God Versus Pharaoh

By: Monique Zorzella

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The Tanakh (more commonly referred to as the Old Testament) contains many profound tales that have perplexed the minds of those who have studied it throughout history. A well-known narrative that readers find especially striking is in the book of Exodus, where God frees the Hebrew people through the works of the prophet Moshe (Moses) from the oppression they were facing at the hands of the Egyptians. A particular area of contention in this narrative is Gods declaration that He would harden the Pharaohs heart, which is often interpreted to mean that God took over his will and made the decision to refuse Moshe’s requests on Pharaohs behalf. As an an act of punishment, the Lord devastates the Egyptians with a series of catastrophic plagues.

In Exodus 7:3, God says to Moses “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.” This passage–along with similar declarations in the narrative are seen by some as inescapable proof that the God of The Tanakh is a malevolent being. A common apologetic response to this concern is that God revoked Pharaohs free will as a way of getting even with Pharaoh for his own refusal to repent. An example of this view can be found in Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3:

“Rabbi Yochanan said: Does this not provide heretics with an opportunity to open their mouths to say that he had no means of repenting, as it says ‘For I have hardened his heart’. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said to him: Let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up. […] When the Holy One Blessed be He warns a man once, twice, thrice and he doesn’t repent, G-d will close his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins. So to with the wicked Pharaoh, since Hashem sent five times to him and he took no notice, G-d then said: ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add impurity to your impurity’. Hence, ‘For I have hardened his heart’.”

For the sake of this essay, this view will be referred to as the Retribution approach. According to this approach God is justified in forcing Pharaoh to refuse to free the Israelites because it was only until Pharaoh had hardened his own heart that God decided to revoke his free will. At least to some people, this approach lends a sufficient answer to the issue of whether God made decisions for Pharaoh that he would not have made himself since Pharaoh at first caused himself to become hard of heart. However, some find this response problematic because it implies God is the one who makes Pharaoh commit sin by actively hardening his heart (see Exodus 9:34). Certainly, it is difficult to justify an omnibenevolent being causing someone to stumble, especially one who states “[…]I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live[…]” (Ezekiel 33:11). It seems quite contradictory for God to say that He would rather have humankind repent only to take pleasure in actively preventing Pharaoh from doing so knowing the direct result would be the death of him and his army. Prominent Jewish commentator Abravanel criticizes this explanation of the Exodus narrative for this very reason, remarking:

“This opinion from the midrash and from the wisest of our authors seems strange to me and exceedingly difficult in the light of what the prophets taught us about the ways of the Holy One Blessed Be He, since they all prophesied with one voice that G-d does not desire the death of a wicked person, but rather that he repent from his ways and live (see Ezekiel 18) as it is said: ‘Return, O wayward children, and I will heal your waywardness’ (see Jeremiah 3,22), and the Psalmist said: ‘G-d is good and just, therefore He shows sinners the way’ (Psalms 25,8). […] The ancient sages were of the same opinion, therefore it is written in the Mishnah (Avot 2,10). ‘Repent even one day before your death…’. It is thus quite unthinkable that the Holy One Blessed Be He would say to an evildoer ‘continue to do evil’, as might appear to be the case with Pharaoh…” 1

In spite of these points, there are many who take no issue with the notion God actively forced Pharaoh not to listen to Moshe, as they believe God was able to predetermine Pharaohs reprobation and subjection to the plagues. An example of this interpretation can be seen in an excerpt of the following commentary offered by Hyper-Calvinist writer Marc D. Carpenter:

pharaoh quote 1

This approach to the narrative will be referred to as the fatalistic approach. In accordance to this view, God is justified in forcing Pharaoh to not let the people go for two reasons: (1) God is utterly sovereign, so it is his prerogative to do as He pleases; and (2) Pharaoh is inherently evil and incapable of freely choosing to do good, so he could not have repented save Gods intervening grace. God, however, chooses not to extend this grace to Pharaoh. Instead, He decides to actively work to harden Pharaoh so that He can use him in a display of His glory.

The fatalistic view contains several issues that make it an unfavorable interpretation to the narrative. Regarding the first contention, even granted it is Gods prerogative to deal with humankind in the manner He pleases, this does not evade the question of the ethicality of holding Pharaoh morally accountable for acts he committed by no choice of his own, but was commanded to fulfill. Moral responsibility should only be justifiably attributed to an agent who has the capacity to consciously evaluate reasons for acting and can act according to that evaluation. Secondly, there must exist no external factor outside of the agents control that necessarily precludes them from acting according to their own conscious evaluation. For, if an agents actions are determined by some factor that is outside of their control, the actions of the agent are not voluntary.3 Absent of voluntary action on the part of the agent, it would be wrong to hold them morally responsible. Thus, it appears unjustifiable for God to apportion punishment to Pharoah for carrying out such acts as if he had any moral responsibility for doing so. Arminius elaborates on this issue in his 1593 letter to Gellius Snecanus:

pharaoh quote 2

 Interestingly, Martin Luther writes these words in a letter to Erasmus:

