Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations

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

Print this page Print this page

Removing free will is a perfectly just punishment for a person so depraved, an appropriate tit‑for‑tat. The agent hardened his own heart in the earlier plagues, contrary to God's will; so now his heart becomes hardened by God, contrary to his own will. Likewise, he chose to do evil, so now his punishment (or part of it) is…that he does evil!

Hardening is not only a case of the punishment fitting the crime--rather, hardening is "a punishment that is the very sin that it punishes" (Maimonides presents a version of the punishments solution in Eight Chapters, chapter 8). Notice that insofar as it recognizes the value of free will by considering free will deprivation as an evil, the "punishment" solution is compatible with, and even partially dovetails with, high assessments of free will such as those found in free will theodicies [explanations for suffering that stress human responsibility].

Unfortunately, the punishment solution, as stated thus far, is incomplete, for it falters as regards the repentance deprivation problem.

The solution would claim that the hardened agent is punished precisely by losing the opportunity for repentance. But even granted the heinous character of figures like Pharaoh, some thinkers have been troubled by the implication that God actively shuts the gates of repentance to some people. (See, for example, Arama, Akedat Yitzchak, Exodus, chapter 36; cf. Maimonides, Eight Chapters, Chapter 8, and Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance Chapter 6.)

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

David Shatz

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