Commentators differ widely in their understanding of Hashem's hardening of the hearts of multiple Biblical characters. Some understand the phrase as a metaphoric way of saying that Hashem made people intransigent, suppressing their free will so as to prevent them from changing their ways. This could be due to the gravity of their sins, the fact that they used up their opportunities to change, or because, as idolaters, they were simply not bequeathed the gift of repentance.
Others disagree and attempt to reinterpret the verses, saying that Hashem never actively takes away someone's free will. According to R. Saadia, the phrase חיזוק לב should instead be understood as literally strengthening someone, enabling him to persevere so as to obtain a full punishment. R. Yitzchak Arama proposes that Hashem's governing of the world via natural order sometimes indirectly leads people to forget Him and continue to sin, and so it is as if He hardened their hearts. Others suggest that the phrase is simply a figure of speech, attributing inexplicable human actions to Hashem, the ultimate source of everything in the world. Rav Yosef Albo and Seforno go a step further, suggesting that Hashem's hardening of hearts is what actually allows for free will and true repentance. חיזוק לב is thus understood as strengthening a person's resolve so that he will have choices other than to just say "uncle" and surrender.
The various positions are impacted by the commentators' stances on a number of issues. What was the ultimate purpose of the plagues; were they retributive or rehabilitative? How does the Torah view the repentance of non-Jews? Does Hashem work via nature or does He perform outright miracles?
The commentators offer a spectrum of options in explaining the meaning of Hashem's hardening the hearts of Paroh and other Biblical characters and the effect this had on their free will:
Suppressed Free Will
Hashem's hardening of these characters' hearts prevented them from exercising their free will and reversing course to evade punishment. All variations of this approach must explain why these people did not deserve an opportunity to change their ways and why Hashem could not have arranged to punish them without needing to suspend their free choice.1
Due to the nature and enormity of the sins these characters committed, punishment was a foregone conclusion from the very outset and would have been necessary even if those involved had elected to change their behavior and repent.2 Thus, disabling their free will (and the ensuing obstinacy) did not cause them to sustain any additional penalties, but rather merely facilitated the punishment for their original sins.3
Paroh and the Egyptians' sins – These commentators disagree as to the nature of the offenses:
Persecution of the Israelites – Rambam and Abarbanel explain that Paroh's terrible treatment of the Children of Israel5 is what sealed his fate. Abarbanel further clarifies that repentance can only atone for sins between man and God but cannot avert the mandated punishment for murder6 and other severe sins committed by a man against his fellow man.
Licentious society – Based on Vayikra 18:3, Ralbag asserts that even if Paroh had immediately consented to free the Israelites, he and the Egyptians would still have been deserving of punishment due to their depraved sexual behaviors.
Sichon and the Canaanite nations vs. Paroh – As Sichon and the Canaanites had little prior contact with the Israelites, the Rambam's approach regarding Paroh is inapplicable to them. He thus resorts to attributing unidentified offenses to them. Ralbag's explanation, though, can be applied equally well to Sichon and the nations of Canaan, as their revolting moral conduct is linked to that of the Egyptians in Vayikra 18:3.7
Outstretched arms toward penitents – The Akeidat YitzchakShemot #36About R. Yitzchak Arama argues against the Rambam from the many verses which imply that repentance is an option even for the wicked. He specifically notes the cases of Ahav and Menashe whose repentance was accepted despite their unprecedented evil actions.
Purpose of the Plagues – This approach maintains that the primary purpose of the Plagues was retributive.
Why the charade and drawn-out process? Rambam grapples with the question of why Hashem would bother to repeatedly send Moshe to Paroh, given that Paroh's hands were tied and was simply incapable of letting the people go. Rambam explains that by doing so Hashem demonstrated His ability to hijack Paroh's mind and cause him to act both irrationally and against his own will,13 and that this was a great miracle which proclaimed to all Hashem's mastery over the world.14 Hashem's choice to exact retribution in this way was thus designed to maximize its impact.