“[…]It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purpose, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will.[…]

“[…]If he wills what He foreknows, His will is eternal and changeless, because His nature is so. From which it follows, by resistless logic, that all we do, however it may appear to us to be done mutably and contingently, is in reality done necessarily and immutable in respect of Gods will.[…]” 5

If one concedes that Pharaoh not freeing the Israelites was a necessary outcome willed by Hashem, then why was Pharaoh punished as if he did something he was not to do? More significantly, this reveals an inconsistency within God’s will: how is it that he can at once will that Pharaoh ought to let His people go, while also willing that he not? Surely, it would be impossible for mutually exclusive wills to both be carried out at once. Perhaps this is the reason Mr. Carpenter speculated that God never intended for Pharaoh to let the Israelites free, but it is difficult to reason that God is wholly benevolent given He would will people to commit sin for the mere fact of showing off His glory to His chosen nation.

This brings one to the second claim of the fatalistic view–that Pharaoh had no will of his own to choose between right and wrong. This seems to contradict the many teachings throughout the Bible that communicate otherwise (see  Genesis 4:7Deuteronomy 30:15-19Joshua 24:15, Psalm 86:5Isaiah 5:4John 3:16-171 Timothy 2:4-6James 1:13-14Romans 2:4-9Titus 2:11-12). However, many hold that  Romans 9:17-23 lends support to the second contention:

“For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.  Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.  Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,”

It is claimed this passage indicates God fits (predetermines) some to be vessels of mercy (the elect), and some to be vessels of destruction (the reprobate). So, despite that we may consider it unethical for God to punish people for doing what he willed them to do, humans have no right to question the motives of the creator. In rebuttal, many scholars point out that this interpretation seems to demand more from the text than it can reasonably provide. The passage speaks about vessels of wrath being fitted for destruction, but it does not specify whether God predetermined that they would be fitted as such.  The 19th century Theologian Albert Barnes offers an exegesis on this subject:

“Fitted – κατηρτισμένα katērtismena This word properly means to “restore; to place in order; to render complete; to supply a defect; to fit to, or adapt to, or prepare for;” see Matthew 4:21, “Were mending their nets.” Galatians 6:1, “restore such an one, etc.” In this place it is a participle, and means those who are suited for or “adapted to” destruction; those whose characters are such as to deserve destruction, or as to make destruction proper. See the same use of the word in Hebrews 11:3, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed” – beautifully suited up in proper proportions, one part adapted to another – “by the Word of God.” Hebrews 10:5, “a body hast thou prepared for me;” suited, or adapted to me; compare Psalm 68:10; Psalm 74:16. In this place there is not the semblance of a declaration that “God had prepared them, or fitted them for destruction.” It is a simple declaration that they were in fact suited for it, without making an affirmation about the manner in which they became so.” 

“A reader of the English Bible may, perhaps, sometimes draw the impression that God had suited them for this. But this is not affirmed; and there is an evident design in not affirming it, and a distinction made between them and the vessels of mercy which ought to be regarded.” 6

More importantly, if we suppose the message of the analogy is that God predestines some to reprobation, it would contradict the original context of the analogy that Paul is referencing as it appears earlier in the Tanakh. In Isaiah 45:9,  the writer uses the analogy: “Woe to him who contends with his Creator, a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth, shall the clay say to its potter, ‘What do you make? And your work has no place.’”. Hashem’s point was likely not that some people are predestined to reprobation, for he would not have later pleaded within the same passage “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth”(45:22). In Isaiah 30:8-18, Isaiah further elaborates on the same analogy

“[…] this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord: […] Wherefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because ye despise this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon:  Therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instant. And he shall break it as the breaking of the potters’ vessel that is broken in pieces; he shall not spare: so that there shall not be found in the bursting of it a sherd to take fire from the hearth, or to take water withal out of the pit.  For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: […]And therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you:[…]”

Unlike the fatalistic view would have it—the offer to come to repentance is still given to the vessels of wrath, as we read “in returning and rest you shall be saved[…]Therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you”. Surely, if the vessels of wrath Paul speaks of are predestined to damnation as some claim, then it is not possible that they are capable of receiving salvation through repentance. Shall we assume the apparent pleas for humankind to return to God are superficial, or that Paul misappropriated the analogy? It is rather difficult to conceive that one as well-studied in Old Testament scripture as Paul would reiterate an analogy for the purpose of contradicting the message as it was originally spoken by Isaiah, and even less likely that he was unaware of the original context considering the influence from the works of Isaiah within his teachings are manifest. 7

The author of Jeremiah also utilizes the Potter and clay analogy:

Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. […] If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.” (18:6-10)

In the context of the fatalistic approach, this analogy is nonsensical. If Hashem foreordained which vessels will be subject to reprobation or salvation, then he already knows if they will turn from their ways or remain in them. Thus, he need not repent for anything he thinks to do unto them. To reiterate Luther, if it follows from a resistless logic what the Lord wills must necessarily come to be, then the evil or good Hashem thinks to do unto people must necessarily come to be. Why then, is God implying that His mind can be changed? On this account, Paul’s potter and the clay analogy does not seem to coherently support the notion that Pharaoh never had free will and was predestined to reprobation.

