Problem: God hardened Pharaoh's heart
Verses: Exodus 4:21, others; Status: Minor

In the Book of Exodus, God sends a series of plagues upon Egypt and the Pharaoh, in order to get him to release the Israelites from slavery. Yet before God does this, he makes this declaration, in Exodus 4:21:

And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. (ESV)

This would seem to defeat the purpose, and be manifestly unfair. However, the NIV Study Bible notes:

Nine times in Exodus the hardening of the pharaoh's heart is ascribed to God [...] another nine times the pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart [...] The pharaoh alone was the agent of the hardening in each of the first five plagues.

A keyword search of Biblegateway will confirm that this is indeed the case (though in some places it is not made clear who is responsible for the "hardening"). This seems to lessen the problem, since it suggests the Pharaoh had a lot of chances. Only after he had consistently failed to do the right thing does God stop giving him the choice.

This is not entirely satisfactory though. Throughout the story, there are dark hints that the whole affair is for the purpose of demonstrating God's power. For example, this is Exodus 10:1-2:

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." (ESV)

Deliberately making things worse for the ordinary Egyptians seems indefensible. Of course, a lot of believing Christians think that God is fully entitled to do nasty things to people. This is not a view I share, since it makes a mockery of God's supposed goodness, but it would remove the difficulty.

Updated: 2009-03-06

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