In Exodus, often misunderstood is Pharaoh’s role in the story. To Calvinists, they see Pharaoh as a pawn without a will of his own. God hardens Pharaoh and uses him as a tool. To Free Will advocates, Pharaoh is the master of his own demise. God hardens, but only inadvertently. God really wants repentance from Pharaoh.
Both of these interpretations miss the overall narrative of Pharaoh. Pharaoh was stubborn and vain. God sees this grand opportunity and then decides to make an example out of Pharaoh. After all, God’s people are in bondage, Pharaoh is ripe for destruction, and Egypt is a powerful nation to destroy. Pharaoh is in the right place and time to make a lasting testament to God’s power. To make sure that this is an effective example, God cannot have Pharaoh cede too soon. God does not want Pharaoh to repent. But as Pharaoh repents, God still responds. There is no reason to believe that if Pharaoh had embraced his own repentance then Pharaoh would not have been spared. Although God had a vested interest in using Pharaoh, there was always room for repentance if Pharaoh wanted out.
Paul, in Romans, gives a summery of God’s purposes with Pharaoh:
Rom 9:17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I HAVE RAISED YOU UP, THAT I MAY SHOW MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MAY BE DECLARED IN ALL THE EARTH.”
Rom 9:18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
Rom 9:22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
Paul was under the impression that not only did God want Pharaoh to be an example of punishment, God took active steps to ensure this happened. This is how Exodus reads.
Pharaoh is first introduced in Exodus 3:
Exo 3:19 But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand.
Exo 3:20 So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go.
God says He is “sure” Pharaoh will not let Israel go without being compelled. This does not sound like God is controlling Pharaoh at this point. This does sound like God is examining Pharaoh at that timeframe and then predicting what Pharaoh will do. Because God knows that Pharaoh will be stubborn, this presents God with a great opportunity.
God’s people are in bondage to a mighty nation. If God were to plague and destroy that nation while sparing and freeing His people, then no one could doubt it was anyone except Yahweh who performed those acts. This would be proof positive that God is the living God and that God is powerful. Even the mighty Egyptians and their pantheon of gods would fall before Yahweh.
God resolves on using Egypt to show His power. In order to do this effectively, God could not have Pharaoh relenting too soon. God tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart to ward against Pharaoh repenting too soon. God ultimately wants to threaten Pharaoh’s child. That is the final test, the resolution which is not certain.
Exo 4:21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Exo 4:22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn.
Exo 4:23 So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.” ‘ “
Moses reluctantly accepts God’s tasking to go to Pharaoh. Moses asks Pharaoh to let Israel go into the wilderness to sacrifice (a deception), but Pharaoh refuses. Instead, Pharaoh increases the workload of Israel and Israel turns against Moses. Moses goes to the Lord and asks why God has done this. God repeats His goal to Moses:
Exo 6:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.”
God has not used power as of yet against Pharaoh. God was priming the pump. Pharaoh was being conditioned into enduring all sorts of power acts.
Again Moses is hesitant to go to Pharaoh, so again God repeats His plan:
Exo 7:3 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
Exo 7:4 But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.
Exo 7:5 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.”
God wants Pharaoh to reject Moses. God encourages Moses with this fact: “although it looks like you are not getting through to Pharaoh, that is My plan.” Without heavy handed power acts, Egypt (and all other nations) will not attribute Israel’s release to God.
In the next scene, it becomes apparent how God makes Pharaoh’s heart hard. God appeals to Pharaoh’s pride. Aaron casts down his staff. The staff turns to a snake. Pharaoh’s magicians cast down their staffs, and they too turn to snakes. Then Pharaoh’s heart is hardened:
Exo 7:13 And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
God had said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. The text here shows how God did that. God uses a lesser power act, one that can be duplicated by Pharaoh’s magicians. Pharaoh sees Moses and Aaron then as charlatans and sees himself as superior. God is appealing to Pharaoh’s pride. This is how God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
Moses and Aaron next turn the water of the Nile into blood, killing all fish. But Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate this as well. Because Pharaoh’s magicians can duplicate Aaron’s acts, this again leads to Pharaoh’s heart hardening:
Exo 7:22 Then the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments; and Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
Exo 7:23 And Pharaoh turned and went into his house. Neither was his heart moved by this.
