Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart
the meanings of hardening
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a topic that is often associated with God’s sovereignty because the scriptures state that God deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart multiple times. While there is no question God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, there is debate about what the operation of hardening meant.
The difficulty arises in that the consequence of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart was Pharaoh refused to obey the command to release the Hebrews from bondage. It seems confusing that God commanded Pharaoh to let the people go, but then hardened him so that he wouldn’t let them go. Does God cause people to disobey the commands He gives them?
I think understanding the meaning of the words used by scripture to describe Pharaoh’s hardening helps resolve the paradox and make sense of what God was doing. I say ‘words’ because there are three distinct Hebrew words used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (or four words, if you distinguish between verb and adjective forms of the one word). We can derive the meanings of these words by looking at how Scripture used them in various contexts.
As is typical in the Hebrew language, each of these words has literal (concrete) and figurative meanings (see the page on Word Studies for further detail). These are listed below with examples from scripture. I derived the definitions by examining how scripture used the words in various passages and double-checked my definitions with well-known dictionaries and lexicons.
חָזַק – ḥāzaq
A strong grip, like when the angels took hold of Lot and his family to bring them out of Sodom. Genesis 19:16
When Scripture used the word figuratively, it generally applied it using the concept of the strength felt in a solid grip. It used the word with multiple senses of meaning.
- Encouraging (strengthening) of an individual – Deut. 3:28, 1 Sam. 30:6, Dan. 10:19
- A severe (strong) famine – Gen. 41:56
- Repairing (strengthening) of a building – 2 Kings 12:14
- Prevailed (overpower) an opponent – 1 Sam. 17:50
- Harden a heart – Exo. 7:13, 4:21
קָשָׁה – qāšâ
The root apparently came from an agricultural context. It emphasizes, firstly, the subjective effect exerted by an overly heavy yoke, which is hard to bear; and secondarily, the rebellious resistance of oxen to the yoke.
Taken from the Theological Wordbook OT
Scripture used this word in its figurative sense with two senses of meaning.
- Hard, harsh: something difficult to bear (think of a heavy yoke) – Deut. 1:17, 15:18, 1 Sam. 5:7
- Stiff-necked: stubborn, resistant to direction (as one resisting a yoke) – Deut. 10:16, 2 Kings 17:14, 2 Chron. 36:13
See as well 1 Kings 12:4 (heavy yoke) for an illustration of the figurative use and meaning of H7185. Notice as well how the people were resisting the burdensome policies proposed by Rehoboam. Thus, the story shows both aspects of the metaphorical meaning: the hard and harsh policies were like a heavy yoke; and the people’s resistance to the policies were like oxen resisting an undesirable yoke.
כָּבַד – kāḇaḏ
To be heavy, be weighty: Eli was heavy, Absalom’s hair was heavy – 1 Samuel 4:18, 2 Samuel 14:26.
Scripture applied the word figuratively in several types of contexts.
- Burdensome: A difficult event or circumstance – Exo. 5:9 (More work made heavy upon them), Psa. 38:4 (a burden too heavy for me).
- Greatness: Being greater than others – Gen. 13:2 (Abram was heavy in wealth), Num. 22:17 (Balak intended to honor, make great Balaam), Exo. 14:18 (God would gain honor over Pharaoh).
- Dysfunctional: An body part that does not operate as it should – Gen. 48:10 (eyes were dim), Isa. 59:1 (heavy ear).
Using the foundation of the above definitions, subsequent posts will look at how the meanings apply to what God was doing in Pharaoh’s heart and will attempt to make sense of what God was doing.