The Problem with Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

The book of Exodus provides one of the greatest stories of redemption found in the Old Testament. God redeems the children of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh by calling a human agent, Moses, to lead the people out of slavery and to freedom. Most bizarre in this scenario is God’s promise to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3).[1] How does one solve the so-called problem of God’s sovereignty as it relates to human responsibility? This paper will propose that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not impede upon Pharaoh’s free will, but rather that Pharaoh’s response fit within the sovereign plan of God. In order to accomplish this task, the paper will first examine the involvement of God in Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Then, the paper will examine the involvement of Pharaoh in the hardening process. Finally, the paper will offer a proposed theological solution to the problem.

The Problem of God’s Involvement in the Hardening Process

 One particular issue concerning Pharaoh’s hardened heart surrounds the involvement of God in the process. Some would prefer to claim that God had no influence upon the hardening process of Pharaoh’s heart. However, God is clearly seen to be a player in the process, if not even the moving force. God speaks to Moses and provides an interesting promise. God says to Moses, “You are to say everything I command you…But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:2-3).[2] To compound the problem, Exodus reiterates that it is Yahweh who is moving Pharaoh to this condition (e.g. 11:10). In fact, Douglas Stuart rightly denotes that the story served a purpose as “Moses was writing this story not merely to help his fellow Israelites trust Yahweh as things happened but to help them learn to trust that Yahweh is the one who makes things happen in the first place, as part of a great redemptive plan for the benefit of his people.”[3] God brings these things about for a particular reason. Such language addresses the theological notion of divine sovereignty. What is sovereignty and what do other passages of Scripture claim concerning God’s sovereignty?

Sovereignty is defined, according to John S. Feinberg, as “God’s power of absolute self-determination…God does his own actions, and that they are in accord with his choices.”[4] That is to say, God is in complete control over events. The apostle Paul denoted God’s sovereignty in such a fashion as he translated Pharaoh’s hardened heart as demonstrative that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:17). Divine sovereignty thus means, as Feinberg denotes, that “God is the ultimate, final, and complete authority over everything and everyone. Whatever happens stems from his decisions and control.”[5] When God called Jeremiah, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God had chosen Jeremiah before Jeremiah had a chance to respond. God’s choice is related to the Pharaoh as well. God had purposes for Pharaoh. For God said to Pharaoh that his purpose would be “that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). However, one must ask; does God not allow people to freely come to Him (e.g. Romans 10:13)? Does God condemn a person who would choose to repent? To understand this aspect of the equation, one must examine the role of human free will especially as it relates to the Egyptian Pharaoh of Exodus.

The Problem of Pharaoh’s Involvement in the Hardening Process

 Pharaoh played a major role in this heart hardening process. Pharaoh freely responded to God in a rebellious fashion, as planned by God. Exodus states that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (8:15). God did not force Pharaoh to sin. Rather, Pharaoh repeatedly rebelled against the grace of God. Again, Exodus states that “When the Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts” (9:34). It was evident that Pharaoh played a major role in his own rebellion; so much that Philistine priests said to their leaders, “Don’t be stubborn and rebellious as Pharaoh and the Egyptians were. By the time God was finished with them, they were eager to let Israel go” (1 Samuel 6:6, NLT).[6] God’s power was clearly demonstrated to other nations; however, the freely chosen rebellion of Pharaoh was also apparent. Moses clearly noted the choices of Pharaoh in the matter as Moses became frustrated at Pharaoh’s rebellion and “burning with anger” (11:8, NLT). Dorian Coover Cox would concede as much by claiming that “Whatever the reason, since Moses knew about the hardening, his anger, to be rational, must build on the belief that Pharaoh was still accountable for his attitudes and actions.”[7] But why was Pharaoh so rebellious? Perhaps it stemmed from pride. McGinnis makes the case that “Egyptians prized the ability to appear strong, firm, resolute, and unmoved by events.”[8] Pharaoh had rather rule his way to hell than submit his way to heaven. How does one solve this theological conundrum between divine sovereignty and human freedom?

 Proposed Solution to the Theological Issue

 If one seeks to hold a balanced theological perspective, one must accept both the sovereignty of God as well as human responsibility. Throughout Christian history, theologians have sought to solve this issue and have come to differing conclusions. McGinnis denotes that Origen felt that “God does not intend to harden…; although God’s purpose may be merciful, a person’s ‘inherent wickedness’ may result in hardening. In this way God is said to harden the one who is hardened.”[9] Juxtaposed to Origen’s thought, Augustine solved this problem by asserting that “God’s mercy or hardening spring ‘from deeply hidden merits.’”[10] But, how would Exodus present an answer?