This again is God appealing to Pharaoh’s pride. God is priming Pharaoh to increase his pride slowly as to not trigger a sudden repentance. God seems to know which power acts Pharaoh’s magicians can duplicate.
God’s next act is sending a plague of frogs. The magicians also duplicate this, but Pharaoh seems to be breaking. Pharaoh concedes to let Israel go sacrifice in the wilderness for three days. Moses calls to God. God releases the curse. And then the frogs all die. God seemed willing to accept Pharaoh’s repentance if this was legitimate, but it is not. As soon as the plague is gone, Pharaoh hardens his own heart:
Exo 8:15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
This time the actor is explicitly said to be Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s pride is continually making Pharaoh harden his own heart, but that is God’s intent. God wants Pharaoh to harden his heart so that God can continue smiting Pharaoh.
God’s next power work is sending lice. This is the first act that the magicians cannot duplicate. The magicians, apparently showing their own cards, attribute this to God. The previous works might have been parlor tricks as their own works had been.
Exo 8:19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had said.
Pharaoh does not like this information, and his heart grows hard. God has just defeated Pharaoh’s magicians. Before this time, there was a magnitude victory but not enough for Pharaoh’s mind to think that his own people couldn’t do those works. Now God hurts Pharaoh’s pride by doing something that Pharaoh cannot duplicate.
God sends flies, and Pharaoh quickly relents. Pharaoh promises to allow Israel to go sacrifice, but again once the plagues are gone then Pharaoh reneges on his promise. As soon as Pharaoh sees the plagues gone, his heart is hardened:
Exo 8:32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go.
God then smites the livestock of Pharaoh. Once Pharaoh checks on the status of the Israelite livestock, this infuriates him. Again his heart is hardened:
Exo 9:7 Then Pharaoh sent, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh became hard, and he did not let the people go.
God then sends boils over all of Egypt. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by God.
Exo 9:12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.
God follows up by striking Pharaoh with hail. This seems to break Pharaoh. Pharaoh gives a humbling repentance speech:
Exo 9:27 And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “I have sinned this time. The LORD is righteous, and my people and I are wicked.
Exo 9:28 Entreat the LORD, that there may be no more mighty thundering and hail, for it is enough. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.”
Moses correctly predicts that Pharaoh will quickly turn back once the plague is gone. Sure enough, Pharaoh sees that the plagues are gone and then his heart is hardened.
Exo 9:34 And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants.
Exo 9:35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hard; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the LORD had spoken by Moses.
At this point God reiterates the purpose of this entire exercise:
Exo 10:1 Now the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him,
Exo 10:2 and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.”
God wants Pharaoh to endure the plagues. God is very calculating in how He presents His plagues and in what way to best influence Pharaoh to continue enduring. But God is not convinced that Pharaoh has zero choice in the matter. God calls out Pharaoh for his unnatural hard heartedness:
Exo 10:3 So Moses and Aaron came in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the LORD God of the Hebrews: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me.
Exo 10:4 Or else, if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory.
At this point, even Pharaoh’s advisors turn against Pharaoh:
Exo 10:7 Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?”
But Pharaoh is undeterred. Pharaoh threatens to kill Israel:
Exo 10:10 Then he said to them, “The LORD had better be with you when I let you and your little ones go! Beware, for evil is ahead of you.
Exo 10:11 Not so! Go now, you who are men, and serve the LORD, for that is what you desired.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.
