This entry is part 8 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
The account of the ten plagues of Egypt frequently refers to the ‘hardening’ of Pharaoh’s heart. Because ‘hardness of heart’ suggests to us something to do with the emotions, Goldingay prefers to think of this as ‘the closing of Pharaoh’s mind’. There are four aspects to this:-
- Yahweh will close Pharaoh’s mind: Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 14:4
- Pharaoh’s mind was closed: Exodus 7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35
- Pharaoh closed his mind: Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34
- Yahweh closed Pharaoh’s mind: Exodus 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8
Alexander refers to the ‘strengthening’ of Pharaoh’s heart. He explains that the word ḥāzaq conveys a meaning to modern readers that is alien to the text itself, viz. cruelty; a lack of compassion. But in Hebrew thinking the word refers to a stiffening of resolve. ‘Strengthening someone’s heart is about giving them the willpower or determination to do what they have already decided, when other factors might pressurize them into doing otherwise. In some situations this will be associated with courage; in others, stubbornness.’
As can be seen, in the earlier stages, this hardening is attributed to Pharaoh himself. In the later phases, however, we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as the Lord had predicted in Ex 4:21; 7:3. Indeed, the comment that Pharaoh hardened his own heart ‘just as the Lord had said’ (Ex 7:13, etc) suggests that even in the self-hardening there was a divine purpose going on.
Some interpreters, such as Enns, think that any attempt to resolve these differences is futile.
We think, however, that some explanation is both possible and necessary.
It has been customary among critical scholars to attempt to discern different sources in the text of Exodus (and other parts of the Old Testament). It would then be possible to suggest that one source said that ‘Pharaoh hardened his own heart’, and for another that ‘God hardened Pharaoh’s heart’.
Childs, examining the relevant expressions in the two postulated source documents, concludes: ‘In J the hardness prevents the signs from revealing the knowledge of God; in P hardness results in the multiplication of signs as judgement. This means that all attempts to relate hardness to a psychological state or derive it from a theology of divine causality miss the mark…The motif [of hardening] sought to explain a tradition which contained the series of divine signs but which continued to fail in their purpose. Hardening was the vocabulary used by the biblical writers to describe the resistance which prevents the signs from achieving their assigned task.’
According to Childs, ‘the motif has been consistently over-interpreted by supposing that it arose from a profoundly theological reflection and seeing it as a problem of free will and predestination. It is clear that the P source extended the origin of hardening into the plan of God and thus went beyond J. But the polarity between hardening as a decision of Pharaoh and as an effect of God never was seen as a major issue.’
We think that the multiple-source hypothesis raises more problems than it solves. Why would two different sources say such different things, unless there was a theological basis that needs to be examined? Why did the editor(s) who pieced together these sources not try to iron out the ‘discrepancy’?
Cassuto, too, thinks that the theological implications of this issue have been exaggerated. He says that questions about divine sovereignty and human responsibility are alien to the Pentateuch, having more to do with Greek ways of thinking. For Cassuto, to say that ‘God hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ or that ‘Pharaoh hardened his own heart’ are equivalent ways of saying that Pharaoh become stubborn.
Cassuto’s argument may have some merit. We should not assume that Hebrew and Greek thought and expression are interchangeable. And there is something to be said for the notion that, in the Old Testament especially, everything is traced back to God. But ultimately Cassuto’s argument fails, because of the distinction the Exodus text itself makes between the two ways of stating the issue, and because of the way in which issues around ‘hardening of the heart’ are handled in the rest of Scripture.
Cole, too, takes what is essentially a ‘both/and’ approach: ‘To [the Hebrew mind], God was the first cause of everything, without in any sense denying the reality, and moral responsibility, of the human agent involved…These are not mutually exclusive explanations, nor even equally valid alternative explanations. To the Hebrew they are essentially the same explanation, phrased differently.’
Stuart thinks that the three modes of expression (Pharaoh hardened his own heart; Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ God hardened Pharaoh’s heart) are more or less synonymous, and that the differences in wording have little bearing on the divine sovereignty/human responsibility debate. But it seems to us that Stuart has not paid sufficient attention to the trajectory of the text, in which references to Pharaoh hardening his own heart are increasingly replaced by those where God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart.
