apologetics, philosophy, The Bible

Bible Difficulties 4: Hardening Hearts

Exodus 4:21 (ESV): “And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”

Summary

The Bible speaks of the Israelites in Egypt in Exodus. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart “so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). Throughout the stories of the plagues Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, either by himself or God.

Why is this passage difficult?

Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Doesn’t this mean God is causing Pharaoh to sin? Does this mean Pharaoh is not accountable for his actions?

Commentary

It is first important to note that God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart until after Pharaoh had himself hardened his heart against God (compare Exodus 7:13, 8:15, 8:32 to Exodus 9:12). As Geisler and Howe put it, “God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart contrary to Pharaoh’s own free choice” (65, cited below). It seems as though Pharaoh, freely reacting to God’s interaction, hardens his heart against the will of God. Such an interpretation is strengthened greatly by Exodus 5:2: “But 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.'” Pharaoh declares that he does not know the LORD, and refuses to submit to the LORD’s will. Such rebellion demonstrates a profound choice to harden his heart.

Another way to respond to the challenges listed above would be to note Paul’s own interpretation of the passage in Romans 9:17: “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.'”

Granted that all authority in heaven and on earth is given by God, the fact is that Pharaoh’s position of authority was given by God Himself. Therefore, the rebellion seen in Exodus 5:2 is even more haughty than previously thought. Not only that, but Paul’s comments on these verses show how God intended to use Pharaoh’s actions to show His power and authority over all the earth. Thus, God was using Pharaoh to spread His name such that even greater amounts of people could come into a saving relationship. It therefore seems as though God utilized Pharaoh’s hardened heart to bring about a far greater good: the spreading of His name.  This is a theme seen throughout Scripture. Geisler/Howe cite the story of Joseph as another instance: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God utilized this for good (445).

Instead of viewing this story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart as God somehow forcing Pharaoh to sin, we have two ways to counter such reasoning:

1) Pharaoh hardened his own heart against the commands of God (Exodus 5:2, 7:13, etc.), which means God did not cause him to sin and Pharaoh is accountable for his own actions

2) God utilizes the wicked actions of man to bring about His own purposes, while still allowing for freedom of the will. His omniscient (including, of course, middle knowledge) perspective allows for Him to take into account and plan for such evil actions and utilize even great evils for good.

Sources:

The Lutheran Study Bible. Concordia Publishing House.

Geisler, Norman and Thomas Howe. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Baker Books. 1992.

This post is the fourth in a series I’ve been working on which discusses Bible Difficulties–hard passages in Scripture. Other posts in the series can be accessed here.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Bible Difficulties 4: Hardening Hearts

  1. Or, the Bible isn’t true. The interpretive difficulty vanishes when you treat Exodus and Romans like the Gita and Upanishads. They are mythic fables of Iron Age people.

    Another resolution is to take YHWH at his word: he’s a capricious, malevolent tyrant. He answers to no one and no principle. If he had principles, say benevolence, he would be constrained to be good, wouldn’t he? Can’t have that. What if he felt like drowning everyone except one family? YHWH isn’t going to be limited to being compassionate. He’s sovereign!
    This is why Christian apologists have such a hard job. You are YHWH’s [changes to YHWH by site owner] defense lawyer and he brags about his crimes.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 22, 2010, 7:58 AM
    • Initially, you had insightful responses, now recently all you’ve had is responses like “God doesn’t exist” (cf. most recent reply on “What kind of evidence?”), “But God is evil” (note that such an objection actually does nothing to disprove God), patently false statements like “We’re all atheists” (even though I am a theist and therefore cannot, necessarily, be an atheist)… etc. Yet you refuse to actually respond to any points I raise. This post, for example, rather than interacting with anything in the text I wrote, you assert that “the Bible isn’t true” and go from there. Nice! It seems that atheists are so often far more entrenched in their positions than the theists they are “more rational” than. I hope you can at least try to stay on topic in the future.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 22, 2010, 9:25 AM
  2. EXO 7:3. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, 4 he will not listen to you.

