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The Destruction of PharaohIn Exodus 5, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and tell him that God has ordered that the Israelites be set free so they can worship Him in the wilderness. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is immediately evident: “But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go’” (Exodus 5:2). Indeed, Pharaoh is so angered by the request that he tells the foremen and taskmasters to increase the workload on the Hebrews. As slaves, they were required to make bricks, and up until that point the Egyptians would provide the straw they needed. Now, they were commanded to gather their own straw to make bricks, but were not allowed to decrease the number of bricks that they were required to make.
This causes the people to become angry with Moses, who in despair laments to God: “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Exodus 5:22-23).
Take note that Moses first claims that it is the Lord who has done the evil to the people. Only after that does Moses say that Pharaoh has done the evil in response to what God has sent Moses to do. This fits right in with what we have seen in the book of Job, where God is said to have brought the evil upon Job just as Satan had, so this is consistent with the claims we’ve seen so far. Unlike the book of Job, where we are told right out that Job is speaking truthfully, it is possible to interpret Moses’s complaint as just an accurate recording of what Moses said rather than as something teaching us about theology. However, given that this claim is so close to what we’ve read in Job, then I think we can take a harder stand here and say that Moses was not just expressing his opinion, but was actually expressing a fact too. Ultimately, however, whether this is a valid complaint on Moses’s part or not, his final clause stands true: “You have not delivered your people at all.”
Of course, Moses should have remembered from before that God had said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so the ruler would not let His people go. But because he seemingly forgot, we read something that is, frankly, haunting. “But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh’” (Exodus 6:1).
I don’t know about you, but may I never been in a position where God tells someone, “Now you shall see what I am about to do to him”!
In addition to the threat against Pharaoh, God makes several promises to Israel:
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD’” (Exodus 6:2-8).God’s statements here are very direct, and bear the full weight of His sovereign power. He begins by pointing out that while He appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not even those great patriarchs knew His name of YHWH. God points to the covenant he formed with them, a covenant He swore to uphold at pains of His own destruction, as proof He will act. And if that were not enough, God reminds Moses that He has also heard the cries of the people. They have not been forgotten.
With all His might, He swears: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out…and I will deliver you…and I will redeem you. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God. I will bring you into the land. I will give it to you. I am the LORD.”
All of these things are things that God Himself will do, and they are not dependent upon anything else. God does not need someone else to step in. He promises He will act, and we know He will do it is because He is the LORD. Because He has sworn to do it. Such is a mighty assurance indeed.
Yet we read: “Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exodus 6:9). It is very common in our lives that our spirits become broken, and though we are not enslaved as the Egyptians enslaved Israel, we have our own burdens in life that can cause us to not listen when God sends someone to speak to us. Here, it was so overwhelming that even Moses balked at speaking before Pharaoh.
So God prompts him again:
And the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:1-5).Once again, God says that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, He tells Moses to preach a message that God will ensure cannot be heard. This seems like a bit of a fool’s errand, but verse 6 tells us that Moses and Aaron did what God commanded. Clearly, they were operating under the “If God commands it, even though it appears to be stupid, it is the right thing to do.” But for those who did not receive the command directly, I anticipate that this will leave the majority of us scratching our heads.
God commanded Moses and Aaron to speak to Pharaoh. Because it was a command, it would have been a sin had they not obeyed. Furthermore, because the command that Moses and Aaron were giving Pharaoh came from God, it was likewise a sin for Pharaoh to not obey that command. Yet it is also clear that God never intended for Pharaoh to obey that command, because He says He is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart. The reason is also given: so that “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.”
How is it that God can give a command while simultaneously working to ensure that the one given the command cannot actually obey it? Surely that cannot be just, can it?
Now obviously I have some thoughts on this, but I want you to wrestle with this for a bit before I comment further. Try to come to an understanding of this yourself, because if you believe the Bible is true then you’re going to need to reconcile what this passage teaches with what your view of God is.
When Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh, God gives them a sign, whereby Aaron casts his staff to the ground and it would become a snake. Pharaoh summons his own sorcerers and magicians, and they were able to duplicate the feat (Exodus 7:11), but then Aaron’s snake ate all the other snakes. Despite that display, we read: “Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said” (verse 13). And again in verse 14: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.’”
