Providence and Pharaoh (Parsha Va’era Ex. 6:2-9:35)

This coming week’s (Jan. 16th; 2021) Torah Parsha (Parsha Sh’mot; Ex. 1:1-6:1) deals with a subject very important to Stoicism: Providence. In this weeks Parsha we read:

[12] And YHWH hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as YHWH had spoken unto Moses.
[13] And YHWH said unto Moses, Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus says the YHWH Elohim of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me.
[14] For I will at this time send all my plagues upon your heart, and upon your servants, and upon your people; that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.
[15] For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite you and your people with pestilence; and you shall be cut off from the earth.
[16] And in very deed for this cause have I raised you up, for to show in you my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.
[17] As yet exalt you yourself against my people, that you wilt not let them go?
(Ex. 9:12=17)

In his foundational book On Creation, the first Century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, concludes that a created universe, leads to the the corollary of the concept of “providence”. Philo writes:

And those who describe it [the universe] as being uncreated, do, without being aware of it, cut off the most useful and necessary of all the qualities which tend to produce piety, namely, providence: (10) for reason proves that the father and creator has a care for that which has been created; for a father is anxious for the life of his children, and a workman aims at the duration of his works, and employs every device imaginable to ward off everything that is pernicious or injurious, and is desirous by every means in his power to provide everything which is useful or profitable for them. But with regard to that which has not been created, there is no feeling of interest as if it were his own in the breast of him who has not created it. (11) It is then a pernicious doctrine, and one for which no one should contend, to establish a system in this world, such as anarchy is in a city, so that it should have no superintendant, or regulator, or judge, by whom everything must be managed and governed.
(Philo; On Creation 9b-11)

And later Philo concludes:

The fifth lesson that Moses teaches us is, that God exerts his providence for the benefit of the world. For it follows of necessity that the Creator must always care for that which he has created, just as parents do also care for their children.
(Philo; On Creation 171b-172a)

By “providence” Philo means that the Creator has a plan. Providence, in this sense, is closely tied to the concepts of natural law and the logos, about which I have previously blogged. Providence, is the idea that there is a rational mind, and therefor a plan, that is permeating the universe.

On the other hand, this weeks parsha also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart:

But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as YHWH had said. (Ex. 8:15)

And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go. (Ex. 8:32)

How can this be?

This brings us to the Hebraic Stoic understanding of Genesis 2:7, which I also blogged about recently.

And YHWH Elohim formed (YETZER) man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath (NISH’MAT) of life;
and man became a living soul (NEFESH).
(Gen. 2:7)

The Wisdom of Ben Sira says of this verse:

It was He who created man in the beginning.
And He left him in the power of his own freewill (Heb: YETZER).
If you will, you can keep the commandments,

and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
Stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
 (Sira 15:14-16)

In the ancient Hebraic Stoic work, 4Maccabees (also known as On the Supremacy of Reason) we read concerning this verse:

21 Now when Elohim fashioned man, he planted in him emotions and inclinations,
22 but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all.
23 To the mind he gave the Torah; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.
(4Macc. 2:21-23)

And as Philo of Alexandria concluded:

“For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.”
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)

The neshoma that Elohim breathed into us, is a spark of the Logos. As Philo wrote:

There are two several parts of which we consist, the soul and the body; now the body is made of earth, but the soul consists of air, being a fragment of the Divinity, for “God breathed into man’s face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7) It is therefore quite consistent with reason to say that the body which was fashioned out of the earth has nourishment which the earth gives forth akin to the matter of which it is composed; but the soul, inasmuch as it is a portion of the ethereal nature, is supported by nourishment which is ethereal and divine, for it is nourished on knowledge, and not on meat or drink, which the body requires. (Allegorical Interpretation, III, 161)

He does well here to attribute the flow of blood to the mass of flesh, combining two things appropriate to one another; but the essence of the mind he has not made to depend on any created thing, but has represented it as breathed into man by God from above. For, says Moses, “The Creator of the universe breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul,” (Gen. 2:7) who also, it is recorded, was fashioned after the image of the Creator. (Who is the Heir of Divine Things? 56)

