Friday, May 18, 2018

What to do with passages in which God says he will harden Pharaoh's heart?

What to do with passages where God says, "I will harden his heart?"
Exodus 4:21
And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Exodus 7:3
But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 14:4
I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. And they did so.
We need not make much of these predictions of divine hardening when we study divine hardening. What, exactly, hardening means is not at all clear. And if we are not able to determine what hardening is, we can indeed determine biblically what hardening is not. Divine hardening is not divine control. Contrary to general assumptions, it is also not some sort of "locking in" to a particular course of action. For a detailed blog-style treatment of the meaning of divine hardening, see this article. At this point in my study, I believe we can safely understand divine hardening as something God does for a person who is reluctantly obedient. The person strongly desires to act contrary to God's oracles; but, no matter how long he searches, cannot find a good enough reason to act in the way he desires. When a man wants to misbehave that badly and all he is lacking is an excuse, God is willing to provide that excuse or rationale.

Walter Brueggemann (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Abingdon, OliveTree) explains it this way:
God does wonders that shatter all present reality, but God also sponsors resistance to the newness on behalf of the status quo. The juxtaposition makes perfectly good sense, even if we judge only by what is visible and conventional. Gestures and acts that violate the present and anticipate newness do indeed evoke resistance in defense of the status quo. Moreover, the response of resistance tends to be proportionate to the threat of the “wonder.” As the pitch of wonder intensifies, so the intensity of resistance is sure to increase as well. The text shows that Yahweh intends to escalate both the wonder and the resistance.
The additional factor below the surface, and which changes everything, is the fact that the “hardening” does not just happen, is not merely chosen by Pharaoh, but is caused by Yahweh, who is the subject of the active verb harden. The narrator is willing to entertain the awareness that Yahweh operates negatively to heighten the drama, to make the clash between oppressor and victim as pointed as is bearable in the narrative.
James Bruckner (Understanding the Bible Commentary, Baker, OliveTree) has this fascinating comment:
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is sometimes a red herring for interpreters. Pharaoh’s heart was already “hard” enough—he had harshly enslaved a whole people. The theological problem is not that Pharaoh was compassionate and the Lord made him “hard.” The more difficult issues arise from the fact that the hardening prolongs the enslavement of the children of Israel and eventually requires that the Lord kill the firstborn of Egypt.
I strongly suspect that there is very little difference between divine hardening and self hardening. Pharaoh's heart was already hard. It would be easy to anticipate his answer to Moses' first "Let my people go." When God offers an opportunity to "do right" but the invitation is rejected, there is a hardening effect. Every time Pharaoh said "No" to God, he grew harder. God hardened Pharaoh by repeatedly sending Moses with another message to "Let my people go." Bruckner further comments on Exodus 7:3,
Throughout the plague cycles Pharaoh expresses his hardness of heart in three different ways: Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34), Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or became hard (Exodus 7:13–14, 22–23; 8:19; 9:7, 35) and God hardened it (Exodus 9:12; 11:10; 14:8). God had also promised to harden it (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 14:4, 17). There are no special distinctions between these expressions. It may be concluded that God calcified Pharaoh’s own stubbornness and cruelty to accomplish divine purposes.
Now, when we look at the first text of Exodus 4:21, it appears that God anticipates hardening Pharaoh even before Pharaoh has the opportunity to obey God.

There are several ambiguities in this text which prevent us from being too certain of ourselves about what God is predicting. The ambiguities begin to surface when we look at a little context.
Exo 4:21-26
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”
On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”
The general wisdom of most Bible readers is that God's threat to kill Pharaoh's firstborn son refers to the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, as is indicated by Thomas B. Dozeman (New Interpreter's Study Bible, Abingdon, OliveTree).
The divine prediction to harden the heart of Pharaoh probably refers to the death of the Egyptian firstborn, since it is followed by the divine claim that Israel is the Lord’s firstborn. The firstborn status of Israel signifies kinship between the Lord and Israel and the divine claim on all firstborn (Exodus 13:1).
If Dozeman (and most other readers) are correct in this assessment of the saying, "I will kill your firstborn son," then the predicted hardening of Pharaoh refers specifically to the tenth plague. That means that the other divine hardenings of the king are not predicted this early in the drama.

There is another way to read "I will kill your firstborn son." Since God refers to enslaved Israel as God's firstborn, the nation of Egypt could very well be understood to be Pharaoh's firstborn son. If I am correct that Egypt is Pharaoh's firstborn son, then what is being predicted is the total ruin of Egypt. Such an understanding would motivate us to apply the predicted divine hardening in Exodus 4:21 to be something that happens in Pharaoh much earlier in the account.

Furthermore, it is fascinating that, in the verse following God's plan to harden Pharaoh, God attacks Moses and tries to kill him! Moses' wife Zipporah takes action and saves Moses' life. Nevertheless, the reader is shocked that the whole plan to send Moses to Pharaoh is jeopardized by God's own action against Moses. The narrative placement of this attack shows that God does not necessarily make divine plans in meticulous detail. God makes adjustments along the way. What would have happened had Moses died in this attack we can only speculate. Perhaps God would have selected somebody else to complete the mission. The narrative disruption of this attack strongly suggests that the divine plan to harden Pharaoh was a contingent prediction, no matter how strong the language, "but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go."

Finally, it is important to notice that the NRSV is correct in translating,
But you refused to let him go. (Exodus 4:23, also RSV, KJV, NKJV, MEV, REB, ESV, LXX)
Now, God may be telling Moses, word for word, what to say to Pharaoh after the execution of the ninth plague and in anticipation of the tenth plague. More likely, this statement is verbalized in the past tense because readers already know, even at this point in the account, that Pharaoh refused to let the Israel go. Not surprisingly, the reader also knows that Pharaoh's heart is going to grow more and more hard throughout the ordeal. The writer is right to anticipate these hardenings early in the account.

It is interesting to study the sequence of events in the book of Exodus; but we must return to the fact that divine hardening is not divine control of a person; nor is divine hardening a "locking in" of a person's preferred course of bad action.


  1. Hi,

    Many thanks for this article! I've been puzzled recently on how could the hardening of Pharaoh mean control over him. Are we really to believe that Pharaoh wanted to let the people go but God controlled him to not do so in order to get to kill his firstborn!?!?
    You're comments were very illuminating!

    Here are some further remarks on the text, in line with your view:

    In 4:21 it seems like the plan is that Moses should do the wonders and God will harden Pharaoh's heart. But when we read the action that follows (5:22-23, 6:10-13, 6:28-30) we are forced to ask:
    1. If Moses understood the plan to be ''let's hearden Pharaoh such that he won't let the people go'' then why is he mad on God for not rescuing them?
    2. If Moses understood the hardening as meaning ''taking control over someone' then why is he still wondering if Pharaoh will listen to him?

    The passage in John 12 is also interesting:

    39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
    40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”[i]
    41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
    42 Yet (!!!) at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him.

    People whose hearts were hardened by God are capable of believing!!

    Best regards,
    Cristi Raducan