Choice or Coercion?
By Angel Manuel Rodríguez
QUESTION: Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Most people find it difficult to understand why God would harden the heart of Pharaoh. The statement suggests that individual freedom is at least temporarily suspended and that God is described as controlling human decisions and actions. This obviously raises the question of human responsibility. If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, was the king responsible for his actions?
1. Clarifying the Meaning: In some languages, particularly in English, when we use the phrase “to harden the heart” to describe the attitude of an individual, we usually refer to the emotional side of the person. In such cases we intend to say that the person is insensitive, even cruel, toward others. The Hebrew phrase translated “to harden the heart” emphasizes not the emotional side but rather the rational and volitional aspects of human nature. “Heart” in the Bible is seen primarily as the center for rational thinking and decision-making. Therefore, “to harden the heart” means that the person isn’t properly using his or her rational capacities. In other words, even when confronted with clear evidence or facts, they choose to remain unmoved. We usually describe that person as being obstinate. When the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, it simply means that he was obstinate; that is to say, he defiantly adhered to his position in spite of reasons and arguments to the contrary. He was functioning irrationally.
2.Use of the Phrase: The phrase “to harden the heart” is used in the Exodus story approximately 20 times, half when God is the agent (God hardened the heart of Pharaoh) and 10 times when Pharaoh is the explicit or implicit agent (he hardened his own heart). In order to understand the use of the phrase we should remember that the purpose of the plagues was to demonstrate to Pharaoh that the Lord is God. The conflict is between the Lord, Pharaoh, and the gods of Egypt. It is initiated when Pharaoh says: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). Consequently, God decides to perform miraculous signs through which the Egyptians and Pharaoh “shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7:5, 17; see Ex. 8:10). This overwhelming evidence is rejected by Pharaoh—“he hardened his heart.” His obstinacy consists in denying that Yahweh is the Lord, and this attitude is manifested in not allowing Israel to leave Egypt.
3.Role of God: When God speaks to Moses, He reveals His plan: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 7:3; see Ex. 4:21). The sequence of events in the narrative explains what He means. First, the narrative of the plagues clearly states that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Ex. 7:13, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15). This self-hardening—Pharaoh’s obstinacy—makes him accountable for his actions.
Second, the hardening increases in intensity to the point that not only Pharaoh but also his officials harden their hearts in opposition to the Lord (Ex. 9:34, 35). The fact that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate some of the miracles initially contributed to this obstinacy (Ex. 7:12, 13, 21, 22; 8:7).
Third, only after the fifth plague does the text credit the hardening of Pharaoh and his officers to the Lord. In other words, during the first five plagues Pharaoh hardened his heart, and during the last five the hardening is credited to the Lord (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; also 14:4, 8, 17) and occasionally to Pharaoh (13:15).
This obviously means that at first the Lord attempted to persuade Pharaoh, to move him to recognize God’s self-revelation. But his constant refusal resulted in dual causality—Pharaoh’s hardening was now confirmed by God hardening the king’s heart. The divine action was a reaction to Pharaoh’s previous unwillingness to be persuaded. From this point on, Pharaoh was unable to resist his own obstinacy. He was irreversibly trapped within his own schemes. God, however, accomplished His ultimate purpose. Some of the nations of Canaan feared God when they heard what God had done in Egypt (e.g., Joshua 2:8-11).
We should pray for a new heart, a heart of flesh (Eze. 36:26).
Angel Manuel Rodríguez recently retired as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.