God hardens Pharaoh's heart

Exodus 7:1-7 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

As we all know, life is full of hard, impossible questions.  And the question “why?” often tops the list – especially when we’re looking at events that simply don’t make sense to our human brains.   We hear anguished parents cry it at the graveside of a child.  We hear people groups call it out as they flee for their lives.  Let’s be honest – sometimes we wonder what God is up to.

In this reading of Scripture God is giving his reluctant servant Moses instructions for the task ahead.  God has already called Moses out of the wilderness and away from his sheep.  He’s listened to all of Moses’ “yeah, buts” and has allowed Aaron – the better speaker of the two – to accompany him on his quest to free the people of Israel from their Egyptian bondage.  Moses has just asked the question, “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”  And this reading is God’s answer.  And, not only is it God’s answer – it’s a complete summary of what is about to happen.  That is – God is giving Moses and Aaron the play-by-play of his great plan of redemption.

But, back to God’s answer!  First, God tells Moses that, in Pharaoh’s eyes, Moses will seem like a god – that is, he will be able to do things Pharaoh hasn’t seen before.  (Imagine that kind of power!)  Second, Moses and Aaron are to do exactly what God tells them to do.  (Okay, so far, so good).  But then – third – God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart.  (Why? – we’ll get to that).  Fourth, the miracles will just get greater and greater (but Pharaoh still isn’t going to listen) until – fifth – judgment will fall on Egypt (which will get their attention), and in that judgment they will “know that I am the LORD, because sixth – the Israelites will be brought out.  And then we’re told that “Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded them” at the ripe old ages of 80 and 83!

A few textual observations:  When the Lord addresses Moses in verse 1 – the verb translated as “see” in the NIV is an imperative in the Hebrew – and would be best translated “see here” or “look now” – or maybe if we wanted to put it in our words – “Pay attention!”

The verbs used for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart are both hiphils – and they are only used here.  They are translated as “to make hard, severe, stubborn” and “to make heavy, insensitive, unresponsive” – all of which gives the sense that Pharaoh was not going to be moved by the miracles and he certainly wasn’t going to change his mind.

And the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart happens 18 times in the narrative – 9 of them are attributed to God’s moving and the other 9 to Pharaoh’s own stubbornness.

So – back to the big question:  Why?  Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?  Wouldn’t it have been easier if Moses and Aaron walked in, made their request, and Pharaoh said something like, “why sure – the Israelites can go – we’ve had them long enough – time for them to go home!”  They could have had a big sending off party complete with speeches and parting gifts.  (“yeah – thanks for all of the years of free labor – we couldn’t have built the pyramids without you.”)  But – if that had happened – where would the great and glorious miracle be?  What would the Israelites remember?  What would the Egyptians remember?   (Remember when we had to leisurely pack our things and we went to a potluck and got a commemorative pyramid paperweight?).

God worked in a mysterious, human-mind-boggling, confusing way so that there would be no doubt that HE IS GOD!  God had a purpose:  to free his people, yes, of course.  But also to make sure there was no doubt in the mind of the Egyptians – from Pharaoh to the smallest child – who the one, true, I AM God is.  He took a stuttering shepherd and made him his mouth-piece.  He took a tiny nation – a non-nation really – and had them confront the most powerful nation on earth (at the time).  He took the signs and wonders of the plagues – and used them (intensifying them as they went) so that, in the end there would be no doubt about who was in charge.

A few helpful quotes from the Word Biblical Commentary (Durham):

God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so he won’t pay attention to Moses – God “wants to bring about Israel’s rescue in such a manner as to provoke even the Egyptians to belief.”

“Yahweh is concerned to bring the Pharaoh to an experiential knowledge of his (God’s) powerful presence.”

And, God orchestrates all of the players for a “deliverance that will above all prove his active presence.”

And, in addition to the Egyptians recognizing the power of the one, true, God – what an amazing story the Israelites have to tell!  And think how often it is told as we journey through the Old Testament – the call to remember God’s amazing and mighty rescue of his captive people.  Something Jesus remembered and retold as he sat down with his disciples on the night of the Passover and broke the bread and poured the liquid and said the words we know so very well:  This bread is my body, broken for you.  This liquid is my blood, poured out for you.

The Jesus Storybook Bible (Sally Lloyd-Jones) reminds us that this great rescue was a foretaste of God’s great rescue plan for all of his people.  She says, “God’s people would always remember this great rescue and call it ‘Passover.”  But an even Great Rescue was coming.  Many years later, God was going to do it again.  He was going to come down once more to rescue his people.  But this time God was going to set them free forever and ever.”

Bottom line:  sometimes things happen, people act in ways we can hardly believer, because God is trying to get our attention.  He’s got a plan and it’s going to be amazing – even if we don’t get it now.

Contemporary Significance

As I have been working on these notes the militant group ISIS is wreaking havoc across Iraq and Syria.  Thousands of Christians have had to flee their homes and their churches.  Many have lost their life.  And we wonder why?  Why all of this senseless killing?  How can the militants have such hard hearts?  When will it stop?  Will it stop?  And all we helpless Western Christians can do is hope and pray for peace – and that even in this – God will surprise the world in miraculous ways.

On a closer-to-home level – I have a family in my congregation that has legally adopted a daughter from an African Nation.  In the eyes of our country, she is legally their daughter.  In the eyes of the country of her birth, she is legally their daughter.  And yet, she’s still in Africa because the hearts of her native government have been hardened.  They refuse (at this time) to write the necessary exit visa.  One little piece of paper is all that is standing in the way for her and nearly 100 other children to come home.  And, honestly, I don’t know what to say or how to pray for my family.  This doesn’t make any sense at all.  But then, while studying this passage, I was reminded that God is in charge and he’s working out a plan – and when it comes to fruition, it will be amazing and beautiful.

Possible Illustration

For years I sang with the Opera Grand Rapids Chorus.  Prior to the start of each show the director would sit us down and tell us the story of the Opera.  Since most operas are sung in a different language – he would give us an overview of what was going to happen –and what roles we would be playing.  (Happy peasants?  Angry peasants?  Happy townspeople?  Angry townspeople?  Such is the life of a chorus member).  Without his overview, however, it would have been difficult to make sense of the opera.  With the overview the chorus members know what they were supposed to do.  How we are supposed to act.  The director lays it out, and we follow his instructions.  And throughout the opera the action builds toward a stunning, beautiful conclusion.  Along the way there are often evil characters who do horrid things (Scarpia in Tosca or the Duke in Rigoletto), and it doesn’t make sense and it’s hard to watch – but it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly – works toward a beautiful, musical conclusion.  It is often the final aria or the final chorus that the audience hums as they are leaving the theater.  Bottom line:  the director knows the story before it happens.  He/she gives the actors/actresses their roles to play – and, if played correctly – brings the opera/play to completion.

God is the director of this particular drama.  Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh are given their lines, and in the end, even though getting there is hard, the story comes to an amazing, miraculous conclusion where the Israelites are freed and the Egyptians fall on their knees and recognize that God, Yahweh, is the LORD!

Rev. Mary Stegink is the pastor of the Ramapo Reformed Church in Mahwah, NJ. She is “on loan” from the CRC; Faith Community Church in Wyckoff, NJ holds her credentials.


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