The ‘hardening’ motif in Scripture
Notwithstanding Child’s contention that the ‘hardening’ motif is more or less confined to Exodus, it is actually quite prevalent throughout Scripture as a whole. Sometimes, people are said to harden their own hearts, Exod. 9:34–35; 2 Chron. 36:13; Zech. 7:12; Heb. 3:15. At other times, however, it is God who hardens hearts, Ex 7:3; 9:12; Deut 2:30; Josh 11:19–20. Paul, in Rom. 9:18–21, insists that it is God’s prerogative to do this.
There are three main clusters of references to ‘hardening’:-
- The hardening of Pharaoh in Exodus 4-14
- The rebellion of Israel in the wilderness, as treated in Psa 95:7-11 and as applied to Jewish Christians in Heb 3:7-4:11
- The rejection by Israel of God’s Messiah, as prophesied in Isa 6:9f. This text seems to regard hardening as not so much a result of personal choice, as an outcome of divine judgement. This theme is taken up by Jesus (see Mt 13:13-15; Jn 12:39f, etc.), and by Paul (Acts 28:25-27). In Rom 9-11, Paul expands on this theme (see, esp. Rom 9:18).
Andrew Reid comments: ‘The Apostle Paul has a brief comment on this particular question in Romans 9. In discussing the election of Israel, he raises the question that might be on our minds from Exodus, that is, do God’s elective purposes expose him to the charge of being unjust. In response he cites 33:19, noting that God’s actions towards humans must be understood to arise not from human will but from his nature to have mercy (something clearly expressed in the context of Exodus 32–34). Paul then turns his attention to Pharaoh, in whom God wanted to display his power and name (Romans 9:17; cf. 9:16), before returning to 33:19, where he adds that God not only has mercy on whomever he has mercy but also hardens whomever he wills (clearly a reference to Pharaoh, Romans 9:18). Paul’s comments clearly indicate that however we answer this question we must rest it in God’s hands, which are filled with mercy and directed towards the glory of his name. This may result in things that seem unfathomable to us, but they should be gloried in nevertheless (see Romans 11:33).’
Human responsibility and divine sovereignty
In positing two sources for the ‘hardening’ texts (J, which has Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and P, which has Pharaoh’s heart being hardened by God), Childs is able to distance himself somewhat from the theological implications of this apparently contradictory double witness: The motif has been consistently over-interpreted by supposing that it arose from a profoundly theological reflection and seeing it as a problem of free-will and predestination.’ While we have some sympathy with Childs’ point of view (after all, the text shows little sign of the kind of
Some scholars understand the increasing emphasis on God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as expressive of the former treating the latter as a ‘puppet’ in his hands. God demonstrates his divinity, and Pharaoh’s mere humanity, by removing his free will. Clearly, this interpretation is fraught with theological and ethical problems, and fails to align either with common sense or (more importantly) the text itself.
No: Pharaoh is held fully responsible for his decisions and actions. More plausible is the interpretation which views God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a judgement: Pharaoh’s punishment for hardening his own heart is to have his decision finally ratified by God. Alexander objects that this connection is not made in the text itself.
It is possible for one process or event to have more than one explanation, and for each explanation to be valid.
Motyer remarks that in the case of, say a hail storm (see Ex 9:13-35), we can give both a scientific account (moist air rising, freezing, and then falling) and also a theological explanation (“I will send a hailstorm”, cf. Ex 9:18). These are not alternative, but rather complementary, explanations. The theological explanation goes back behind second causes to the First Cause. ‘The Lord of all creation used, manages, directs, and controls the way creation operates.’ So it is with moral processes also. Our choices produce habits, and none of us quite knows when a series of choices will crystallise into fixed habit from which we cannot escape. ‘Only God foresees the decisive, freedom-destroying choice, and only he knows at once when the choice that kills freedom has been made. Indeed…because he is God, it is he that fixes that point.’
In other words (Motyer continues), it is possible to tells two stories about his heart, and both are true. One story is about his own moral choices, and the way these harden into a position from which he cannot escape. The other story is about God, who as moral ruler determines the point of no return and judgmentally imposes on Pharaoh the consequences of his own choices. The ability to make moral choices is both the privilege and the price of being human. ‘Our privilege is that of being responsible beings, recognising moral values, called to make responsible choices, and given the opportunity and obligation to live in the light of the foreseeable consequences of our actions. The price we pay is that every choice, for good or ill, goes to fashioning our characters, and whether in the long or short term – or both – makes us answerable to the Judge of all the earth.’
Exodus tells us both that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and that God hardened. In this way, both human responsibility and divine sovereignty are affirmed.
The notion that any one event can have both a (sinful) human cause and also a (holy) divine cause is attested in such scriptures as Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23.