Some have argued that because verse 13 doesn’t say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then perhaps God didn’t actually do it and instead Pharaoh did it to himself. But the sequence given in the Scripture cannot be denied. God has promised twice now that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not listen, and we have confirmation that Pharaoh’s heart was, indeed, hardened. Arguing that it was really Pharaoh who hardened his own heart does not stand up to scrutiny here. While later passages do indeed speak of Pharaoh hardening his heart, at this point we only have these facts:
1. God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4:21
2. God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 7:3
3. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened “as the LORD had said” in Exodus 7:13.
A later passage indicating that Pharaoh hardens his own heart cannot be used to go back to a previous time, where God has declared that He Himself will harden Pharaoh’s heart, to alter the fact that God Himself did harden Pharaoh’s heart. We must be clear on this point. God promised that He, not Pharaoh, would harden Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.
It is understandable that people would like to insulate God from actions that appear to them to be morally untenable. Yet God has no problem ascribing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to Himself. As far as God is concerned, it is not morally untenable to harden Pharaoh’s heart. And we know that it is not evil for God to do so, for God in fact did so. In a very real sense we must ask: if God doesn’t mind saying He did it, why should we mind saying He did it?
(If this is making you uncomfortable, perhaps that’s a sign you need to find a church that will preach the full Bible, not just the bits that tickle people’s ears.)
In any case, because Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, the judgment began, starting in Exodus 7:14. In the first plague, God turns the Nile to blood. This kills all the fish and the people are forced to dig next to the river in order to get potable water. However, we read: “But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said” (verse 22).
Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened because he could see the magicians do the same thing that Moses and Aaron did when the Nile was turned to blood. Now, regardless of how the Egyptians did this (some have speculated they dropped red powder in water to make it look like blood, others point out that their secret arts could have held demonic power that really could turn water to blood), Pharaoh had an excuse he could point to in order to keep his heart hard.
This gives us a little insight, ever so slight at this point, as to how God works to enact His will. The passage is clear that we cannot ignore that God is the one behind the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but that doesn’t mean God is directly hardening Pharaoh’s heart. We see here that Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened because he has evidence that his own magicians can duplicate the feat, albeit at a much smaller scale. Therefore, we can conclude that it is not necessary for God Himself to directly alter anything in the heart of Pharaoh to make it harden. It is just as much considered under His domain if secondary agents do the hardening. In this case, God uses the magicians of Egypt to harden Pharaoh’s heart—yet it is still considered God having hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Let us think back to the book of Job yet again, because this is the consistent theme of Scripture so far. When Satan asked God to stretch out His hand against Job, God did so yet He did not directly touch Job either. Instead, He gave free reign to Satan, who used the Chaldeans, the Sabeans, and weather to strike at Job. Yet still it was said that God was ultimately the one responsible for what happened to Job. In the same way, God is using secondary means to harden Pharaoh’s heart (at least this time) and it is plausible to think that God would continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart in much the same way.
If another example is needed, this also fits with God using Joseph’s brothers to get Joseph into Egypt in the first place. And with that in mind we can also conclude that while the secondary actors may have meant this for evil, God meant it for good.
Let us now get back to the actual plague itself. The Nile River is, even today, the most important body of water in Egypt, for without the Nile the land is nothing but desert since Egypt does not receive much rain. Consequently, striking the Nile had a two-fold purpose. First, the importance of the Nile meant it was used in many of the Egyptian religious practices, and so striking the Nile would be striking at the Egyptian gods. Secondly, the Nile was the lifeline of Egypt. Not only was it necessary for food and drink, but it was the means of transportation throughout Egypt, as boats transported cargo amongst the various cities. In this plague, the Nile becomes inhospitable. The fish in it died, and the river stank. It literally became putrid. Thus, with the very first plague, God has struck at the heart of Egyptian worship, the heart of the Egyptian economy, and the heart of Egyptian sustainability. Yet even then, God showed some mercy, for the Egyptians could still dig along the banks of the Nile to find pure water to drink.
One thing that sets this plague apart from the subsequent plagues is that Exodus does not record a specific ending to this plague. As we shall see, Pharaoh asks Moses to relent on the upcoming plagues, but not for this first plague. Literally, the only thing we read is “Seven full days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile” (Exodus 7:25), and then we’re on to the next plague. Exodus doesn’t say whether that means that the Nile was blood for seven days and then it changed back to pure, or if it just took a week before the next plague came and the Nile remained a river of blood through that next plague too. I think it a safe assumption that after the seven days the Nile was pure again, but that is just an assumption based on the fact that it’s not mentioned as a river of blood afterward.