Suspending free will - merely a means or an end unto itself? While Shemot Rabbah views the suppression of freedom of choice as a means to exact a full measure of punishment from Paroh, Rambam and Ralbag see it as a means to inculcate belief in God. Alternatively, Rambam may understand it to be an integral part of the sinner's punishment in that he loses control over his own mind and actions.15
How were the hearts hardened? According to this approach, the hearts were hardened through supernatural Divine intervention.16
A sinner is granted only a limited number of chances to change course before the Gates of Repentance are closed and their fate is sealed. These sinners exhausted all of their opportunities, and once they had done so, Hashem took away their free will and ability to repent.
Who hardened Paroh's heart and when? These Midrashim highlight the distinction between the first five plagues where Paroh hardens his own heart,18 and the final five plagues where it is predominantly Hashem who hardens Paroh's heart.19 However, the verses after the seventh plague of hail in Shemot 9:34-3520 pose a difficulty, as from them it appears that Paroh reverts to hardening his own heart.21
Why was Paroh punished? According to this approach, it is possible that Paroh was punished either for his original sins (see possibilities above) or for his disrespect in disregarding Hashem's warnings (or for both). Cf. RaavadHilkhot Teshuvah 6:5About Raavad who suggests that Paroh could have repented and avoided punishment entirely, but that his utter disdain for God's warnings sealed his fate.22
Purpose of the Plagues – Shemot Rabbah implies that the primary purpose of the Plagues was retributive. This may be reflected by the use of parallel language. Hashem responds to Paroh's "וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה" and "וַיַּכְבֵּד פַּרְעֹה אֶת לִבּוֹ", using the same verbs "וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה" and "וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה".23
Sichon and the Canaanite nations – This approach can maintain that they too received opportunities to repent before Hashem hardened their hearts. However, the text gives no such indication.
Sons of Eli and the Children of Israel in the time of Eliyahu and Yeshayahu – In these cases, also, this approach can argue that there were ample opportunities for repentance which were not utilized.24
Outstretched arms toward penitents – The verses in Yechezkel and elsewhere which imply that Hashem prefers the sinner's repentance over his death refer only to the initial stages before the decree is finalized.25
Idolaters Cannot Repent Sincerely
Repentance is a special Divine gift which is reserved for believers in God. Since these sinners were idolaters and could not have repented, there was no moral barrier to removing their free will.
Why can't they repent? There are some fundamental differences between the opinions of Rashi and Abarbanel:
Abarbanel defines repentance as returning to Hashem, and thus, by definition, only someone who believes in God can repent. This thesis is limited to idolaters.
However, Rashi, like the TanchumaVaera 17About the Tanchuma, seems to be making an empirical observation that the repentance of the nations of the world is insincere and lasts only while the punishment is still in effect. The Tanchuma and Rashi27 speak of non-Jews in general, and not just of idolaters.
Who hardened Paroh's heart and when?
According to Abarbanel's position, Paroh, as an idolater, never had an option of repentance. Paroh's initial hardening of his own heart thus poses a difficulty, as it implies that he could have repented.28
Rashi, on the other hand, contends that Paroh was given an opportunity to repent during the first five plagues, despite Hashem's knowledge that any penitence of his would at best be insincere. This allows Rashi to harmonize Hashem's announcement from the outset that He will harden Paroh's heart, with the verses during the first five plagues which speak of Paroh hardening his own heart.29
Yonah and the repentance of Nineveh
The repentance of the Assyrians in Nineveh ostensibly contradicts Abarbanel's thesis by demonstrating that non-Jews can and do repent.30 Abarbanel struggles to respond that the Assyrians were an exception because Hashem had designated them to be his tool to destroy the Northern Israelite Kingdom.31 Alternatively, he could have answered that the people of Nineveh abandoned their idols for monotheism, and thus became capable of repenting.32
For Rashi, though, it poses less of a problem as Nineveh's repentance may not have been sincere.33
Outstretched arms toward penitents – This position can explain that the verses which speak of an eternal option to repent are speaking only of Jews or non-idolaters.35
Purpose of the charade and drawn-out process and the Plagues in general – Rashi explains that the purpose was to educate the Children of Israel and instill in them a fear of God.36 He adds, based on Bavli YevamotYevamot 63aAbout the Bavli that this is Hashem's general purpose in punishing the nations of the world.37
Attitude toward non-Jews – The position of Tanchuma and Rashi reflects a generally negative evaluation of the actions and intentions of non-Jews.38 For elaboration, see Rashi.
