The Righteous God Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart
Questioning God's Justice
In the Exodus narrative, the God of creation willfully hardens the heart of Pharaoh. “I will harden his heart,” says God (Exodus 4:21, cf. 10:1); and later Moses records, “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 9:12, cf. 14:8). Something seems awry, and duly so, for the host of Scripture speaks to the goodness, mercy, and justice of God. Earlier in the Pentateuch God promised to bless the whole world by Abraham (12:1ff). Curses are not his main game. But God can and will harden a man if it’ll more luminously display his goodness and grace. There’s no disparity here.
Knowledge of God’s goodness elicits the Bible student to plumb the depths of anything or anyone that questions it. It can’t be that God is acting unjustly or uncharacteristically. In fact, the text bears out something quite the opposite. Three questions are in order: (1) What was the character of the Pharaoh whose heart was made a stone? (2) How did God harden it? (3) Why did God harden it?
Getting to Know Pharaoh
Consider for a moment the character traits of the Pharaohs associated with Exodus. Almost immediately, the text states, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This forms a contrast between the new Pharaoh and the Pharaoh of Genesis. The Pharaoh known by Joseph not only dealt kindly with him (Genesis 41:40) and his family (47:5-6) but recognized the Spirit of God when he saw it (41:38). It quickly becomes apparent just how different this new Egyptian leadership functioned. After noticing how rapidly the Hebrew people were growing, the new Pharaoh afflicted the people with “heavy burdens” (Exodus 1:11); he dealt ruthlessly with them, forcing hard slave labor (1:13); and he made their lives bitter (Exodus 1:14). He even administered population control, forcing Hebrew midwives to kill every son born to the Israelite people (1:16). After the midwives refused Pharaoh’s extermination plot, he ordered the Egyptians to cast every baby boy into the nile river (1:22). Consequently, Moses’ parents were forced to hide him after his birth (2:2).
After Moses became a man and fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, the Pharaoh he personally knew died. However, the text indicates that the next Pharaoh—the one God would harden—acted very similarly. “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help” (Exodus 2:23). There was no reprieve with the passing of one Pharaoh to the next. Hard slave labor remained the theme. God, when speaking to Moses of the Pharaoh he would harden, said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them” (3:7,9b). Oppressive leadership, ruthless handling, and murderous intentions characterize the Pharaohs of Exodus.
Before any work of God was performed to harden Pharaoh’s heart, he already maintained a deviant, stubborn nature. After directing Moses on is role in this whole drama, God said, “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19), or more literally, “will not let you go, not by a mighty hand” (Septuagint, Vulgate, Hebrew). In other words, like an old donkey, Pharaoh was gonna dig his heels into the ground by his own choice. In fact, on at least three occasions, Pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). Three Hebrew words are used in Exodus to describe the hardness of Pharaoh's heart (Barry), but the particular word used every time Pharaoh hardened his own heart is insightful. The word is kabod (כבד), and it plainly means “be heavy, make heavy, honor” (Swanson). This same word is translated as “glory” in Exodus 14:4 when God says, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host” (cf. 14:17). In fact, very often throughout the Scriptures kabod refers to the honor and glory of God.
The plain meaning of the term—and the way it’s ascribed to Pharaoh’s own nature—settles some otherwise uncomfortable feelings about God’s justice. Not only was Pharaoh ruthless and stubborn, but when he made his own heart hard (kabod), he was actually personally glorifying himself. It’s not as though God took an otherwise humble man and completely changed his nature. Rather, God amplified a quality Pharaoh already possessed.
Understanding God's Method
But how did God harden his heart? Did he tweak the chemical balance of Pharaoh’s brain? Did he strip his free will? Did he force rebellion? Exodus 7 has some answers. Before Moses challenged Pharaoh a second time, God said, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you” (7:3-4). A few verses later, an insightful event transpires. Pharaoh puts the authority of Moses’ to the test and asks for a miracle (7:9). At this faithless juncture, Aaron cast his staff to the ground upon which its knotted wood grew flesh and drew back as a serpent (7:10). Pharaoh wasn’t impressed though. He quickly “summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents” (7:11-12). It’s no coincidence that just after their apparent replication of Divine power, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen, as the Lord had said” (7:13).
