Divine Plans and Egyptian Free Choice

Introduction

Introduction

In Tanakh, exile, subjugation, and salvation are almost always Divinely directed processes, and Hashem's role in bringing them about is generally made explicit.1 The redemption from Egypt is no exception to this rule, as Shemot 3–15 depict in great detail Hashem's active intervention in redeeming the Israelites and punishing the Egyptians.2 In contrast, though, the first two chapters of Shemot are totally silent about any role Hashem may have played in facilitating the exile3 and bondage.4 Did Hashem play a role behind the scenes in the events that led to the enslavement of the Israelites, and the text merely preferred not to emphasize it? Or did Paroh and the Egyptians have free reign to do as they wished to the Children of Israel, while Hashem just watched from the sidelines?5

Divine Foreknowledge

In contrast to the silence of the Book of Shemot, Bereshit 15 records how Hashem told Avraham already at the Covenant of the Pieces that his descendants would be enslaved and oppressed:

EN/HEע/E
(יג) וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.
(יד) וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.
(13) He said to Avram, "Know for sure that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years.
(14) And also the nation, whom they will serve, will I judge, and afterwards they will go out with great wealth.

At first glance, these verses might seem to support the notion that Hashem was the guiding force behind all of the events in Egypt from beginning to end. In light of this, MaimonidesHilkhot Teshuvah 6:5About Rambam formulates the following question as to why the Egyptians were punished:

והלא כתוב בתורה ועבדום וענו אותם, הרי גזר על המצריים לעשות רע... ולמה נפרע מהן?

Upon closer examination, though, these verses differentiate between the exile and slavery stages on one hand, and the redemption on the other. Only the latter mentions Hashem's direct involvement, while the former merely forecasts what will happen to Avraham's descendants and an unidentified foreign nation.6 This leaves room for debate between the commentators as to the extent of God's role in bringing about the bondage, and how Divine foreknowledge can coexist with free choice.7 Or, more pointedly, could the Egyptians or Paroh have employed free choice and decided not to subjugate the Israelites?

Active Intervention

The clearest indication that Hashem played an active part in initiating the slavery comes from a verse in Tehillim 105:25:8

הָפַךְ לִבָּם לִשְׂנֹא עַמּוֹ לְהִתְנַכֵּל בַּעֲבָדָיו.

This verse appears to imply that Hashem manipulated the Egyptians and caused them to hate the Israelites and plot against them. But why would Hashem take away Egyptian free will? And if Hashem caused the slavery, why should the Egyptians have to pay the price? In sum, what would be the point of forcing the Egyptians to punish the Israelites, just so the Egyptians, in turn, could be punished themselves? These vexing problems have prompted some commentators to attempt to offer solutions, while motivating others to try to reinterpret the words of the Psalmist.

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