Didn't Impact on Free Will
Hashem does not impact one way or another on any person's exercise of free will. This possibility subdivides in understanding what Hashem did do and regarding how to (re)interpret the phrase "וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב":39
"וַיְחַזֵּק ה'" means that Hashem physically or mentally strengthened sinners to enable them to survive long enough to receive their full punishment, and not that he made them stubborn.40
Who hardened Paroh's heart and when? In the midst of the first five plagues, Paroh was able to summon his own mental fortitude, but during the final five plagues which were more destructive, Hashem to needed to make him resilient enough to withstand them.43
How were the hearts strengthened? According to this approach, the hearts were fortified through miraculous Divine intervention.
Why the drawn-out process? This position can explain that not bringing the plagues all at once maximized either their punitive effect or educative benefit.44
Verb variation – חזק, כבד, קשה – While the root חזק means to strengthen, this approach encounters a measure of difficulty in interpreting the root כבד in "כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו" (Shemot 10:1).45
Sichon and the Canaanite nations – As noted by R. Saadia, the terror felt by the nations of Canaan46 is what necessitated the strengthening of their hearts.
The Children of Israel in the time of Eliyahu and Yeshayahu – R. Saadia offers novel interpretations for each of these verses:
"וְאַתָּה הֲסִבֹּתָ אֶת לִבָּם אֲחֹרַנִּית" – R. Saadia renders the words as Eliyahu asking Hashem to transform the backwards condition of the nation's heart.47
"הַשְׁמֵן לֵב הָעָם הַזֶּה" – R. Saadia interprets the command as to make the nation oblivious to the events going on around them.
"לָמָּה תַתְעֵנוּ ה' מִדְּרָכֶיךָ תַּקְשִׁיחַ לִבֵּנוּ מִיִּרְאָתֶךָ" – R. Saadia explains here that Yeshayahu is asking that Hashem not view the nation as disobedient.
Outstretched arms toward penitents – According to R. Saadia, the Gates of Repentance always remain open, as per the verses in Yechezkel and other Biblical examples.
Merely Natural Order
Hashem does nothing out of the ordinary to cause sinners to lose their free will, but the natural way He runs the world is sometimes the indirect cause of people continuing to sin.
Who hardened Paroh's heart, how, and when? This approach explains that Paroh hardened his own heart, but Hashem's bringing of plagues which were only gradual, temporary, and via natural means caused Paroh to believe that he was simply the victim of a series of natural disasters.49 Thus, the Torah refers interchangeably to Paroh and Hashem as the cause of the hardened heart.50 However, this does not explain the shift midway through the plagues to emphasize Hashem's role in the hardening of Paroh's heart.
Purpose of the drawn-out process
R. Eliezer Ashkenazi explains that this is simply the way Hashem always runs the world, gently administering warnings at first rather than immediately wiping out the sinner.
R. Yitzchak Arama and R. Moshe Ashkenazi suggest that while the lengthy punitive process may have misled Paroh, it had the opposite beneficial effect on the rest of the world,51 bringing them to a far greater recognition of the power of Hashem than a one-time punishment.
