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 Abram, “Know for sure that your seed will live as foreigners in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them. They will afflict them four hundred years. (14) I will also judge that nation, whom they will serve. Afterward they will come out with great wealth,

These verses raise several issues:

  • Is Hashem saying that He will actively intervene to exile Avraham's descendants just as He will actively bring about the redemption?  Or is it merely human decisions which will cause the exile?3
  • If human choice is involved, how can Divine foreknowledge coexist with free will?4 Could the actions of Avraham and his descendants have prevented or shortened the exile, or was the Divine decree indeed immutable?
  • Did this prophecy constitute a binding command which obligated future generations of Avraham's descendants?

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:5


וְעַתָּה לֹא אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה וּלְאָדוֹן לְכׇל בֵּיתוֹ וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכׇל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

So now it was not you who sent me here, but God, and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

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?