It never fails. It happens every year. Every time I come to the book of Exodus in my Old Testament survey class, a theological bomb explodes when we get to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. For some students, the issue confirms what they’ve grown up believing. For most, however, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart reshapes (sometimes quite radically) the way students think about God’s sovereignty and human free will.
The issue is well known. Throughout the early chapters of Exodus (esp. 7-14), Pharaoh’s heart “is hardened,” but the agency isn’t always the same. Several passages say that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; cf. 14:7-8, 17). Others say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exod 8:15, 32; 9:34). Still other passages leave the agent unstated: they simply say that Pharaoh’s heart “was hardened” (Exod 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:35). What do we make of this? Who actually hardened Pharaoh’s heart—and why?
Several solutions have been given. The most popular one is to say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart. This might alleviate the apparent theological difficulty; it gets God off the hook of being unfair and unjust. The only problem is that the text doesn’t say this. The Bible never says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart. In fact, before Moses actually encounters Pharaoh, God states up front: “I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go” (Exod 4:21). This is a catch-all summary of God’s future encounter with Pharaoh. Furthermore, Exodus 14 and Joshua 11 says that God hardened the hearts of the Egyptians and the Canaanites without mention of them hardening their own hearts.
I’ve also heard some say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as an act of mercy. By hardening his heart, God was trying to bring Pharaoh to repentance. But again, there’s nothing in the text that explicitly says this. We would have to read a prior theological commitment into the text of Exodus 7-14 to get this.
So who did the hardening? While the issue is theologically difficult (for some), it’s textually quite clear. The Bible tells us clearly in two passages who the primary agent was, and why.
In Exodus 9, God says: “For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on our servants and your people so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.” And again, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod. 9:14-16).
This is the one time God states unambiguously why He did what He did with Pharaoh. God wanted to broadcast his power and sole existence across a world dominated by polytheism. Pharaoh’s own self-perceived divine status (Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh was a divine manifestation) competed with God’s, and he even sought to exercise dominion over God’s people (esp. Exod. 1). Therefore, God enabled Pharaoh to pursue this status, SO THAT He could judge Him and therefore disclosed to the world that Pharaoh isn’t God. Yahweh is.
The second passage that explains the reason—the “so that”—of Pharaoh’s hardening is Romans 9:
15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Rom. 9:15-18)
Paul agrees with Exodus here. God explicitly did not hardened Pharaoh’s heart because of some prior human act (i.e. Pharaoh’s first hardening his heart). “It depends not on human will or exertion” and God “hardens whomever he wills.” God has freedom as God to harden and bestow mercy on whomever He wills. Theologically troubling, I know. But this is exactly what Paul says. Paul celebrates God’s freedom in human affairs and highlights God’s agency in the incident of Pharaoh’s heart.
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to showcase His own power to judge and to save.
But we should give a theological footnote, one rooted in the text. There’s no indication that Pharaoh was a “seeker” trying to find God. Everything we know about Pharaoh is that he was the pinnacle of human rebellion, one who competed with God’s own kingship in the world. By hardening his heart, God executed vengeance on a rebellious tyrant who stood in the way of God’s purpose to redeem the world (Exod. 1). Perhaps the best indirect theological commentary on this incident is Romans 1:18-32. Here, humanity rejects God and therefore God “gives them over” to their sin (1:24, 26, 28). Similarly, Pharaoh opposed God and therefore God hardened his heart as an act of judgment—one that would ensure his fate and also proclaim God’s sole divinity and power across all creation.
In an ironic twist of events, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart played a role in Rahab’s salvation (Josh 2). And Rahab’s salvation enabled her to marry an Israelite named Salmon. Salmon and Rahab had a son named Boaz, who would marry Ruth and become the great-grandfather of king David (Ruth 4:18-20)—the one through whom God would send His Son to redeem the world. Which means that God’s judgment of Pharaoh played a fundamental role in your salvation.