What is apparent about the expression is that it implies God provoked Pharaohs heart to become hard. The question lies in the extent of force that God applies in this situation. In one context, force is actively applied; that is to say a desired action is imposed by having direct agency over the action. For example, a person playing a video game having direct agency over the actions of the character they are using within the game, or a puppeteer having control over the actions of a doll. In the case of Pharaoh, God actively forces pharaoh’s heart to become hard through controlling his discretion. However, when we usually speak of force, it does not refer to direct control of ones discretion. The more common context is force that is circumstantially applied. This is an action that results from circumstances which are imposed on an agent. Force is not applied by active control of the agents will, but by imposing circumstances that force them to act in a particular fashion (e.g. a catastrophic blizzard giving rise to public schools having to close down for the day.) Similarly, a more sensible approach to the Exodus narrative may be to understand it from the perspective of the signs compelling Pharaoh to free the Israelites despite his inclination to keep them in bondage. Thus, it is not that Pharaoh was being forced to harden his heart, but the circumstances left him with no good choice except to let the Israelites go.

“Hardened” in Exodus

exodus exegesis 3

Fig. 1.

The word translated into harden  appearing only once in the narrative is in Exodus 7:3, which is אַקְשה (qâshâh, H7185) meaning to be severe, to make/be heavy, or to make grievous. In essence, the expression means to arouse contempt, or to bring difficulty. The saying does not imply causation, but rather giving occasion. 8 In this case, the saying has the effect of  saying  I will give him a hard time, or I will make him angry with me.

exodus exegesis 2

Fig. 2.

The second word translated into harden throughout the narrative is כּבד (kâbad, H3513), which means to become hard/strong, to make heavy, or to honor/show respect/glorify. This can be in a positive sense (e.g. Exo 14:4“[…]and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host;[…]”, Exo 14:17-18 (see Fig. 2.), and Exodus 20:12Honour thy father and thy mother:[…]”), or in a negative sense, to be burdensome (e.g.  1 Sam 5:6 “[…]the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod.”, 1 Ki 12:10 “[…]Thy father made our yoke heavy[…]”, and Neh 5:15 “But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people[…]”). In the context of the exodus narrative, it is used to imply that Hashem has laid a burden on Pharaoh, or a failure to show respect to Pharaoh.

exodus exegesis 1

Fig. 3.

The word that is used most often throughout the narrative is חזק (châzaq, H2388) which means to grow hard/strong, to persevere or prevail, or to take hold/to grasp firmly. This word often implies a determination to overcome ones circumstances, or the having the determination to persevere. G. K. Beale–currently Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary–offers this explanation of the word:

pharaoh quote 3

In this case, it appears the expression does not imply God removed the will of Pharaoh in order to make his heart hard. The context of the expression suggests that the hardening is the result of Pharaoh resisting the will of God rather than itself being willed by God. God is seen as bringing about the circumstances that arouse contempt within Pharaoh, but which eventually forces him into having to free the Israelites. In an article for Apologetics Press by Kyle Butt and Dave Miller, a similar conclusion is reached:

“A […]legitimate explanation for the Exodus text is that the allusions to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart are a form of figurative speech, very closely associated with metaphor, known as ‘metonymy,’ where one name or word is employed for another. For example, when we speak of ‘reading Shakespeare,’ we mean that we read his writings or plays. God hardening Pharaoh’s heart would be ‘metonymy of the subject,’ that is, the subject is announced, while some property or circumstance belonging to it is meant.[…]'”

“[…]closely aligned with the example of Pharaoh in Exodus, is the occasion of the conversion of Lydia, the businesswoman from Thyatira. The text states that the ‘Lord opened her heart’ (Acts 16:14). However, the specific means by which God achieved this action was the preaching of Paul. God’s Word, spoken through Paul, created within her a receptive and responsive mind. In like fashion, Jesus is said to have preached to Gentiles as well as to the antediluvian population of Noah’s day (Ephesians 2:17; 1 Peter 3:19). Of course, Jesus did neither—directly. Rather, He operated through agents—through Paul in the first case and through Noah in the latter. Similarly, Nathan accused king David: ‘You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword’ (2 Samuel 12:9). In reality, David sent a letter to his general ordering him to arrange battle positions where Uriah would be more vulnerable to enemy fire. On the basis of metonymy of the subject, David, the subject, is said to have done something that, in actuality, he simply arranged for others to do.” 10

Given the context of the expression, there is hardly any difference in the saying that God hardens Pharaohs heart, Pharaoh hardens his own heart, or simply that his heart became hard with no specification of who has done the hardening. Each use of the expression essentially carries the same meaning: the circumstances that were being imposed aroused Pharaoh to contempt.

