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. 

One thought on “Exodus: A Peculiar Paradox

  1. Judy Brown

    Gordon, I have to chuckle at the conclusion of your Bible message!  As I read, I reached your conclusion before getting to the end!  Who are we to pick which parts of the Bible to chose, and which not??  In all of nature, there are things that are beyond our understanding – like the galaxy and beyond.  That is just not something we need to worry about.  We are a tiny speck in this universe.    How is Ginny doing?  I


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