Did God Override Pharaoh’s Free Will By Hardening His Heart And Then Punish Him For It?

The events in Exodus chapter 8 revolving around the Pharaoh of Egypt and his interaction with God through Moses have roused many a Bible skeptic to revulsion and anger at the thought of such a seemingly unjust and cruel God. Truthfully, it’s not only Bible skeptics that take issue with this story. Former Christian Kendall Hobbs cites the story of Pharaoh in a list of alleged “atrocities committed by God” in the article, “Why I Am No Longer a Christian.” Hobbs writes, “…the Exodus story when the Egyptian Pharaoh was repeatedly ready and willing to let Moses and his people go, until God hardened his heart, and then God punished him for his hardened heart by sending plagues or killing children throughout all of Egypt.” Some self-professed Christians share Hobbs view, leading them to see a stark contrast between the “wrathful God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the New Testament.”

This is a blatantly unbiblical view as there are many verses throughout the Bible proclaiming that God does not change. Revelation 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I believe asking ourselves a series of questions can be helpful in reconciling these events.

Is differing verb usage between the Hebrew and Greek languages and modern English important to this story?

As readers of the Bible, we should be aware that not all words and figures of speech recorded in the Bible come across perfectly as expressed in our modern usage. Bible translators usually do a good job of taking care of this when translating our modern Bibles. E.W. Bullinger was a biblical scholar and theologian of the late 1800’s/early 1900’s who engaged in in- depth studies of biblical figures of speech. Dave Miller and Kyle Butts discuss his work in their article for Apologetics Press, “Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?.” Miller and Butts include the following example from Bullinger’s work,“To illustrate, in discussing the Israelites, Deuteronomy 28:68 states: ‘Ye shall be sold (ie, put up for sale) unto your enemies…and no man shall buy you.’ The translators of the New King James Version recognized the idiom and rendered the verse, ‘you shall be offered for sale.’ The text clearly indicated that they would not be sold, because their would be no buyer, yet the Hebrew active verb for ‘sold’ was used.”(There are multiple examples of this figure of speech. To read about more visit the link above to the article written by Dave Miller and Kyle Butts.)

Miller and Butts continue,“…Bullinger’s fourth list of idiomatic verbs deals with active verbs that ‘were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent said to do.’ (p. 823, emp in orig.)” Bullinger actually uses the example of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to illustrate the biblical application of an active verb being used to express permission being given. Miller and Butts write, “When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that God would permit or allow Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened.”

Did God change Pharaoh’s heart?

An important question to ask is this, “Did God change Pharaoh’s inherent nature in order to set this series of events in motion?” The answer is, absolutely not. There is nothing in the recorded history that would reflect that Pharaoh was sympathetic toward the Hebrews at any point prior to his interaction with Moses. In fact, the situation is just the opposite. David Guzik does an excellent job of putting this into perspective in his Exodus sermon series. He reminds us that Pharaoh was not sitting on his thrown all day thinking of ways he could improve the lives of the Israelites. Instead, he oppressed them terribly. They were forced to perform hard labor as slaves, were mistreated, and beaten.

The fact is, the Hebrews had become so numerous that the Egyptian Pharaohs had perceived them as a potential threat for years. A threat they had already unsuccessfully attempted to diminish by (a) enslaving them (Exodus 1:11-14); (b) demanding that Hebrew midwives kill all Hebrew male babies as they were born (Exodus 1:15-21); and (c) commanding all of his people to kill Hebrew baby boys by throwing them into the Nile River (Exodus 1:22- 2:10).

The Pharaoh that Moses interacted with was no different. Exodus chapter 5 explains that, calling them “lazy,” Pharaoh increased the Israelites’ work load by requiring them to collect the straw used to make bricks (their overseers had formerly provided this to the Israelites) without lowering their daily brick quotas in an attempt to overwork them to the point that they would be too exhausted to listen to what Moses and Aaron had to say.

Pharaoh’s heart was hard before Moses ever darkened his palace door. Loren gives the perfect analogy, writing for Answers From the Book, “When wet concrete is poured into a mold to form a sidewalk, it remains concrete both before and after it hardens. It doesn’t change into something entirely different.”

What does the Bible say about who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?

Now that we have established that Pharaoh had a “heart problem” long before Moses entered the scene, let’s discuss what the Bible actually says about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Walter Kaiser, President Emeritus and Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Old Testament of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary writes, “In all there are ten places where ‘hardening’ of Pharaoh is ascribed to God (4:21; 7:3, 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). But it must be stated just as firmly that Pharaoh hardened his own heart in another ten passages (7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15). […] Even more significant is the fact that Pharaoh alone was the agent of the hardening in the first sign and in all the first five plagues. Not until the sixth plague was it stated that God actually moved in and hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:12), as He had warned Moses in Midian that He would have to do (4:21).”

