Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations

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

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The Bold Claim: Pharaoh Acts Freely

According to what I call "the bold claim," Pharaoh's act of keeping the Israelites enslaved is in truth free, despite God's intervention. When God "hardens" Pharaoh's heart, this means merely that he strengthens Pharaoh's heart, giving him the fortitude not to let the plagues automatically dictate a decision to release the Israelites.

Thanks to the hardening, the king now has a choice: whether to release the Israelites or to keep them enslaved. Two possibilities are open to him, whereas without the hardening he had but one (to release the Israelites). The existence of this choice suggests he is responsible for his (freely chosen) hardened act, and that he has a possibility to repent. (See Albo, Book of Roots, IV:25)

A different version of the bold claim runs as follows: by increasing the king's willpower (by weakening certain desires and/or strengthening others), God, de facto, is allowing Pharaoh to act in accordance with his already formed character, and thus to act freely.

Hardening is God's way of respecting Pharaoh's own prior choices, of helping him to follow in his previously freely chosen path while imposing upon him full responsibility for those hardened acts. He has the opportunity to act in accordance with his true self. To be sure, this does not explain why Pharaoh was deprived of the opportunity to repent by releasing the Israelites; but if we accept the point made by the modest claim--that releasing the Israelites due to the plagues would not count as repentance anyway‑-we have a solution to the repentance prevention problem as well.

Objections to the Bold Claim

On either construction, there is a deep concern about the bold claim. The king is like a subject who has been hypnotized, and an act performed as a result of hypnotic suggestion is widely regarded as an unfree act. Though free choice may require alternative possibilities, an objector will claim, merely having alternative possibilities is not sufficient for free choice‑-the aetiology [cause] of the choice's existence matters.

While the force of this objection is debatable, and indeed it is in my opinion not persuasive, the issue of aetiology is surely important to determining responsibility; for absent God's intervention, Pharaoh would not have acted wickedly during those plagues.

The difficulty is greater with regard to the second variant of the bold strategy, for how could God say to Pharaoh, "You have to live with the results of your choices"? After all, Pharaoh can turn around and say, "Granted my previous choices were bad, [but] my choice now, as I witness the plagues, wouldn't have been to keep them as slaves-‑that's your doing."

Hardening as Punishment

According to yet another view, God hardens the agent's heart as a means of punishing him. Specifically, the hardened agent is thereby deprived of three great goods: (a) free will, along with (b) the potential to act rightly, and (c) the chance to repent. He is not punished further for the hardened act.

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David Shatz

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