Sunday, 16 January 2011

Hardening Pharaoh's heart

In the determinism-freewill debate there is discussion about God hardening Pharaoh's heart. Determinists emphasise that it is God's prerogative to harden (and soften) whoever he pleases. And by implication that people who God shows mercy to inevitably come to him. Arminians, while agreeing that God can show mercy to whomever he chooses, emphasise that God was completing in Pharaoh something that Pharaoh had begun of his own volition. But are we understanding what the text means by harden?

These are the 18 mentions of hardening in Pharaoh in Exodus. The words used are chazaq, qashah, kabad, and kabed

Source of hardeningReferences
chazaq qashah kabad kabed
God will harden Pharaoh's heartExo 4:21; 14:4Exo 7:3

God hardened the heart of PharaohExo 9:12; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8.
Exo 10:1
Pharaoh's heart was hard(ened)Exo 7:13; 7:22; 8:19; 9:35
Exo 9:7Exo 7:14
Pharaoh hardened his heart

Exo 8:15; 8:32; 9:34

2 other useful references are
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed [haphak] toward the people, and they said, "What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us? (Exodus 14:5)
And I will harden [chazaq] the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. (Exodus 14:17)
So what does it mean to harden? Metaphorically it views one as resolved, unwilling to change. It implies that Pharaoh was not only unwilling, but unable to change his mind. I concede this is possible. "Harden" is the English word translators have used for these Hebrew words. But these words may carry the idea of "strength" or "resolve".

The primary meanings are
  • chazaq: to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore.
  • qashah: to be hard, be severe, be fierce, be harsh
  • kabad: to be heavy, be weighty, be grievous, be hard, be rich, be honourable, be glorious, be burdensome, be honoured
  • kabed: heavy, great
Tense and context determines meaning, nevertheless the primary meanings suggest that the word used of God's action (predominantly chazaq) includes the concepts of strength and resolve. The NET Bible translates the first occurrence of God hardening Pharaoh's heart thus,
The Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control. But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)
And the footnote to the word "harden" states,
Heb “strengthen” (in the sense of making stubborn or obstinate). The text has the expression וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת־לִבּוֹ (va’ani ’akhazzeq ’et-libbo), “I will make strong his will,” or “I will strengthen his resolve,” recognizing the “heart” as the location of decision making (see Prov 16:1, 9).
confirming this sense.

The reference to Pharaoh in Romans 9 reads,
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
And the word harden here is skleruno which literally means "harden" but metaphorically "obstinate" or "stubborn".

If this is the case in Exodus it may modify our interpretation of the passage.

The case of Pharaoh is frequently seen by determinists as a man whom God has chosen to make resistant to God's purposes. Pharaoh has no option of repentance. God made Pharaoh for the sole purpose of showing his glory in passing judgment on Pharaoh.

In contrast to this it may be that God is strengthening Pharaoh's resolve to resist God. God is aware that Pharaoh will reject his ways, but the hardening is not so much making Pharaoh initially resistant, rather maintaining resistance when it is not really feasible to do so.

An analogy I think is helpful is that of a bully threatening a young boy. The bully holds the boy in contempt and intends on hurting him. But if the boy calls on a stronger person to help, the bully is no longer in a position to inflict harm, even if the bully still holds the boy in contempt. Hardening of the bully's heart means that he would continue to threaten and try to attack when there is no possibility of harming the boy; the bully attempts to attack even as the boy calls for his brothers, and fathers, and uncles, variously armed with knives and guns.

Facing the plagues meant that Pharaoh was in a position that even while he held God in contempt, he was unable to resist. Pharaoh could not resist God and the narrative of the plagues makes this clear, much like an unarmed man with a hundred guns poised over him. Yet God gives Pharaoh the obstinacy to refuse the Hebrews. Even when the magicians said it was the hand of God, even when they could not stand in the presence of Pharaoh, even when Pharaoh's servants told him that Egypt was destroyed.

And why did God do this?
Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews,... "But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go." (Exodus 9)
Pharaoh had already chosen against God. God's power manifest to Pharaoh meant that Pharaoh would crumbled. God strengthened Pharaoh's resolve so that God's judgment could be bring God glory.

This is consistent with Paul's reasoning in Romans. After the example of Pharaoh Paul writes,
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory... (Romans 9)
Pharaoh was already a vessel of wrath. But God strengthened Pharaoh's resolve and waited patiently, that his glory may be even more manifest. The hardening was not to make Pharaoh judgment-worthy, it was to delay God's judgment and thus increase God's majesty. And this is indeed what happened. Rahab says to the spies,
I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2)
Had God not hardened Pharaoh's heart, he still would have come under judgment, but the Hebrews would have left near the beginning of the plagues. But the 10 plagues afforded many Egyptians to fear God and leave Egypt to join with Israel. And the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea struck fear into men from the surrounding nations. It was the salvation of Rahab. God's patience in judgment of Pharaoh led to the salvation of a prostitute in Jericho. Peter states,
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, (2 Peter 3)
In summary it may be preferable to see the metaphor of hardening a heart more as retaining resolve rather than making one resistant. And the context of Exodus and Romans suggests that hardening was not in order to have a reason to enact judgment—God already had reason enough—but to delay complete judgment.


  1. That's my favourite question to ask on this matter, "How did God harden Pharoah's heart?"

    Nice post. :)

  2. I had never made that connection between Pharaoh's hardened heart and Rahab. I think I agree with your general point. Of course, I love the use of metaphor in the Bible -- I'd be just as happy with "God turned Pharaoh's heart to stone" :-)

  3. Thanks stripe.

    I have previously read harden in a Calvinist manner. I tend to appreciate readings that are straightforward, but at times straightforward can reflect a translation bias rather than the straightforward reading. If we change a word in English and the straightforward meaning changes, then a debate about the meaning of the word is in order.

    If we translated a passage that God made Pharaoh's heart resolute, then our understanding of the meaning of the text might well be quite different.

    I don't mine the term "harden," but it seems to read (in English) to make rebellious, rather than to insist on taking action in a state of rebellion.

  4. Thanks joshua.

    Perhaps. That metaphor may be worth looking into, I have read it as being uncompassionate, or being unable to change; but haven't thought about this assumption. I have heard that "heart" in Hebrew reads more "will" than the English "emotion".

  5. Another concept which ight be worth considering in the 'sowing and reaping principle' described in Galatians:

    “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” Galatians 6:7, 8, KJV.

    Romans seems to echo this:

    “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:” Romans 1:21-24, KJV.

    The Greek word translated ‘gave them up’ is paradidómi which means, ‘to give (turn) over; "hand over from," i.e. to deliver over with a sense of close (personal) involvement.’ It does not merely mean to abandon, but to actively turn over to judgment, to be put (into prison).

    So it seems that a crossing point can be reached where God stops working on a person's conscience and instead brings judgement, whether it be to turn their hearts or simply to establish justice.

    Just a thought!



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