Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Exodus 7:3-4

Apr 20, 2011

The issue of Pharaoh and the hardening of the heart as found in the Book of Exodus can seem problematic to many – believer and non-believer alike. When we read a text like this, it seems troubling: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.”

Of course the context here is Yahweh’s miraculous delivery of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The ten plagues (Ex. 7-10) are the centrepiece of this story, and even before Moses begins to challenge Pharaoh, we are told that God will harden his heart. Indeed, Moses is warned of this back in Ex. 3:19.

Is this fair? Is this just? How can Pharaoh be held responsible if God has hardened his heart? On the surface at least, it seems that this is ethically and theologically problematic. But it in fact is not. Indeed, simply reading through this section of Scripture will provide the solution to this apparent problem.

As one reads about the power encounters which take place, one quickly discovers that there are in fact three elements to this equation. There are three different ways Scripture describes this hardening process:

-Sometimes we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as in Ex 10:27.
-Sometimes we are told that Pharaoh hardened his heart, as in Ex. 8:32.
-Sometimes we are told that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as in Ex. 7:22.

Some want to break this down into four different categories, with the first option mentioned above broken into two different formulations:
-I (Yahweh) will harden Pharaoh’s heart (eg., Ex. 4:21; 7:3)
-God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (eg., Ex. 9:12; 10:1)

Taken together, these three (or four) different perspectives on the same matter bring new light to this topic. What we have here – as we do throughout Scripture – is the old conundrum, if you will, concerning God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Now since entire libraries have been written on this mega-theological topic, don’t expect me to resolve it all here in a brief article. But the short answer is, both are biblical truths which are continuously affirmed, and both have to be held together, even if in tension.

We are told everywhere in the Bible that God is sovereign, God is in control, and his purposes come to pass just as he wills. Yet we are also told everywhere in Scripture that we have a degree of freedom, we can make genuine moral choices, and we are accountable for our actions.

Thus God is said to be sovereign in all things, yet humans are morally culpable for the choices that they make. If we cannot fully resolve in our finite minds how these two truths can cohere, that simply speaks to our limitations, not to any inherent contradictions in the biblical data.

So back to Pharaoh. When these three different ways of looking at the hardened heart are taken together, we simply have another illustration of the admittedly mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Both are at work here, and both need to be given their full weight.

The Exodus account makes it clear that Pharaoh is fully responsible for his actions, and God will judge him accordingly. In 9:34 we are plainly told that “Pharaoh sinned again. He and his officials hardened their hearts.” His was a voluntary action for which he is culpable.

Yet this pericope also tells us in no uncertain terms that Yahweh is accomplishing his purposes. We see this so often in Scripture, as in the story of Joseph, the story of Esther, or even in the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. In these and other narrative we see God at work, interweaving his purposes with human choices.

One way to see how this all combines is to simply look at just one small portion of this story: Ex. 9:34-10:1. In these three verses we see all three main ways of discussing this hardening: Pharaoh hardened his heart (9:34); Pharaoh was hardened (9:35); and God hardened him (10:1).

So the writer of Exodus is making it clear that all these ways of looking at the hardened heart are valid, and somehow they all can stand together, without contradiction or logical inconsistency. Plenty has been written about this. A few thoughts from some respected theologians are worth recording here.

D.A. Carson wrote an entire PhD thesis on this divine/human interplay which later became a book in 1981. After discussing the Pharaoh episode, he says this: “Yahweh not infrequently hardens the hearts of men. . . . But the Old Testament writers in such cases seem to presuppose that this is nothing other than due judgment; while elsewhere self-hardening is pictured as reprehensible action for which the person is morally accountable (Zech. 7:11; Prov. 28:14). Impersonal determinism might well harden arbitrarily; but behind the hardening of the Old Testament is the God who cries, ‘Harden not your hearts’ (Ps. 95:8).”

Alec Motyer nicely explains the human/divine mix in all this: “Humans are so created that the choices they make contribute to forming character, and character thus formed promotes the making of similar choices to produce a fixed habit. . . . Choosing and habit forming are things we all know about. What none of us knows is when the ‘point of no return’ will be reached.”

He continues, “Sadly, we can pass the point where freedom to change has been lost and still retain the illusion that ‘I can give it up anytime I want!’ Thus the situation in which Pharaoh found himself was not peculiar to him but is intrinsic to the human condition. Only God foresees the decisive, freedom-destroying choice, and only he knows at once when the choice that kills freedom has been made. Indeed, the Bible goes further and claims that because he is God, it is he that fixes that point.”

Douglas Stuart provides some background material as to just how important Yahweh’s encounter with Pharaoh was: “The Egyptian Pharaoh was supposed to be a pure person, a divine manifestation of the gods, and one whose sovereignty over the people was credentialized in part by the purity of his heart. The idea that Yahweh could do whatever he wanted with Pharaoh’s heart, and specifically could ‘harden’ it, therefore, was both an evidence of Yahweh’s control of all things including the mightiest monarch of the day and also evidence that Yahweh had done what the Egyptians thought the ‘gods’ would usually do – weigh the heart and decide whether its owner was worthy of eternal life or not. In effect, then, each time that Yahweh is described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart, the alert reader is reminded that Yahweh had, as it were, weighed Pharaoh and found him wanting.”

The New Testament writers of course pick up on this theme of Pharaoh, his heart, and the divine will. Paul in Romans 9:14-18 speaks to this, where he talks about God having the freedom to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and to harden whom he will harden. The divine signs that Moses utilised could soften some, and harden others, as Jesus also discovered.

