Spoiler: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, making him reject Moses’ pleas to let the Israelite slaves go free.
I saw a discussion unfolding the other day (and weighed in) about Romans 9 and the issue of divine sovereignty. With the greatest respect to all parties involved, what I saw – and what I have seen numerous times, actually – looked like St Paul’s publicity agent explaining to the press why Paul’s latest tweet really didn’t mean what it pretty obviously did mean. A range of issues in the interpretation of this passage were discussed, but one of them was the way in which Paul uses Pharaoh in the Exodus story as an example of divine sovereignty in action. A number of people use the argument I encountered, and it goes like this: You might think this is a case of strong divine sovereignty where God is responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but if you look back into the account in Exodus, the writer said actually that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. So God was not ultimately responsible, Pharaoh was. I was thus told that this is not really an example of the strong view of divine sovereignty that I think it is.
In fact in this particular conversation, when I replied by pointing out that Paul explained the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by saying that God did it, I was met with the extraordinary claim that yes, we can all agree that Paul states that God was one of the agents responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. But this is not agreement at all. At the risk of stating the obvious to everyone, while you might personally maintain that God was simply one of the agents but was not ultimately responsible, this is not what Paul states here (unless there is a missing fragment of Romans 9 that we are all unaware of). Let’s quickly review how the subject comes up in this letter (although I will be focusing on only one aspect of Paul’s discussion here, namely what he says about Pharaoh).
Outlining Paul’s Claims
At the start of Romans 9, Paul expresses sorrow that Israel as a whole did not turn and receive Christ when he came. And yet, there are all these promises in Scripture to Israel. What gives? Did these promises somehow fail? No, says Paul. Paul claims that not everyone who is from the national of Israel is truly of Israel. It’s not the “children of the flesh” who are the children of God, but the children of God’s promise. Just look at the example of Jacob and Esau, Paul says. Even before they had been born and done anything good or bad, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. But this doesn’t seem fair! Isn’t God being unjust? Paul answers this challenge partly by declaring that a potter has the right to prepare some vessels for one purpose, even destruction, and some vessels for glory. The clay has no right to complain to the potter about what the potter has made.
But before getting to the analogy of the potter and the clay, Paul first addresses the charge of injustice by using the example of Pharaoh as an instance of God demonstrating his right to act this way, in verses 14-18.
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (ESV)
As I hope we can all see, there is no claim here about God being one of the agents. Instead, we are simply told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as an example of the principle that God hardens whomever he wills. Even more than that, we are told, perhaps uncomfortably, that God raised this man, Pharaoh, up for this very purpose: To show his power when Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and deliver the Israelites miraculously when Pharaoh refused.
But What About Exodus?
True, there is no denying that in the Exodus narrative, Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. Actually the Exodus description is rather mixed, as follows:
“And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” (4:21)
“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt…” (7:3)
“But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (7:22)
“But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (8:15)
“But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses.” (9:12)
“But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants.” (9:34)
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them,” (10:1)
“But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go.” (10:20)
“Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.” (11:10)
God always describes the hardening as his own action.
There are several other examples in the Exodus story, but you get the idea. Notice something interesting (or at I least I think it’s interesting). Whenever God describes what is going on, God says that he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Unless I have missed an exceptional example, God is never depicted as saying that Pharaoh hardened his heart. God always describes the hardening as his own action. Whenever Pharaoh is said to harden his heart, the description comes within the narration of what Pharaoh did, not the divine description. This opens up the opportunity to explain the difference between theology “from below” and theology “from above.”
A God’s-Eye Perspective
Within the context of a narrative “from below,” that is, a description of events as the observer beheld them, this is all that we could expect to find here: Pharaoh hardened his heart. If God did indeed harden Pharaoh’s heart, we would not see it happening other than by observing that Pharaoh appeared to harden his heart and reject the imperative of Moses. What else should we expect to see – puppet strings from the sky? In other words, the fact that Pharaoh was observed to harden his heart against Moses and the Israelites is compatible with the explanation that it was God who hardened his heart, and it is compatible with the explanation that God did not ultimately cause the hardening of his heart. As is generally the case with narratives, we only see what happened. We do not see why it happened. The fact that the writer of the account in Exodus says that Pharaoh hardened his heart then, carries no force at all against Paul’s apparently blunt claim that this was God’s doing.
