I do not here intend to focus on the free will issue. I am quite comfortable with Maimonides interpretation that the time for repentance had well passed. Paro and the Egyptian people deserved their punishment for enslaving the Jewish people and trying to kill the male children. The various requests and recantations are not for purposes of repentance that would allay punishment. God explicitly says that he will "Execute great judgments...and Egypt will know (V'yadoo)that I, God, have stretched forth my hand to take out the Jewish people." 7:4-5. This directly parallels Paro's statement that "who is this God that I should listen to him...I know not (lo yadati)God and will not send forth the people of Israel." 5:2. My younger brother the education expert has a lengthy explanation about Paro's and Egypt's education, and why it needed to proceed in this fashion. I shall not attempt to recapitualte it here. My only point is that I see no violation of free will that Paro's punishment is already written and that part of that punishment is that he will fail to appreciate the full power of God until the end.
Rather, I focus on a different aspect. Moses and Aaron, having displayed the signs to the people and won their belief and trust, now go to Pharo. The following exchange takes place in Chapter 5 as the first dialog between Paro and Moshe and Aaron.
Moses & Aaron: Thus says the Lord "send forth my people that they may celebrate me in the wilderness."
Paro: Who is this 'Lord' that I should listen to him to send forth the Israelites? I do not know this 'Lord', and therefore I shall not send out Israel:
They replied: The God of the Hebrews has called us; let us go a journey of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice unto the Lord, lest he strike us with pestilence or the sword.
Someone I know complained of being deeply troubled by this. It would appear to be a lie. There is never any intention of returning after 3 days. Nor do Moshe and Aaron ever explicitly say “Hey, we’re walking. Ciao, Paro!” To the countrary, the almost standard mantra is “send forth my people that they may worship me.” Several times, Paro engages Moshe in discussion on this. While Moshe rebuffs Paro, he does not ever say “no, we need everyone and all our stuff because we aren’t coming back.” So is this a lie?
On reflection and reading of the text, and text in other places, I would say no. This is standard diplomatic speak for the time, as we see in numerous other places. As with many eastern cultures even to this day, it is a very non-confrontational approach with much spoken by indirection and many professions of affection, friendship and loyalty. Consider the following examples:
1) Avraham and Avimelech at Be’er Sheva (Gen. 21:22-34). Avimelech comes and asks Avraham to swear peace with him. Avraham agrees to swear (v.24). Only then does Avraham “reproove (hochiach) Avimelech “on account of the water stolen by the servants of Avimelech.” Avimelech then claims to have never known about this. As part of the oath of peace, Avraham separates out seven ewe lambs “as witness that I dug the wells.” Avimelech and Avraham then conclude their negotiations and go their separate ways.
Does anyone reading this believe that Avimelech and his chief general, Pichol, happen to be out for a stroll or that they were unaware of the conflict over the wells? Or does it seem more plausible that this is a negotiated treaty between a local potentate and a powerful clan chief to end a dispute?
2) Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela. (Gen. 23:3-16). First Avraham abases himself to the residents, the “Children of Chayt” as a stranger, begging for a grave for his wife. No, no, they insist, addressing him as “our master” and as a “prince of God accepted and dwelling among us” they urge him to chose a grave among them to bury his dead. Avraham arises and bows to them, then asks to buy the field and cave of Machpelah belonging to Ephron. Then Ephron answers before the assembled people “no I will give you the cave and the field.” Avraham bows again then says “no, I insist, I will pay.” Only then does Ephron say “Oh my master, I insist on giving it to you, a field and cave worth 400 pieces of gold, what is that between us?” Whereupon Avraham pays the stated price.
Again, note the lengthy ritual protestations of love, loyalty and abasement. This is how heads of state deal with each other. Ephron is not “dishonest” in that Avraham never thinks he is going to get the field for free. But good manners and custom dictate that they engage in this elaborate ritual that makes it clear that they are equals who love each other and would gladly give Avraham what he wants, but Avraham is so beholden to them for letting him dwell in their midst he insists on paying.
3) Yaakov and Esau. (Gen. 33:1-17) Contrast this with the earlier “straight talk” between the two as brothers in the same household (Gen. 25:30-34). Now, as heads of rival clans, they meet and embrace with tremendous shows of affection. Yaakov offers humble submission of gifts. Esau refuses, saying “no brother, I have enough.” But Yaakov insists, addressing Esau in the humblest of terms. After considerable show of resistance, Esau accepts the gift. Esau then asks Yaakov to accompany him back to his own lands. Yaakov does not refuse outright, but instead says “Oh, you know how slow it is for me to travel with all the children and cattle and so forth. You go on ahead and we’ll follow.” Esau goes back to his own land; and Yaakov goesthe opposite direction and settles in Canaan – a considerable distance away.
Which makes more sense, that Esau really didn’t want the gifts and genuinely beleived Yaakov’s ruse that he would follow? Or that this is an elaborate treaty ritual in which two warring tribes agree to make piece, with Yaakov showing submission and offering tribute and Esau agreeing to leave Yaakov in the ancestral inheritance of Canaan because Esau has his own relam in Seir?
With this in mind, let us turn back to the dialog between Moshe and Aharon and Paro. Moshe & Aharon say “let us go three days distance, lest God strike us with plague and the sword.” They make no mention of returning. They also say that God will punish “us,” i.e., Israel, rather than Paro for refusal. This would be exceedingly odd unless we interpret this as a polite, diplomatic way of saying, in accordance with the customs of diplomacy of the time, "we are leaving and have no intent to come back."