Sichon – Hashem's command to Moshe to avoid clashes with the neighboring nations of Edom, Moav, and Ammon resulted in Sichon thinking that the Israelites were too weak to withstand his army.52
The nations of Canaan – The commentators in this approach do not address the hardening of the hearts of the Canaanite nations, and they would need to say that there too the hardening was through natural means.53
The Children of Israel in the time of Eliyahu – See RalbagMelakhim I 18:37About Ralbag who explains that Hashem, through nature, indirectly caused the nation's sins when He let the crops grow even when the people worshiped the Baal. Similarly, R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that Hashem misleads the wicked by not immediately punishing them.
Outstretched arms toward penitents – The Gates of Repentance always remain open, as per the verses in Yechezkel and other Biblical examples.
Only a Figure of Speech
The characters hardened their own hearts, but the action is attributed to Hashem because He is the Prime Mover and ultimate source of everything in the world.54
Many of these commentators explain that Hashem created man, endowed him with free choice, and generated the various options to choose from. This reason, though, does not account for why only a small fraction of actions in the Torah are attributed to Hashem.
Shadal suggests that specifically strange events57 are assigned to the hand of God,58 as they are incomprehensible without postulating Hashem's intervention.59 The Hoil MosheShemot 10:1About R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi, though, points out that not only the narrative voice ascribes the hardening of hearts to God, but also Hashem himself.
The Meiri cites an opinion which expands on a position of R. Saadia and suggests that the hardening is attributed to Hashem because He is the one who displayed Paroh's obstinacy for the entire world to see.60
Shift midway through the Plagues – According to Shadal's approach, Paroh's continued hardening of his heart became more and more incomprehensible as the Plagues continued, and this accounts for the attribution to Hashem only in the later plagues. The opinion cited by the Meiri could similarly explain that Paroh's intransigence became more publicly acclaimed as the plagues went on.
Yam Suf – This approach encounters difficulties in explaining Hashem's apparent active encouraging of Paroh to chase after the Israelites in Shemot 14:2-4.
Purpose of the extended process – This position can explain that not bringing the plagues all at once maximized either their punitive effect or educative benefit.61
Sichon and the Canaanite nations – The variations of Shadal and the opinion cited by the Meiri can work here as well.
Sons of Eli and the Children of Israel in the time of Eliyahu and Yeshayahu – RalbagShemuel I 2:25About Ralbag suggests that the verse by the sons of Eli is merely referring to God as the ultimate source of everything, Ibn Kaspi says the same about the verse by Eliyahu, and Ibn Ezra explains similarly regarding Yeshayahu 63:17. ShadalYeshayahu IntroductionAbout R. Shemuel David Luzzatto offers an alternative regarding Eliyahu, suggesting that the verse is a מקרא קצר, and that it is saying that if Hashem were to withhold His Heavenly fire, this would cause the people to lose faith in Him.
Outstretched arms toward penitents – The Gates of Repentance always remain open, as indicated by the verses in Yechezkel and other Biblical texts.
Bolstered Free Will
Hashem strengthened the sinners' resolve in order to counterbalance their overwhelming fear of punishment or death. By doing so, Hashem ensured that they would retain their free will and be able to repent sincerely, rather than capitulating simply out of fear.62
R. Yosef Albo presents the strengthening of the sinners' hearts as a litmus test of the sincerity of their intentions64 and a means to prevent fraudulent repentance.
In contrast, R. Yosef ibn Shushan views the entire process as a manifestation of Hashem's "kindness and mercy" in directing evildoers to genuine repentance.65
Seforno charts somewhat of a middle ground in contending that although strengthening Paroh's heart insured his continued freedom of choice, the primary goal and hope was that at least the Egyptian people would repent sincerely.66
Reinterpreting Shemot 10:1-2 – This approach faces a significant challenge from the explicit objectives set forth in these verses of punishment and the Israelites recognizing Hashem. R. Yosef Albo, who understands the strengthening as a test, might explain that the verses are not presenting the goals but rather the resulting benefits if and when Paroh fails the test.67 In contrast, SefornoShemot 10:1About R. Ovadyah Seforno reads into the text that punishing Paroh will lead to the repentance of his nation.68
How was Paroh's heart hardened? R. Yosef Albo explains that Hashem strengthened Paroh's will by causing him to attribute the Plagues to natural phenomena.69 The other sources appear to understand that Hashem influenced Paroh's psyche in a more miraculous way.