After that week had passed, we have the second plague recorded in the beginning of Exodus 8. This one is a little unusual in that it does not record Pharaoh rejecting the command to let God’s people go. We just have the threat that if he does not let the people go, God will bring up frogs to fill the country (verses 1-4), and then it records God carrying out that threat (verses 5-6). Of course, we can safely assume that somewhere between verse 4 and 5, Pharaoh once more declined to release the people, especially as Pharaoh’s behavior later shows he still does not want to release them.
Like the first plague, the Egyptians are able to duplicate this one (Exodus 8:7). But this time, instead of it hardening his heart, Pharaoh said to Moses: “Plead with the LORD to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go sacrifice to the LORD” (verse 8). Moses does as Pharaoh requests, and the LORD listens to Moses. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said” (verse 15).
Here we finally see where Pharaoh hardens his own heart. It is of some note to see that the word used to describe Pharaoh’s self-hardening is a different Hebrew word than the word used to describe God’s hardening of Pharaoh. When God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the word used nearly every time is based on the word chazaq, which has the root meaning of to make strong (this is the word used in Exodus 4:21, 7:13, 7:22, 9:12, 9:35, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, and 14:17). But when Pharaoh hardens his own heart, the most often used word is based on kabed, which has as the root meaning to make weighty (used in Exodus 7:14, 8:15, 8:32, 9:7, 9:34, and 10:1) One other word is used only a single time, in Exodus 7:3—the word qashah with the root meaning of hard/severe.
Now, we have to be careful when dealing with words not to rely too much of the root word since we have examples in English of the radical difference in words that have the same root (think of the word television and the word visionary, which both have the same root of vision but meanings that don’t seem to overlap much at all). Here, the two words do appear to function nearly as exact synonyms. In fact, Exodus 7:13 uses chazaq and 7:14 uses kabed to describe the same hardening.
Still, it is possible that Moses means to introduce some nuance that Pharaoh is making his heart weightier and heavier, implying adding more stubbornness and evil. But when God hardens Pharaoh, the hardening itself is a “strengthening” of what is already in Pharaoh’s heart. That is, God does not manufacture the evil in Pharaoh because Pharaoh is already evil. What God does is to solidify Pharaoh’s heart in that pre-existing evil, most likely by removing any of His common grace that would have opposed Pharaoh’s evil. Pharaoh, on the other hand, actually adds more evil to his own heart.
Again, we do not want to speculate too much based on these Hebrew words. Any interpretation that requires an esoteric translation of the original text should be looked at with skepticism. While it helps to color our understanding, it cannot be the entirety of our argument. And when it comes to Pharaoh, the clear light of the logical order of God first declaring He will harden Pharaoh’s heart and then Pharaoh’s heart being hardened is the more important concept for us to grasp.
Let us continue on to the next plague. After the frogs came gnats, and we read: “Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said” (verse 19).
This is the first plague that the magicians could not duplicate, but still Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. The fact that it has been hardened is demonstrated not just by the direct statement of Scripture, but also by the fact that the magicians could see that God was acting and Pharaoh was still blinded to it.
Quickly after this, God sent the next plague of flies. This time, He set apart the land of Goshen to make sure that the Hebrews were not afflicted in the way of the Egyptians, to make it all the more clear to the Egyptians that He was the one doing it. Pharaoh tried to barter on the terms, to get the Hebrews to make sacrifices to God within the land instead of releasing them. But Moses insisted they must leave into the wilderness. Pharaoh agreed to it, and God removed the flies: “But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go” (verse 32).
This sequence continues with the fifth plague (the Egyptian livestock died while the Hebrew livestock is saved) and we read “But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (Exodus 9:7); and the sixth plague of boils: “But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 9:12).
After all this, we read:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth”’” (Exodus 9:13-16).Now we get the full explanation for why God has been hardening Pharaoh. He says that Pharaoh was raised up for one reason only: so God could show His power and have His name proclaimed in the entire earth. Thus, God asserts that Pharaoh did not come to power on his own initiative at all. He was appointed Pharaoh by God, precisely so that God would send the plagues and demonstrate His power.
Note this clearly! God could have wiped out all of Egypt at once. He could have immediately saved Israel. But He did not wish to do so. He wanted to show His power and might by destroying the mightiest kingdom in the land at the time.
This time, hail struck. Pharaoh claimed once more that he would let the people go. But we read:“[W]hen Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses” (Exodus 9:34-35).
By now the cycle seems almost too repetitious, but there is a point to the repetition so let us continue:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 10:1-2).This time, God brought locusts, and after the locusts were gone: “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go” (verse 20).
