Hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus

See esp. Fretheim’s Exodus commentary (96-103) and Sarna Exploring Exodus 63-5.

Evidence that hardening does not entail determinism:

  1. Chazaq in Hebrew only means to make strong [ditto for the English word “harden”]. In fact, elsewhere in the OT it is translated as strengthen, mighty, courageous, repaired, persuaded, or encouraged (e.g. Josh 4:24; Judges 3:12; 2 Sam 10:12; 2 Chron 35:2. The other words in Hebrew for harden are Kaved = to be heavy or insensitive and Qashah = to make firm. Hence, it does not have to be read deterministically. It is like building up a callous—so one becomes impervious to pain. Heart in Hebrew refers to the controlling center of human actions (not the emotions as in our culture) Sarna 64.
  2. See 10:1, 7 where God hardens Pharaoh’s advisors, yet they overcome God’s hardening and plead with Pharaoh to release the people. Hence, God does not remove a person’s free will by hardening them.
  3. God uses conditional language to Pharaoh = “if” you let them go (8:2; 9:2, 17; 10:4). Such language makes the best sense if God is speaking genuinely to Pharaoh.
  4. Moses knows about the divine hardening, yet he believes his lack of eloquence is the reason the people are not yet released—he does not think it is God’s fault for hardening Pharaoh’s heart (6:12). Moses does not seem to interpret hardening deterministically.
  5. God proclaims what will be unless Pharaoh changes his mind, not what has to be (7:3-5). God’s word can be conditional even if it is not stated conditionally.
  6. Twenty times hardening occurs. 10 times Pharaoh hardens his own heart and 10 times God hardens it.
  7. Pharaoh hardens his own heart the first 6 times. It is not until 9:12 that God hardens his heart. Divine hardening is not arbitrary. It is in response to the rejection of Yahweh’s word. Yahweh accentuates Pharaoh’s own character to further Yahweh’s historical purposes (Sarna 65). The divine Pharaoh was thought to be free but by reinforcing his own irrational stubbornness Pharaoh becomes a prisoner of his own irrationality—a god whose freedom is mocked (S 65).

Explanation: the purpose of the plagues is not merely to liberate Israel (if that was all God wanted then dragging things out is unconscionable (Gowan 138). Rather, they attempt to make a convincing case that Yahweh alone is God so that only Yahweh is God to both the Hebrews and Egyptians. God wants Pharaoh to unconditionally submit to Yahweh’s authority. There is a public aspect to God’s work here: that “the world may know” who Yahweh is (F 95, 124-5). Like a high stakes game of poker, God is going for broke. God wants an unconditional surrender not a negotiated settlement. God wants Pharaoh to humble himself before Yahweh (10:3) so God pushes Pharaoh to put all of his chips into the wager. Or, to change the metaphor it is like a canoe heading for a falls. Ahab in Moby Dick was consumed by his stubbornness. God works this way with Pharaoh at this time for this particular purpose but it is not God’s normal way of dealing with humans (Gowan, Theology in Exodus, 139).

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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