I've always loved the account of the 10 plagues (who doesn't?), but I always felt a little odd about the several times (7, in fact) Pharoah's heart was made "hard/heavy" by G-d because I'm a strong believer in free-will, and that didn't seem fair/just to me. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that Pharaoh was a good guy -- he was given plenty of chances, and time and time again, he was stubborn and did not obey G-d, but this makes it all the more peculiar to me. Why would G-d need to make Pharaoh's heart heavy if it already was?

For years, I just accepted Maimonides comments in the Laws of Teshuva: "yes, there is free will... but if your sins become colossal, grievous, frequent, etc. enough, then the courtesy of free-will will be revoked" (I'm, of course, paraphrasing here). It wasn't the perfect answer, but I accepted it because "hey, Pharaoh, was indeed a bad guy. It probably would have happened anyway, and Maimonides knows what's up."

But lately, I've been working with an Egyptologist, help teaching an Egyptology course to undergraduates, and new ideas have occurred to me. Now, I work at a public university so for the most part, we were looking at it from an Egyptian point of view, and a light bulb went off in my head. Was the 10 plagues a symbolic "show-down" (in addition to physical miracles leading to the redemption of the Hebrews) between the Egyptian pantheon and G-d? In antiquity, Egypt was well known as a polytheistic nation, with more than 80 deities being worshipped throughout the land. Even pharaoh was considered to be a god, along with a host of insects, reptiles, mammals, fish, the sun, and so forth. Could each plague actually be a personal attack against one of the Egyptian gods?

For example (choosing just a few):

  • Plague 1--water turned to blood: The Nile was the lifeblood for the Egyptians and a prominent god was Hapi -- this would be a direct attack against Hapi.
  • Plague 5--disease of livestock: Hathor, Cow goddess and fertility, was not able to keep her livestock alive. Her powers proved fruitless.
  • Plague 9--darkness: Attack against the sun god of Ra. His powers were clearly overshadowed by G-d's.
  • Plague 10--death of first-born: Pharaoh (who was considered divine) is unable to save his own child from death's grasps, demonstrating that there is only one true divine Being.

Now G-d and the Israelite would know that these so called "gods" were not real, but could it be a symbolic attack on (as well as demonstrating G-d's gradneur and commitment to His people) the Egyptian Pantheon, accentuating His power over their hierarchy of gods?

Now with that said, going with this premise, could one make the argument that G-d made Pharoah's heart harden/heavy because it would be the apex of a symbolic battle between G-d and Pharoah since the Egyptians believed that in the Afterworld, the heart would be weighed against a feather, and if the heart was heavier than the feather, it would be gobbled up by creatures literally known as the "gobblers", sealing Pharoah's fate in the Underworld, and ultimately emphasizing that there is but one G-d.

I'm not saying that this whole account be taken symbolically because I think it can operate on two levels: physical and symbolic. So maybe Pharoah's heart became hardened on his own (as we read he does), but the parts where it mentions G-d making it hard, indicates the symbolic aspects? Does that make sense? Is there room for interpretation here?

  • Just to clarify, according to Maimonides, Pharaoh was not punished for anything that he did "under the influence".
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 11, 2016 at 1:23
  • Thanks for that! Yes, I should have just quoted him and paraphrased it in a more eloquent way. Aug 11, 2016 at 1:26
  • 3
    +1 I would cut out a little bit of the background and focus on the question of God's hardening Pharaoh's heart, and the significance of the plagues in general vis-à-vis Egyptian culture. Just a personal recommendation, as many readers don't want to read through long questions.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 11, 2016 at 1:29
  • Thanks, for the tip, Mevaqesh, I do tend to get wordy! I also just realized that I can bold and italicize things. Very handy. Hopefully, that helps in drawing their eyes to the main point. Thanks, again! Aug 11, 2016 at 1:44

2 Answers 2


Rav Ovadiah Seforno (on Shemos 9:35) suggests that Hashem "made his heart heavy" (heavy objects are hard to move) and "made his heart strong" (more literal translations of "הכבדתי" and "חזקתי" then "hardened) in order to preserve Par'oh's free will!

Had Hashem allowed Par’oh to be influenced by the miracles then Par’oh’s decisions would have been altered through supernatural means. Therefore, Hashem removed Par’oh’s ability to be moved by the miraculous events he witnessed. The means for doing so, this “hichbadti”, the immobilization, was to blind him to the awe, the yir’as Hashem, that the plagues would normally cause.

In comparison (my comparison, not the Seforno's), there is a famous story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa (Taanis 25a), a miracle working Tanna who was so poor that he lived off a single carob from Shabbos to Shabbos. One week his daughter filled the Shabbos lights with vinegar rather than oil. She was distressed by this mistake, perhaps because of their inability to afford wasted oil or vinegar. Rav Chanina answered her, “He Who made oil burn can make vinegar burn.” And the vinegar burned. Rav Chanina witnessed miracles because they would not violate his free will. He saw in the supernatural burning of vinegar no more proof of G-d’s existence than he saw everyday within nature.

Miracles are normally only witnessed by those who already believe so strongly, that the miracle doesn't convince them of anything they don't already believe. Chanina ben Dosa's oil burned because to him it was no more startling than oil burning. Until the plague of shechin (boils), the his court magicians could duplicate the miracles well enough that the miracles didn't prove anything to Par'oh. And notice that it's Par'oh's own stubbornness exclusively until the plague of shechin took down his magicians. The Exodus required exposing Par'oh to miracles despite his own belief and awe not being anywhere near that level. There are no longer a balance of good and evil in his experience, and the subsequent plagues served as proof of G-d. Miracles, so supernatural proof of G-d. A tampering with free will.

