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Parashat Va-Era: the Antinomy of Free Will and God’s Predestination

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Jan 5, 2009

Exodus 7:1-3 states: The L-RD replied to Moses, “See, I make you an oracle to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your spokesman. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh, to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt (JPS translation).

Prima facie (at first blush), this last verse is predestinarian. It implies that God predestined that Pharaoh would harden his heart. Now, an antinomy exists between the doctrine of human free will and the scriptural verses that imply predestination. How can one uphold both propositions? How
does one resolve the contradiction? Hazal, in Shemot Rabbah (13:3) declare that Pharaoh was an exceptional sinner, and therefore he did not merit the human gift of free will.

Two of the earlier medieval Jewish philosophers, R. Sa‘adiah Gaon and R. Abraham ibn Ezra, however, treat the matter differently. (The following exposition is taken largely from Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy [Cambridge, Mass. And London,
1979], pp. 204-08.)

R. Sa‘adiah (882-942), without mentioning the rabbinic explanation, states that the biblical statements about God’s “hardening” or “making strong” or “making heavy” Pharaoh’s heart does not meant
that God caused him to disobey Him; rather, God gave Pharaoh strength and fortitude so that he could withstand the plagues and “remain alive until the rest of the punishment had been completely visited upon him” In his choice of action, however, Pharaoh was a free agent. R. Sa‘adiah says the same thing with regard to similar verses concerning Sihon the king of the Bashan.) R. Sa‘adiah similarly reinterprets a verse in the book of Isaiah (63:17) that implies that God causes men to go astray. In his view, it really means only that God found the wicked to have gone astray (due to their own free will). (See Emunot ve-De‘ot, Book IV, Chapter 6.)

R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089 or 1092/3–1164 or 1167), gives three explanations of the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh. In his longer commentary to Exodus 7:3 he quotes the explanation that R. Sa‘adiah gave, but attributed it to the “Rabbi Jeshua” (the Karaite). He adds, however, “But he has not spoken
what is right.” In his Shorter Commentary to Exodus 7; 3, he attributes the same explanation to “men of balanced judgment,” (anshe shiqqul ha-da‘at) that is, rationalists, and elsewhere he includes R. Sa‘adiah Gaon under that rubric. He then adds that his own personal view will be gleaned from his commentary to Deuteronomy 5:26 (May they [the people of Israel] always be of such mind,
to revere Me and to follow My commandments, that it may go well with them and with their children forever!)
. He says in his comments to that verse that as God has singled out all human beings and given them the faculty of reason, he has also given them free will. Pharaoh thus really hardened his heart by his own free will. But inasmuch
as it is God who has given him that freedom of will by which he could choose to harden his heart, God is spoken of in Scripture as the One who has hardened the heart of Pharaoh

In his longer commentary to Exodus 10:20 (But the L-RD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go), R. Abraham ibn Ezra hints at yet a third explanation. He writes there that the verse is in accordance with what our sages have said, “To him who desires to contaminate
himself, doors are open [to go and act according to one’s free choice].”

What does this enigmatic sentence mean? Prof. Wolfson explained that first of all, the ibn Ezra understands that the verse must not be taken literally. Rather, it means that because of his own free will, Pharaoh chose
to disobey God, and God in turn let him follow the inclinations of his own heart. It is only in this sense that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God simply did not think of Pharaoh as meriting auxiliary grace that would help him turn away from his freely chosen bad conduct. R. Abraham ibn Daud, the
Spanish-Jewish astronomer, historian, and philosopher from Toledo, Spain (ca. 1110-ca.1180); author of the chronicle titled Sefer ha-Qabbalah, and author as well of a philosophical work called Emunah Ramah, follows R. Abraham ibn Ezra’s third explanation.

Remarkably, R. Tobiah ben Eliezer, a native of Greece, and an author with a style vastly different than that of the ibn Ezra, in this case (in his comment to Exodus 10:20) gives the same explanation that the ibn Ezra does. (Tobiah ben Eliezer was a Talmudist and poet of the 11th century. His work Leqah Tov, a midrashic commentary on the Pentateuch and the Five Megillot, is also called Pesiqta Zutrata. ) From the Leqah Tov one sees that the Spanish-Jewish philosophers were not the only ones who sought to resolve antinomy between free will and divine predestination expressed in the biblical verses regarding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart with a maximalist assertion of human free will.


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