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Survey of Hardenings

how the hebrew words were applied to Pharaoh

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,
and multiply My signs and My wonders
in the land of Egypt

Exodus 7:3

As we have elsewhere noted, Scripture used three Hebrew words to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Assuming the reader is somewhat familiar with their definitions, we will now briefly look at how these words were applied to Pharaoh. In this post, we will survey the verses in Exodus that used these Hebrew words, identify the word, and summarize the meaning that the word gives to the verse. In subsequent posts, we will take a more detailed look at the meaning of some of these passages.

The first verse that applies one of the Hebrew words to Pharaoh is in the context of God’s instruction to Moses, given before he returned to Egypt.

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden [H2388] his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.” ’ ” Exodus 4:21-23

From an earlier post, we learned H2388 speaks of strengthening. So in this passage, it must mean that God would apply some kind of strengthening to Pharaoh’s heart. Notice that passage spells out the effect of the applied strength: Pharaoh would refuse to let the people go. 

On the surface, it may appear that God was saying He would cause Pharaoh to keep the people and then kill his son for refusing to let Israel go. This raises serious questions regarding God’s justice, questions that must be addressed. But our goal in this article is only to summarize the meanings, not to deal with the difficulties we encounter. We will examine the difficulties in a later article. 

The second time we encounter the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is in another passage where God spoke to Moses. This conversation took place in Egypt after the leaders of Israel turned away from Moses because of their increased workload. God was responding to Moses’ expression of discouragement.

“You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land. And I will harden [H7185] Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.” Exodus 7:2-5

H7185 is the word that describes a stubborn resistance to directives. It means that God’s operation on Pharaoh’s heart would cause the man to stubbornly disregard Moses’ demands. 

These two passages take place before Pharaoh’s heart was ever hardened. The first actual hardening happened after Moses and Aaron presented the sign of the rod and serpent. 

0. Rod and serpent.

And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard [H2388], and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said. So the LORD said to Moses: “Pharaoh’s heart is hard [H3515]; he refuses to let the people go. Exodus 7:13-14

Notice that the passage does not specifically say God did the hardening, but only that Pharaoh’s heart became hard. Also, notice that verse 13 used the word for strengthen and verse 14 used the word for heavy. 

H2388 tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened against complying with the command delivered by Moses and Aaron. 

In verse 14, H3515 was used figuratively. It seems reasonable that the intended meaning is similar to what we find in Zechariah 7:11, when H3515 described how Israel stopped their ears and refused to hear the word of God. Assuming the similarity is true, this passage is telling us that Pharaoh decided, in his heart, to disregard the command which he knew came from God. 

Taking the passage as a whole with the two words, the meaning must be that Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened against the message from Moses so that he refused to heed God’s command. 

As we go through the remaining passages that address Pharaoh’s hardened heart, we will underline certain phrases to draw attention to the result of each hardening. We will further comment on the results later on, when we further explore what God was doing with Pharaoh.

1. River water turned to blood (Exodus 7:19-23).

Then the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments; and Pharaoh’s heart grew hard [H2388], and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said. Exodus 7:22

Similar to the earlier passage about the rod and serpent, this passage does not specifically state that God did the hardening. It used the word for strengthen, indicating that once Pharaoh saw his magicians could also turn water into blood, his heart was strengthened to dismiss what Moses said.

2. Frogs (Exodus 8:1-7).

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened [H3513] his heart and did not heed them, as the LORD had said. Exodus 8:15

God brought an end to the plague of frogs at the exact time Pharaoh specified (Exodus 8:8-14), which was a clear sign of His authority. But Pharaoh made his heart ‘heavy.’ That is, when he saw the plague was over, he decided to treat the sign as irrelevant and their words as immaterial.

3. Plague of lice (Exodus 8:16-19).

Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart grew hard [H2388], and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had said. Exodus 8:19

The magicians’ admission undoubtedly undermined Pharaoh’s position, but H2388 indicates he strengthened himself in his heart to continue ignoring Moses’ statements. 

4. Plague of flies (Exodus 8:20-32).

But Pharaoh hardened [H3513] his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go. Exodus 8:32

There is a slight change here in the effect of the hardening. Until this point, the hardening resulted in Pharaoh dismissing what Moses said. Now, the result was that he would not release the people. Evidently, he could no longer be indifferent to their words and treat them as inconsequential, but had to acknowledge their words carried significance. 

It is during this plague that he first proposed a compromise to allow the Israelites to sacrifice, but only in Egypt (Exodus 8:25). After Moses rejected the compromise, Pharaoh deceitfully promised to let the people go if Moses would intercede for him (Exodus 8:28). In a way, he was trying to negotiate with Moses.

His negotiations show he knew the Lord was more than a trifling god who could be ignored. Despite this knowledge, he still refused to comply with God’s command to release the people. He made his heart ‘heavy’, which indicates he was not acting in ignorance, but that he deliberately went against all sound reasoning in his refusal to release the people. 

