Pharaoh vs. Moses
a comparison of their histories
But [Moses] said, “O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.”
And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.”
From the definition of the Hebrew words used for hardening, we can see God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart during the plagues was a strengthening of his resolve. Since the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is an abstract concept, it can be difficult to comprehend fully without some kind of comparison. We can find such a comparison in Moses’ experience.
Moses and Pharaoh’s personalities were so different from each other that it is easy to overlook the similarities in their historical narratives. But a comparison of the events in their lives as recorded in Exodus will reveal several parallels in their experiences. First, the text tells how both the men received an unexpected command from God regarding the children of Israel leaving Egypt – Moses at the burning bush, and Pharaoh in his throne room. Then, it shows how both men repeatedly objected to God’s command, and that eventually, they both complied. Finally, and we will look at this in more detail later, God strengthened them both.
These features, the command from God, their objections, and God’s strengthening, are key features in both their narratives. They indicate we can look to Moses’ experience for help in understanding what Pharaoh experienced.
When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, he was not looking for a word or command from God. He was, more or less, caught off guard. So, his response was spontaneous and revealed his true inner attitude toward God.
Moreover He said, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. Exodus 3:6
It is clear from the text that Moses feared and revered the God of Israel. However, we see later in the passage that he balked at doing what God commanded. These objections contradicted the reverence he initially displayed. Yet Moses truly did fear God, for when he saw God was angry with him, he stopped making excuses (Exodus 4:14). Unlike Pharaoh, it did not take a series of plagues to bring him into compliance, only a display of God’s displeasure. His fear of God won out over his reluctance to return to Egypt.
When Moses went to Egypt, the Israelites received him gladly, but Pharaoh did not. Instead of releasing the people, he increased their bondage. Subsequently, the leaders of Israel rejected Moses (Exodus 5:20-21). This turn of events evidently discouraged him, and he told the Lord that his involvement seemed like a bad idea.
And it came to pass, on the day the LORD spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, that the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “I am the LORD. Speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.”
But Moses said before the LORD, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh heed me?” Exodus 6:28-30
The Lord’s response at this juncture was not one of anger. Instead, He reiterated who He was and what He was going to do.
So the LORD said to Moses: “See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. 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 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. Exodus 7:1-4
This word from the Lord had an impact on Moses. It strengthened him to continue on in full obedience.
Then Moses and Aaron did so; just as the LORD commanded them, so they did. Exodus 7:6
Moses’ final action of obedience to the Lord was consistent with his inward fear of God. However, his ability to obey in those difficult circumstances did not come from his inner reserves of strength. It was the Lord who strengthened him.
Moses’ experience is common among the people of God. They often find themselves in difficult circumstances that produce actions which contradict their fear of God. That doesn’t mean they have lost their reverence for God, but that they are living an inconsistent life. It is not unusual for the people of God to find they need strength from the Lord to carry out what is in their hearts.
Looking at Moses’ life from this perspective, we can undoubtedly identify with his experience. That will help us in understanding Pharaoh’s experience because Pharaoh’s experience was similar to Moses’ experience, but opposite.
When Moses first delivered God’s word to Pharaoh, he also had not been looking for a word from God. Like Moses, he was caught off guard and gave a spontaneous response that exposed the attitude of his heart.
Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.’ ” And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.” Exodus 5:1-2
Clearly, Pharaoh did not fear the God of Israel. Interestingly, he did not question the report that the LORD (YHWH) had spoken to Moses, accepting that as fact. However, he flatly denied that he had any responsibility to obey YHWH. To him, YHWH was only a god of Israel and was not his God.
It naturally followed that Pharaoh did not obey God’s command. His refusal to comply was consistent with his denial that YHWH was his God. Eventually, after his son’s death, he did comply, and that action was inconsistent with his denial of God. Despite his compliance, it’s clear he had not converted to YHWH for he later attempted to recapture the Israelites. He had complied simply because he no longer had the strength to stand up against the LORD. Thus, his eventual compliance came out of compulsion, not out of reverence to God.
This is an important point to understand. Pharaoh’s refusal to obey was consistent with his denial that YHWH was God over him. His eventual submission to God’s command contradicted his denial of Him. But he had to submit because he had no strength left to resist God.
Now, although Pharaoh eventually complied, he only did so after standing strong through several great and terrible plagues. But his strength did not always come from his inner resources. The text plainly states that there were at least three times when God strengthened (hardened) his heart (see the previous post for the use and meaning of H2388). God’s strengthening/hardening enabled Pharaoh to act consistently with his inner attitude of defiance.
Just as God strengthened Moses, so He strengthened Pharaoh. With both men, His strengthening enabled them to act consistently with their state of belief/denial towards Himself. For Moses, who believed YHWH was God, the strengthening enabled him to obey God. For Pharaoh, who denied YHWH was God, it enabled him to continue to disobey God.
It is worth noting again that after the tenth plague, when God did not harden Pharaoh, he complied with God’s command while still denying that YHWH was his God. Now, if God’s work of hardening was to prevent Pharaoh from repenting and believing, then Pharaoh would have converted when the hardening ceased. But Pharaoh did not convert, he only complied (temporarily) with God’s command. Therefore, God’s hardening was not affecting his ability to repent, it was affecting his ability to stand against God.
We will take a more detailed look at this question of Pharaoh’s ability to repent in the next post.