As Philip Graham Ryken remarks, the signs and wonders were just as much for the Egyptians as the Israelites. And when Moses was told to perform these wonders before Pharaoh, it was “not so he will let God’s people go, but exactly for the opposite reason. Rather than making a believer out of Pharaoh, the signs would harden him in his unbelief. In his stubbornness he would refuse to let God’s people go. The miracles of Jesus Christ had much the same effect: According to God’s sovereign will, some believed and were saved, while others doubted and were condemned.”

These are awesome truths to reflect on as believers today present the gospel. Even if signs and wonders accompany our witness, different people will give different responses. Some who are open will receive the word, while those who are closed will reject it.

Jesus spoke to this often. Even if we posit behind all this the sovereign actions of God, we will all still be accountable for what we do with Jesus. Ours is not to ask whether God has hardened this person or that. Ours is to make sure that we are not hardening ourselves in unbelief and rebellion.

So this passage, and others like it, is not really all that problematic. We must always allow God to be God, but we must concentrate on our own choices and our own responses. God will take care of his part, but we must pay careful attention to our own.

[1438 words]

13 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Exodus 7:3-4

  • Thanks for clarifying this, Bill. A salutary warning!
    Jeannie Crooks

  • Yes thanks Bill. Agreed. All three actions come into play each time, rather than a changing process from self hardening to God hardening. There are different perspectives portrayed, which as you say rightly say explain the tension between free will and sovereignty of God.
    Greg Cadman

  • Thanks for this Bill! I was reading Exodus a few weeks back and asked this very question.

    Alec Motyer’s suggestion of decisions forming character, character informing future decisions and there being a point of no return gives great insight…it also makes me think of Romans 1:24 – “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts…”

    Just as Ryken noted that the signs hardened Pharaoh in his (already present) unbelief, we as Christians should see a strengthening in our convictions as we live out life.

    Thanks for helping to clear things up for me.

    Boyd Hawkins

  • Thanks Boyd

    Yes I too was thinking of Romans 1 in this regard.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Personally I think that Romans 1 is very much the key to this issue. God knows how we will respond to him and what choices we will make. If we reject him enough, then he will give us over to our desires and we will have to wear the consequences. It is our choice and, therefore, the punishment is well due.

    God desires that all come to repentance, but he is not going to force anyone to do so. However, he can be very persuasive at times.

    Mark Bachelor

  • I’ve been wondering about this passage for a little while now. Many languages do not distinguish between a make-causative (“He made them leave”) and a let-causative (“He let them leave”). English does, and “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” is unambiguously a make-causative.
    But what about Hebrew? Does it distinguish these two, and if not, would “God let Pharaoh’s heart become hard” be a possible alternative translation?
    Not that we should translate it this way just because it sounds nicer, but I’d like to know if this is a possibility in Hebrew.

    David Hutchinson, South Korea

  • There is no doubt that you have a way with words Bill, but what is “pericope.”

    And…Bill you might like to get this out on your website. I watch Q & A each week and it is getting so boring with all the political correctness and the Labor bias of the programme that it needs an infusion of new blood. I have written to them and put your name up for the panel and told them all they will get from you is the truth so their viewing numbers will increase as a result.

    What needs to happen is hundreds putting your name up to make it difficult not to put you on the panel.

    Roger Marks

  • Thanks David

    I am not a Hebrew scholar but I assume a faithful English translation will carefully reflect the 3 or 4 different ways this hardening is described, whether as active, or passive, and so on. And in addition to these different ways of describing the same event, there are three different Hebrew words used in all this as well. So a fair degree of nuance is available here, and our English renderings seem to reflect these various Hebrew nuances.

    And the better, more critical commentaries would tell you all this in a jiffy – I just can’t be bothered pulling them all off the shelves again!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Mark

    A pericope is simply a section or unit of writing, or of a book. So the story of the prodigal son would be a pericope. The entire Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) for example, can be seen as a pericope, but so too can short, well-defined units within it, such as 5:27-30, the teaching on adultery.

    In this case I refer to the unit in Exodus on Pharaoh and the plagues.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    Jewish authority, Alfred Edersheim points out in his Bible History that Pharaoh hardened his heart 10 times and also the Lord did it 10 times with Pharaoh’s ten in the middle of the account.
    Ray Levick

  • Bill – thanks for all your good work. On the topic of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened may I suggest a slightly different approach. The wonder in this is not that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened but that his heart was otherwise in the first place. God did not have to actively do anything in Pharaoh’s heart other than withdraw the influence that kept his heart less hard previously. This is inherent to Rom 1:28, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind”. The potential for every evil is already there, inherent to sin. Pharaoh’s heart was already utterly evil and wicked and opposed to God. Any softening in his hardness against God in the first place was credit to God’s influence upon him rather than to any kindness on his part.
    Iain Smith

  • Helpful article Bill. When I find myself questioning something in Scripture, such as in your example, I recognise that it clearly has to be myself who has it wrong. I do pray and ask to be humble and teachable and sometimes I gain a better understanding at some later time. One understanding was that we simply do not have the slightest grasp of the enormity of the offense that sin is against God.
    Anna Cook

  • Magicians fooled the Egyptian pharaoh so he don’t release the land of Israel from slavery by imitating God’s miracles (Exodus 7:8-13), (Exodus 7:17-22), (Exodus 8:5-8), until magicians’ fail at (Exodus 8:17-19), and obviously this will cause pharaoh’s heart to get harden by the impotence before the power of the Lord (Exodus 7:3), since the pharaoh couldn’t be number one to keep the land of Israel for his own glory and pleasure…and lack of reasoning by not knowing what was a trick and what was a miracle, was part of the problem as well.

    As it is commonly known, when someone want to be number one; and you prove them not to be, all you are doing is harden the opposition’s heart (when it comes to self-pride people).

    That is my humble opinion when God says He will harden pharaoh’s heart, by showing him who is number one.

    Kind regards.
    Juan Fernando

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