“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you….” (Ex.7:3-4a)
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it withosoever He wills.” (Prov.21:1)
These verses, and others like it, have always eaten at the corners of my mind, like a dirty family secret that cannot be made public. It just doesn’t seem fair for God (you know, this “God of love“, as we’re told) to control people like this. Honestly, it embarrasses me. It really does. I don’t want to serve a God who doesn’t give me a choice, and this is what these verses imply.
“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 Jn.4:8)
Really? By forcing Pharaoh into his own destruction, and the destruction of his people? We don’t have a problem with this idea when those “who have it coming to them” get their “just punishment”, but honestly, this still bothers me because this means that none of us really have free choice, and if I can’t choose, how is that love? I don’t want to be punished for wrongdoing that God caused on His own by manipulating me. Do you?
If this story was made into a Broadway play, I can picture Pharaoh cast as an unfortunate victim. Staring straight into the light of God’s revelation through Moses, the poor guy doesn’t realize that this shining brightness is just the oncoming freight train that is about to destroy all he has, and all he’s ever going to have. Seems more like a Shakespearean tragedy than the justice of a loving God. So how can we make sense of this? Is John Calvin right, after all? Are we all just simply predestined to a fate which has been decided for us in the mysterious shadows of creation?
When a person who is staunchly behind a theology such as Calvin’s considers this concept, they see no conflict at all. “God is sovereign” they say. “He is the potter and we are the clay” they say. “His ways are higher than our ways.” they say. Yes, these are all true statements, but it still doesn’t resolve the problem of a “loving” God preordaining someone’s destruction against their will. I, at least, am completely unsatisfied with the explanation that “God is sovereign.” Go tell the woman who weeps over the casket of her 16-year old son who drove his car on black ice for the first time and was killed when he rammed an oak tree. “God is sovereign, ma’am, so you’d better just get over it. It was His Divine will.” No. I don’t think that flies at all. Or how about a young woman in the IDF who is stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist. “Well, the heart of the terrorist is in the hand of the LORD, and He turns it wherever He wills.” Wow. That’s comforting.
Fortunately, there actually is a solution to this riddle. And this is a riddle, mind you, that the Jewish sages, as well as Christian scholars, have wrestled with for thousands of years. In the Christian tradition, men such as Calvin have developed rigid, unapologetic theologies to try and reconcile these tensions in scripture. Fortunately for us, we are not restricted by such narrow thinking. In the Hebraic mind, which is not averse to unresolved theological tensions, we have some more creative solutions to this. But first, some context:
The chief sin of Pharaoh which God points out to Moses at the beginning of this whole story is the unwarranted killing of the male children of the Israelites, a form of slow genocide, on par with, and paralleling, the Nazi holocaust.
“And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son’, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.; if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your first-born son.’” (Ex.5:22-23)
This statement was in response to Pharaoh’s command:
“Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” (Ex.1:22)
Okay, then. So Pharaoh had it coming. I get it. That still doesn’t explain my original question. The verse in Proverbs doesn’t say; “The LORD controls the heart of anyone who commits genocide against my people.” No. There are no qualifiers. He simply seems to have cart blanch power over the hearts and minds of others, especially leaders. And this still disturbs me, whether Pharaoh, Hitler, or ISIS are bad people or not. Doesn’t this violate the whole “Repent and believe the gospel” thing? I mean, is there room for grace? After all, didn’t the apostle Paul kill Christians before meeting the Lord on the Damascus Road? What about him? Why does he get grace but Pharaoh doesn’t?
Things seem to get worse for us when we consider Paul’s writing to Timothy:
“…God may perhaps grant that they will repent.” (2 Tim.2:25)
This implies (though it isn’t explicitly stated) that repentance is a gift of God. So here we go again. An initial survey of Jewish tradition doesn’t seem to shed any more light on the subject, as Maimonides, the famous 12th century Jewish mystic and author of the authoritative “Mishnah Torah” and “Guide for the Perplexed”, suggests in the Mishneh Torah that God withheld the privilege of repentance from Pharaoh because of his wickedness, saying, “…repentance was withheld from him, and the liberty to turn from his wickedness was not accorded to him.”
Rashi, the foremost and most respected Jewish scholar, suggests that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as punishment for the fact that Pharaoh hardened his own heart against God during the first five plagues. This idea seems supported by the apostles:
“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Rom.2:5)
But, though Rashi brings us a little closer to a cogent explanation than either Calvin or Maimonides, this still doesn’t really answer our question, because even if I have been stubborn and worthy of punishment, aren’t all of us supposedly deserving of punishment because of our sin? Haven’t “all men fallen short“? I mean, wasn’t that the whole point of Jesus? So, we are still striking out. God is supposedly just, yet He removes free choice as He sees fit based on circumstances. Or does he?
There are two prominent Jewish scholars who disagree entirely with the traditional view, and we will look to them for some hope. First, to properly understand their thesis, we should know that according to the text, Pharaoh hardened his own heart during the first few plagues, but then, after Egypt has been pretty much wiped out, it seems that God starts hardening Pharaoh’s heart for him, thereby fulfilling his proclamation made to Moses. This, as we said, is how Rashi comes to his conclusion on the matter. You can sense the frustration among Pharaoh’s own leadership, as they protest his stubborn resistance against Moses:
“How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Ex.10:7)
These two Jewish sages, Rabbi Albo and Rabbi Sforno, help to rectify our problem. According to their commentary on Exodus 7, they tell us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart precisely to restore his free will.
Come again? How is that possible?
After the succession of plagues that had devastated the land, Pharaoh was under overwhelming pressure to let the Israelites go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free choice, but rather under force majeure. God therefore toughened or strengthened (supernaturally), Pharaoh’s heart so that even after the first five plagues he was genuinely free to say yes or no.
To understand their reasoning on this, we look to the Talmud:
“Rav. Assi said: At first the evil impulse is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart-rope. Rava said: At first the evil impulse is called a ‘wayfarer’, then a ‘guest’, then finally a ‘master’.” (Sukka 52a & b)
So, just as I suspected, Pharaoh is indeed a tragic figure in Shakespearean tradition, but now we see that he was tragic according to his own will. He became a victim of his own obsession, and desire to win at all cost.
It is humbling, in this context, to realize that God may manipulate my heart, but only to give me the ability to stand like a man and face Him so that I may still make a choice, regardless of external influence.
This explains other mysterious passages in the Bible such as this one:
“..And they said, ‘Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and acquit yourselves like men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; acquit yourselves like men and fight.” (1 Sam.4:7-9)
The next time someone tells you “not to listen to the influence of the naysayers, but trust yourself and achieve your goals! Seek the strength that can only be found within!” or other such motivational quip, reflect for a moment on the very real possibility that this strength you find from deep within to stubbornly continue on may in fact be from God. And it may not be to your benefit.