In this first half of Exodus, there are many (at least 19!) references to Pharaoh and his hardened heart. What is that about?
First of all, I want to point out the importance of reading this part carefully and in order. We want to see the progress of the story as a whole. If we just single out one occurrence like “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27), and then try to understand the meaning of this verse apart from the whole, we will miss the bigger story and meaning.
What have you noticed about Pharaoh from these first 10 chapters? He’s pretty terrible, isn’t he? I think we are supposed to be able to see that Pharaoh is an evil character. He epitomizes the turning away from God that had been the problem of humanity throughout the book of Genesis. Pharaoh is a powerful figure that wants his own way and will do anything to keep the power and control he desires. Before his confrontation with Moses, we already see that Pharaoh’s actions are oppressive and in defiance of the Lord of the universe.
Now to the references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart… While reading about the first five plagues, you’ll notice that the text says that either Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that his heart “grew hard.” In these instances, the responsibility for the hardness of heart is attributed to Pharaoh himself. And, in each of these plagues, the Lord give him a chance to humble himself, to change his ways, to soften his heart. And yet, Pharaoh chooses his own way, and hardens his heart. It seems that this hardness of heart is what happens when people choose their own way and reject God’s way.
In the span of the next five plagues, there are instances of God hardening Pharaohs heart, Pharaoh’s heart growing hard, and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. What we are meant to see in these chapters is that God is going to use Pharaoh’s evil for his own purposes. The Lord’s plan to deliver Israel from their bondage will not be thwarted. Even Pharaoh’s ruthlessness, his unwillingness to bend, his hardness of heart will not stop God from doing his redemptive work.
What do we learn from these references to Pharaoh and his hard heart?
- Pharaoh is responsible for his actions. He has hardened his own heart and chosen his own way.
- Pharaoh’s actions lead to his own destruction. During the final plague, he loses his own son, and finally allows the people of Israel to depart. But it is a short time before he changes his mind (yet again!) and pursues the Israelites with his armies and chariots. His continued hardness of heart draws him and his army into the middle of the Red Sea where they are destroyed. God allows Pharaoh’s evil to lead him to his own destruction, and to the Israelites freedom from the pursuing army.
- God wants to save us from our own destructive tendencies. This is why he shows us mercy, he gives us chance after chance to repent (how many chances did he give Pharaoh?!). God is patient with us. He warns and encourages us to soften our hearts. He is both merciful and just, and we see these characteristics throughout the Exodus narrative.