Does God harden hearts?

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgement I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.
— Exodus 7:3-4

I thought about this passage for over a month before sitting down to write this. It’s not an easy one. For me, the most difficult part about it is the questions it raises about God’s character.

Does he condemn certain people for his own purposes, while allowing other, just as sinful people, to be saved?

To be clear, I’m questioning God’s right to exercise his power, but I do want to understand as best I can what he’s doing here.

I was a little tentative, not sure how to approach these verses. Over the month, the Holy Spirit began prompting me to notice a pattern of verses that all said similar things about God’s justice. It seemed like every week someone would bring up a passage or I’d come across one while reading. At first, I had no idea why this was happening, but I started highlighting the verses in a different colour whenever I came across them in my Bible.

The reoccurring theme was God basing his judgement off of our own choices.

Jesus judges people based on how they think others should be judged (Matthew 7:1-2). Time and again throughout Isaiah there are stories of great kingdoms and cities who oppressed people and ignored God. God judges these cities by making them endure the same suffering they imposed on Israel (Isaiah 51:22-23). The same thing happens in Revelation 18:19-20; Babylon, a great city that did evil in the eyes of God, is overthrown because “God has judged her with the judgement she imposed.”

Similarly, when people stubbornly refuse to give up their sinful ways, God gives them over to their choices, letting the sin they keep pursuing completely enslave and ruin them (Romans 1:18-32). Jesus says that people who endure sorrow and insults to follow him instead of pursuing wealth or happiness will be blessed. However, those who continue in their own way, chasing after whatever they want have already received their reward, and it will come to an end as soon as they die (Luke 6:20-26).

We can either choose instant gratification — doing whatever we want now — or we can give up our desires to follow God's will. Doing the latter means gaining not only joy and satisfaction on earth, regardless of our circumstances, but also means an eternal inheritance as children of God. 

To summarize:

God asks for our loyalty; he wants us to trust that his ways are better and seek to follow them. But if we don’t, he lets us have our way — a way that tears apart our bodies and souls. He “gives us over” to the things we say we want more than God.

Okay, let’s get back to the passage we’re talking about, keeping this digression on God’s justice in mind.

Did God give Pharaoh a chance?

Previously, when I’ve read the Exodus account of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, it always seemed to me that there was no hope for the Egyptians. They were the helpless bystanders who got destroyed without having any way out. 

I’m no longer convinced that was the case.

God explains to Moses what he plans to do for his people in Egypt before it happens (Exodus 6:2-8). In a sense, it’s part of an introduction. He revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, and now he tells Moses that he is also the Lord, or El Shaddai. He is a God who fights for his people, who heals them and who feeds them. They will discover this aspect of his character through their deliverance from Egypt. 

But this introduction isn’t just for the Israelites, it’s for the Egyptians too (Exodus 7:5). God wants them to know that he is the Lord too. God says he raised up Pharaoh to demonstrate his power to the earth (Exodus 9:16). God chose Egypt as a country for his people to take refuge in — from the time of Joseph onward. God demonstrated his power to multiple generations. The previous Pharaoh even put his kingdom in the hands of a foreigner because he recognized God’s wisdom and power working through him (Genesis 41:37-40).

During the plagues that God inflicts on Egypt, even the magicians realize that God's power is greater than theirs (Exodus 8:19). Later on, there is a distinction made between those Egyptians who feared God and heeded his warning about the coming hail and those who did not (Exodus 9:20-21). 

And yet, it seems that the majority of Egypt, including Pharaoh, refused to trust God's power. It’s clear that Pharaoh’s heart was already hard. He had already been oppressing the Israelites for some time, which is what caused God to come and rescue them in the first place (Exodus 3:7). If they had been free to come and go as they chose, this would not have been an issue.

Instead, it seems that Pharaoh was already stubborn and had no desire to turn to the Lord. God says, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him,” (Exodus 3:19). So, because of his rebellious attitude, God gave him over to his sin and used him to display his power.

However, my understanding is that Pharaoh could have chosen a different path. As I mentioned above, there are several references to Egyptians who did acknowledge and obey God. Interestingly, when the Israelites escaped Egypt, Exodus 12:38 says that “many other people went up with them.”

Further on in the chapter, God specifically includes foreigners in his Passover instructions (Exodus 12:48-49). This is worth noting because if we go back to Genesis, we get a list of all the Israelites who originally moved to Egypt (Gen 46:6-27). No foreigners were on that list. Of course, they may have brought servants or slaves with them, but  the Passover instructions make a distinction between slaves and other foreigners (Exodus 12:44-45), meaning that some foreigners, presumably Egyptians, left Egypt with them. 

God revealed himself to Egypt with signs and wonders we don’t often see today. Some Egyptians, like Pharaoh, rejected God and refused to trust in him even after seeing his power displayed again and again. However, others did believe, and even greater numbers were added to Israel, welcomed in through circumcision rather than blood ancestry.

FURTHER READING:

If you want to dig deeper, I found this article helpful, as it explores the original text for these verses.

God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Understanding the meaning of a Hebrew text and translator word choice