Paro, for his part, refuses to even treat with Moses and Aaron at this stage (recall that while Moshe showed the signs to the Israelites, God had not yet authorized signs to display to Paro – that comes later). Indeed, the response is significant:
“And the King of Egypt said to them: ‘Who are Moses and Aaron to relieve the people from their work, go back to your labors.” 5:4. In other words, “I’m King of Egypt, who are you individuals without any authority to dare to come and try to negotiate with me? Get out of here!”
Moshe is understandably depressed that his attempt at diplomacy has failed. When God sends him back, he informs Moshe: “Behold, I have made you like a God unto Paro, and Aaron will be your prophet.” 7:1 Henceforth, while still maintaining courtesies, Moshe will not speak as a supplicant, like Yaakov to Esau. Rather, it is Moshe who will be the mighty one and will set the terms for Paro. And, indeed, from this point on, we see no use of such niceties as “nah,” please, or any language of supplication. “Shlach at ami va’ya’vduni” “send forth my people to worship me” is the language Moshe now employs.
At this point, the person asking the question responded that it was still dishonest for God to give the appearance of negotiation, since there was never any intent to negotiate.
To this my response is that this confuses the idea of “diplomatic language” with negotiation. People often interpret Ephron’s offer of 400 shekels as bargaining. But there is never any indication that it is bargaining – just as there is never any indication that Avraham was bargaining for the wells or that Yaakov ever intended to accompany Esau and everyone knew this. Indeed, in the one case that might be seen as bargaining – Ephron – it says explicitly that Avraham “listened to Ephron” and paid 400 shekels. I.e., Avraham understood that Ephron did not intend to bargain. That Ephron was stating his price, and Avraham understood it was the final price.
Paro, of course, attempts to transform this into a negotiation. He offers to allow the Israelites time to worship in Egypt (8:21). Later, he offers to let the “young men” go (10:10-12), and finally all the people but not their possession (10:24). It is impossible to understand these, especially the last, as anything other than attempts to negotiate. “Worship in Egypt” is clearly an invitation for some sort of freedom short of full manumission. “Some but not all” may go appears an invitation to negotiate for the release of some of the people but to leave some in bondage. The last “but not the cattle” appears to be “at least give us tribute and token compensation!”
Each time, Moshe politely but categorically refuses. He is always insistent that everyone is leaving, with all their possessions. True, in the manner of diplomatic usage of the time, he does not baldly come out and state “because we’re leaving forever dumb ass!” Rather, like Avraham to Ephron or Yaakov to Esau, Moshe responds with diplomatic courtesies (albeit with the firmness of an overlord rather than the meekness of a supplicant). No, Egypt is not suitable for worship, we are leaving. Who is going, all of us, and our cattle and flocks and possessions. No, we are taking all our possessions, for we do not know what the Lord will require of us.
Why does Paro believe he can negotiate? We can see similar behavior by Balak toward Bilaam. Bila’am says “I will not go unless God gives permission.” When God refuses to grant permission, Bila’am refuses to go. But Balak cannot believe that anyone would refuse his invitation. He concludes that Bila’am is only refusing as a negotiating ploy.
Similarly, Paro cannot believe that Moshe will refuse to even negotiate with him, and when he does his rage boils over. He threatens Moshe with death for refusing his ultimatum. Moshe replies that Paro is quite correct. He, Moshe, will not come again to Paro.
In the end of course, Paro yields utterly. He runs to Moshe and Aaron saying: “go out with all the people to worship God according to your words; go out with your sheep and cattle according to all that you said and go!” 12:31-32. We may take “according to your words” in the same way as Avraham’s “and Avraham listened to Ephron.” That is to say, with an acknowledgment of the actual intention.
Now one may ask me how then to interpret 14:5 “And it was told to the King of Egypt that the people fled” if Paro did not expect the Israelites to return. But I will flip this question on its head, and show that such a literal reading of these words is contrary to the text of both the preceding pasukim and the subsequent text.
The immediately preceding text describes that, after taking the people out toward the wilderness, God instructs Moshe to lead the people back into the land of Egypt by the sea. This is explicitly to draw Paro out to pursue the Israelites. “And Paro will say, behold, the wilderness is closed to them, they are trapped in the land.” 14:1-4.
If the Israelites are doubling back and staying in Egypt, how can we interpret 14:5 as a realization that the Israelites were fleeing? Further, the continuation of 14:5 is “and the hearts of Paro and his servants reversed themselves, and they asked “what have we done in sending the Israelites out of bondage?”
Again, this is wholly inconsistent with an idea that they expected the Jews to return after three days. The Egyptians openly say that they sent the Israelites from bondage! They regret that they did so, not that the Israelites broke their word.
I would therefore interpret the first part of 14:5 as being “It was told (hoogad) to Paro that the people had fled.” That is to say, reports of the apparently confused march of the people indicated that they were fleeing in panic rather than marching out in strength. “Aha!” Think Paro and his servants. “This God of theirs is not so powerful after all! Had we but held out a little longer, we would have defeated them!” Thus, the Egyptians who had only a few days before “thrust out the people” in terror undergo a complete flip-flop (v’yahaphoch) from fear to aggression and a determination to pursue.
In short, the text makes far more sense if we assume that everyone understood from the beginning that “let us go three days into the wilderness” was not a deceitful promise to return, but rather a clear diplomatic statement that Bnei Yisroel were leaving and never coming back.