Exodus: A Peculiar Paradox

Is Pharaoh responsible for his hardened heart, or is God?

Stone images of Pharaoh Rameses II adorning the temple at Abu Simbel.

As we read through the account of the negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses, we find a reoccurring motif in the story: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We are told that Pharaoh’s heart becomes progressively more and more obstinate against releasing the people of Israel from their bondage, even up to the final catastrophe of the drowning of his army in the Sea of Reeds.

A hint of this motif makes its first appearance in the discussion between God and Moses at the burning bush. There God says to Moses:

I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go. (Exodus 3:19-20)

The first explicit reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart appears in Exodus 4:21:

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

In this verse, however, the motif is given an unexpected twist. God says that he is the one who will harden Pharaoh’s heart. We expect that the initiative in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart will come from Pharaoh. It is his choice. But here we are told God has a role in it, too. 

In the early sequence of plagues [the rod turning into a serpent, the plague of frogs, the plague of flies, the plague of livestock disease), we are told that Pharaoh does indeed exercise the initiative. (See Exodus 7:138:158:329:7) A good example is 8:15:

But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.

These references give the impression that Pharaoh’s opposition is one that he chooses. It is not imposed upon him. 

This is re-emphasized in Exodus 9:34-35:

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.

In Exodus 9:12 (following the plague of boils), we encounter a different angle on the motif:

But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.

In most of the following references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:110:2011:10, 14:414:17), the initiative is taken by God. God is the one who is said to be hardening Pharaoh’s heart. 

How Do We Resolve an Apparent Contradiction?

So we find in the Exodus account, two perspectives engaged in a kind of alternating dance through the narrative. On the one hand, we are told Pharaoh is the one hardening his own heart. On the other, the narrator tells us repeatedly that God is the one hardening Pharaoh’s heart. 

We are troubled by what appears to be a strange contradiction that weaves through the narrative. Our logical minds tell us only one of the perspectives can be true. But which is it? 

Various options might be suggested for resolving the apparent contradiction. For example, we might argue that the two perspectives come from different sources that the compiler of Exodus draws upon. Though scholars have tried to identify the different sources behind the canonical text, the motif seems to be mixed into all of them. 

Following the lead of the apostle Paul in Romans 9, we might appeal to the doctrine of predestination. In his foreordained plan, God has predestined Pharaoh’s hardening. So he has no choice but to choose to harden his heart.

A third option is to argue that God has foreknowledge of how Pharaoh will harden his heart, so God can predict this inevitable development to Moses in advance. As Pharaoh deepens in his opposition, God responds with a hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a consequence.

A Real Paradox

None of these, however, quite resolve the seeming contradiction for me. I see the motif expressing a paradox. I use the word paradox in its original meaning. A paradox is two statements, which placed beside each other seem to contradict each other, yet both are affirmed as true.

It seems to me that in the Exodus narrative we encounter a true paradox. Both perspectives are presented to us as accurate statements of the situation. Pharaoh hardens his own heart; God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The text, however, gives us no help in resolving what we feel is a contradiction. 

It seems to me that we encounter a similar paradox in the New Testament in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 2:12-13 the apostle Paul counsels his readers in this way:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Here Paul counsels his fellow Christians to work out their own salvation to the fullest they can. Their labors are essential to the process. Yet, he goes on to say that it is God, however, who is at work within them to both will and work for God’s good pleasure. 

My logical mind wants to say: Which is it? How can it be both at the same time? Is it my own labors that save me, or is it God? Paul seems to affirm both as true. There seems to be a strange dynamic at work in the experience of salvation that our logical mind cannot fully comprehend.

Paradoxes, however, are not found just in the Bible. We find them, too, in nature and scientific efforts to understand nature. One famous example is the question: What is the nature of light? Some experiments on the nature of light seem to point to light being a particle. Others point to light being a wave. Physicists will affirm both statements as true depending upon the experimental context in which they are working.

The Limits of Rationality

The fact that we can confront true paradoxes in life and nature leads me to believe that there are dimensions of life and nature that simply exceed the capability of human rationality to penetrate and comprehend. In some cases, further human research may discover a way of resolving a seeming paradox. That is the great hope that drives many scientists in their labors. And when they make a discovery that resolves an old paradox, I can be thankful. 

But in other cases, human research and rationality may not be able to resolve the paradox. It remains and will remain a mystery. For I am quite willing to accept that there are dimensions to life and to the universe that are above the ability of human rationality to apprehend and comprehend. These dimensions are not irrational. They are instead suprarational, in that they exceed the capabilities of our rational tools of thinking. 

This is why I believe that mystical experiences must be taken seriously. In the mystical experience we can apprehend and comprehend realities that simply are not accessible to us through human thinking. I recognize that hard-core rationalists will charge that this opens us to all kinds of delusions and misinterpretations of phenomena. We run the risk of charlatans peddling all kinds of pseudo-truths. And many will indeed be duped.

Despite these real dangers, I still believe that life and the universe, let alone God, are far more mysterious than human rationality can ever fully comprehend. We impoverish human life and experience if we accept rationality as the only valid avenue to the truth.

