The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

While searching for fodder for new blog postings, a friend on Facebook, Bill, suggested this one.  It’s a goodie.

Exodus 10:20 says, “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go.”  The question is so obvious that it hardly needs asked. However, let’s get it out there anyway.

If God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart, then does that mean Pharaoh didn’t have a choice to obey God?

This seems to be an alarming thought especially when we later read that the Pharaoh was punished by God.  How could Pharaoh be punished for disobedience when he had no power to obey? That really challenges our understanding of fairness!  Does God make a person’s heart resistant to His Spirit only later to punish that person for resisting?  How can that be just?

Before we begin to try to answer all of those questions, I think it would be a good idea to take a closer look at the story of Moses and Pharaoh.  Most of you are probably familiar with the account, but for those who might not be, allow me to briefly recap.

The Hebrew people had originally arrived in Egypt as guests. However, as the years slipped by and the Hebrew people grew in number, the Pharaohs began to be concerned about their presence in the land. As a result they were made into slaves for the Egyptians.

For centuries, the Hebrews served as slaves. Eventually, God raised up a leader to bring them out of bondage: Moses.  When Moses appeared before the Pharaoh demanding the release of the Hebrew people, the Pharaoh explained that he hadn’t gotten the memo.  Nice try, Moses, but he wasn’t about to release Egypt’s captive work force.

Moses performed a few miracles to try to convince Pharaoh.  He wasn’t impressed.  God ratcheted up the plan by switching from miracles to plagues.  When things got bad for Egypt the Pharaoh relented and agreed to let the Hebrews go. However, once the plagues were over, he changed his mind and refused again.  Eventually, after the death of every first born in Egypt, the Hebrews were allowed to leave.  Unfortunately for him, Pharaoh changed his mind one last time. He pursued the Hebrews into the Red Sea where God drowned him in a final act of judgement.

The above-mentioned verse about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is found in the midst of this story.  However, it’s not the only passage that suggests that God had a role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  In Exodus 4:21 & 7:3, God promised Moses that He would be hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  Then, in Exodus 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27 ,11:10, 14:4 & 14:8, we read that God fulfilled that promise by actually hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

If one reads all of those passages it might seem very convincing that Pharaoh was powerless over what God was doing.  However, the open-minded reader will note that none of those verses actually tell us anything about Pharaoh’s choice or will.  They simply tell us what God was doing.  One might assume that if God was hardening Pharaoh’s heart that it wouldn’t matter what Pharaoh wanted because he couldn’t have stopped God.  Although that might be true, none of the verses actually say so.  The verses listed above simply tell us what God was doing.  And, they certainly don’t tell us that God was doing something against Pharaoh’s will.  Even the very famous (and controversial) passage of Romans 9:14-21, which celebrates the prerogatives of God, says nothing about God overriding the will of Pharaoh.

Let me explain the point that I’m making another way.  Let’s say that there’s a young man in school. A pretty girl in class has caught his attention, and the prom is fast approaching. She sees him looking at her and thinks he might make a fine date for the dance.  So, she begins to flirt with him, makes herself exceptionally pretty, and places herself near him whenever she can. Then, she makes sure that he overhears her talking about how much she loves hockey.  He’s hooked.  He follows her back to her locker and asks her to the prom.

Now, one could say that the young girl enticed the boy to invite her to the prom.  That would be a true statement.  Or, one could say that the boy choose to ask the girl out.  That would also be true.  It should be noted, however, that her antics didn’t force him against his will because his will was already so inclined. She didn’t do anything to cause him to do what he wasn’t already disposed of doing.  She facilitated him asking her out,and he chose to ask her out.

Although this illustration has applicable limits, I think it shows how it is possible for two person’s wills and actions to be involved in the same process without being contradictory.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt.

As already noted there are quite a few verses that tell us what God was doing in regard to the Pharaoh.  Yet, none of these verses give us the slightest hint as to what Pharaoh was inclined to do himself. The question then must be asked: do we have any passages reflecting what Pharaoh was willing to do?  Fortunately for us the answer is yes.

In Exodus 8, God sent a plague of frogs.  Pharaoh begged Moses to pray that they be removed. Remarkably, when the frogs were gone, we read in verse 15 that Pharaoh, “hardened his heart.”  This happened again in the same chapter when the plague of gnats were removed.  There, in verse 32, we find that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.”  This is repeated in the next chapter when Moses prayed for the plague of hail to stop. Once more Pharaoh hardened his own heart (vs. 34).  These passages make it clear what Pharaoh was inclined to do. They show us quite plainly what Pharaoh had on his mind: to harden his heart against Moses and God. It is obvious that he was very much involved in the process.

The same author (Moses) who told us what God was doing, also told us what Pharaoh was purposing to do.  Obviously, Moses saw no contradiction when he wrote in one breath that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and then in the next he recorded that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  Moses saw both statements as true and non-contradictory.  We might conclude that Pharaoh was disposed to hardening his heart and so God helped him reach that goal.

I believe this conclusion is supported elsewhere in Scripture. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul writes of certain men and women who decide to reject the goodness and mercy of God. Beginning in verse 24, Paul describes how God responds to people like this.  Three times in the remaining passage Paul wrote that God “gave them up” or “over” to the very things that they wanted.  It couldn’t be more clear.  When we choose to close ourselves down to God we place ourselves in a position where God might just say, “go for it.”  If we insist upon being hardened to God, then God turns us over to the very thing we want. Sad, but true.

When we look at the entire story of Moses and Pharaoh, we can see that Pharaoh wasn’t an innocent bystander.  He wasn’t some puppet a string. It’s not like Pharaoh really wanted to let the Hebrews go so he and Moses could become pen pals once they reached the Promised Land, but God just wouldn’t let it happen.  Moses doesn’t paint a picture of a man whose intentions and purposes were being twisted by the hand of God.  No, the text shows that Pharaoh was a willing participant in the hardening of his own heart.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.





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