Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Exodus chapter 7, Bible students encounter the most fundamental theological
assumption of all: free choice. Indeed, no topic is more central to Judaism. Predictably, every major
commentator has weighed in on free choice, featured front and center in the verse:

“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart unto you, and multiply My signs and
My wonders in the land of Egypt.”

Abravanel asks: Did God violate Pharaoh’s volition? And if the Creator did remove the king’s ability to
act independently, how can any wrongdoing be imputed to him? Yet clearly, our verse does ascribe
transgression to Pharaoh: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…and multiply My signs and My wonders in
the land of Egypt.”

To be sure, Judaism posits the inviolability of free choice. Humans decide their destiny, without any
interference from Above. See Abravanel’s World for the full discussion of the centrality of free choice in
general, and our chapter in particular. For our purposes, we summarize Abravanel’s main thrust.

God did not bias Pharaoh’s behavior and played no part the king’s refusal to heed Moses’ words.
Although, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” certainly sounds like a divine set-up, it wasn’t.

Abravanel reframes the verse to show that Pharaoh’s mule headedness was the king’s own doing. Here’s

All tallied, ten plagues would devastate Egypt. From the onset of the first plague (bloodying the Nile) to
the last one (killing of Egypt’s firstborn), nearly a year elapsed. A pattern emerged whereby Moses
would: 1) warn Pharaoh, 2) record the monarch’s obstinacy, 3) execute the given plague, and 4) wait
before ushering the upcoming plague.

This methodology gave Pharaoh time to reevaluate matters. He miserably misread the pause in the
action, attributing the plagues to happenstance or bad karma. Perilously, the king mischaracterized the
true Source of Egypt’s troubles, cutting God from the script.

This is key to understanding our verse and the role of Pharaoh’s conduct. When he saw a cessation of a
plague, he concluded that it occurred randomly. Heaven had not, he believed, orchestrated it. Stuff
happens, so Pharaoh thought. The king’s skewered mind brought him to double down.

If this was Pharaoh’s own doing, why does the Bible say: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart?” Abravanel
responds that when God slow-walked the procession of the plagues, it gave rise to the king hardening
his heart.

In sum, Pharaoh misinterpreted the drawn-out tempo of the divinely-wrought plagues and brought his
demise. In the next chapter, this is explicit: “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened
his heart…”