Quite frankly, the following passage from Exodus has bothered me for some time. God miraculously calls Moses through a bush that is on fire but is not consumed by the fire. Moses is reluctant to fulfill God’s mission because the once proud man has been humbled by 40 years of caring for sheep. So then, we must ask ourselves a very tough question. Why would God harden Pharoah’s heart (see Exodus 4:21)?
Let’s get caught up on the story. In verse 18, Moses asks his father-in-law for permission to return to Egypt. Jethro says yes. Then in verses 19-23, God gives Moses additional directions on what Moses is to say and do. God also warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. The text reads, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharoah which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go’” (Exodus 4:21). It seems strange to hear a passage in which God states, “I am going to do something contrary to what I want to happen.” I want my people to be free and make of them a great nation. Therefore, I am sending you, Moses, but I am going to make it difficult in that I am going to harden Pharoah’s heart. Wouldn’t God be better off softening Pharoah’s heart to get him to release the people? What is happening? Why would God harden Pharoah’s heart?
Throughout the Old Testament, God often assumes responsibility for man’s decisions and actions. You see this quite frequently in the books of Isiah and Jeremiah. But perhaps this concept can best be described using a New Testament Parable.
In Christ’s parable of the “Sower and the Seed,” (see Matthew 13:3-23). There was no difference between the seed scattered on one kind of soil with that sown in the others or how it was sown. Everything depended upon the reception given the seed by each type of soil. In like manner, the hardening of Pharoah’s heart was in no way an act of God but rather a deliberate choice on Pharoah’s part. By repeated warnings and display of divine power, God sent light designed to point out to Pharoah the error of his ways, to soften and subdue his heart, and to lead him to cooperate with God’s will. But each successive manifestation of divine power left Pharoah more determined to do as he pleased. Refusing to be corrected, he despised and rejected light until he became insensitive to it, and the light was finally withdrawn. It was his resistance to the light that hardened his heart. Even the heathen recognized that it was Pharoah and the Egyptians themselves who hardened their hearts, not God (I Samuel 6:6).
We will learn more about the hardening of hearts as we go forward in the story of The Exodus. Through the story of Pharoah, we will see that there is a progression to how a person’s heart becomes hardened. But the truth is that God causes his sun to shine upon the evil and the good (see Matthew 5:45). But as the sun affects different materials in different ways, it melts wax. It hardens clary according to their nature. So the influence of the Spirit of God upon the hearts of men produces different effects According to the condition of the heart. The repentant sinner allows God’s spirit to lead him to conversion and salvation, but the unrepentant sinner hardens their heart more and more. The very same manifestation of the God’s mercy leads in the case of the one to salvation and life and in that of the other to judgment and death – to each according to his own choice.
In closing, let’s include verses 22 and 23. “Then you shall say to Pharoah, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.’”
This is seemingly a harsh passage, and indeed it is. But not so much when you consider the time and place. In declaring Israel to be God’s firstborn son, Moses used language familiar to the Egyptian Pharoah. Each Pharoah considered himself the son of the sun-god Amen-Ra. Then what the God of heaven is saying to Pharoah, “You are not my firstborn as you believe yourself to be. I am not Amen-Ra. I am the great I AM. I have chosen for myself Israel as My firstborn.
First, let me remind you, Moses did not state this until all other avenues of persuasion had been exhausted. But when Moses finally stated this, he stated it with the “Eye for an Eye and Tooth for a Tooth” principle. What is this eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth business about? This was the law in the land throughout the entire region, from the land of the Chaldeans to Egypt. We see this in Babylonian, Hittite, Canaanite, and Egyptian writing from this period of time.
God is essentially saying, Let Israel, My firstborn, go. If you do not, then I will meet you in a way that you understand in that I will rise up against your firstborn. Your firstborn Pharoah is believed to be from the god Amen-Ra, but let me assure you, I AM is the God over all the earth, and I have chosen Israel as My firstborn, My son. Therefore let My people go, My firstborn, or if your heart remains hardened against my will, you will have chosen death for your own.
It seems strange in our society today to talk like this. God was meeting the Egyptian Pharoah in a way that the Pharoah could easily understand and respond to. He was meeting Pharoah in the mindset that Pharoah and society had.
The beauty is that God always meets us where we are. He did this for Adam and Eve after they sinned. He did this for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and many others in the Bible. He does the same for us today.