So coming back to the Exodus account, how do I come to terms with the two interweaving themes of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? I don’t try to resolve the apparent contradiction. I affirm instead that both are expressing a dimension of the truth that exceeds my rational understanding. 

Exodus: Battle of the Gods

The liberation of Israel hangs on a duel between two gods.

The Pharaoh Rameses II in battle.

As we read Exodus’ account of the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, we need to keep in mind that we are reading an account of a titanic struggle between two gods. On the one hand, there is Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Egyptian royal ideology regarded Pharaoh as the incarnation of the god Horus. It was through Pharaoh that Horus governed the welfare of Egypt and its people.*

On the other hand, we have the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who has revealed himself as the I AM to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Each of these two gods claims exclusive possession of the people of Israel. In the narrative of the ten plagues and the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 5-15), the issue is whose claim will be sustained. 

The God of Israel will win. But we should never think that that victory involved anything less than a titanic struggle. Pharaoh proves a formidable opponent. He employs trickery, delay tactics, deceit, brutality, sarcasm, and resolute obstinance in his refusal to let the people of Israel go free. 

The text repeats over and over again that Pharaoh’s heart is hard, and it get harder and harder with each succeeding plague. In the end even the death of his first-born son only temporarily softens his resolution. It takes the catastrophic overthrow of his army in the Red Sea to finally bring the battle to a decisive conclusion.

As I think of another literary character that matches Pharaoh in his steely obstinance, I find myself turning to the figure of Satan in John Milton’s great epic poem, Paradise Lost. Satan is resolutely determined to assault heaven and challenge the lordship of God. He uses every tactic in his arsenal, ranging from deceitful rhetoric to outright armed violence, to do so. His attitude is expressed in the line: Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (Paradise Lost, Book I).

One can imagine Pharaoh saying something similar. And in the end, his opposition to the demands of Moses turn the land of Egypt into a kind of hell. Pharaoh maintains his supremacy by bringing havoc upon his people and ecological disaster upon the land. 

A Basic Principle in Politics

What the Exodus account also demonstrates is a basic principle of politics. Entrenched power does not easily yield to demands to share or mitigate that power. Persuasive rhetoric and rational, humane pleas seldom move entrenched power. Only irresistible countervailing power will force concessions. 

At the burning bush on Sinai, Moses had shown great anxiety that he did not have the eloquence and rhetorical power needed to move Pharaoh into some arena of negotiation. He was right to have that anxiety. It is not, after all, Moses’ strength of speech that turns the political situation around. His speeches strike a wall of granite. What finally exacts concessions from Pharaoh is the cumulative effect of the powerful plagues that threaten the health, wealth, and social stability of Egypt as well as Pharaoh’s own personal interests.

I think this is one of the lessons that the Exodus account has to teach to anyone who wants to launch a liberation movement. We see a good example in the development of the Indian independence movement in the first half of the 20thcentury, led by Mohandas Gandhi. Rhetoric was not what won that independence. It was all the tactics of power, even if non-violent power, like strikes, boycotts, protest marches, and civil disorder that finally wore down British resolve to hold onto its Indian empire. 

We are seeing this truth demonstrated again in the current Black Lives Matter movement to challenge the deep-seated racism in American culture. The inspiring rhetoric of someone like Congressman John Lewis is needed to raise the spirits and hopes of all who desire a fundamental restructuring of American society and of American consciousness. 

…in the end our exercise of power may involve us in the paradoxical power of suffering.

But I am convinced that it is not that rhetoric alone or moving statements of solidarity which will bring the fundamental change our country needs. It is the protest marches which in part will begin to motivate the needed shifts. So will strikes and boycotts. They wield a form of power in opposition to power.

But most important is the resolute and consistent application of our desire for change when American citizens step into their voting booths. If we seek lasting change, we must ensure that we elect candidates who will bring all the tools of power into our legislative assemblies, into our governing councils and bureaucratic offices, into our courts of justice and into the ranks of law enforcement. There is good reason why entrenched power does all it can to suppress voting rights. In the American system, power comes from the vote.

In the Exodus story, the battle between Pharaoh and God is not a civil negotiation. It is a raw battle of wills. In the end neither Pharaoh or God is nice to each other. The death of the first-born in the tenth plague is not a nice act. It is a brutal expression of power, provoked by the obstinate refusal of Pharaoh to entertain any concession to the demands of Moses and God. And we see that reflected in the rising vehemence of Moses’ own speeches to Pharaoh. 

What decides the battle is which god exercises the greater power. And this should sober us if we think, as many Christians do today, that the essence of the Christian morality of love is being nice to everyone. The morality of love is far more robust. Its ultimate object is the welfare of all humanity and of all creation. And when that welfare is threatened, our response may call us to an exercise of power. But if we take the example of Jesus as definitive for Christian behavior, that exercise of power must always be non-violent and motivated and shaped by compassion. That may mean that in the end our exercise of power may involve us in the paradoxical power of suffering. 


