(Ex. 4:21) How could God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

CLAIM: God says that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart four times (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 14:4, 17), and six verses claim that he does harden his heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8). Even though God hardens his heart, he then holds Pharaoh responsible for his actions. Critics argue that this is not fair or just.

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made.

First, originally, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Before God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the text says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 7:13; 8:15, 19; 8:32; 9:7, 34-35). God wasn’t changing a good man into a bad man. Pharaoh already was a homicidal, tyrannical dictator.

Second, foreknowledge does not imply determinism. God predicted what he would do from the beginning (Ex. 4:21), but this does not imply determinism. For instance, in the movie Minority Report, three humans called “precogs” can see the future and stop crimes from occurring. While they know what will happen, they are not causing these crimes to occur. God did, of course, predict that Pharaoh would harden his heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3), but Pharaoh is the one who does the hardening in Exodus 7:13 through 9:11.

God’s first action is in Exodus 9:12, where he gives Pharaoh the resolve to carry out what he has made up his mind to do (see end note for Pharaoh’s hardening).[i] God does harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27), but this is in accordance with Pharaoh’s original desire. Put another way, God gave Pharaoh the strength to carry out his own desire. Forster and Marston write, “As for Pharaoh, God has ‘caused him to stand’—by giving him the courage to carry out his evil inclinations. The wicked desire was already in Pharaoh; the Lord’s action simply gave him courage to carry it out… When any normal person would have given in because of fear, Pharaoh received supernatural strength to continue with his evil path of rebellion.”[1]

Third, the term “hardens” means “strengthened.” The term “hardened” (chazaq) literally means “to strengthen.” As Forster and Marston demonstrate, this term in the Piel form is always translated as “harden” in Exodus 4:21-14:17. However, after the Exodus, this term is almost never translated harden! It is rendered “encourage,” “repair,” “maintain,” or “strengthen.”

Consider a man who wants to kill his boss, but he doesn’t have the courage. He reaches for the whiskey bottle. Without the alcohol, he wouldn’t have the courage to kill his boss, but this “liquid courage” gives him the ability to carry out the thing that he wants to do. In the same way, God gave Pharaoh the strength to do what he had set his mind on doing.

Fourth, God’s purpose for hardening Pharaoh was to show mercy on the Jews. His purpose was to show mercy on the Jews and spread his name to the whole world (Rom. 9:17). We need to remember that Pharaoh was a cruel dictator—not a pleasant politician. Egypt had killed the firstborn Jewish babies (Ex. 1:22), and they had placed the Jews under 400 years of slavery. By using Pharaoh like a pawn in his plan to rescue the Jews, God was not simply fair; he was being extraordinarily considerate to the Jewish people.

[1] Roger T. Forster and V. Paul Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1974), 65-66.


The Hebrew chazaq (Strong’s 2388). Pronounced huh-ZACK.

(Ex. 4:21) The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. This is a prediction.

(Ex. 7:13) Yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Here Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

(Ex. 7:22) But the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts; and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

(Ex. 8:19) Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

(Ex. 9:2) For if you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them.

(Ex. 9:12) And the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.

The Hebrew is qashah (Strong’s 7185; Ex. 7:3). Pronounced kuh-SHAW.

(Ex. 7:3) But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.

The Hebrew kabad (Strong’s 3513; Ex. 8:15; 8:32; 9:7). Pronounced kah-VAD or kah-VADE.

(Ex. 8:15) But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

(Ex. 8:32) But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go.

(Ex. 9:7) Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not even one of the livestock of Israel dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.