Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I will harden Pharaoh's heart

Calvin and I are currently reading Exodus together, and we are now at the passages of the 10 plagues. When I was reading Exo 7:3, where the famous "hardening-of-the-heart" motif is found, this time, I thought of it differently.

I checked the limited resources I have on this verse and the interpretation of it is usually that Yahweh will deliberately make Pharaoh's stubborn so that his glory may be shown. A lot of people have a problem with that. I have a problem with that. But reading it this time, I see a different interpretation. Take a look of what I think and tell me what you think.

I began to read the hardening of Pharaoh's heart as a causal effect, not a purposeful God-intended act. What I mean is this: God heard the cries of the Israelites and it is time to rescue them. He wanted the Israelites to go into the wilderness to worship Him but Pharaoh refused. It will not be good for him to have all his kingdom stalled with his all slaves out of Egypt not working. But God wanted Pharaoh to know that He is God. So He shows him his power through Moses and Aaron. However, the more God showed him, the more Pharaoh become adamant and stubborn. The more God did, the more Pharaoh resisted. In this sense, it is not that God has purposefully hardened Pharaoh's heart but the more God revealed who He is, the more Pharaoh rejected him. What God has done, caused Pharaoh to harden his heart. Isn't this reminiscent of man's faith in general?

But, is this "new reading" of mine possible?

Take a look at the following verses in NASB version:

Exodus 7:3-5
3 "But I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 "When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. 5 "The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst."

Exodus 7:12-14
12 For each one threw down his staff and they turned into serpents. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Yet Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said. 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Pharaoh's heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.

Exodus 7:16-17
16 "You shall say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, "Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness. But behold, you have not listened until now." 17 'Thus says the LORD, "By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will be turned to blood.

Exodus 7:22-23
22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts; and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said. 23 Then Pharaoh turned and went into his house with no concern even for this.

Exodus 8:1-2
1 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the LORD, "Let My people go, that they may serve Me. 2 "But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with frogs.

Exodus 8:15
15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

If you carry on reading on the subsequent plagues, you will see the same pattern. God showing his power, and it is Pharaoh who hardened his heart because he just refused to believe. Isn't it quite clear?



  1. Hey Pearlie! :) great to "see" you again! How are you!?

    I loved this entry - makes sense to me!!

  2. Thank you, Pearlie! I need to do this with my son - it seems an excellent way to accomplish many good things. I have been unhappy with my understanding of this story for some time. There was something in it this hardening of Pharoah's heart that was not harmonious with other scripture, but who am I to say what God would do? Your perspective seems very reasonable and harmonious with other scripture.

  3. Pearlie,

    There is an old joke series:

    Conjecture: All odd numbers are prime. Mathematician's Proof: 3 is prime. 5 is prime. 7 is prime. By induction, all odd numbers are prime. Physicist's Proof: 3 is prime. 5 is prime. 7 is prime. 9 is experimental error. 11 is prime. 13 is prime ... Engineer's Proof: 3 is prime. 5 is prime. 7 is prime. 9 is prime. 11 is prime. 13 is prime ... Computer Scientists's Proof: 3 is prime. 3 is prime. 3 is prime. 3 is prime...

    Even so with Pharoah. Pharoah hardens his own heart over and over, and God allows this. Then in 10:24 Pharoah relents. Pharoah cries uncle, and tells Moses, "Go and serve your God - just leave the cattle." And now it changes. God hardens Pharoah's heart. 3, 5, and 7 are all prime, but 9 is not. Pharoah hardens his own heart several times, but eventually, when Pharoah almost relents, God steps in and prevents him.

    He turns the hearts of the kings like rivers.

  4. God created man with free will from Adam to you and I and beyond.

  5. hi pearlie,

    I wrote out a very, very long comment, but I didn't dare post it just yet for fear that it might be too long. Do let me know if it's ok to put it here, and then I will (unless I change my mind and think it wasn't worth it!)

  6. Hi Randi - good to "see" you too! How have you been? Let me get over to your end shortly.

  7. Missy,
    I am not too sure though - even though theological it makes sense, I am not sure if grammatically, in Hebrew, it can be read this way. I don't know Hebrew, so I need to check up some Hebrew experts on this one :)

    But I was discussing this one with one of my friends who has been quoting this verse to me often enough and he too finds it possible - but he too, is no Hebrew scholar, at least not yet.

