And the Lord told Moses, “When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go.” Exodus 4:21
Exodus 4 contains several issues that we might find difficult to deal with. Things that God says and does that may leave us feeling very uncomfortable. The first of which is found in Exodus 4:21. God seems to simply be saying, “I will decide for Pharaoh, he will not accept.”
Depending on your theological standing on the sovereignty of God this statement may either just be passed over without a second thought, or it may give you a deep desire to just ignore it and move on as fast as possible. But I think in the interest of true understanding of God and his Word we need to ask the question(s):
Did God make Pharaoh reject him so that he could use Pharaoh as a reason to display his power? Did God decide for Pharaoh if he would receive or reject the message of Moses—God’s message?
Now, please understand that I don’t wish to insight some sort of giant theological debate about free will versus God’s sovereignty with this post (when did that become an either/or issue anyway). And I have no intention of telling anyone how to come out on this. I simply wish to raise the question that this text begs us to ask and share some information I believe to be essential to coming to an understanding. And mostly I hope to nudge you into thinking more about God, who he is, and how he interacts with us. I guess I’m just here to stir the pot for you a little…in a good way of course.
So again, the question really is, what does it mean when God says, I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…”
Does God simply choose for us how we will respond to his calling, his message in our lives? It seems, at first reading that this is what he is doing with Pharaoh. Is that indeed the case, and if so, is that the way God works with everyone? Or is he only doing that with Pharaoh, or with select others?
Do see the dilemma that this can quickly become? How we see these verses in Exodus 4 has vast implications for how we see God, the gospel of Jesus, and our own role in the world.
Let me also say that if God chose to arbitrarily harden some hearts and soften some others and allow some to choose and others not to chose he certainly could do this. And I know that there are many within the Christian community who believe he does do this. I respect that position although in the interest of full disclosure I don’t believe it is what the whole of Scripture reveals about God and his offer of salvation. If you do, that is fine and I’m not trying to debate that here or convince you of something different here. What I do want to do is look honestly at the text we find ourselves with today: Exodus 4. We’ve been working our way through Exodus this month so we need to at least address what’s going on here.
Here is my brief finding and then I will simply wait to read your comments, thoughts or responses just to see your take on what is happening here.
At first read, as I said, this appears to be God unashamedly announcing that this gig is fixed. Pharaoh will be dis-allowed to make any choice other than the hardened, unbending, rebellious to God choice. But remembering that neither God, Moses nor Pharaoh originally spoke English (shock to us self-centered Americans!) and that the Bible was also not originally written in English (double scandal!!) is essential.
If we go back to the original Hebrew the word used for “hardened” is chazaq. While this word can be translated as “hardened” it has a broader meaning as well. So a good question to ask might be: how is this word chazaq used in the rest of the Old Testament?
This should give us some context for how the Biblical writers might have understood this word. Here are four examples. The words in all caps are the words translated from the original chazaq word.
Once again the Israelites did evil in the Lord ‘s sight, and the Lord GAVE King Eglon of Moab CONTROL over Israel because of their evil. Judges 3:12
Then Samson prayed to the Lord , “Sovereign Lord , remember me again. O God, please STRENGTHEN me just one more time. Judges 16:28
Instead, your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will lead the people into the land. ENCOURAGE him, for he will lead Israel as they take possession of it. Deuteronomy 1:38
Instead, commission Joshua and ENCOURAGE AND STRENGTHEN him, for he will lead the people across the Jordan. He will give them all the land you now see before you as their possession. Deuteronomy 3:28
So for some reason the Bible translators who made the transition from Hebrew to English for us used the word “harden” in Exodus (it is done again several times in Exodus 7) but in other places such as Deuteronomy (same original author) and in Judges the word is translated as something more along the lines of encouraging or strengthening what is already there.
To me this does not mean that God just decides for Pharaoh that he will reject Moses—and ultimately God—but that he will simply handed Pharaoh over to the desires of his heart. God simply strengthened what was already going on in Pharaoh so as to use it for his own purposes. It reminds me much of the ideas presented in Romans 1 when God lets us go only so far and then just hands us over, essentially saying, “If that is what you want you can have all of it.”
I realize this is more of an academic approach to the Scriptures than we usually take and it’s not something I intend to do often, but sometimes it is needed for addressing some of the tougher questions.
Perhaps you agree with me on my take of what this means in Exodus 4 and perhaps you don’t. Either way, chances are high that you will think more about God today than you had intended. And you might even do some digging of your own. If that’s the case, then I’ve done what I intended!
I welcome your thoughts, questions and perspectives.