Shift midway through the Plagues – Seforno explains that Hashem needed to bolster Paroh's resolve after the Plague of Boils because this was the first plague to afflict Paroh's body.70 Similarly, Maharal suggests that the second five plagues were more severe, as they came from the heavens, and this created the need for Hashem's active involvement.71
Purpose of the Plagues and the drawn-out process
R. Yosef ibn Shushan emphasizes that the entire process was intended to be educational and rehabilitative rather than vengeful.72
Any positive results? This approach is unique in maintaining that Hashem expended considerable efforts to get Paroh and the Egyptians to repent. It must therefore wrestle with the question of whether these efforts bore any fruit, and why Hashem would do this while simultaneously announcing that Paroh was not going to change his path.
Seforno attempts to address this question by positing that it was not really Paroh but the Egyptians who were the main focus of the educational process of the plagues. According to Seforno, even the drowning of the Egyptian army at Yam Suf was intended to motivate the repentance of the remainder of the Egyptian nation who remained in Egypt.
Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer42About Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer goes a great distance further and presents Paroh himself as a paradigm of repentance and as a proof for all-time of its redemptive powers ("תדע לך כח התשובה – בא וראה מפרעה מלך מצרים"). Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer presents a fantastic account of Paroh surviving the drowning of his army at Yam Suf,74 becoming the king of Nineveh, and leading its ba'al teshuvah movement in the time of Yonah centuries later.75
Sichon – There are two different understandings of the circumstances of this case:
Parallel to Paroh – R. Yosef Albo says that Hashem's command to Moshe to avoid clashes with the neighboring nations of Edom, Moav, and Ammon misled Sichon76 into believing that the Israelites were too weak to withstand his army.77 He further explains that this tactic was needed as a counterweight to the news of Hashem's miracles which had frightened Sichon. Thus, similar to the case of Paroh, Hashem's strengthening of Sichon's heart balanced the scales and provided him with freedom of choice.78 As the Torah, though, states explicitly that the goal of the strengthening was to enable Sichon's destruction,79 R. Albo adds that had Sichon not attacked, it would have taken much longer to conquer his land.80
Contrast to Paroh – R. Yosef ibn Shushan contends that Sichon and Og were deserving of death as they were part of the seven Canaanite nations,81 and not because of their actions toward the Israelites. Thus, he argues that Hashem's strengthening of his will was merely the means to get Sichon out of his fortified city and facilitate his destruction,82 and is completely disconnected from the objectives of strengthening Paroh's will.
The nations of Canaan – R. Yosef Albo and R. Yosef ibn Shushan would likely explain in similar fashion to their understandings of the case of Sichon.83SefornoBemidbar 23:22About R. Ovadyah Seforno, though, posits that the original plan was for a bloodless conquest, with the Canaanites fleeing rather than being wiped out. It is unclear Seforno's position can be reconciled with Yehoshua 11:20.
Sons of Eli and the Children of Israel in the time of Eliyahu and Yeshayahu – These verses are difficult for this approach, and it would have to maintain that these too are cases of insincere repentance.84
Outstretched arms toward penitents – This position maintains that the Gates of Repentance not only always remain open, as per the verses in Yechezkel and other Biblical examples, but that Hashem levels the playing field to give sinners a fair chance.
Universalism – While most commentators appear to be mainly concerned with the philosophical questions the story raises, Seforno goes out of his way to show that Hashem does not discriminate against non-Jews, and they also are granted the option of repentance. This is consistent with Seforno's general tendencies throughout his commentary – see Seforno.85