Alexander offers a further reason why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart: it was to enable the whole series of plagues to demonstrate both to the Egyptians and to the Israelites his being and his sovereign power. See Ex 9:13-16; 10:1f.
Pharaoh had a genuine choice. Otherwise, the ‘if’ language (Ex 8:2; 9:2; 10:3f) makes no sense. The command not to harden one’s heart (as in 1 Sam 6:6) would make no sense if we were to deny human responsibility in this matter.
Pharaoh is not a puppet, nor is God a puppet-master. Fretheim: ‘That both God and Pharaoh are subjects of the hardening is important. Pharaoh as subject actually counts for something; decisions he makes are related to his own stubbornness. The agonizing of Pharaoh gives evidence of internal decision-making processes. God as subject intensifies Pharaoh’s own obduracy. While initially this does not result in a numbing of Pharaoh’s will, it begins to have that effect as events drive toward final disaster. Both need to be said: Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and so does God.’
God hardens hearts. But is that hardening responsive (God hardens those who harden themselves), or creative (God hardens those who would not otherwise have hardened their hearts)? With Fretheim, we would want to avoid a polarised position that either says that God is in absolute control of Pharaoh’s heart all along (absolute determinism), or that Pharaoh retains ‘free will’ all along, and could have changed his mind at any point. Fretheim adds that, ultimately, all God’s enemies are doomed to failure, Ex 15:6f, just as God has determined that Pharaoh will ultimately fail in his refusal to let God’s people go.
Is it possible to say how God exercises his sovereignty in hardening hearts? Much is mysterious (Deut 29:29). But we can suggest that God hardens hearts as Creator (he has created us as beings who have a tendency to form habits, and for these habits – good and bad – to become more and more confirmed by repetition); Law-giver (If God has not issued any command (“Let my people go!”) there could have been no disobedience to that command, and no hardening of Pharaoh’s resolve); and Judge (In the end, he ‘gives us up’ to the consequences of our own choices).
Some refer to this process as ‘judicial hardening’. Pharaoh says, “I want my own way.” And God says, “Very well then, have you own way.” Both Pharaoh and the Lord have a point of no return. The boat is rushing towards the waterfall, and at some point, its fate becomes inevitable. ‘The Lord causes Pharaoh’s heart to become hard (lit. ‘difficult’), not by implanting evil in it, but by giving it over to its evil direction without restraint. (Rom 1:24,26,28) Paul contrasts hardening with showing mercy. (Rom 9:18) God’s judgment on Pharaoh issued in mercy to Israel, Egypt, and the nations as they saw his power to save.’ (New Geneva)
A key text here is Rom 9:18, which seems to teach a doctrine of ‘double predestination’ – that God chooses both those will be saved and those who will be damned. Moo responds to this be pointing out that in Rom 11:11-24 hardening is presented as something that is reversible. Although it is traceable back to God, it is not necessarily permanent. ‘Those among the Jews who have been ‘hardened’ (v. 7) have not stumbled ‘so as to fall beyond recovery’ (v. 11). By their faith, they can be restored again to the olive tree, the people of God (v. 23). And this faith, as the argument of Romans has made plain, is faith in Christ and the good news that he has brought (see e.g. Rom 3:22, 26; 10:8–13).’ See also 2 Cor 3:15–16; 4:3–6.
The Puritan writer Stephen Charnock argued that the process of divine hardening was not positive, but privative: ‘God is said to harden men, when he removes not from them the incentives to sin, curbs not those principles which are ready to comply with those incentives, withdraws the common assistances of his grace, concurs not with counsels and admonitions to make them effectual, flasheth not in the convincing light which he darted upon them before. If hardness follows upon God’s withholding his softening grace, it is not from any positive act of God, but from the natural hardness of man.’ Wax, says Charnock, is naturally hard. If a flame is brought near to it, it will soften. Then, if you take the flame away, it will harden again.
If a person chooses sin, and refuses to repent in the face of repeated demonstrations of truth, and ever-clearer warnings, then ultimately God will give that person up to their sin and its consequences. See Rom 1:24-28; 2 Thess 2:9-12.
God, who made our heart, minds and wills, constituted us so that every decision we make has an impact on the next decision. As Haley writes: the rejection of truth and the abuse of blessings tend ever to “harden the heart”. God, therefore, by making known his truth and be bestowing his blessings, indirectly “hardens” men’s hearts; this is, furnishes occasion for their hardening.”
