Understanding the Old Testament

The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

People who wish to put God on trial claim that He was unfair in His treatment of Pharaoh, when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to prevent him from allowing the Israelites to leave until God had devastated Egypt with ten plagues. Those ten plagues were: (1) Nile River turned to blood (Exodus 7:14-24); (2) frogs covering the land (Exodus 7:25-8:15); (3) dust turned into gnats (Exodus 8:16-19); (4) swarms of insects (Exodus 8:20-32); (5) disease that killed livestock (Exodus 9:1-7); (6) boils and sores on people and animals (Exodus 9:8-12); (7) devastating hail (Exodus 9:13-35); (8) devouring locusts (Exodus 10:3-20); (9) three days of complete darkness (Exodus 10:21-29); and (10) the death of all first-born (Exodus 11:1-12:36 and 12:43-49).

But people who accuse God of injustice miss or ignore several important facts. First, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart until after the sixth plague (Exodus 9:12). Before that, Pharaoh hardened his own heart—in other words, he was stubborn. See Exodus 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, and 9:7.

Furthermore, Pharaoh took this rigid stance despite the fact that all Moses initially requested was to allow the Israelites to “go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. . . .” (Exodus 5:3) Pharaoh was so stubborn and inflexible that he was unwilling to allow the Israelites to be away from their work for even this short period of time. (Exodus 5:4-5) Did Pharaoh suspect that Moses intended to lead the Israelites away and not return? Perhaps, but Exodus does not say so.

Also, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart only after Pharaoh had ignored the advice of his own magicians to relent (Exodus 8:18-19), and only after Pharaoh had twice promised to let the Israelites go and then reneged on that promise (Exodus 8:8-15 and 8:28-32).

 God gave Pharaoh plenty of opportunities to cooperate, and he repeatedly spit in God’s face. Only then did He begin to play rough by making Pharaoh even more stubborn than he already was.

But what about Exodus 4:21 and 7:3, in which the Lord tells Moses that He “will harden” Pharaoh’s heart so that he will refuse to let the people go? These are simply prophecies about what God would do beginning in Exodus 9:12. The Lord knew Pharaoh’s heart better than Pharaoh himself. (See Psalm 139:1-4 and Psalm 44:21.) So the Lord knew that he would not cooperate except under extreme compulsion. In other words, God in His mercy gave Pharaoh chances to do the right thing, but He also knew the man was so arrogant and stubborn that he would not take advantage of those chances.

Questions to ponder or discuss: To what extent do you believe Pharaoh was free to act contrary to his character? To what extent are you and I free to act contrary to our characters?

Copyright 2017 by Don Davidson

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Understanding the Old Testament


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