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The Torah tells us that God hardened Pharaoh's heart so that he would not let the Israelites go. [Ex. Ch. 4-14] Some commentators [e.g., Sforno] explain that this was in order to allow Pharaoh to repent and let the Israelites go of his own free will, without being pressured by events.

The thinking is: The impact of the plagues was so devastating that a free Pharaoh would have felt compelled to let Israel go, just to stop his people's suffering. This would not be a sign of true submission. It would be a fake repentance, a means to an end. Therefore, God made him less sensitive to the pain inflicted around him, so that he will have the free will to truly repent if he so chooses.

If so, then why were the plagues necessary? Why would God send plagues, presumably to pressure Pharaoh, while at the same time making sure he would resist such pressure?

Whatever the reason, was this fair to the Egyptian people? God said He cared about them. When the angels wanted to sing songs at the sea, the Talmud says: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, [the Egyptians], are drowning at sea, and you want to sing songs? [Megillah 10b]

  • God's actions towards us do not enforce or control our own emotional response to them. As a consequence of the various divine plagues, Pharaoh could either have softened his heart in response to God's actions, or hardened it, despite the ever-growing number of disruptive divine interventions; in the former case, the biblical text would have read I softened his heart; as such, due to his continuous, unrepentant stubbornness, it reads the exact opposite. – Lucian Jan 28 at 9:32
  • @Lucian I think you confuse the first five plagues where Paroh hardened his heart with the next four (except Barad) where it says explicitly that Hashem hardened his heart. If you’re intentionally referring to the later Makkos, how do you understand the difference between these two phrasings? – DonielF Feb 5 at 23:18
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The point was that Hashem sent the plagues so that Pharoah would see that Hashem wanted to indicate to him that he was supposed to send them out. The Egyptians could have rebelled and appointed a new king in order to send them out. Once Pharoah saw that the oppression of the Hebrews led to punishment he could have decided to do the right thing.

There are several different points that are made in the various answers.

  1. Pharaoh at first hardened his own heart in order to withstand the earlier plagues. Once he had established the pattern, Hashem allowed him to continue in that pattern by hardening later to be able to resist the later plagues.

  2. Hashem only strengthened Pharaoh so that he could make an independent decision at all times. That is, He was trying to allow Pharaoh to do the right thing of his own free will. Pharaoh refused to take advantage of that opportunity.

  3. Pharaoh, by consistently refusing to send them out of his own free will, forfeited the ability to choose as the final punishment had been decreed. Once he reached that level of evil, he could not turn back.

See what I answer at What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?.

There are a number of answers ranging from strengthening Pharaoh so that he could withstand the plagues, to the difference in language showing that Pharaoh hardened his own heart at first and G0d only did that later after Pharaoh had reached the level of requiring punishment, ...

Check out Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations to see some of them Reinterpretation of the Term (Saadiah Gaon), The Modest Solution (Ramban), The Bold Claim: Pharaoh Acts Freely (Albo), Hardening as Punishment (Rambam)

Pharaoh's Heart goes into detail on the theme of Pharaoh having reached a level through his own free will in which this was an appropriate punishment.

An interesting point is that the word for 'harden' is actually 'heavy'. The Egyptian superstition was that when being judged after death, a person's heart was weighed against a feather (the feather of Truth IIRC). If the heart was lighter, he was judged innocent. Thus, Pharaoh hardening his own heart can mean that he was guilty even in terms of his own beliefs. Hashem hardening his heart can therefore mean that Pharaoh is now punished by those means or that his refusal (in his own terms) to repent causes him to lose the ability to repent, or by moving along the path of error he has that much farther to go to return, ...

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch prefers the idea that Hashem helped strengthen Pharaoh so that he had free will and could make a totally objective decision. He prefers the meaning to be 'strengthen' rather than 'harden'.

