Divine Plans and Israelite Free Choice



Hashem's active role in taking the Israelites out of Egypt is emphasized explicitly and repeatedly throughout the Torah and Nakh and it forms the foundation of the relationship between Hashem and the Children of Israel.1 The redemption, though, could never have happened had there never been an exile and bondage in the first place.2 Did the Divine hand also guide the Israelites into Egypt, or was the exile merely a natural result of human choices which did not involve any special heavenly input? Was Hashem responsible also for the pain of the exile and bondage, or only for the joy of the redemption?

Divine Foreknowledge

The Egyptian Exile and its aftermath were foretold to Avraham already at the Covenant of the Pieces in Bereshit 15:

(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.

These verses raise several issues:

Divine Coercion

In Bereshit 45:8, Yosef assures his brothers that it was God who directed the course of events which sent him (and them) to Egypt:

וְעַתָּה לֹא אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל בֵּיתוֹ וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.5

At face value, this verse seems to imply that Hashem was actively involved in bringing the Israelites to Egypt and initiating the exile.6 This same notion may be reflected also in the homiletical interpretation found in the Haggadah Shel Pesach:7

וַיֵרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה – אָנוּס עַל פִּי הַדִּבּוּר.8

Commentators wrestle with the implications of these texts. Did Hashem really take control over the course of history and force Yaakov's family to descend to Egypt, and if so, why? Did the Israelites remain in Egypt after Yaakov and Yosef's deaths of their own volition,9 or was this also caused by the Divine prophecy?