Suspension of Free Will?
There are several Biblical verses which describe how Hashem hardened people's hearts, causing them to persist in their evil ways until their ultimate demise. While the most famous instance is the hardening of Paroh's heart in Shemot 4:21, similar descriptions appear in the stories of Sichon in Devarim 2, the nations of Canaan in Yehoshua 11, and the Baal worshipers in the time of Eliyahu in Melakhim I 18, as well as in the prophecies of Yeshayahu.1
At face value, all of these texts indicate that Hashem wanted the characters to sin. Moreover, from the cases of Paroh, Sichon, and the Canaanites, it appears that Hashem hardened their hearts in order to facilitate their downfall:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ. (שמות י':א')
וְלֹא אָבָה סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ חֶשְׁבּוֹן הַעֲבִרֵנוּ בּוֹ כִּי הִקְשָׁה ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת רוּחוֹ וְאִמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבוֹ לְמַעַן תִּתּוֹ בְיָדְךָ כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה. (דברים ב':ל')
כִּי מֵאֵת ה' הָיְתָה לְחַזֵּק אֶת לִבָּם לִקְרַאת הַמִּלְחָמָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן הַחֲרִימָם לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לָהֶם תְּחִנָּה כִּי לְמַעַן הַשְׁמִידָם כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֶת מֹשֶׁה. (יהושע י"א:כ')
Hashem said to Moshe: "Go in to Paroh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may show these signs of mine in his midst." (Shemot 10:1)
But Sichon king of Cheshbon would not let us pass by him, for Hashem your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, so that He might deliver him into your hand, as at this day. (Devarim 2:30)
For it was from Hashem to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, so that He might utterly destroy them, that they might have no favor, but so that He might destroy them, as Hashem commanded Moshe. (Yehoshua 11:20)
However, there are numerous other Biblical verses which describe Hashem as a merciful God, who always desires the repentance of the wicked rather than their destruction, and certainly does not manipulate people or cause them to persist in their sinful paths. One of the classic examples of these verses is Yechezkel 33:11:2
אֱמֹר אֲלֵיהֶם חַי אָנִי נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי ה׳ אִם אֶחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הָרָשָׁע כִּי אִם בְּשׁוּב רָשָׁע מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה שׁוּבוּ שׁוּבוּ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶם הָרָעִים וְלָמָּה תָמוּתוּ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל.
The contradictions between the various Biblical passages raise not only the question of what God truly desires, but also the fundamental issue of whether man always has free will. Are there circumstances under which Hashem might choose to override this principle? If yes, why might He elect to do so, and why would He punish a person who didn't have free choice? And, if not, how are we to understand the "hardening of the hearts" of Paroh and other Biblical characters?4
Paroh's Unique Case
Paroh's hardened heart is not only the first and most famous case, but it stands out from all of the others in that variations of the motif repeat in a total of twenty different verses, including after each and every one of the plagues. Yet, despite the theme's prevalence and obvious significance, its meaning and purpose remain elusive. What exactly does the Torah mean when it says that Hashem hardened Paroh's heart, by what means did He realize this goal, and what was the justification and objective of such a process?5 Moreover, if Hashem had intentionally made Paroh stubborn, why did He keep on sending Moshe to command Paroh to let the people go?6
The multiplicity of verses in Paroh's case raises a number of additional issues:
- Who hardened Paroh's heart? – While ten different verses imply that Hashem hardened Paroh's heart,7 from four others it seems Paroh hardened his own heart,8 and in yet six more it was hard on its own.9 Who hardened Paroh's heart – Hashem, Paroh, both, or neither?
- Different verbs – The Torah uses three different verbs to describe the hardening of Paroh’s heart: חזק in twelve verses,10 כבד in six others,11 and קשה in two more.12 Is this mere stylistic variation or do these three terms have different connotations?
- Whose hearts were hardened? – While the vast majority of the verses speak only of the hardening of Paroh's heart, Shemot 9:34 mentions Paroh and his servants, and Shemot 14:17 refers simply to Egypt as a whole. What is the relationship between the stubbornness of Paroh, his servants, and all of Egypt?
- Multiple objectives – Shemot 10:1 states that punishing Paroh is the purpose of hardening his heart, but the very next verse describes a more public goal of the Israelites recognizing and recounting Hashem's might. In contrast, three other verses (Shemot 7:5, 14:4, 14:18) speak of the Egyptians acknowledging Hashem.13 What is the relationship between these disparate ends, and how do any of them justify the means?