Pharaoh’s hard heart and free will

  • Question 146, from Carol, United Kingdom
    Why is there such as difference in God’s attitude to mankind between the Old and New Testament? e.g. If God gave everyone a free will why did he then override this and harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus so that he wouldn’t release the Israelites from Egypt?

    There are two big questions here based on two very big assumptions. The first is the assumption that there is a major difference between the way God is depicted as acting towards human beings in the Old Testament compared to the New. The second assumption is that human beings have free will, which God ignored when God chose to ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’.

    God in the Old and New Testaments
    God is revealed in different ways in the Old and New Testaments – as Yahweh, the god of Israel in the Old Testament, and as an incarnate human being in the New Testament. In some respects, it would be expected that if the mode of revelation is different, then the image of God would appear to be different too.

    However, there are striking similarities between the two Testaments. There is an emphasis on sin needing to be accounted for, especially through the shedding of blood. In the Old Testament this takes place in the Jewish sacrificial system; in the New Testament God provides the perfect sacrifice, his own Son. Taken this way, God’s ‘attitude’ is the same – there is a gulf between humans and God caused by human sin, which God wishes bridged in order to have a loving relationship with humanity.

    Free will and hard hearts
    Those who adopt a theology that emphasises predestination probably do not have too much of an issue with God ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’. If God decides who shall be saved, and who shall be punished for their sins, then this passage presents little or no problem. God decides that Pharaoh will be punished for his sin, and so causes or allows Pharaoh to have a hard heart. (In addition to God’s stated intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart, the story in Exodus states on three occasions that Pharaoh decides himself to harden his own heart (1) and God presumably lets him.)

    Quite why God would deliberately choose to harden Pharaoh’s heart is a matter of conjecture. It may be that God sought to liberate the Hebrews through mighty acts as a revelation of God’s divine powers and to confirm that Moses was God’s messenger. The plagues visited upon Egypt acted as a testimony that Moses was telling the truth – and ensured the Israelites followed him. If Pharaoh had agreed to let the Hebrews leave immediately, how many would have followed Moses into an uncertain future?

    Those who want to adopt a less rigid view on predestination, may see God’s actions here as deliberately undermining Pharaoh’s free will. However, the incidents already cited where Pharaoh decides to harden his own heart do counteract that assumption. In Exodus chapter 3, verse 19, before Moses goes into Egypt, God tells him that “the King of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” This seems to imply that Pharaoh would need a compelling reason to free the Hebrews because his heart was already ‘hard’.

    God acts by ‘not acting’
    If God knew Pharaoh would harden his heart and chose not to act in such a way as to prevent that happening, then God is effectively allowing Pharaoh to harden his own heart. In a sense, God is causing Pharaoh’s heart to harden by notintervening to prevent it from happening. God’s intention is thus accomplished by God’s omission, not by God’s action. By predicting Pharaoh’s hard heart to Moses, God prepares Moses for the necessary struggle ahead, because it is only through that struggle that God’s mighty acts will be witnessed by all the Hebrews.

    So, in conclusion, God had a reason to let Pharaoh behave the way he did, and could be said to have caused or allowed Pharaoh’s hard heart, without negating the fact that Pharaoh freely chose to act that way. Through the Exodus, God self-reveals as the liberator of the oppressed. In the drama of the Passover is a foreshadowing revelation of the great redemptive act that came when the ‘Lamb of God’ died on the cross. The Exodus reveals God’s very nature to the liberated Hebrews; and to Christian believers too. Pharaoh’s hard heart had a part to play in that. Such a revelation may not have been received if, when Moses told Pharaoh that Yahweh’s message was ‘Let my people go’, Pharaoh had just replied ‘Yeah, okay’.

    Notes and references
    1 – Exodus chapter 8, verse 15 and again in verse 32, and chapter 9, verse 34.

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  • 1 comment

    1. Liz Jun 6

      Why make any of this necessary to begin with?

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