Pharaoh Hardened

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Much ink has been shed over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus. While the Calvinist has no problem seeing God acting to assure Pharaoh would not listen, those who hold to a certain view of free-will see this as unfair to Pharaoh and not in keeping with a just, loving God. While I am not going to take the usual tack here and join in this fray, I will share some thoughts on the interchange between Moses and Pharaoh. Out of this I am sure you will conclude that, Calvinist that I am, I see no problem with the idea that God would sovereignly ordain Pharaoh’s disobedience, so I might as well admit that up front. For those who interject a cry of foul and unfair I will point to the words of Paul (Romans 9:20f NIV): But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” For now lay aside these thoughts as we look at the events, as recorded.

In Chapter 7, God lays out his plan to Moses. Moses and his brother Aaron are to go to Pharaoh and tell him to release the children of Israel. God will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not release them until terrible plagues have cost the Egyptians dearly. Before you judge the events too harshly, look at the next passage (Ex 7:5) where God gives his reason: “And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” God wants to demonstrate the truth about himself to the people of Egypt as the true God; the one God; the universal God. He must strike their gods—which the plagues accomplish. The greatest obstacle between YHWH and the Egyptians is the “Son of Ra,” Pharaoh himself.

In our society of equality before the law and democracy we don’t grasp details of monarchy quickly. In a theocratic monarchy, where the monarch is not only chosen by God, but seen as a god in his own right, there is one will that matters, and in Egypt that will was Pharaoh’s. YHWY demonstrated to the Egyptians the futility of worshipping false gods, those of flesh or those of stone. So why would God make such a demonstration to the people of Egypt? God intended to take his people from Egypt and plant them in Canaan—they would border the Egyptians in a land long contested by Egyptians and Hittites. Imagine you are a nation holding a minority people as slaves. The slaves secure their freedom against your will and a few years later you find they have settled within easy reach of your army. For the sake of His people God must make the Egyptians fear Him and them. In such an autocratic society, as Egypt, one touches society by touching the king. If God wants to teach the Egyptians a lesson he must teach it through their king. For the sakes of Israelites and Egyptians, God must harden the heart of Pharaoh. This is confirmed in Ex 9:16, where God raised up Pharaoh for the specific purpose of showing His power to the world.

Before you conclude that such an act would still be unfair, let’s look closer at the hardening itself. In each of the first miraculous signs and plagues (Ex 7:8-13, 14-24; 8:1-15) we see Moses demonstrate power to Pharaoh (staff turned to snakes, water turned to blood and the plague frogs) and each time the Egyptian magicians were able to mimic the miraculous act and then we read: “But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard.” While this example from Ex 7:22, shows Pharaoh’s heart being hardened by seeing his magicians doing the same deed, understand that Pharaoh’s hardness of heart was already a fact, but these actions confirmed, justified and intensified the hardness. From this point on the magicians are outdone with ever more dreadful plagues, but still Pharaoh’s heart remained hard.

While God sovereignly hardened the heart of Pharaoh for the sake of his people, the people of Egypt and the people of the world, Pharaoh played a part in this. He trusted his magicians, with their tricks and incantations. He chose to be deceived by them and to close his ears and eyes to what God was showing. Most amazingly he chose to believe his own press. He chose to keep believing his own divinity no matter how bad things got for him. It was not until the death of his own son—heir to the throne and of equal divinity to himself—that he would bend his will to that of YHWH. The true God had won the battle.

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