As a child I often wondered how, if God kept hardening Paro's heart after each plague, it could really be Paro's fault. It sounds like God was setting him up to fail, and while that's God's prerogative, it seems kind of unfair, and we hold that God is just.

Now I realize (as an adult) that that's not really what's going on, but it's still troubling. If Paro was evil and deserving of retribution then he shouldn't have needed help; if, as suggested by some commentaries I've read, he was actually ready to relent but God needed to demonstrate His power to the world, then it makes me wonder why miracles can't stand on their own. (If Egypt needed to receive the plagues then God could have just done that without giving Paro a chance to repent.)

So my question is: why did God need to harden Paro's heart and, in particular, what are good ways to explain this to children?


4 Answers 4


The explanation I always give is as follows:

God never takes away a person's free will.

If God wants to influence a person's choice, He does just that - influences it. He does not force it. He will manipulate external factors so that the decision will be influenced in a certain direction.

Let me give an example: Bill is buying a new car. He has free will to choose whichever model car he would like to buy. Now, suppose for whatever reason, God would like Bill to choose model X. Bill might be influenced in his decision by several factors: (1) Bill's neighbor got model X and loves it. (2) Bill's friend got competing model Y, and Bill doesn't want to look like a copycat. (3) Bill hears of someone who got in a terrible accident due to a car that lacks feature A, which model X is known for. (4) Bill will have had a childhood experience involving model X or similar, which makes him sentimental toward it. Etc. etc.

Because of these factors, Bill chooses model X. He is not forced to, but is influenced in his decision by external factors, which are perhaps manipulated by God to push him toward this decision.

Similarly, "God hardened Paro's heart" means that God provided experiences in Paro's life and surroundings to influence his decision to not allow Israel to leave Egypt. He still, using his free will could have made the right decision, but he willingly chose not to. It might not have been as easy to make the right decision, but he is still responsible for not doing so. Thus, he was justly punished.

Now, why did God need to "harden" Paro's heart? The answer commonly given for this is that God wanted Israel to be slaves in Egypt for a certain amount of time as a prerequisite for properly accepting the Torah. Egypt is described as a "furnace of iron" (I Kings 8:51), in which the metal is rid of imperfections and prepared to be formed properly. Additionally, God felt that the plagues on Egypt were also necessary to show Israel and the rest of the world how powerful and devoted He is. Therefore, God wanted Paro to make the decision to keep Israel in Egypt for their own benefit.

  • 1
    Good answer. any source?
    – HodofHod
    Dec 13, 2011 at 22:26
  • @HodofHod, My usual source for things is Abarbanel. In this case, I gave a more general answer than he does, and so I did not cite him. He too says that God influences decisions based on manipulating factors that affect the decision-making process rather than actually suppressing free will altogether, but goes farther to say that God introduced to Paro aspects of the plagues that made them seem possibly natural instead of divine, which made him more skeptical, and thus decide to keep the Jews subjugated. See here (t'shuva 3).
    – jake
    Dec 13, 2011 at 23:07
  • Ok. Good to know. I did notice that you seem to quote the Abarbanel often, just wanted a confirmed source.
    – HodofHod
    Dec 14, 2011 at 0:10

I am surprised that no one has mentioned the Rambam's opinion. He addresses this question in Hilchos Teshuva (6:3), and says quite simply that yes, sometimes freewill is withheld from someone. The reason it was not unfair to punish Pharaoh after his heart had been hardened and he'd lost his freewill is because he deserved it. Rambam explains that since he had plotted and carried out such wicked things, he simply did not deserve the chance to be absolved of his sins without punishment, and so as part of his punishment remorse was blocked from him and his heart was hardened.

In general I don't know why people are bothered by the concept that freewill doesn't always exist. Whoever said it has to? As long as we are not punished or rewarded for things we do purely as a result of being "under the influence," what's the big deal in assuming we sometimes are?

  • Thanks for bringing the Ramban. The reason I'm concerned about the question here is that it looks like Paro does get punished for his actions (more plagues), so if he didn't have free will, how is that punishment justified? Loss of free will and reward/punishment for the consequences (as you suggest) is a different matter. Jul 26, 2012 at 17:45
  • I imagine it is surprising to most people to say that they are occasionally 'under the influence' even if they don't get rewarded/punished for it, simply because I never feel like I don't have free will.
    – Double AA
    Jul 26, 2012 at 17:48
  • 1
    @MonicaCellio, just to clarify: Rambam (Maimonides). Of course, you probably simply mistyped. (As a diamond mod, you can now correct your comment. :-))
    – msh210
    Jul 26, 2012 at 17:51
  • 1
    @MonicaCellio It's not really that he was punished for the later actions. Think about it this way - the way he had acted up until that point set into motion a natural course in which he would do more and more bad things. Since he kept following that course, on his own volition, God said "as a punishment I'm not going to let you get off that course." In truth all of the punishments were as a result of something set into motion by Pharaoh himself with his own freewill. It's just that part of the punishment was not letting him get off the track.
    – Dov F
    Jul 26, 2012 at 17:55
  • @DoubleAA But that's not a very logical argument. Most people don't feel like they're dreaming when they are; most crazy people don't feel crazy; etc. etc.
    – Dov F
    Jul 26, 2012 at 17:58

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Commentary explains that God did not “harden Pharaoh’s heart” so much as “allow Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened”. This was achieved allowing Pharaoh to (incorrectly) perceive limits to God’s power in bringing the plagues.

For example, Hirsch translates Exodus 9:30–32 as a single quote, something like (adapting the JPS translation from http://mechon-mamre.org/)

30 “But as for thee and thy servants, I know that ye will not yet fear the LORD God. 31 For although the flax and the barley were smitten (for the barley was in the ear, and the flax was in bloom) 32 but the wheat and the spelt were not smitten (for they ripen late).”

I.e., Pharaoh is stricken with hail, but is allowed to believe that God is not actually powerful enough to destroy all of Egypt’s crops. The plagues get progressively harsher, but each time God leaves Pharaoh enough room to believe that “this is as bad as it will get”.

In the next chapter, Pharaoh’s servants recognize this tactic, demanding, “How long shall this man be a snare unto us?” The word “snare” is interesting, implying there was something “tricky” about the presentation of the plagues although they came with full warning.


The explanation I have heard is that had Hashem not hardened Paro's heart then it would not have been by choice as he would of for sure sent them out after each plague. However by hardening his heart now he was able to make a decision, which he failed.


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