I have recently taught through the Pentateuch to a lively and engaged class last semester and among the interesting discussions we have had was the issue of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in the exodus event. This is one of those difficult questions that often put people off the Old Testament. What might be said to help us over this hurdle? First, we need to notice who is doing the hardening and when, as God is not the only active player here. When God calls Moses, he tells him what to do (that he should go to Pharaoh and ask him to let Israel go), but also warns him that there will be obstacles in the way (God will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so he will not let the people go – Exod 4:21; 7:3). Once the events get under way, however, the repeated statement is not about God’s agency, but about how Pharaoh’s heart was hard (7:13, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 33-34)! It is only in Exod 9:12 that we finally read explicitly that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (which is then repeated in 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). In other words, long before God is described as the direct agent, Pharaoh has repeatedly hardened his heart in response to recurrent actions from God. In fact, even Pharaoh’s own magicians came to realise the hand of Israel’s God in the plagues (Exod 8:19), yet Pharaoh declined to do so.

We may also add the clarification that “heart” in OT parlance means the will or the centre of cognition, not emotions (which we are not always in control of). So, another way of putting it would be to say that Pharaoh hardened his resolve or was stubborn and determined not to let Israel go or that he closed his mind to releasing them. We sometimes have a mental picture of Pharaoh desperately trying to repent, but God blocking his way, but this is far from accurate. God gave plenty of opportunity for Pharaoh to acknowledge (just like his magicians) that the plagues were coming from God. Perhaps also, psychologically we become hardened and blinded to the truth when we keep rejecting it even though we know it is the truth. If so, then the God who created us in this way can be said to cause the hardening.

Finally, OT writers were primarily concerned with showing God’s sovereignty and authority in the events of history and so they emphasise God’s primary agency. It is troublesome for us, moderns, because what we hear is that God takes over people’s will and blocks them from doing the right thing, while holding them responsible and punishing them for it! However, OT writers do recognise human will and responsibility (compare, for instance, Isa 10:5-7) but want to communicate that God is not surprised by events and obstacles in our way. We may take encouragement knowing that is he never caught unawares and can use even suffering in his purposes for our good.  

Dr Csilla Saysell

Old Testament Lecturer