If God had not sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh; if he had not demonstrated his power by means of the series of plagues; if he had not given Pharaoh a clear indication of his will; then there would have been no occasion for Pharaoh’s heart to harden. But God did do all these things, repeatedly, and so in this sense at least the hardening may be ascribed to God.
Fretheim: ‘Each refusal makes it easier for Pharaoh to refuse the next time. More and more, the end becomes a certain matter.’
Cole quotes Driver to similar effect: ‘The means by which God hardens a man is not necessarily by any extraordinary intervention on His part; it may be by the ordinary experiences of life, operating through the principles and character of human nature, which are of His appointment.’
Fretheim insightfully points out that the increasing divine hardening anticipates, and is a part of, the final judgement. ‘The divine hardening itself participates in the judgment which is to come; in fact, it may be said that God’s hardening activity gathers momentum and drives the judgmental events toward their disastrous end.’ Cf. Psa 81:11f.
‘In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does. The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; the doors of hell are locked on the inside. . . . They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.’ (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
The language of Jeremiah and Ezekiel about the fall of Jerusalem suggests that there was a point when even repentance would be useless (cf. Jer. 4:28; 15:1–9; 16:12; Ezek. 7:1–9).
So, we could say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the sense that it was he who sent ever more powerful demonstrations of his power. But those very things that should have led Pharaoh to repent, had the effect of making him more and more stubborn.
Bible teacher R.A. Torrey wrote: ‘Nothing that God sends us is more merciful than His judgments upon our sins. If we take these judgments right they will soften our hearts and lead us to repentance and entire surrender to God, and thus bring us salvation. But if we rebel against them, they will harden our hearts and bring us eternal ruin.’
To some, the ministry of the gospel is ‘the fragrance of life’; to others, it is ‘the smell of death’ (2 Cor 2:16).
A missional aspect: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order that the whole world might know. As Fretheim says, it would not redound much to God’s glory if Pharaoh was a mere puppet in God’s hands; an automaton. He had real opportunities to relent, although he squandered them all.
Hearts can be gospel-hardened as well as sin-hardened.
A.H. Strong – ‘The controlling agency of God did not interfere with the liberty of Pharaoh or oblige him to sin; but in judgment for his previous cruelty and impiety God withdrew the external restraints which had hitherto kept his sin within bounds, and placed him in circumstances which would have influenced to right action a well-disposed mind, but which God foresaw would lead a disposition like Pharaoh’s to the peculiar course of wickedness which he, actually pursued.
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then, first, by permitting him to harden his own heart, God being the author of his sin only in the sense that he is the author of a free being who is himself the direct author of his sin; secondly, by giving to him the means of enlightenment, Pharaoh’s very opportunities being perverted by him into occasions of more virulent wickedness, and good resisted being thus made to result in greater evil; thirdly, by judicially forsaking Pharaoh, when it became manifest that he would not do God’s will, and thus making it morally certain, though not necessary, that he would do evil; and fourthly, by so directing Pharaoh’s surroundings that his sin would manifest itself in one way rather than in another. Sin is like the lava of the volcano, which will certainly come out, but which God directs in its course down the mountain-side so that it will do least harm. The gravitation downward is due to man’s evil will; the direction to this side or to that is due to God’s providence. See Rom. 9:17, 18—“For this very purpose did I raise thee up, that I might show in thee my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth. So then he hath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Thus the very passions which excite men to rebel against God are made completely subservient to his purposes.
Is God fair?
Goldingay remarks to the effect that if we take Rom 9:14-24 as our guide, then we might be told to mind our own business.
Strong quotes Crane: ‘Jehovah is never said to harden the heart of a good man, or of one who is set to do righteousness. It is always those who are bent on evil whom God hardens. Pharaoh hardens his own heart before the Lord is said to harden it.’
God is not, and cannot be, the author of sin, James 1:13.
Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? “In order to demonstrate His power, and in order that His name might be proclaimed throughout the entire Earth.” This is the answer given in both Ex 9:16 and Rom 9:17.
Commentaries by Childs, Fretheim, Stuart, Cole, Chester, Reid
Systematic theologies by Hodge, Strong, Berkhof, Grudem
New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, art. ‘Hardening’ (Moo)
Dictionary of Testament: Pentateuch, art. ‘Hardness of Heart’ (Steinmann)
Evangelical dictionary of Theology (2nd ed), art. Hardening of Heart’ (Blaising)
John Goldingay: The John and Kathleen Show