Therefore G-d made his hear unresponsive to this evidence, having him act exactly as he would if his experience was in accord with nature.

In contrast, Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 6:3) says that indeed there are sins whose punishment includes the loss of free will.

Personally, I understand the culpability question in this case akin to that of someone who does something while drunk that they never would have planned to do back when they were sober; they didn't make the decision while of sound mind, but it was their decision to get to an unsound one.

As for the Egyptology; I don't know enough to comment. But R' Hirsch understands the blood and frogs just as you suggest -- symbols of death and of Hapti (and thus birth) in the Nile would be clear to the Egyptians as a message about drowning the Jewish babies in the same Nile


Related question Did hardening Paro's heart mean he wasn't really responsible?

There are a number of answers based on the different usages. For example, the Rambam brings up the point that Par'o sinned to such an extent that his punishment was to be unable to do teshuvah. The Rambam also points out that the more one sins, the more difficult he makes it to do teshuvah because he has continued down the wrong path.

The analogy can be give of a person stating out a fraction of a degree off from the correct course. The longer he maintains the incorrect path, the farther away in absolute distance he gets from the point on the circumferance of the circle that he is supposed to be at.

Others state that, because Hashem wanted Par'o to acknowledge of his own free will atthe Bnai Yisrael should go free, then he would need to strengthen Par'o so that he could make a rational decision and not be forced by the pressure of the plagues.

Rav Hirsch points outs that the words in the pesukim show the increasing difficulty of maintaining his stubbornness. In each case, it was Par'o who hardened his heart, Hashem just gave him the strength to make a decision of his own free will.

In Shmos 8:11 Rav Hirsch translates

יא וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי הָיְתָה הָרְוָחָה וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה:

But when Pharoah saw that there was respite, his heart became stubborn again and he hearkened not unto them; as Hashem had foretold.

Rashi says

he hardened hisheart: Heb. וְהַכְבֵּד. It is the infinitive form, like “continually traveling” (הָלוֹ וְנָסוֹעַ) (Gen. 12:9); “and similarly, and slew (וְהַכּוֹת) the Moabites” (II Kings 3:24); “and by inquiring (וְשָׁאוֹל) of God on his behalf” (I Sam. 22:13); “striking and wounding (הכֵּה וּפָצֹעַ)” (I Kings 20:37).

That it, it was the natural tendency of his will reacting to the apparent relief.

Shmos 8:15 translates

טו וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַחַרְטֻמִּם אֶל פַּרְעֹה אֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים הִוא וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה:

15 So the necromancers said to Pharaoh, "It is the finger of God," but Pharaoh's heart remained steadfast, and he did not hearken to them, as the Lord had spoken.

As we see, he continued strong and did not have his will shaken.

However, by Shmos 8:28

כח וַיַּכְבֵּד פַּרְעֹה אֶת לִבּוֹ גַּם בַּפַּעַם הַזֹּאת וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם:

Rav Hirsch translates as

But this time too, Pharoah made his heart stubborn and he did not let the people go.

Here we see that Par'o exerts his free will to overcome the pressure that he feels in order to refuse to bow to the force of the plagues. This was the exertion of his strength of will to overcome the weakness caused by the suffering of the plague.

We see the increasing pressure with the term used in Shmos 9:11

יב וַיְחַזֵּק יְהֹוָה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה:

12 But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not hearken to them, as the Lord spoke to Moses.

However, Rav Hirsch translates this as

But Hashem allowed the heart of Par'o to remain strong and he hearkened not unto them, as Hashem had told Moshe.

That is, Hashem allowed Par'o to maintain the strength of will to continue to follow the path that he had previously determined for himself.

Rav Hirsch translates Shmos 9:34

לד וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי חָדַל הַמָּטָר וְהַבָּרָד וְהַקֹּלֹת וַיֹּסֶף לַחֲטֹא וַיַּכְבֵּד לִבּוֹ הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו:

34 When Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased; so he continued to sin, and he strengthened his heart, he and his servants

Again it is a strengthening by Par'o of his previously determined will.

As Rav Hirsch translates Shmos 10:1

כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ

for I have allowed his heart and the heart of his servants to remain stubborn

Thus, everything that happened until now, was only because Hashem was allowing Par'o to maintain his strength and pursue the previously determined path of his own free will

It is only after the plague of locusts Shmos 10:20 that Rav Hirsch translates

כ וַיְחַזֵּק יְהֹוָה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

20 Thereby Hashem made Pharoah's heart stubborn again and he did not let the Children of Israel go.

Here, because Par'o was faced with the possibility that Egypt would be destroyed in the future (if the locusts had been able to breed and lay eggs), he would have succumbed, not to the recognition that they should go free, but to the power of the plagues, Hashem had to act to strengthen his heart to be able to make a free will decision.

After the Choshech, Rav Hirsch again translates Shmos 10:27

כז וַיְחַזֵּק יְהֹוָה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא אָבָה לְשַׁלְּחָם:

But Hashem let Pharoah's heart be stubborn and he was not willing to let them go.

Again we see that Hashem allows Par'o the strength to maintain his (free-will) decision which he had previously made. Thus we see that it was Par'o who hardened his heart and Hashem gave him the strength to make a free will decision. Had he freely used that strength to let them go, he would have been able to avoid the plagues.

  • 1
    What do you think the question asked?
    – Double AA
    Aug 11, 2016 at 4:14
  • @DoubleAA There are a few questions in the question post. This seems to answer the one in paragraph 1.
    – msh210
    Aug 11, 2016 at 6:31

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