Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations

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

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.

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.

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.)

 Reprinted with permission from “Freedom, Repentance, and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides,” published in
Faith and Philosophy(1997, 14:4).

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