  8. Codepoke,
    Never heard of that one before but I would have expected 1001 ways we try to explain "away" the difficulty.

    when Pharoah almost relents, God steps in and prevents him.
    Where is this observation/conclusion found?

  9. Susan,
    God created man with free will from Adam to you and I and beyond.
    Yes, but it gets complicated too.

  10. Hi Pearlie!

    Interestingly, the NT comments on this very phenomenon in Romans 9:14ff.

    God hardens whoever he wills, and as our Creator he has the right to do so.

    In the passages you quote, we need to take care to notice the order of things: first God says he will harden Pharoah's heart, then Pharoah hardens his heart.

    As you comment, God acts, then Pharoah hardens his heart in response. If we did not have God stating in advance that he would harden Pharaoh, we might assume that the hardening happens solely because of Pharoah's choice. In fact, I think that is how Pharoah experiences it. But Exodus 7:3-5 and Romans 9:14ff. explain that this not merely a matter of God's foreknowledge, it is his sovereign determination.

    We are usually not comfortable with this, and it is exceedingly difficult to comprehend. But I think the Scriptures are clear on this (IMHO).


  11. Hi Les,
    Thanks for your thoughts. Let me think about it. You are right - in that God has the right to give grace and to harden as he sees fit, but I still think it the causal effect is possible.

  12. Pearlie,

    There in Ex 10:24-29, where I was quoting:

    "And Pharaoh called unto Moses, and said, Go ye, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed: let your little ones also go with you."

    Pharoah is close to relenting. He sends God's people away, as long as they leave their cattle. It's at this point that anything could happen. God could move Pharoah toward relenting, he could turn his heart in that direction. Instead, God does something different.

    "But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let them go."

    Pharoah was softening, but God hardened him.

  13. Pearlie,

    I think something like your causal effect has to be right in the examples you cite. God's hardening need not be direct. But codepoke's example seems to emphasize God's agency in Pharoah's hardening of heart. In the end that's why I am a "compatibilist," i.e., I believe that God sovereignty extends even to the matters of the heart, and at the same time humans make genuine choices and are not just puppets.

    Not that you need to buy more books (ha!), but I think Bruce Ware's God's Greater Glory is very good on this subject.

  14. hi pearlie,

    sorry i never got back to you on this, but thought i might let my thoughts lay dormant for a while. In any case, I agree with codepoke and eutchyus. Part of my basic point in my unpublished longish comment was that if you look carefully at the whole Exodus narrative before, during and after the plagues, you can see that emphasis is laid on God taking the initiative.

    Oh, and D.A Carson's book How Long O Lord? has more on what eutychus' calls "compatibilist", and that a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility throughout Scripture needs to be respected.

  15. Kevin,
    But God can actively hardened his heart only at the end, when even after the last 9 plagues sent on him, Pharaoh was still adamant. So God finally with the last plague sent it with a vengeance.

  16. Hi Les,
    I think something like your causal effect has to be right in the examples you cite.
    Can you re-word this line you wrote? "Has to be right" can mean a few ways :)

    Compatibilist - I never did check that term out much before - maybe it is time I should.

    Not that you need to buy more books (ha!)
    Ha! is right ... :D but seriously, I have been getting too many books I am being very quiet about it, if you have noticed. I have also ordered more on the way! I just told a friend yesterday that it looks like I cannot be buying anymore books for the next 10 years - and yes, I suppose you can "ha!" that one!

    I will check out Bruce Ware's God's Greater Glory in Amazon. Thanks!

  17. BK,
    I am not refuting that God is taking the initiative - as he does in all things. But in most cases, there is always a tension - is it what I will or what he allows, is it what I wanted it to be or what he has set it to be in the first place.

  18. Sorry about that. I meant that I think you are on the right track in seeing that God "causes" Pharoah to harden his heart.

    That does not contradict that this is, at the same time, a purposeful God-intended act. That is, I don't think that God is merely fore-telling that Pharaoh will harden his heart in response to God's display of power. God is fore-ordaining that Pharoah will harden his heart.

  19. Les,
    Reading your notes reminds me how language is sometimes a barrier to communication. There is a possibility we can mean different things with the same words!
    I do not mean I don't agree, I do but I guess I need to qualify it a bit, especially on the fore-ordained bit. But I will leave it as it is here - God is indeed God.
    Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts - it is good to learn from one another ;)