5. Plague of livestock death (Exodus 9:1-7).

Then Pharaoh sent, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh became hard [H3513], and he did not let the people go. Exodus 9:7

Until this plague, God’s demonstrations of power resulted in discomfort, whereas this plague had a serious economic impact. But once again, Pharaoh’s heart became heavy in that he deliberately rejected the obvious reality of God’s authority and disobeyed his command.

6. Plague of boils (Exodus 9:8-12).

And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians. But the LORD hardened [H2388] the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses. Exodus 9:12

Finally, at the end of the sixth plague, the text records that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The use of H2388 indicates it was a process of strengthening. Without the support from the magicians, Pharaoh was evidently weakened and about to release the people. However, God intervened and strengthened his heart so that he did not capitulate. This may seem an odd thing for God to do, but we’ll save that discussion for later.

7. Plague of hail and fire (Exodus 9:22-35).

And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened [H3513] his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hard [H2388]; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the LORD had spoken by Moses. Exodus 9:34-35

Once again, the text links H3513 and H2388 together by using them to refer to the same event. Pharaoh was told the hail was coming, and he saw it stop abruptly. He should have given up his obstinacy and let God have His way. But he rejected good sense and his heart stood strong against releasing the people of Israel. 

While these verses attribute the act of hardening to Pharaoh, in the very next verse, the Lord takes responsibility.

Now the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened [H3513] his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD. Exodus 10:1-2

God said that He made Pharaoh’s heart ‘heavy’, or obstinate against the obvious truth. Given the preceding verses, the hardening was not in contradiction with Pharaoh’s will, but in agreement with it. When Pharaoh saw the storm ceased, he chose to ignore the truth of God. He strengthened his resolve to defy God, and would not let the people go. And God made Pharaoh dull towards the route he obviously should take. Thus Pharaoh became more obstinate than what he could have been on his own.

8. Plague of locusts (Exodus 10:12-20).

But the LORD hardened [H2388] Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go. Exodus 10:20

When Pharaoh saw the land overrun with locusts, he begged Moses to ask for relief and promised to release the Israelites. But he never made good on the promise, for God once again intervened to strengthen his heart so that he did not release the people. 

9. Plague of darkness (Exodus 10:21-29).

But the LORD hardened [H2388] Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. Exodus 10:27

This is the last time Pharaoh’s heart was hardened before the Israelites left Egypt. H2388 indicates that this hardening was again a process of strengthening, enabling Pharaoh to keep the people. 

But the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not heed you, so that My wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” So Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the LORD hardened [H2388] Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land. Exodus 11:9-10

These two verses summarize all of what took place up to the final plague, saying that the Lord strengthened Pharaoh’s heart so that he did not let the Israelites go. Pharaoh’s ability to stand strong in the face of all these plagues was beyond his natural powers. HIs ability came from God strengthening him.

10. Death of firstborn (Exodus 11:1-3, 12:29-32).

This is the only plague where nothing is said about hardening Pharaoh’s heart. In all the other plagues, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Notice what happened when the hardening did not occur.

Then he called for Moses and Aaron by night, and said, “Rise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel. And go, serve the LORD as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also.” Exodus 12:31-32

The text does not say that he repented and gave himself over to God. It specifically says that he let the people go. This is another important point that we will expand on in a later article.

After the final plague, there are a few additional occurrences of the Hebrew words for hardening. Moses used H7185 as he relayed the instructions related to the Passover feast.

‘And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn [H7185] about letting us go, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ Exodus 13:15

He said that Pharaoh had been like a rebelliously stubborn ox and because of this obstinance, God had brought the final plague. 

After the tenth plague, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart one last time.

The Red Sea

“Then I will harden [H2388] Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor [H3513] over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD.” And they did so. Exodus 14:4
And the LORD hardened [H2388] the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel; and the children of Israel went out with boldness. Exodus 14:8
“And I indeed will harden [H2388] the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor [H3513] over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained honor [H3513] for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” Exodus 14:17-18

Each of these verses used the word for strengthening and showed that the result differed from the previous hardenings, which were about releasing the people. This hardening caused Pharaoh and his men to pursue the Israelites into the Red Sea while it was being supernaturally held open. Normally, their fear of drowning would have undoubtedly overwhelmed their resolve to capture the escaping Israelites. But with God’s strengthening, their resolve overwhelmed their fear of drowning.

Interestingly, one of the words used to describe Pharaoh’s hardened heart (H3513 – heavy) was used in this passage with a different meaning to describe the Lord’s glory.

Summary

From the beginning, God informed Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart with the result that Pharaoh would not release the people. And so it was. For every plague, the result of hardening was that Pharaoh either did not heed Moses or refused to let the people go.

Of the ten times Pharaoh was hardened during the plagues, three of the times it says the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Each of those times used the word for strengthening. Also, at the Red Sea, the hardening by God was a type of strengthening. 

It will be important to understand what this strengthening/hardening entailed if we want to better understand God’s working of hardening Pharaoh’s heart, so we will look at that in the next post.


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