Does the fact that God knows the end from the beginning mean that He manipulates free will?

An innate characteristic of God is that He is all-knowing and His will is sovereign. This fact in no way constrains an individual’s free will or negates that individual’s responsibility nor the consequences that result. This is important: God is not “winging” it as He goes, rolling with the punches as history unravels. God has had a plan in place for mankind since before creation. He didn’t have to improvise His plan by directing Pharaoh to act because He knew what Pharaoh was going to do long before Pharaoh did. Romans 9:17 says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”

God used Pharaoh, acting of his own accord by the direction of his own free will, to carry out His sovereign will. Loren writes in the Answers From the Book article, “Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart,” “That God knew beforehand how Pharaoh would respond is certain. God is all-knowing. Yet in this encounter between a proud and hard-hearted man and a merciful but holy God, we have the mysterious tension between man’s free will and God’s sovereign will. In a perfect God’s dealings with sinful man, neither is ever frustrated or tampered with. God accomplishes His will and man reaps what he sows; freely deciding at every juncture his own course of action. That God knows the end from the beginning should never be interpreted to mean that He in any way affects that outcome by manipulating the free will that He Himself has placed within every man. Just because He knew what was already in the heart of Pharaoh, as He surely knows what is in the heart of every man, does not mean that He moved the hand of Pharaoh nor tempted him to commit evil (James 1:13).”

Does the fact that God created the circumstances that caused Pharaoh’s heart to harden mean that Pharaoh wasn’t responsible for his actions?

When Moses appeared before Pharaoh to relay God’s message to him in Exodus 5:2, “Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh basically says, “I know a lot of gods, but yours isn’t one of them. Why should I obey him?” In Exodus 7:4-5, God makes clear how He intends to reveal Himself to Pharaoh , “…Then I will lay My hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgement I will bring out My divisions, My people the Israelites. 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.”

In essence, God provided the circumstances in which Pharaoh was forced to make a decision by revealing His power. Erik Raymond writes in his article for the Gospel Coalition, “God simply revealed Himself. He revealed His power, supremacy, love for His people, hatred of sin, etc…through the signs and wonders of the plagues. It was this revelation of God that hardened his heart.”

Paul Baxter uses an ancient Jewish Midrash, or “interpretation/illustration,” to illustrate the difference that the same set of circumstances can have on different individuals. This particular midrash revolves around two farmers, “The first farmer cultivates his land with great care. The rains come. The sun shines. The crops grow. The second farmer refuses to work his land. The rains come and the ground turns to mud. Then the sun shines and the ground becomes hard as clay. In a very real sense God hardened the second farmer’s land by sending the rain and then making the sun shine; but, he the farmer also ruined his land by not working the land.” Baxter also references fifth century Christian commentator Theodoret, “The sun by force of its heat moistens the wax and dries the clay, softening the one and hardening the other.”

God created the circumstances, but Pharaoh responded to them using his own free will. It is important to note, that God’s revelation of Himself was not lost on all the Egyptians. As David Guzik points out in his commentary regarding Exodus 12:38, “Not all of the 600,000 [who left Egypt] were Israelites. Many Egyptians (and perhaps other foreigners) went with them, because the God of Israel demonstrated that He was more powerful that the gods of the Egyptians.”

In Conclusion

I’ll close with this all-encompassing quote from the Miller/Butts article, “Notice that in a very real sense all four of the following statements are true: (1) God hardened Pharaoh’s heart; (2) Moses hardened Pharaoh’s heart; (3) the words that Moses spoke hardened Pharaoh’s heart; (4) Pharaoh hardened his own heart. All four of these observations are accurate, depicting the same truth from different perspectives. In this sense, God is responsible for everything in the Universe, ie, He has provided the occasion, the circumstances, and the environment in which all things (including people) operate. But He is not guilty of wrong in so doing. From a quick look at a simple Hebrew idiom, it is clear that God did not unjustly or directly harden Pharaoh’s heart. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), He does not act unjustly (Psalms 33:5), and He has always allowed humans to exercise their free moral agency (Deuteronomy 30:19). God, however, does use the wrong stubborn decisions committed by rebellious sinners to further His causes (Isaiah 10:5-11). In the case of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, God can be charged with no injustice, and the Bible can be charged with no contradiction. Humans were created with free moral agency and are culpable for their own actions.”

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