For among created things, the heaven is holy in the world, in accordance with which body, the imperishable and indestructible natures revolve; and in man the mind is holy, being a sort of fragment of the Deity, and especially according to the statement of Moses, who says, “God breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7). (On Dreams 1, 34)

The Hebraic Stoics understood this to mean that man had a “freewill” (yetzer) in that he can choose either to be guided by his emotions or to be guided by his rational mind, the fragment of the logos within him.

In other words, the only thing a man truly controls, is what he thinks, and how he chooses to feel. We cannot control what happens in the universe, we can only control what we choose to think about it.

By choosing to be guided by the rational mind rather than the emotions, a man is choosing to live in harmony with nature, the logos which guides nature and in harmony with providence which results from the logos guiding nature. This is why Philo writes:

the law corresponds to the world and the world to the law, and that a man who is obedient to the law, being, by so doing, a citizen of the world, arranges his actions with reference to the intention of nature, in harmony with which the whole universal world is regulated. (Philo; On Creation 3)

Or as he states elsewhere:

… the man who adhered to these laws, and clung closely to a connection with and obedience to nature, would live in a manner corresponding to the arrangement of the universe with a perfect harmony and union, between his words and his actions and between his actions and his words.
(On the Life of Moses 2, 48)

We can either live in harmony with providence, choosing to be guided by our rational minds, the fragment of the logos within us, or we can choose to be resist providence by being guided by our emotions. Neither choice will change those things which we cannot control, but the other path will lead to a peace of mind and happiness, even in the worst of circumstances. (This does not mean that we cannot, within the bounds of providence, potentially influence external events by our actions, but that is not actual control. In much the same way, one can influence an election thru campaign work and voting, but cannot control the ultimate outcome of the election.)

The statements that YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart is of a common Hebrew idiom in which an active verb is used to express not the doing of a thing, but permission to do it. Another example of this idiom is found in Jer. 4:10:

Then said I: ‘Ah, Adonai YHWH! surely
You have greatly deceived this people and
Yerushalayim, saying: You shall have peace;
whereas the sword reaches unto the soul.’
(Jer. 4:10 HRV)

Meaning not that YHWH deceived them but that he ALLOWED them to be deceived. (other examples of this idiom: Mt. 6:13a; 2Thes. 2:11; Rom. 1:24-26; Zech. 1:10b).

In the case of Pharaoh we have a man who who hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7). Elohim had the sovereign right to allow Pharaoh to harden his own heart of his own freewill. This concept is also taught in the Talmud:

In the way in which a man wishes to walk he is guided.
(b.Mak. 10b)

If one goes to defile himself, openings are made for him;
and if he goes to purify himself, help is afforded him.
(b.Shabb. 104a)

If a man defiles himself a little, he becomes much defiled:
[if he defile himself] below, he becomes defiled from above;
if he defile himself in this world,
he becomes defiled in the world to come.
Our Rabbis taught: Sanctify yourselves,
therefore, and be ye holy:
If a man sanctify himself a little,
he becomes much sanctified.
[If he sanctify himself] below,
he becomes sanctified from above;
if he sanctify himself in this world,
he becomes sanctified in the world to come.
(b.Yoma 39a)

If a man resists the providence of Elohim, he is like a dog on a long leash, tied to a moving cart. He can make his own decisions about where he wants to go, and in the short term, he may or may not be able to enact those decisions, but if he is resisting the direction of the cart, he will not find himself happy, and will eventually find himself dragged by the cart, in a direction he did not wish to go.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see my recent blog Providence in Hebraic Stoicism

This is the second of what may be a series of Stoic Torah studies. If you would like to see more of these weekly Stoic Torah studies, please support this work of restoration of Hebraic Stoicism by donating by Paypal to

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