As many of us have been reading through Exodus we have encountered one of the perennial questions raised by the Exodus story, one that has significant theological ramifications: what does it mean when it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
And the Lord said to Moyses, “As you go and return to Egypt, see, all the wonders which I put in your hands, you shall perform them before Pharao. But I will harden his heart, and he will not send the people away.” (Exodus 4:21, NETS)
This is only one instance of four that the Lord told Moses that he would Harden Pharaoh’s heart. This, then, is no small matter, but a major theme of the story. But how are we to understand it?
To begin we need to start at the beginning of the story, looking at Pharaoh before his dealings with Moses. Who is he? A virtuous ruler, leading his people in righteousness and justice, dealing fairly with those in his governance? Well, no. Forgetting the history of the Israelites in Egypt, forgetting Joseph, he begins to fear these immigrant foreigners who are becoming numerous and tells his advisers that they must deal “shrewdly” with them lest they become powerful and overtake the Egyptians. And “shrewdly” means, as you know from the story, enslaving the Israelites.
“And the Egyptians were oppressing the sons of Israel forcefully and were grievously afflicting
their life by the hard tasks in clay and brick making and all the tasks in the plains, according to all the tasks in which they were enslaving them with force.” (Exodus 1:13-14, NETS)
Forcefully, grievously afflicting their life, enslaving them with force: does Pharaoh sound like a guy whose heart was open and “soft” toward the Lord and his ways? Not exactly. Recall that later in Exodus God will tell the Israelites to remember their slavery and that they were immigrants and foreigners in their dealings with people when they inhabit the promised land. They are not to deal shrewdly with immigrants and foreigners, but fairly, with justice and righteousness. This is how God dealt with them, and they are to do likewise to others.
But back to Pharaoh. Along with his enslaving foreigners, let us not forget that Pharaoh also believed that he was a god and that Egypt was his kingdom. And so his head was full of foolish - demonic - notions of his own divinity. Again, probably not a guy whose heart was open and “soft” toward the Lord and his ways.
All of this is important background to our consideration of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. For it is to this “god” and enslaver of foreigners that the true and living God sends Moses with his word to let the Israelites go. How is a man like Pharaoh going to hear this Divine word except as a threat to his kingdom, to his economy, and to his own divinity. Pharaoh truly has no spiritual ears to hear this word, he can only perceive it as a threat to his delusional self-understanding.
The question that arises for many in this whole matter is one of predestination, i.e. did God actively and intentionally turn Pharaoh toward wickedness and harden his heart against God? And if so, what does that say about God and about human freedom?
In exploring this let’s take a look at the Lord’s words in Matthew 5:44-45:
“But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
And in St Luke’s gospel it adds these words of our Lord:
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)
Not unlike Exodus, when God tells the people to recall his actions towards them and to do likewise, our Lord bases our actions on how God himself is: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
But I think we can go a bit deeper into our Lord’s teaching here. For what happens with the sun and the rain that the Lord sends on the just and the unjust? To be specific, what do the just and the unjust do with God’s sun and rain? Well that, of course, depends upon them. The just grow food with the sun and the rain, and with eat they not only feed themselves and their families but they also extend their hand to the poor and needy (something, again, we will see commanded in Exodus). The unjust, however, not so. Our Lord himself tells the parable of the wicked farmer who, when he has a bumper crop, decides to tear down his bars and build bigger ones, saving up only for himself and his (imaginary) future, when, as the fathers often say, he had plenty of storage for those crops - produced by God’s sun and rain! - in the bellies of the poor.
The Fathers, addressing the question of God’s hardening of hearts, expand on the notion of God’s sun and rain in this way. It is the same sun that softens wax that hardens clay. And it is the same rain that flows and grows when warm that becomes ice when frozen. It is, then, the disposition - the virtue or the passion - of the recipient of grace that determines whether they are softened or hardened. But, as our Lord says in the above quote in St Luke, the Most High “is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
With love in Christ,