Now, Moses’ and Aaron’s serpent swallowed Pharaoh’s serpent (7:12), indicating God’s sovereignty; yet, it seems Pharaoh felt secure in what his magicians could do. All authority is God’s, ultimately, but Pharaoh wasn’t the first man duped by Satan’s subordinate but very real power. God grants Satan just enough power to pull the wool over any otherwise insincere sign-seeker with no mind to actually obey God (see Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Matthew 16:4).
Another instance in the same chapter makes the point clearer. The first plague in Egypt involved the Nile river being turned to blood (7:17). After Moses and Aaron completed what the Lord said, the whole of the land stunk (7:21). As if this wasn't the clearest indication of God’s power and sovereignty, we read “But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said” (7:22).
The connection between the ability of Pharaoh’s magicians and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is unmistakable. The second plague—one involving frogs—indicates that the magicians of Egypt yet did the same by their magic arts (8:7). Therefore, on three occasions Pharaoh could dismiss God’s power. And though the magicians could no longer replicate these miracles by plague three (8:18), the precedent was set, and Pharaoh was under the impression that he could compete with God.
Why Did God Do It that Way?
But why did God need to harden Pharaoh’s heart? Was there an advantage to this approach? Couldn’t he have delivered the Jews on day one? No doubt, He could have. But the Lord needed to answer a very important question in a very powerful way. When Moses and Aaron first demanded that Pharaoh let God’s people go (5:1), Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (5:2). Who is the Lord? What an awesome question. The legitimacy of the question was feigned though; he gave no time to hear an answer. Despite Pharaoh’s apathy, God answered the question. He answered the question for His people, Israel; He answered the question for Pharaoh; and He answered the question for the Egyptian nation. And ultimately, he answers the question for us.
After Pharaoh left his own question in limbo, he progressively made Israel’s labor more difficult. He demanded the same daily quota of bricks, but he took away their straw, a key ingredient for ancient brick-making (Spence-Jones 124). So Israel cried out in exasperation, blaming Moses and Aaron for making their lives harder (5:21). Even Moses questioned God (5:22-23). So perhaps, for a moment, everyone was asking, “Who is the Lord?” Five times in Exodus 6, God says “I am the Lord” (6:2, 6, 7, 8, 29), almost every time connecting his good name with his great promises to Abraham and his faithfulness. In Exodus 7 God says, “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (7:5). In 7:17 God says to Pharaoh, “By this you shall know that I am the lord; behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.”
Pharaoh asked, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” (5:2). Whether he liked it or not, a powerful answer was given. God delivered Israel by way of hardening Pharaoh’s heart (and subsequently bringing upon them ten plagues) because he needed to give the whole world an answer to the question, “Who is the Lord?” The answer? He is a God with whom we ought not trifle.
It may be that the Exodus narrative produces suspicions of injustice on the part of God, but the very same Scriptures deliver His Name. God only amplified some qualities already present in Pharaoh’s faithless heart. Had Pharaoh been a repentant man, presumably God would have waited for another Pharaoh by whom he could so powerfully display his might. It was important that God deliver His people in such a powerful way, for at one point or another, everyone asks, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him?”
Barry, John D. et al., eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print.
Spence-Jones, H. D. M., ed. Exodus. Vol. 1. London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909. Print. The Pulpit Commentary.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) 1997 : n. pag. Print.
Cite this article
Mayfield, Daniel A. “The Righteous God Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart.” Christianity | Finding Canaan, Finding Canaan, 1 June 2018, www.findingcanaan.org/single-post/2018/06/01/The-Righteous-God-Who-Hardened-Pharaohs-Heart.