So God sent darkness. And once more: “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go” (verse 27).
Finally, we read:
The LORD said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely” (Exodus 11:1).But even here, when the warning is delivered that the firstborn child will die, we read: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his hand” (Exodus 11:9-10).
So what are we to make of this? It is certainly a hard section of the Bible for us to wrestle with if we’ve never considered the implications before. The first thing that I think must be clearly emphasized though goes back once again to the idea of compatibilism. The Bible says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but sometimes it speaks of Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and sometimes it refers to the same act of hardening both as God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. Consider, Exodus 9:34 says “he [Pharaoh] sinned yet again and hardened his heart” and Exodus 10:1 has God saying, “I have hardened his heart.” What is not immediately clear because of the chapter change is that there is only one verse between Exodus 9:34 and Exodus 10:1, and it begins “So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened.” In the space of three verses, we have Pharaoh hardening his own heart, a mention that his heart was hardened, and God saying He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If this is not to be considered a contradiction, it seems something like compatibilism is the only option we have.
It is both the case that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and that God hardened his heart at the same time. Pharaoh’s actions are attributed both to himself and to God. We have to hold the two truths in tension: God predestined that Pharaoh would be destroyed (“I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth”) and yet Pharaoh is willingly sinning without compulsion. If you only believe one of these without the other, you are missing part of the picture.
But beyond the implications of compatibilism, we have to look at the moral aspects of this. Let us consider just God’s role for a moment. God is hardening a man so that he cannot obey His commands. We are told He is doing so in order to destroy that man to show His power. In fact, we are told that that man’s sole purpose in existing is so God would demonstrate His power through that man’s destruction.
How is this moral? How can we reconcile this with any concept of God being a good God? I hope that you have been wrestling with it throughout your reading of this chapter. Let me now provide a scenario that might shed some light.
We know from the Flood story that people are evil from their youth. If we are evil, then why is it that we don’t only do evil continually, like men did before the Flood? While we haven’t seen anything directly about it yet in our survey of Scripture thus far, we will eventually see that God restrains some amounts of evil. So let us picture our hearts as a mixture of good and evil, with the good being from the grace of God while the evil is everything that results from our own sin nature. God is not required to grant His grace so that we can combat our evil natures, but He has chosen to do for His own reasons.
If He decides to remove that grace, which again is not something He is required to give in the first place, then the removal of the grace will result in the intensification of the evil in our hearts, as there is no longer grace to offset the evil. This would be equivalent to a hardening of our heart in the sense of the strengthening of the evil that is already in our hearts.
At the same time, as we commit evil acts, we become more and more evil ourselves. It is plain through our own observations that when we sin it tends to lead to more and more sin. So, if we sin more we are adding more evil to our actions. Thus, our own active sinning results in the hardening of our hearts by increasing the amount of evil in our hearts.
In this scenario, there are two different hardenings going on. If this is what’s going on with Pharaoh, God is not adding extra evil when He hardens Pharaoh; He is removing grace, which allows Pharaoh’s natural evil to strengthen. At the same time, Pharaoh himself also hardens his heart by committing more evil actions.
If we want another analogy, we can also think of this like a dam holding back a flood of evil. The dam has sprung many leaks. God patches lots of these leaks, but at the same time He perhaps allows several of the leaks to go through unblocked (God is not immoral for doing so, because He is not required to stop any of the leaks at all). On top of it, however, we have Pharaoh himself going around pouring more and more evil into the pool behind the dam.
Now, if God stops blocking some of the leaks, then that means that a greater amount of evil will show up downstream. But God is not creating that evil. The evil is already there behind the dam. Still, the flood of evil downstream will increase because more evil is coming through the holes in the dam because fewer are patched. Likewise, if Pharaoh is adding more buckets of evil to the pool upstream, then that means that more evil is going to go through too, as the sheer volume of evil overflows the dam and courses on its way.
In this scenario, one could say both that God is the cause of more evil ending up downstream because He has stopped blocking evil, and that Pharaoh is the cause of more evil downstream because he is generating more evil. The key difference is that God is not culpable for the existence of the evil in the first place because His actions are not creating evil, they are simply not restraining evil. And thus, while He uses it for His own good purposes, He is not the author of that evil, whereas Pharaoh is the author of evil because he is actually the one creating the evil.
While no analogy can ever be 100% accurate, I hope this at least lets us realize that there are reasonable and rational explanations for how God can order Pharaoh to obey a command that He then hardens Pharaoh’s heart against obeying without God being the culpable cause of evil.