Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

In YHWH’s very first conversation with Moses we are given a window into the Pharaoh’s frame of mind; he will not let the Israelites go “unless compelled by a mighty hand” (3:19). This sets the stage for understanding the hardening of his heart. It is evident from the text that YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The Hebrew word most often used is the word ḥāzaq (the verbal stem called “Hiphil” which is a causative, i.e. “I will cause to harden;” see 4:21, 9:12, 10:20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, but we have qāšâ in 7:3 and kābēd in 10:1, 14:4). However, things are not so simple because four times the text merely states that “his heart was hardened” (7:13, 22, 8:19 and 9:35). What is more, Pharaoh himself is said to harden his own heart after the second plague (8:15 v. 11), fourth plague (8:32), and after the seventh plague (9:34), where it is stated that Pharaoh sinned by doing this.

It is clear that Pharaoh’s hardened heart is the result both of his own will and by YHWH’s design. In the context of the narrative, we see that YHWH’s role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart is holy war. God rewards Pharaoh’s hardening by hardening it more for the express purpose that Pharaoh will make foolish tactical battle decisions. This will show off YHWH’s “outstretched hand” displaying His mighty deeds in war. In other words, hardening the heart of His enemies is a divine war strategy, a ‘weapon” in God’s arsenal, so to speak, and this motif spans from here in Scripture to the very end. One who has a hard heart is one who is fighting God and losing.

Hardening of heart is often evident in the context of signs and wonders as well. One would expect that signs and wonders would naturally convert the heart to God. However, miracles often bring on the opposite effect. This is the case with Pharaoh and a host of others in subsequent biblical history. This tells us that rebellion is a matter of the will and not a lack of evidence. Wills can be temporarily subdued when in fact they are resistant to the core (e.g. Pharaoh in 8:28-29). Signs and miracles can also have a good effect as well. We might conclude that if the heart is evil, signs and wonders will spiral it downwards in unbelief; if the will is inclined towards God, they will spiral it upwards in faith. It is rarely a good thing, however, to long for miracles, since we do not always know our hearts. This certainly was a problem with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. It is said that Jesus could do no miracle in Nazareth, not because he was unable, but because it would present opportunity for the people to blaspheme (Mark 6:5-6).

Since Pharaoh represents something in us all, that “seed of the serpent,” none of us are ever really far from a hardened heart. In fact, it makes for a profound meditation to compare Moses’ uncircumcised lips with Pharaoh’s hard heart, which interestingly enough is referred to as an “uncircumcised heart” elsewhere (Deut. 10:16). Those things about us that we resent and make us feel bitter and insecure can easily lead to a hard heart, a heart that chooses to strike out at God in defiance and anger. It is the hard work of faith to submit our weaknesses to the Lord. Moreover, we must be vigilant against a hard heart every day. It is not by accident that Psalm 95 is prayer every morning in the Liturgy of the Hours, “O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah…”

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