The eminent Pauline Scholar James Dunn makes the point eloquently. I only worry that people might think that I am drawing on such expertise because it is required. Admittedly when Paul (I think) is so clear it feels like crushing a peanut with a mountain:
In drawing this conclusion from Exod 9:16 Paul shows very clearly that he is conscious of its context, since that word (“harden”) is particularly prominent in that section of the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:21; 7:3, 22; 8:15[LXX 11]; 9:12, 35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 13:15; 14:4, 8, 17). Whether or not a case can be made for a distinction in the Exodus narrative between a self-hardening on the part of Pharaoh (Exod 7:22; 8:15; 9:35; 13:15) and a hardening inflicted by God (the latter is obviously the dominant thought), Paul for his part clearly has in view the divine initiative … So to look for reasons for God’s hardening in Pharaoh’s “evil disposition” or previous self-hardening (Lagrange, Murray, Leenhardt) is a rationalizing expediency (equivalent to the old rationalist treatments of the miracle stories in the Gospels which D. F. Strauss so effectively torpedoed). Such a thought clearly has no place in Paul’s exposition and in fact contradicts what Paul has been so careful to stress in vv 11 and 16 (Michel; Schmidt; Blackman, 130; Luz, Geschichtsverständnis, 78 n.211; Käsemann; Piper, 154–56). It is to his credit that Paul himself does not resort to such expedients, or interpose a demonic intermediary (as in Jub. 48.17; T. Sol. 25.3), but faces up to the clear indications of the Exodus narrative without flinching.1
[Paul] is describing things “from above,” from the divine perspective
Paul is not writing the story from below. On the contrary, he is describing things “from above,” from the divine perspective – the same perspective from which God speaks in the Exodus narrative. He is not just recounting historical events as people saw them unfold, but he is giving a theological explanation of them. He was not building up to the conclusion that God hardens those who harden their own heart, but rather that God “hardens whom he will.” In context he only used the example of Pharaoh in the first place to make this point. This point can hardly be made if Paul only meant that God was somewhere on the list of causes that contributed to the hardening of Pharoah’s heart, but ultimately it was Pharaoh’s call.
Given the above, it strikes me as an exercise rather like that of a fly trying to escape a spider’s web to write articles like “Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” And yet such articles are written, in my view wresting Paul’s theology out of his hands. After reading Romans 9 (and given the inability of the Exodus narrative to offer anything other than an observational perspective), why would the question even arise? I mean yes I understand why it would arise if we don’t want to think that God acts this way, but simply as an exercise in interpreting text, why would we read Romans 9 and feel that we need to re-explain things so that they don’t end up looking the way that they look – even to us – in Romans 9? Perhaps the solution is to put some distance between yourself and the text. You don’t have to immediately like it or be able to relate to it. Imagine if we only allowed ourselves to find what we wanted to find! Speaking for myself (the only person I can speak for), I never wanted to find this either. But there it was, and perhaps I’m still coming to terms with it even now. It hardly seems fair that other people get to shirk their responsibilities and use dubious techniques and end up feeling better about their theology while some of us just put up with what we find (Yes I know, you might feel that’s a bit low, but that’s truly how the situation looks to me).
Identifying the interference
It is worth noting that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not even a question of soteriology.
It is more than a little frustrating – and I found this in the conversation that prompted me to write this – that as soon as we start going to the text of Paul’s letter to rule out claims about what he said and to demonstrate what he did say, interlocutors so quickly dive into a discussion about doctrinal schools of thought. No sooner had I made these observations about Paul, Pharaoh and God than I was told of the inadequacies of a “Calvinist” view. Such thoughts are the death of exegesis (I can’t possibly interpret a passage that way, that’s what so-and-so thinks!). It is worth noting that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not even a question of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The point is not that Pharaoh was doomed to hell (the thought is nowhere in this passage), but that God used Pharaoh to fulfil his historical purposes.
It is also frustrating that in trying to draw people’s attention to the details of biblical texts and what they mean, some will brush it off as an “apologetic for Calvinism,” as if I have the slightest interest in offering that here. I know that when I offer the following bit of advice people will naturally reply to me with the retort of “the same applies to you!” and of course they are right, but listen: When you have a piece of biblical text in front of you and your task is to observe and discern its meaning, you’re going to have to lower your doctrinal shields now and then so that something gets through, even if you’d rather it didn’t. Forget your antipathy for Calvin. You’re looking at St Paul, and you can either like what he says or not (I might not always like it), but at least have the politeness to be quiet long enough to let him speak.
St Paul (and the writer of Exodus, we will see if we read carefully) believed that ultimately Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let the Israelites go, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
- Eat, Drink, and be Merry: 1 Corinthians 15 and Physicalism
- Tom Wright and James White on Paul and Justification
- Humanism, ignorance, and bizarre terminology
- Paul, Genesis and Gender
- “God of the Living” – William Tyndale and the Resurrection
- James. D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 38B (Dallas: Word, 1998.), 554-555. [↩]