Also note @Fred giving the pointers

Also, for some examples of articles that discuss some of the major views among the rishonim on this, see here, here, here, and here

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  • +1 just for the comment about Egyptian mythology. It’s someone reminiscent of some who say that רעה in ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם is the Hebraicized form of their chief god Ra (though I don’t recall how they explain why he’s later referred to as בעל צפון). – DonielF Feb 5 at 23:21
  • It is not that their chief idol Ra was called baal tzfon, but that the idol on the border near the march route of Bnai Yisrael was left undestroyed in order to give Pr'o the impression that it was more powerful than Hashem. @DonielF – sabbahillel Feb 6 at 2:38
  • Ba’al Tzefon was their sun god, right? That means that it was Ra. – DonielF Feb 6 at 4:22
  • @DonielF not necessarily. It translates as Lord of the North so it could have been a wind god or the god of the delta. The point being made was that the fact that the idol was intact implied that it was just outside the area Hashem could control in the war of the gods. – sabbahillel Feb 6 at 4:43
  • I understand what the point being made was. I thought I recalled a Midrash that Ba’al Tzefon was the sun god, but maybe not. – DonielF Feb 6 at 4:45
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The plagues were never meant to pressure Pharaoh. The purpose of the plagues was to demonstrate to the Egyptians, the Israelites and for history that Hashem has total control over the world.

This is stated many times in the text: Shemos 7:17:

כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה בְּזֹ֣את תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֖י אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י מַכֶּ֣ה ׀ בַּמַּטֶּ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־בְּיָדִ֗י עַל־הַמַּ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּיְאֹ֖ר וְנֶהֶפְכ֥וּ לְדָֽם׃

Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD.” See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood;

Shemos 8:18:

וְהִפְלֵיתִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַה֜וּא אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֗שֶׁן אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַמִּי֙ עֹמֵ֣ד עָלֶ֔יהָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י הֱיֽוֹת־שָׁ֖ם עָרֹ֑ב לְמַ֣עַן תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, that you may know that I the LORD am in the midst of the land.

Shemos 9:14:

כִּ֣י ׀ בַּפַּ֣עַם הַזֹּ֗את אֲנִ֨י שֹׁלֵ֜חַ אֶת־כָּל־מַגֵּפֹתַי֙ אֶֽל־לִבְּךָ֔ וּבַעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ וּבְעַמֶּ֑ךָ בַּעֲב֣וּר תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין כָּמֹ֖נִי בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world.

Shemos 9:16:

וְאוּלָ֗ם בַּעֲב֥וּר זֹאת֙ הֶעֱמַדְתִּ֔יךָ בַּעֲב֖וּר הַרְאֹתְךָ֣ אֶת־כֹּחִ֑י וּלְמַ֛עַן סַפֵּ֥ר שְׁמִ֖י בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.

Shemos 10:1-2:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ:׃ וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.”

Shemos 11:9:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה לֹא־יִשְׁמַ֥ע אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה לְמַ֛עַן רְב֥וֹת מוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Now the LORD had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not heed you, in order that My marvels may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”

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The plagues were direct judgments against the gods of Egypt. (Several scholars have written on this theme, and a general Google search will provide plenty of examples.) For example, the divine judgment of darkness in Egypt was against Ra, the Egyptian sun-god. The last and consummating judgment was Passover, when the majestic power of Pharaoh, who was deified by the Egyptians, was judged. The death of his firstborn (along with everyone/everything else firstborn) was the sum total judgment of God against the “deity” of Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt.

Exodus 12:12 (Sefaria)

12 For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the LORD. (emphasis added)

But the “deity” of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt were more than idolatry; these gods represented supernatural evil power. The Pentateuch (Torah) speaks of the alignment of idolatry with supernatural evil power.

Leviticus 17:5-7 (Sefaria)

5 This is in order that the Israelites may bring the sacrifices which they have been making in the open—that they may bring them before the LORD, to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the LORD; 6 that the priest may dash the blood against the altar of the LORD at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the LORD; 7 and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages. (Emphasis added)

Deuteronomy 32:16-17 (Sefaria)

16 They incensed Him with alien things, Vexed Him with abominations. 17 They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, Gods they had never known, New ones, who came but lately, Who stirred not your fathers’ fears. (emphasis added)

The Targum Onkelos is very insightful in illuminating this last verse, which indicates that these “demons” are supernatural evil powers.

