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a firm grip; to strengthen, prevail, harden

‘But command Joshua,
and encourage him and strengthen him;
for he shall go over before this people,
and he shall cause them to inherit the land
which you will see.’

Deuteronomy 3:28

Previous article: Pharaoh’s Heart

Literal Definition

The first occurrence of H2388 in Scripture is in the account of the angels pulling Lot and his family out of Sodom before the judgment began.

And while he lingered, the men took hold of his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. Genesis 19:16

This verse used the word in its literal sense to explain how the angels grabbed hold of the reluctant Lot and his family to remove them from Sodom. It was not a casual clasping of hands, but a determined grip in which they applied their strength to overcome Lot’s reluctance. Thus, we can see H2388 meant a grip with applied strength.

Scripture did not limit its application of H2388 to situations of overriding a person’s will. Other passages used the word to describe strength applied to aid an individual. One example is in the account of Hagar and Ishmael’s departure from Abraham, after Ishmael had collapsed from exhaustion. The angel of the Lord said to Hagar:

“Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” Genesis 21:8

Here, similar to the account of Lot, the word describes a grip with strength. However, in this case, the applied strength was to aid, not overcome, the recipient. Notice how, in both these accounts, they didn’t permanently grab hold but only applied their grip until they accomplished their purpose.

Figurative Applications

The above passages are examples of where Scripture used H2388 in a literal application to describe a grip that applied strength. There are several additional passages which use the word in such a fashion, some where the grip was used to prevent people from doing their will, and others where the grip strengthened and enabled the weaker individual to continue his course. 

Similarly, figurative applications in Scripture also described applied strength both to prevent and aid people. 2 Samuel 24:4 gives an example of the former when David compelled Joab against his will to number the people.

Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the army. Therefore Joab and the captains of the army went out from the presence of the king to count the people of Israel.

David didn’t physically grab Joab, but his word had a similar effect as if he had grabbed Joab and forced him to go number the people. Furthermore, his word didn’t have a permanent effect on Joab, for he stopped before he counted all the people (1 Chronicles 21:6).

Judges 7:11 gives a clear example of the other type of application. The context tells how Gideon was nervous about facing the Midianites in battle, so God instructed him to sneak into their camp and eavesdrop on a conversation inside a tent.

“and you shall hear what they say; and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.” Then he went down with Purah his servant to the outpost of the armed men who were in the camp.

As God promised, the conversation Gideon overheard strengthened him to continue the course of delivering Israel from the Midianites. Although no one physically grabbed his hand and held him up, what he heard had a similar effect. 

In addition to these and other examples, there are several passages where H2388 was used in the context of strengthening Joshua (see Deuteronomy 1:38, 3:28, 11:8, 31:6-7, 31:23; Joshua 1:6-7, 9, 18). Personally, I find these applications especially interesting, knowing that Scripture used the same word to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.Scripture also used the word in other types of figurative applications, such as describing the intensity of a famine (severe in Genesis 41:56-57), and rebuilding a wall (repairs in Nehemiah 3:4 and verses following). Although these examples give us an idea of the breadth of application, I don’t think they particularly help us in the topic of Pharaoh’s heart.


Before focusing on Pharaoh’s hardening, I think it will be helpful to understand what hardening is and does to a person. A most helpful verse is Jeremiah 5:3 because of its poetic structure. It employs synonymous parallelism (poetry with synonymous ideas in parallel; see, which will allow us to compare hardening with a synonymous concept. This verse is in the context of Jeremiah’s vain search for people in Jerusalem who practiced justice.

O LORD, are not Your eyes on the truth?
You have stricken them, But they have not grieved;
You have consumed them, But they have refused to receive correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
They have refused to return. Jeremiah 5:3

Given the poetic structure, we can see the last two lines are parallel concepts. The former line utilized H2388 by describing how they hardened their faces. It is highly figurative in contrast to the line which follows it, which is more concrete. Taken together, the two lines show that hardening is metaphorical of refusing to change from the current course. The verse used H2388 figuratively to describe people refusing to change when God was trying to make them do so by sending them difficult times. Evidently, the connection between the literal meaning of the word and the figurative is the concept of strength, in that they resolutely withstood God.

Another helpful set of passages is Joshua 11:20 and Judges 3:12. Both used H2388 to tell how God brought nations to battle against Israel. In Joshua, Israel defeated the nations, but in Judges the enemy nation defeated Israel. In these passages, H2388 was translated ‘harden’ and ‘strengthened’, respectively. The first group of nations were Canaanites. 

For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them, and that they might receive no mercy, but that He might destroy them, as the LORD had commanded Moses. Joshua 11:20

And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD strengthened Eglon king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the LORD. Judges 3:12

It would have been clear for both sets of enemies that it was a risky endeavor to attack the Israelites. The Canaanites knew what Israel’s God had done to other nations of Canaan, as did the king of Moab. 

In Judges, H2388 clearly means God applied strength to Eglon, enabling him to face the risk and attack Israel. What about the verse in Joshua? Does H2388 mean God applied His strength to enable the Canaanites to carry out their will, or to prevent them?

It appears illogical to interpret Joshua 11:20 to mean that God applied strength to prevent the Canaanites from doing what they wanted to do. That would mean the Canaanites were not wanting to be the enemies of Israel. It would mean they wanted to repent of their idolatry, give up their lands, and make peace with Israel and the God of Israel. This interpretation makes no sense regardless of your theological position. If you believe the unregenerate cannot desire to do right, then surely the unregenerate Canaanites could not have desired to repent of their wickedness. If, on the other hand, you believe an unbeliever can repent, then surely God would not prevent them from repenting. So the application of H2388 to the Canaanites must mean that God applied strength to enable them in what they wanted to do. 

This would mean the Canaanites did NOT want to repent from idolatry, give up their land, and make peace with Israel. But when faced with the reality of the other nations’ failure to defeat the God of Israel, and knowing how Joshua saved alive the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:24-26), it would have made sense to at least superficially make peace with Israel. The sheer reality of the situation would have weakened their resolve to battle Israel and led them to give up the fight. But God wanted them destroyed (because of their great wickedness, Deuteronomy 9:4-5), so in some way He strengthened their resolve so that they engaged Israel in battle.

The application of H2388 evidently indicates that when God hardened them, it was a type of strengthening them to carry out their heart’s desire (which was to fight the people of God) when all the circumstances of their situation urged them to lay down their swords. But, whereas strengthening normally leads to a person’s benefit, hardening resulted in their great dis-benefit. 


In a literal application, the word meant a grip that applied strength to either help or prevent a person’s action for a limited period of time. Figurative applications had a variety of meanings. When the word was applied to people, it generally carried the concept of applying strength to either help or hinder. When the word was translated harden, it spoke of strengthening the individual to do what they wanted but led to their harm and destruction.

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