The book of Exodus is known for Moses liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The interplay between Pharaoh and Moses is actually secondary to the story’s primary duel between God and Pharaoh. Though they never speak directly, the story is really a battle between God and Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler who claimed divinity. Moses merely serves as the emissary between the two “deities”. Throughout the account, the narrative notes 17 times that the Israelites’ freedom was delayed because Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened” (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 13, 22, 8:15, 19, 32, 9:7, 12, 34, 35, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8). In nine of those instances, God is said to be the catalyst behind Pharaoh’s hardened heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8)!
God initiating Pharaoh’s hard heart makes for difficult theology. Skeptics read the story as God coercing the monarch into making poor decisions he might otherwise not have made. This reading, though very natural, pictures God as manipulative, coercive, and culpable in sin. God would also be seen as hypocritical for hardening the ruler’s heart and then punishing him for it. God also would be disciplining someone not acting of their own volition, much less God’s own. Further, God would be foolishly undermining God’s own objective of freeing the Israelites. Perhaps most egregiously, God would be overriding the free will of a human being. Critics denounce God for mistreating Pharaoh who in this scenario is seen as little more than God’s helpless puppet. If God worked in this manner with Pharoah, the same could presumably be done towards others, namely us. As such, the story calls into question God’s justice and goodness.
It is worth noting that the original audience would have never viewed the text in this manner. Pharaoh is the story’s villain and the intended reader would not have sympathized with him. They would have read the text from below, as the underdogs. Exodus is replete with miraculous divine intervention and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart would be viewed as one more in a long line of miracles. Readers tend not to mind when the miraculous is a violation of nature but object when the miraculous entails a violation of the nature of a human being.
If Pharaoh’s actions were determined by God, was he wrongly punished? Does God play fair? Is God just? Is God good? How do we reconcile God’s actions?
Many explanations have been posed regarding the allegations levied against God in the case of Pharaoh’s heart. One is that God does not compel Pharaoh to do anything that was not in his will. Of the 17 times that Pharaoh’s heart is said to have been hardened, three distinct declarations are made. Nine times God is credited (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8), five times the claim is presented in the passive form with no source given as to the cause (Genesis 7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:7, 35) and three times Pharaoh himself initiated the hardening (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34). At other times the text notes that Pharaoh refused to humble himself (Exodus 10:3) and that he was stubborn (Exodus 13:15). The text also indicates that, at times, Pharaoh’s own magicians had a hand in the hardening of his heart (Exodus 7:22; 8:19). When the story is recounted in Samuel, it is remembered that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (I Samuel 6:6).
Apologist Norman Geisler (b. 1932) and Thomas Howe (b. 1950) hold that God would not directly harden anyone’s heart contrary to their own free choice, but only indirectly, through their own choice. They write, “God in His omniscience foreknew exactly how Pharaoh would respond, and He used it to accomplish His purposes. God ordained the means of Pharaoh’s free but stubborn action as well as the end of Israel’s deliverance (Geisler and Howe, Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, 209). ”
Certainly, even were he totally benevolent, Pharaoh by the nature of his position would have resisted Moses’ request. Through the lens of political science, he could not have afforded either the scandal of losing two million slaves or the economic loss of his labor force. Even so, the text starts with God prophesying that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3-5). If Pharaoh would have acted as he did regardless, why is God implicated in his hardened heart?
In a similar explanation, others propose that the text means that God simply facilitated a process that Pharaoh himself initiated. God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart until after the fifth plague. Previously he did it himself.
Others claim that the text conveys that God presented only the opportunity for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened and that God permitted it. E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) wrote that some active verbs “were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do (Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in The Bible, 823).” Thus, when the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that God provided the occasion for Pharaoh to demonstrate his unyielding attitude. This is true as had God not sent Moses, Pharaoh would have never faced the dilemma of whether to release the Israelites. In this scenario, God is like a parent who takes a spoiled child to a toy store at which the tike pitches a fit when she does not receive the prize she desired. The parent did not create the tantrum, she only placed the child in a position where her character would show. This reading is problematic as the expression is used in the context of a prophecy where the scenario is being described anyway (Exodus 4:21), making this explanation redundant.
The text is naturally more problematic for the Arminian than the Calvinist as Calvinists explain the text with the fact that God can do whatever God chooses to do. The answer is “not to retract the sovereignty of God’s election, or to try to give a rational explanation to doubting men” (Edwin H. Palmer [1922-1980], The Five Points of Calvinism, 33). Some have viewed Paul’s allusion to Pharaoh in Romans 9:17-18 as referring to this instance and subsequently Pharaoh’s hardened heart is simply a way for God’s glory to be revealed.
While God did receive honor through the events in Exodus, there must have been other ways to accrue glory that would not have infringed upon Pharaoh’s free will. This reading seems to have no problem with God causing sin to make Godself look great. It elevates God’s sovereignty at the expense of God’s character.
Infringing upon one’s free will is out of character for God. Is there another case where God even appears to be violating someone’s free will? As this is so irregular, something else may be going on.
The Hebrew word typically used when God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart is chazaq. It does not carry the same connotation in Hebrew that “harden” does in English. It means “to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore.” It is used eight of the nine times God is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 13, 22, 8:19, 9:12, 35, 10:20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8). In contrast, when Pharaoh hardens his own heart, the word kabad is used, meaning “to be heavy, be weighty, be grievous, be hard, be rich, be honourable, be glorious, be burdensome, be honoured” (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:7, 34, 10:1, 14:4). Only in Exodus 10:1 is this verb used of God.
Chazaq is a common term with a generally positive connotation. It is not rendered “harden” outside of being connected to the heart. It often describes assisting someone with a course that they have decided upon. Whereas in English, “harden” has a pejorative feel as traditionally soft heartedness is a virtue, chazaq is at worst neutral. Since nowhere is it said that someone softened the heart, there is not even a negative correlate. Though the hardening of the heart is typically seen as God impeding Pharaoh, God could have potentially been assisting Pharaoh. This would fit with the more normative use of the Hebrew. In changing the translation, the text’s meaning changes.
Pharaoh, who professes to be God, is competing with God and is woefully overmatched. There are two ways in which a dominant player can give an adversary a fighting chance. One can reduce one’s own power or increase the power of one’s adversaries. In chess, one can pull her queen to give the other player a chance or in basketball someone can spot an inferior opponent points. God cannot reduce God’s own power but God can spot Pharaoh. In strengthening Pharaoh’s heart, God is evening the playing field. This interpretation also fits the context as God only addresses Pharaoh’s heart after the fifth plague, a point at which the exasperated ruler might not have been able to do so himself.
Viewing Pharaoh’s heart as strengthened moves the verb from a negative to, at worst, a neutral. Much like receiving an adrenaline rush in crisis, the recipient could use the added strength for good or evil. Perhaps his strengthened heart could have enabled Pharoah to tell his attendants that he was relinquishing the man power his slaves provided.
Whether the reader feels he had a choice or not, what is undeniable is that Pharaoh chose poorly.
Does God still harden people’s hearts? Have you ever known anyone whose heart you felt had been hardened? Has yours? What would have been the results had God not hardened Pharaoh’s heart? What did function did it serve? Does God’s treatment of Pharaoh make you trust God less?