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. 

Christianity as a Paradoxical Faith

Scripture text: Philippians 2:12-13

In the history of Christian theology, one of the most heated debates has concerned our salvation. Is it achieved by God’s initiative alone (grace) or do human beings have a contribution to make (good works)? The Protestant Reformation (of which I am an heir) took its stand on the position that we are saved by God’s grace alone, which we appropriate by our trust in God’s love for us.

But I have always felt Philippians 2:12-13 stands to challenge this assertion. Here is what the apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Revised Standard Version)

The apostle counsels his friends in Philippi to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It would seem that Paul does not believe that salvation by God’s grace means a free ride for believers. They have a role to play in their salvation. They must exert themselves through their spiritual disciplines and moral endeavor. And they must do so with utmost seriousness. This is the rationale for all the behavioral admonitions we find in his letters.

Yet Paul goes on to say that it is God who is at work in them, both to desire God’s good will and to perform it. The motivation and the power for living a holy life come entirely from God. This is the rationale for the periodic doxologies we find in his letters, like the ones that end chapter 8 in Romans and chapter 11 in that same letter.

When I read Philippians 2:12-13, I feel as if I am reading a logically contradictory statement. If we are to work with fear and trembling, are we not denying that God is the one at work in us? And if we assert that God gives us the desire and the power to do God’s will, are we not denying that we have a role in our salvation?

I want to say: Which is it? It can’t logically be both. Yet Paul assets both as true. And so we are left with a paradox.

In a paradox, we set two statements side by side. The two statements seem to contradict each other, yet we assert both are equally true. We damn logic in service to the truth. For we recognize a truth that does not fit within the constraints of logic.

If one wants a simpler way to summarize Paul’s teaching in these verses, I would do it this way: In your Christian life, work as if everything depends upon you, and pray as if everything depends upon God.

Many of the fundamental convictions of orthodox Christianity prove to be paradoxical. For example, we affirm our belief that God is one and that God is three. The two beliefs seem to cancel each other out. Yet in our doctrine of the Trinity, we assert both are true.

In our Christology, we assert that Jesus Christ is fully divine and yet also fully human. Another paradoxical statement of what we believe the truth is. And in our views on the Bible, we affirm that the Bible is fully the work of human authors and editors, and yet it is inspired by God’s Spirit so we can regard it as God’s written word. And in the Eucharist, when we consume the bread, we are eating bread made from grains of wheat, yet we also believe we are partaking of the body of Christ.

This is what makes Christianity at times such an exasperating faith. Christians seem to delight in paradoxes. In response, many believers and non-believers alike cry: Keep it simple, stupid.

Many times heresies deliver on that demand. They take paradoxical truths and try to reduce them to simplicity by affirming one side of the paradox and denying the other. But in orthodox Christianity, the gospel does not deliver on that demand, for we believe that the truth is much more dense, meaty, and substantial than we would like it to be.

I am not saying we should go around glorying in the fact that our Christian faith affirms what the rest of the world considers irrationality. Instead our attitude should be one of epistemological humility. In affirming our paradoxes, we accept that the full truth cannot be grasped by logic and reason alone. We stand in the presence of mysteries that will not become clear and transparent to us until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.