But Moses instead of attempting to lead Israel into certain death, sends another plague, one of locusts. This breaks Pharaoh into humility again:
Exo 10:16 Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste, and said, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you.
Exo 10:17 Now therefore, please forgive my sin only this once, and entreat the LORD your God, that He may take away from me this death only.”
Moses does as Pharaoh asks. God sends away the plague. But then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh does not let the people go.
Exo 10:20 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go.
God then blots out the sun. Darkness descends on Egypt. This prompts Pharaoh to again call Moses to him and then try to compromise sending Israel out. Pharaoh understands that as soon as Israel leaves, they will leave for good. Pharaoh sees through Moses’ deception, possibly from the first time Moses claimed it. Pharaoh asks that Israel leave their livestock, serving as collateral. Moses claims that they need all their livestock because they do not know which ones will be needed for a sacrifice (another deception).
It is right after this that the text said the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart again. Pharaoh did not like Moses dictating the terms and quickly turns against Moses.
Exo 10:27 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.
Pharaoh tells Moses that the next time he sees Moses then he will kill Moses. Pharaoh is at his breaking limit. The humiliation has built up and Pharaoh is mentally erratic. But Moses offers one last plague before he leaves Pharaoh. Moses warns that all the firstborn of Egypt will die. After this Moses leaves Pharaoh “in anger”. Pharaoh is now being personally threatened. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart:
Exo 11:9 But the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not heed you, so that My wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”
Exo 11:10 So Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land.
This final plague turns the people against Pharaoh. They advise to send Israel away before they all die. Pharaoh calls Moses in the middle of the night to send them away:
Exo 12:31 Then he called for Moses and Aaron by night, and said, “Rise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel. And go, serve the LORD as you have said.
Exo 12:32 Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also.”
Pharaoh is humbled and concludes this by asking for a blessing.
One last time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. This time God’s goal is to destroy Pharaoh’s army. Pharaoh learns that Israel’s request to sacrifice to God for three days had been just a ruse. Pharaoh becomes infuriated and sends an army after Moses:
Exo 14:4 Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.
Exo 14:5 Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people; and they said, “Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?”
Exo 14:8 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel; and the children of Israel went out with boldness.
God then sets a trap for the Egyptians. The Egyptians will follow Israel into the path through the sea that God creates. But God will swallow the entire Egyptian army in the waves. To ensure they pursue, God is said to harden the hearts of the Egyptians:
Exo 14:17 And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen.
This all has the intended results that God wanted:
Exo 14:31 Thus Israel saw the great work which the LORD had done in Egypt; so the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD and His servant Moses.
When God hardens hearts, it seems to be through mechanisms that naturally appeal to people’s pride. Pharaoh is humiliated. The Egyptian army is given the sight of an easy victory. God does not seem to be using magical heart hardening substance, but tactics in manipulation.
Hardening the heart happens to those predisposed to that temperament. God is reinforcing the actor’s current mentality, and not against their will. God even sometimes uses a measure of deception to effect the hardening of hearts. God tells Pharaoh that Israel will be coming back, but then shows Pharaoh the truth to enrage him. Each statement is meant to manipulate and control.
The entire text lends itself to God being a master chess player. There is a pretty clear cat and mouse game being described between God and Pharaoh. God wants certain results from Pharaoh and uses all sorts of plans to make Pharaoh act as God wants. The multilayered plan includes Moses, Pharaoh’s pride, the advisers, political pressure, humiliation and mental exhaustion.
The narrative is straightforward, Pharaoh was stubborn and vain. God sees this and then decides to make an example out of Pharaoh. To make sure that this is an effective example, God cannot have Pharaoh cede too soon. God uses His power to persuade Pharaoh to not relent before the plan is complete. But God is open to pardon: as Pharaoh repents, God still responds. Although God had a vested interest in using Pharaoh, there was always room for repentance if Pharaoh wanted out. But Pharaoh was headstrong, and it led to his destruction and the fulfillment of God’s plan.