And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.1
Many people read this passage in the familiar King James Version and conclude that God deliberately “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in order that Pharaoh would rebel and disobey in order that God could punish him. This justifiably gives people pause. How could a just and righteous God force the king to sin and then punish him for that sin? A Closer Look shows us that the reality is not quite as it appears from traditional translations.
The Revised English Version renders this verse differently: “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.” (Emphasis added) The “but” in “But I will harden…” and the “that” in “that he shall not…” are “and” in the Hebrew.
“And” in Hebrew is not a separate word. It is formed with a prefix. “And I will harden” is “V’ani achazeq.” Parsing the phrase, we get “V’ani” “And I,” and “Achazeq,” “I will strengthen.” The A- prefix (the letter aleph) in Achazeq indicates first person singular, much like the O at the end of a Spanish verb indicates first person singular. “And I, I will strengthen,” emphasizes that it is God who strengthens Pharaoh’s heart. While the primary meaning of “v’” is "and", it can be rendered “then,” or “so,” or “but,” or by similar conjunctions, but it indicates a continuation of thought from what came before to what follows.
After Genesis, which starts “In the beginning,” the other books of Moses start with “and” in Hebrew. Exodus begins with “And these are the names . . .,” Leviticus, “And YHVH called Moses . . .” Numbers, “And YHVH spoke to Moses,” and Deuteronomy, “And these are the things . . ..” This suggests that the entire Torah is a single unit.
The instruction to Moses is: You will do wonders and I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will not let you go.
In the present day, we think of hardness of heart as leading to cruelty. But we need to remember that words mean what they meant when they were written. In the present day, we think of the heart as the seat of emotions. A soft-hearted person will have compassion and empathy; a hard-hearted person is cruel and indifferent. The ancients saw the heart as the seat of reason, as when Mary “pondered [the angel’s message] in her heart.” They thought of the gut as the seat of emotion.
There are three Hebrew verbs that describe what God did to Pharaoh’s heart, and what Pharaoh did to his own heart. They are chazaq, which as we have seen means to strengthen, kabad, and qashah.
The strongest and hardest my body has ever been, the most chazaq it has ever been was on the day I finished Boot Camp. When God chazaq’ed Pharaoh’s heart, He strengthened it; He did not make it cruel. Whatever Pharaoh decided to do, he would have the courage, the strength of heart to carry out his decision. The decision was his.
When God kabad’ed Pharaoh’s heart, He gave it weight. It is the same root as “honor” in the Ten Commandments “You are to honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that Yahweh your God gives you.”2 We are commanded to give weight, honor to our parents. The political buzzword of a few years ago was “gravitas.” Pharaoh’s heart had “gravitas,” but his decisions were his alone. His heart was heavy, in the sense of heavy-duty, not in the sense of being depressed.
Strong’s concordance gives these renderings for Qashah: in the active voice, to be hard, difficult, or stubborn; as a transitive verb, to make difficult, sever, burdensome, or hard; as a passive verb, to be ill-treated or hard pressed.3
When Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, strengthened, given weight, made stubborn, sometimes God does it, sometimes Pharaoh does it himself and sometimes the text doesn’t say who did it, just that it was done. Pharaoh could have just as stubbornly chased the Israelites out as he stubbornly refused to grant them exit visas. The decision was his and the responsibility for the sin was his alone.
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The following is a list of verses in Exodus where chazaq, kabed, and qashah appear:
4:21, And Yahweh said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.
7:13, Yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, just as Yahweh had spoken.
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, just as Yahweh had spoken.
9:35, And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, neither would he let the children of Israel go; as the LORD had spoken by Moses.
10:20, But Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go.
10:27, But Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.
11:10, Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, but Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land.
14:4, And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will follow after them, and I will get honor over Pharaoh and over all his armies, and the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.” They did so.
14:8, And Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued after the children of Israel, for the children of Israel went out with a high hand.
7:14, Yahweh said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go.
Ex.7:22, Yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not listen to them, just as Yahweh had spoken.
8:15, But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, his heart became unyielding and he did not listen to them, as Yahweh had spoken.
Exo 8:32 And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.
9:7, Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not so much as one of the livestock of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was unyielding, and he did not let the people go.
9:12, And Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them, just as Yahweh had spoken to Moses.
9:34, And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants.
10:1, Yahweh said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the hearts of his servants unyielding, that I may show these my signs in their midst,
See also 1Sa 6:6, Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed?
7:3, But I will make Pharaoh’s heart stubborn and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.
13:15, And when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, Yahweh killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animal. That is why I sacrifice to Yahweh every male that opens the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’
1 Ex 4:21, KJV. Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations herein are from the Revised English Version, revisedenglishversion.com
2 Ex. 20:12.