* The building of the pyramids seems to have been one expression of that ideology. The pyramid became a fortress tomb that ensured that Pharaoh, when he died, could enter into the world of the gods and continue to exercise his divine guardianship over the welfare of the land.  

Exodus: Who Is God’s Son?

Exodus’ answer may surprise Christian readers.

Ask most Christians, Who is the son of God?, and they likely will answer Jesus. That is the answer enshrined in our ancient creeds. So it may come as something of a shock when we read the answer given in Exodus 4:21-23.  

In this passage God instructs Moses on what he is say to Pharaoh when he appears before the king. In verses 22-23, God gives this message to deliver to Pharaoh:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’

In these verses, God calls the people Israel his firstborn son. Sonship becomes the metaphor for describing the close, family-like relationship that God is bringing the people of Israel into with himself. Behind that metaphor lie all the associations that ancient peoples tied into firstborn sonship. That status conveyed special privileges in inheritance (a double portion over than of any other brothers) and the assumption that the son would be closely aligned with his father’s interests.

God gives this special status of Israel as the rationale for how God will deal with Pharaoh. Moses is to ask Pharaoh to release the Israelites so they can go and worship God. God knows Pharaoh will not. So if Pharaoh will not release the Israelites, then Pharaoh will lose his own firstborn son as will, it turns out, all Egyptians as well.

The battle between God and Pharaoh then becomes a struggle over whose “offspring” will flourish. Will it be God’s people, the Israelites, or will it be the sons of Pharaoh and his fellow Egyptians? Both peoples could have flourished together, but as the story turns out, that is not to be because of the obstinacy of Pharaoh.

The Multi-layered Concept of Sonship in the Old Testament

As the Old Testament unfolds, the metaphor of sonship becomes a multi-layered one. In the prophets we have a continuation of describing Israel as God’s son. Let me cite two. 

In Jeremiah 31 the prophet speaks of the days in the future when God will restore a remnant of the exiled Israelites to their land. In verse 9, the prophet quotes God as saying:

With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations[
a] I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.*

And in the prophet Hosea God expresses his displeasure with Israel’s unfaithfulness by reminding the nation of their liberation from Egyptian bondage. God expresses himself in these words:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son. 
(Hosea 11:1)

But in other places in the Old Testament we find the metaphor of sonship used to describe the status of the king. Let me cite three examples. All are addressed to or describing Israel’s kings.

2 Samuel 7:14: 

I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. 

Psalm 2:7:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have begotten you.

Psalm 89:26-27:

He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
    my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’
I will make him the firstborn,
    the highest of the kings of the earth.

Sonship in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, we find God calling Jesus his son in two critical moments in Jesus’ life. One is Jesus’ baptism. The gospels say that as Jesus emerges out of the water of the Jordan River, the heavens open and the voice of God proclaims:

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11, see also Matthew 3:17 and Luke 3:22)

Again in the event of the Transfiguration, the voice of God proclaims:

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7, see also Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:35)

When we read this New Testament language, we should note that the metaphor of sonship as applied to Jesus links Jesus to both the nation of Israel and to the kingship of Israel. In both cases sonship has been narrowed down to just one individual, but an individual who is intimately linked to a people and its governors. 

In the resurrection the concept of sonship begins to once again expand beyond an individual back into a more corporate meaning. For as Christians are baptized into Christ, they are united with Christ by a spiritual adoption and come to share in that status which is uniquely his: sons of God. The apostle Paul is quite explicit about this when he is discussing baptism in his Letter to the Galatians. 

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25-26)**

The father welcomes home his son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 18th century.

Jesus, too, shifits the meaning of sonship. In the Old Testament, sonship is associated with the privilege that comes with the relationship to the father. I noted earlier how the Old Testament talks of sonship within the context of inheritance. The son has the privilege of sharing in the inheritance. This gives the son his special status within the family.

With Jesus, however, the associations connected to sonship shift from the emphasis on privilege to the emphasis on responsibility, in particular the responsibility of service. Jesus lives out his sonship in his obedience to his father and in his service to his other brothers and sisters in the human community.

This, I think, helps us to see a dimension in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) that we don’t often notice. The errant son never loses his status as a son, even though he dishonors his father and squanders his inheritance. When he returns to his father, the father acknowledges that status immediately in welcoming his son home. What the son does by his return is ask to restore and repair the broken relationship. 

When God declares to Pharaoh that Israel is his first-born son, we (and Israel) do not understand the full meaning of what God is saying. I would contend that it is only with the coming of Jesus that we come to understand fully the depth of the status that God is conferring when he declares Israel his son. 


* The name Ephraim was another name for Israel. 

** The cultural context of the New Testament writers was thoroughly patriarchal in its assumptions. So Paul along with other New Testament writers will use the standard practice of referring to believers as sons. But the verse that immediately follows makes clear that when Paul uses the words sons in verse 26, he is including women as well as men. Verse 28 reads: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. It is for this reason that modern translators of the New Testament prefer to translate sons by the more inclusive children of God