In the Exodus narrative where Moses approaches Pharaoh and asks that he let the children of Israel be let go to worship Jehovah, we read in several places that the Lord hardened Pharoah’s heart (see Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), and the hearts of the Egyptians (14:17). We also read in the narrative that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15,32; 9:34), that he refused to humble himself before the Lord (10:3). The author of this text also uses the passive form to tell us that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, “heavy” or “strengthened”, without telling the reader the source for this heaviness or strengthening (hardness in the KJV).
As Latter-day Saints, we know that the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible resolves this conflict, as in all cases we read that “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (JST Exodus 7:13). It is also noteworthy that Latter-day Saints do not believe that the Lord would take away Pharaoh’s (or any of our) free will. We believe that if God chose to take away the agency of man, he would cease to be God. Brigham Young once said: “The volition of [man] is free; this is a law of their existence, and the Lord cannot violate his own law; were he to do that, he would cease to be God. … This is a law which has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come. Every intelligent being must have the power of choice.” 1
So for me as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, knowing that the Bible is “true as far as it is translated correctly” 2, the problem of the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart is resolved rather quickly. Everything is all tidy, and our theological question of God taking away the agency of man is resolved.
But I still have this question that I cannot get out of my mind, “Why did the author put this here in the first place? What beliefs did the ancients have about God that prompted this to be put in one of the most well-known scriptural stories in the world?” The tension in the text is right there at the front of the story for all to see. It is not hidden in one passage of the narrative, rather, half of the references to Pharaoh having his heart hardened credit the Lord with the hardening! 3
I like Peter Enns’ approach to this text. He likes the tension that is here in the story. He says:
“The tension cannot be resolved in a facile manner by suggesting, for example, that Pharaoh has already demonstrated his recalcitrance, so Yahweh merely helps the process along, or that he is doing what Pharaoh would have done on his own anyway. Rather, (Exodus)9:12 is a striking reminder of what God has been trying to teach Moses and Israel since the beginning of the Exodus episode: He is in complete control. However Pharaoh might have reacted given the chance is not brought into the discussion. He is not even given that chance. Yahweh hardens his heart. It is best to allow the tension in the text to remain.” 4
I believe the authors of this text wanted this tension to remain in the text for the same reason Peter Enns states, to show that God was in control of the situation. This Exodus story is a powerful story, with many levels of meaning. Even the plagues themselves testify that Jehovah was more powerful than the gods of the Egyptians. 5 There are words that are repeated throughout the story to reflect the ideas of the author that are not easily seen. 6
Another reason that the authors of Exodus inserted this idea that Jehovah hardened Pharaoh’s heart is to illustrate not only that Jehovah has complete control of the situation, but also to show the utter futility in following the wisdom of the world, the which Egypt is a symbol. During the eighth plague, Pharaoh begs Moses to stop the plagues (Exodus 10:16-19), but the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and he chose instead to not let the Israelites go (Exodus 10:20)! This story is a classic showdown between the so-called gods of Egypt and the Mighty God of Israel, and the authors of this text do not want us to miss this important point. Like a cat playing with a mouse, Jehovah is shown as all powerful in the contest, this war of the gods, in this narrative.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 11:272. Along these lines, Gerald Lund of the Seventy stated, “Individual agency is so sacred that Heavenly Father will never force the human heart, even with all His infinite power. Man may try to do so, but God does not. To put it another way, God allows us to be the guardians, or the gatekeepers, of our own hearts. We must, of our own free will, open our hearts to the Spirit, for He will not force Himself upon us” (“Opening Our Hearts,” Ensign, May 2008, 33.
- Article of Faith #8
- Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Schoken Books, New York, 1986,p. 64. Nahum Sarna points out that, “The motif of the hardening of the pharaoh’s heart occurs precisely twenty times in one form or another within the scope of the Exodus story between Chapters 4 and 14. Intriguingly, the distribution of the motif is exactly equally divided between the pharaoh and God as the direct cause of the hardening. Ten times it is said that the pharaoh hardened his own heart, and ten times the hardening is attributed to God. Furthermore, it is not until the advent of the sixth plague that divine intervention begins. For the first five plagues the pharaoh’s obduracy is the product of his own volition.”
- Peter Enns, The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 219.
The plagues served an important purpose. They showed Pharaoh, Egypt, and the Israelites that Jesus Christ (Jehovah) is more powerful than the false Egyptian gods. Egypt had many false gods, including the pharaoh himself. “[Some] interpreters suggest a symbolic correlation between each plague and an Egyptian deity, assuming they were each meant to demonstrate Jehovah’s superiority over a specific god. This explanation is difficult to confirm in every case. … [However,] there is no doubt that the plagues as a whole were intended to demonstrate the power of Jehovah over the Egyptian pantheon, which included the divine Pharaoh himself” (Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints , 90).
- Pharaoh’s heart is “strong” when the Priestly author writes, but is “heavy” in the Elohist source. This feature in expressing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is maintained time and again, with the term hzq (or qsh) used in the Priestly text (7:13,22; 8:15; 9:12; 14:4,8,17) but the term kbd used in the Elohist account (8:11,28; 9:7,34; 10:1). Additionally, the use of the word “heavy” in the Elohist account is part of a sequence of punning on this term throughout the Elohist account of the exodus, from the burning bush to Mount Horeb. The description of Moses as “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10) introduces a chain of puns on the various shades of meaning of the term “heavy” (Hebrew kdb, meaning weighty, difficult, or substantial). Pharaoh says, “Let the work be heavy” (5:9). Four of the plagues are described as “heavy”: insects (8:20), pestilence (9:3), hail (9:18,24), and locusts (10:14). The Israelites leave with “a very heavy livestock” (12:38). When Moses holds up his arms as the Israelites fight the Amalekites, “Moses’ hands were heavy” (17:12). Jethro tells Moses to get help in administering the people “because the thing is too heavy for you” (18:18). The Elohist author’s long string of puns comes to an end at Mount Horeb: there is “a heavy cloud on the mountain” during Moses’ revelation (19:16). See Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, Harper Collins, New York, 2003, p. 130-131.