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  • Did God Deprive Pharaoh of Free Will?
  • Don Levi

When Pharaoh was reeling from certain later plagues he agreed to free the Israelites. But each time after the plague stopped, God stiffened Pharaoh's heart, and he refused to let them go. Since it was God who did it, Pharaoh had to refuse to release the Israelites; he could not have let them go. So, he was deprived of free will by God.

In this article I question this reasoning. I question whether we can conclude from the fact that God did it that Pharaoh could not release them; and from the fact that Pharaoh could not release them, that he did not have free will. I also question whether it is possible to understand what the free will is that God is supposed to have given to all of us and taken from Pharaoh.


The Exodus is the story of how the Israelites escaped from slavery and constituted themselves as a people. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exodus 20.2).1 This is how God introduces the Ten Commandments: He is the One who led the Israelites out of Egypt; they are the people whom He freed.

The stiffening motif underscores how much more powerful God is than Pharaoh. God tells Moses that Pharaoh will let the Israelites go "only because of a greater might" (3.19), and Pharaoh, replies: "Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?" (5.2). That God is by far the more powerful is underscored by having God say that He will "stiffen Pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go" (4.21), and by having Him do so, in the cases of several later plagues. After [End Page 58] each plague Pharaoh agrees to release them, only to change his mind when the plague lifted (or, in the case of the final one, when he has released the Israelites), either because he or God stiffened his heart. The disastrous consequences of these reversals reveal him to be concerned with his status as a god-king rather than with the welfare of his people. The motif is part of the developing argument in the Tanakh for a state ruled, not by a Pharaoh or king, but by God and His laws, as transmitted by His prophet, Moses.

The problem of whether God deprived Pharaoh of free will by stiffening his heart is a version of the Problem of Evil, albeit with a focus on what God did, not what He did not do. And this focus on God's apparent misbehavior is not an isolated phenomenon. As Kaufman points out, "The Bible ascribes to God actions that, to our way of thinking, lack moral grounds, or even run counter to our moral sense. Indeed, at times they seem to reflect a ruthless, capricious, demonic being."2 To make God more powerful than Pharaoh the text seems to make God too much like Pharaoh.

A different understanding of the story arises if we think of the Israelites as its audience, and if we remind ourselves that it is a stage in their developing relationship with God. As Kaufman explains it, the things said about God in the Exodus story as well as elsewhere "express in their own way boundless adoration and reverence of the One" (Religion, p. 75). Later, the Israelites may find different ways of expressing that adoration and reverence. However, what Kaufman is saying is that by making God's behavior towards Pharaoh seem supramoral and demonic, the Torah really is finding a way to express its awe of Him.

Nevertheless, in what follows we will try to understand the text as telling us about God, independently of that developing relationship. We will confine our attention to the question of how God's actions deprived Pharaoh of free will. Is that what stiffening someone's heart does; or is it the fact that God did the stiffening? What is interesting is that those who have tried to offer solutions to the problem do not try to answer these questions...


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