieval commentators suggested justifications for God's hardening Pharaoh's heart.

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In several places, the Bible reports that God hardened human hearts (most notably, Pharoah's), apparently stripping these agents of free will and manipulating their choices. There are a number of problems with this: 1) Why would God do this? 2) How could God hold a hardened agent responsible for his actions? 3) Why would God prevent one from repenting? 4) How can a good God be the cause of an evil act? These questions are discussed in "Hardened Hearts: Depriving Free Will"; the article below analyzes possible responses. Reprinted with permission from "Freedom, Repentance, and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides," published in Faith and Philosophy (1997, 14:4).

A "solution" to [the philosophical problems raised by God's hardening of hearts] must satisfy two criteria. It must be philosophically cogent; but it also must be compatible with, if not directly supported by, the Bible's narrative and terminology and concepts found in other parts of Jewish tradition.


Reinterpretation of the Term

Some exegetes, including Saadia Gaon (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, IV:6) and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (chapter 36 of his Akedat Yitzchak), deny that the term "hardening of the heart" has anything to do with interference in motivational systems. It connotes instead keeping someone alive (as per Saadia) or providing respite (as per Arama). Most interpreters implicitly disagree with these readings.

The Modest Solution

What I would call the "modest" solution contends that, had God not hardened Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh would have therefore released the Israelites due to the mounting pressure of the plagues, this would not have been a free choice on Pharaoh's part anyway, and would not have constituted repentance. Rather, the decision to release would then have been coerced [by the plagues]. Hence, the charge that God has "deprived" Pharaoh of free will is false, since Pharaoh is not now less free than if God had not intervened.

Further, because releasing the Israelites would have taken place only under pressure of the plagues, Pharaoh would not have genuinely repented had he succumbed to the plagues' pressure.

Elements of the "modest" claim are found in Moses Nachmanides' and Obadiah Sforno's commentaries to Exodus 7:3, and in Joseph Albo's Book of Roots, IV:25. But all these philosophers put forth the modest claim in the context of a wider strategy, rather than present it in isolation as I have just done. And this is understandable, for the approach seems to provide at best a defense against the charge of free will deprivation and repentance prevention, not an explanation of why God hardens. In addition, more must be said if we are to explain why Pharaoh is responsible for the hardened act.

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David Shatz

Dr. David Shatz is Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University.