Deuteronomy 32:16-17 (Onkelos)

...דַבַחוּ לְשֵדִין דְלֵית בְהֹון צְרֹוך

   They sacrificed to demons (לְשֵדִין) for whom there is no need...

The Masoretic Text in Hebrew has: “no gods” which this Targum in Aramaic renders interpretively to mean “for whom there is no need,” which is consistent with the Sifrei Devarim 38:13, which points to demon spirits and demon-possession. For example, if they (apostate Israelites) had worshiped the sun, the moon, the stars, and/or the planets, and/or things for which there was a ‘need’ in the world and through whom there was a benefit in the world, the jealousy by God would not have been aggravated; in this case, however, they worship demons personified through idols which, not only do not benefit them, but cause them harm through demon-possession (which is aggravated assault upon the dignity of God according to Sifrei Devarim 38:13). *

So, in summary, the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was part of the visible narrative of the Exodus story. As we delve into written Jewish tradition, however, we see that there was another conflict at work in the invisible realm, and that was the judgment of the gods (or demons) of Egypt.

* Cathcart, K., Maher, M., & McNamara, M. (Eds.). (1990). The Aramaic Bible: The Targum Onqelos to Deuteronomy. (B. Grossfeld, Trans.) (Vol. 9). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 94-95.

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Pharaoh must have "hardened his own heart." G-d does not deprive people of their own “free will.” Maimonides explains:

G-d does not change at all the nature of human individuals by means of miracles. Because of this great principle, it says, O that they had such a heart is this . . . (Deut. 5:26). It is because of this that there are commandments and prohibitions, rewards and punishments. . . . We do not say this because we believe that the changing of the nature of any human being is difficult for Him, may He be exalted. Rather, it is possible and fully within His capacity. But according to the foundations of the Law, of the Torah, He has never willed to do it, nor shall He ever will it. For if it were His will that the nature of any man individual should be changed because of what He, may He be exalted, wills from that individual, sending of prophets and all giving of a Law would have been useless. (Guide, 3:32) (in the easy to read M. Friedlander translation).

In Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, Maimonides explains that although G-d can change human nature, G-d does not want to change human nature and chooses not to do so.

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  • @Heshy Mishneh Torah is a code of law dictionary with some basic philosophy. The Guide is his philosophic work. Although MT does contain some basic philosophy. – Turk Hill Feb 5 at 0:00
  • Welcome back @turk – Ilja Feb 6 at 0:56
  • Thank you @Ilja – Turk Hill Feb 6 at 4:13
  • For those who didn't read Heshy's source, the Rambam says there that sometimes Hashem will remove from a person the ability to repent, after he has chosen to sin and refused to repent. This is the explanation of a downvote. – Mordechai Feb 6 at 18:29
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Who hardened Pharaoh's heart, man or G-d?

Exodus 10:1 informs us that G-d assured Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. Many commentators think this is unfair as it deprives Pharaoh's use of his “free will”? We can additionally ask if Pharaoh is wicked, why should the Egyptian people suffer (ten plagues)? Commentators differ. Some think it was punishment, yet others posit that “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” somehow gave him the strength to endure.

Rationalists, such as Maimonides understand in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48 that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, even though the text seems to imply that it was G-d's doing. The Bible attributed the event to G-d since He is the ultimate cause of the laws of nature and everything that happens on earth. It follows that the Egyptian people hardened their own reactions (hearts), using the free will that G-d gave them.

Were the Ten Plagues natural events?

Why were all Egyptians inflicted with the Ten Plagues? Is it reasonable that even the cattle were guilty? And doesn't this seem to contradict God's love for all people, even Egyptians when He said to the singing angels in the Talmud: “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea.” 

Rabbi J.H. Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of England, wrote in his Pentateuch and Haftorah that the miracles and plagues were natural events. Although natural and exaggerated, the Bible attributes them to G-d since G-d is the ultimate cause of creation and the laws of nature. The ten plagues in Egypt were the result of enslavement and pollution in the Nile; the Egyptians tossed Israelite male children into the water. It is also possible that not all of Egypt was infected by the plagues but that this was usual biblical hyperbole, that the plagues were widespread.

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