    How does this not flatly contradict both (1) and (2)?

    Also, how mentally deficient do you have to be to suffer nine horrible punishments and then as soon as they are finished immediately forget what the consequences will be of continuing to not acquiesce? Pharaoh was at the very least in massive denial, incredibly so. Surely after three, four, maybe five continuous living hells you stop and think “wait a minute… this isn’t working”

    The text to me reads like it is *supposed* to be interpreted as supernatural manipulation. After each plague has rescinded, Pharaoh appears to undergo a change as his heart is hardened, his empathy disappears, and he acts stupidly. Again. After making the same bad call nine times in a row and each punishment getting worse, he finally lets Moses and the Israelites go. But then…

    EXO 14:4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.

    Pharaoh suddenly completely changes his mind AGAIN and starts to chase the people he let go. Isn’t this obviously God doing this? How would a ruler of a country so mindlessly indecisive manage to operate effectively at all?

    Of course I have no idea why God would do this but I can’t see how you can hold your position without deliberately ignoring the text.

    Posted by pluggyboy | November 9, 2013, 10:28 AM
  3. How can you say that Pharaoh wasn’t hardened “against his will” when the hardening is nothing but an alteration if his will?
    Why should we believe that Pharaoh FIRST hardened his heart when God told Moses that He was the one doing the hardening?
    Would Pharaoh have gotten his son murdered if it weren’t for God making him go beyond his normal stubbornness?
    All of us are born sinners without our say in the matter. What’s to say that every subsequent sin we commit not God actually hardening us as he wills us with the sin be made us start with, making us commit sin just as he made Pharaoh invite God to murder his son by starting with his first act of resistance?

    Posted by oron61 | February 20, 2022, 9:36 PM
    • Okay, so first thing I’d say is this post is 12 years old so I had to go back and re-read it. Honestly, thanks for giving me a reason to do so. I’ve changed quite a bit as a human, hopefully through interacting with and taking the Bible more seriously. That said, I’d say most of this post is stuff I wouldn’t agree with much. To fully respond, I’d have to go back and re-read all the relevant Bible passages and think on it. I actually just listened to Peter Enns talking about this on his podcast, too, which was edifying.

      Sorry, this is now rambling. To your questions:
      You wrote, “How can you say that Pharaoh wasn’t hardened “against his will” when the hardening is nothing but an alteration if his will?”

      Briefly, this would get deeply into questions of free will. I tend to think that if someone’s going to do something anyway, forcing them to do so or depriving them of alternatives doesn’t (and I emphasize this next word) necessarily mean they don’t have freedom. It’s all very complicated, and I’m not sure how much it’s worth reflecting on. Short answer: I don’t know.

      You wrote, “Why should we believe that Pharaoh FIRST hardened his heart when God told Moses that He was the one doing the hardening?”

      I don’t think we should anymore. This seems like something from Geisler, who is not the most careful exegete. Re-reading what I wrote, it looks like I cited (12 years ago, again) a series of events. Exodus 7:13 doesn’t seem to be entirely clear that Pharaoh hardened his heart first, but the word is intransitive in Hebrew (I think), so it’s just “his heart became hardened” which doesn’t assign causation. Kind of a toss up.

      You wrote, “Would Pharaoh have gotten his son murdered if it weren’t for God making him go beyond his normal stubbornness?”

      Murdered is kind of a weighted word here, and certainly difficult to figure out if it’s right. At this point, we’re seeing God portrayed as a warrior God who’s defeating the Egyptian gods through the plagues, etc. Anyway, short answer: unknown.

      You wrote, “All of us are born sinners without our say in the matter. What’s to say that every subsequent sin we commit not God actually hardening us as he wills us with the sin be made us start with, making us commit sin just as he made Pharaoh invite God to murder his son by starting with his first act of resistance?”

      This seems to be a kind of Cartesian demon sort of reasoning, which is to say, we can’t know basically anything with certainty, so it seems kind of pointless to go down this rabbit hole.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 21, 2022, 10:17 PM

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