Barker and Kohlenberger note concerning Exodus 11:9-10 that the writer of Exodus “as a recapitulation of all Moses’ negotiations beginning in 7:8, we are reminded that all had taken place as God had predicted it. No amount of evidence had persuaded Pharaoh’s heart, and Israel was still enslaved.”[11] God had a purpose in His workings, as “The Lord announced repeatedly that He was acting so that various parties would acknowledge Him.”[12] God would say to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). The terms used within the text seem to indicate the role that both God and Pharaoh played in the process. Geisler notes that four words are used pertaining to Pharaoh’s hardened heart, “Qashah, meaning “stubbornness”…Kabed, meaning “heavy” or “insensitive”…Chazaq, meaning “strength” or “encouragement”…When Pharaoh is the agent of hardening kabed is used. When God is the agent, chazaq is used.”[13] Termed another way, Geisler denotes that “the Hebrew word hardened (chazaq) can and often does mean ‘to strengthen’…or even ‘to encourage.’”[14] That is to say, God placed Pharaoh in the circumstances to freely react to the predetermined plan of God. A congruist theological approach can best systematize this kind of working.

Congruism is a theological system that is described by Millard J. Erickson as a “theology [that] can be characterized as a mild Calvinism (congruism) that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality.”[15] Aquinas, believing in both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humanity, denoted that “God gives grace to a person, and pre-ordains that He will give it, because He knows beforehand that He will make good use of that grace, as if a king were to give a horse to a soldier because he knows he will make good use of it…there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination.”[16] Thus, a congruist, or compatibilist, interpretation evaluates human freedom as finding a home within the sovereign plan of God, a solution to the Pharaoh predicament.

Conclusion

 This paper has evaluated the theological problem of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The first section noted the clear Scriptural evidence that addresses God’s involvement in the hardening process, noting particularly the importance of divine sovereignty. The second section noted the clear Scriptural evidence that supports Pharaoh’s own responsibility in the hardening process. The final section offered a proposal found in the congruist theological model, evaluating human freedom as taking place within the sovereign plan of God. One can find great comfort in acknowledging God’s sovereignty amidst human responsibility. At times, the world seems chaotic. Evil grows at a rapid pace. The marvelous news is that God is still in control. Human freedom is playing to the beat of God’s sovereign drum, ultimately culminating to God’s grand redemption of His people.

Copyright 2015. Brian Chilton.

The preceding article represents the academic work of the author. Note that the contents have been scanned and submitted. Therefore, any attempt of plagiarism will be discovered by one’s respective school of learning. As always, be sure to use cite any references used for one’s work.

The article’s theme picture is that of Yul Brynner playing the part of Pharaoh in the motion picture “The Ten Commandments.” Paramount Pictures (October 5, 1956).

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologicae. In Summa of the Summa. Translated by the Fathers of the Dominican Province. Edited and Annotated by Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, Abrided Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Cox, Dorian Coover. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context.” Bibliotheca Sacra 163, 651 (July 1, 2006): 292-311. February 27, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Feinberg, John S. No One Like Him: Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

_______________. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

McGinnis, Claire Mathews. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6, 1 (March 1, 2012): 43-64. Accessed February 27, 2015.  ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus, The New American Commentary, Volume 2. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.

  [Footnotes]

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[2] Henceforth, passages in Exodus will be referenced by only the chapter and verse.

[3] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, Volume 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 262.

[4] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 294.

[5] Ibid., 294.

[6] Scripture marked NLT comes from the New Living Translation (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013).

[7] Dorian Coover Cox, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context,” Bibliotheca Sacra 163, 651 (July 1, 2006): 300, accessed February 27, 2015.

[8] Cox, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 306.

[9] Claire Mathews McGinnis, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6, 1 (March 1, 2012): 47, accessed February 27, 2015.

[10] Ibid., 52.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, abridged ed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 84.

[12] Cox, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 296.

 [13] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 592.

[14] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 97.

[15] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 448.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae I.23.5, in Summa of the Summa, the Fathers of the Dominican Province, trans., Peter Kreeft, ed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 177.

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