There are a few key instances within the Exodus narrative proponents argue make this interpretation of the expression more preferable than the vengeance or fatalistic approach. A particularly compelling example is when the Lord first asks Moshe to return to Egypt, He requests for him to make a very serious warning to the Pharaoh, commanding him “[…] you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘So said the Lord, “My firstborn son is Israel.” So I say to you, ‘Send out My son so that he will worship Me, but if you refuse to send him out, behold, I am going to slay your firstborn son.'” (Exodus 4:22-23). The sternness of His request leaves one no reason to perceive that Hashem wishes not to be taken seriously by the Egyptians. God confronts Pharaoh with the choice to let the people go or they will face serious consequences. This behavior is not indicative of someone who has predestined one to make specific choices; for it would be both superfluous and cruel to devise an ultimatum for those who cannot choose between one way or another.

A second example is when God first asks Moshe to make a request to Pharaoh for the Hebrews to worship Him in the wilderness for a few days. God tells Moshe that Pharaoh will choose by his own will to reject Him, declaring “[…]you shall say to him, ‘[…] let us go for a three days’ journey in the desert and offer up sacrifices to the Lord, our God.’ However, I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except through a mighty hand.” (Exodus 3:18-19). To put it differently, the Lord is saying I know that he will not give you leave unless I compel him by a strong (חֲזָקָֽה H2389; See Fig. 3.) hand; that is, by force 11. It makes little sense that God would need to compel Pharaoh to do anything when He has no genuine desire for him to change his mind; especially if we suppose that He desires the opposite outcome. If God was actively forcing Pharaoh to harden his heart, then God was simultaneously working against Himself by forcing him to free the Israelites. As Jesus says in Mark 3:24 “[…]if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”, so too does this approach fail to stand. Some may argue that the passage should read “he will not let you go, not even by a mighty hand”, instead of “he will not let you go unless compelled…”, however the latter interpretation is unlikely when taking into consideration what is said in Exodus 6:1: “[…]for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.” (also see Exo 3:20, 7:5, 11:1, 13:3).


1. Bar-Ilan University (Daf Parashat Hashavua)

{http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/vaera/yashar.html}

2. Marc D. Carpenter. Unconditional Reprobation and Active Hardening: A Study on Romans 9:11-22. Page 7

3. As Aristotle defines a voluntary action in book III of Nicomachean Ethics “Now the man acts voluntarily; for the principle that moves the instrumental parts of the body in such actions is in him, and the things of which the moving principle is in a man himself are in his power to do or not to do.”

4.The Works of James Arminius – Vol. 3. Analysis of the Ninth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans {http://wesley.nnu.edu/arminianism/the-works-of-james-arminius/volume-3/analysis-of-romans-9/}

5. Luther, Martin. On the Bondage of the Will {http://www.truecovenanter.com/truelutheran/luther_bow.html}

6. Barnes, Albert. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible {http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/view.cgi?bk=44&ch=9}

7. Compare Isa 1:9 & Rom 9:29, Isa 8:14 & Rom 9:33, Isa 10:22-23 & Rom 9:27-28, Isa 11:10 & Rom 15:12, Isa 27:9 & Rom 11:27, Isa 28:16 & Rom 9:33 and 10:11, Isa 29:10 & Rom 11:8, Isa 40:13 & Rom 11:34, Isa 45:23 & Rom 14:11, Isa 52:5 & Rom 2:24, Isa 52:7 & Rom 10:15, Isa 52:15 & Rom 15:21, Isa 53:1 & Rom 10:16, Isa 59:7-8 & Rom 3:15-17, Isa 59:20-21 & Rom 11:26-27.

8. Robert Jamieson; A. R. Fausset; David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. 1871.

9. G. K. Beale. An Exegetical and theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4-14 and Romans 9. Trinity Journal 5 NS (1984) 129-154. Page 131.

10. Dave Miller, Kyle Butt. Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart? Apologetics Press. Accessed on Dec 10, 2015. {http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1205}

11. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion.” (NASB); “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand forces him.” (NLT); “I know that the king of Egypt won’t allow you to go unless compelled to do so by force” (ISV); “I know that the king of Egypt won’t let you go unless forced to” (MSG); “However, I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go, unless he is forced by a strong hand.” (HCSB)

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