One of the options for the Old Testament reading on Oculi is Exodus 8:16-24 (which is 8:12-20 in Hebrew). Exodus 8:19 has a recurring phrase in the account of the Exodus: “But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and how did it become hard? In order to answer these questions we must look at a whole smattering of verses in Exodus: 4:21, 7:2, 13, 14, 22, 8:15, 19, 32, 9:7, 12, 34, 35, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17.
In these verses, there are several Hebrew words that denote hardening. HAZAQ comes up most frequently, 12 out of the 19 verses mentioned. KABAD comes up 6 times, and QASHAH comes up once.
HAZAQ in the Qal stem means to “be strong,” or with reference to Pharaoh’s heart, to “be hard.” The Qal does not indicate the agent of the hardening, only the state of being hard. Therefore when it says in English translation, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” this is not a passive verb, as in “his heart was hardened by someone else.” In fact, none of the words for hardening in the exodus account are passive; whenever the verb expresses the agent of the hardening, that agent appears as the subject of the verb.
In the Old Testament, the adjective HAZAQAH comes up often with reference to the exodus account in the phrase YAD HAZAQAH, “strong hand,” as in Ex. 13:9, “For with a strong hand (BEYAD HAZAQAH) YHWH has brought you out from Egypt.” HAZAQ also gives the noun HOZEQ, “strength,” which again comes up in the exodus account, e.g. Ex. 13:3, “Remember this day when you came out from Egypt, from the house of slaves, for with strength of hand (BEHOZEQ YAD), YHWH brought you out from this [place].” HAZAQ in the Qal appears in Ex. 7:13, 22, 8:19, and 9:35.
HAZAQ in the Piel stem means to “make strong,” or with reference to Pharaoh’s heart, to “make hard.” The Piel HAZAQ appears in Ex. 4:21, 9:12, 10:20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 17. Notice that the Qal appears in the earlier part of the exodus account while the Piel mostly comes up later in the account.
KABAD in the Qal means to “be heavy,” or in some instances “be dull,” e.g. Gen. 48:10, “And the eyes of Israel were dull (KABDU) from old age; he was not able to see.” KABAD appears in the Qal in Ex. 9:7. In the Hiphil KABAD means to “make heavy,” or “make dull.” The Hiphil comes up in Ex. 8:15, 32, 9:12, 10:1. The adjective KABED appears in Ex. 7:14.
QASHAH in the Hiphil means to “make hard.” As regards the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the verb only appears in Ex. 7:3, though in Ex. 13:15 it refers to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to send Israel out of Egypt.
Having defined terms, let’s take a look at the verses chronologically and seek to understand who and what hardens the heart. We begin in Ex. 4:21 when the Lord says to Moses, “When you go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have put in your hand, and do them before Pharaoh. And I myself will make his heart hard, and he will not send out the people.”
Notice that even though the Lord speaks of causing Pharaoh’s heart to become hard, he has not yet actually done so. He is speaking in his foreknowledge of what he will do. The same can be said of Ex. 7:3, “But I myself will make the heart of Pharaoh stubborn.” We’ll see as we go that the Lord is not the first to harden Pharaoh’s heart.
Exodus 7:13 records the first instance of Pharaoh’s heart actually being hard. Now the ESV renders the verse, “Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” There are two problems with this translation. First, the word “still” does not appear in Hebrew. Hebrew has a perfectly good word for “still,” namely ‘OD. Instead we have here a simple letter WAW, a transition letter that most often means “and.” Second, when the ESV says, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” it sounds like there’s a passive verb when there’s not. The Hebrew says, “Pharaoh’s heart was hard,” not indicating agency, but merely describing the state of his heart. Putting these two errors together makes it sound as if when the Lord spoke of hardening Pharaoh’s heart, he was actually doing so. Translating more literally from the Hebrew Ex. 7:13 says, “And Pharaoh’s heart was hard.”
Now if we want to understand how his heart become hard, we need look no further than the next verb: “And Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he did not listen to them.” Pharaoh is the one who hardened his heart, and he hardened his heart by refusing to hear the Word of the Lord through the Lord’s chosen prophets.
In Exodus 7:14 the Lord notes, “Pharoah’s heart is heavy,” using the adjective KABED. Again this simply indicates the state of Pharaoh’s heart, not a passive verb as the ESV might lead us to believe. Though I should note, I’m not looking to single out the ESV: the KJV and RSV use the same language. Ironically the NIV says, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding” – ironic because the dynamic equivalent translation principle that undergirds the NIV usually ends up losing the nuance of the original language.
Moving on, Ex. 7:22 says, “And Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he did not listen to them.” While it’s true that Pharaoh’s heart “remained” hard (a word included by the ESV and RSV), there’s nothing in the Hebrew that requires us to include the word “remained.” The Hebrew is exactly the same as Ex. 7:13. Again we note that Pharaoh’s heart became hard because he would not listen to the Word of the Lord.
In Ex. 8:15 (8:11 in the Hebrew) it says, “And Pharaoh saw that there was respite, and he made his heart heavy.” This is the first instance of a named agent hardening Pharaoh’s heart: and Pharaoh is that agent! It had been implied up to this point, here it is directly stated. Thus far there has been no indication in the Hebrew that the Lord has caused Pharaoh’s heart to become hard.
Exodus 8:19 (8:15 in Hebrew) uses the same language we’ve seen most often up to this point, “And Pharaoh’s heart was hard. Exodus 8:32 (8:28 in Hebrew) is like 8:15, “And Pharaoh hardened his heart,” again naming Pharaoh as the agent. Exodus 9:7 is the one use of KABAD in the Qal and indicates the state of Pharaoh’s heart, “And Pharaoh’s heart was heavy/dull.”
Beginning in Ex. 9:12 the language changes. Here it says, “And YHWH caused Pharaoh’s heart to become hard, and he did not listen to them.” From this we see: if someone hardens his heart by persistently refusing to listen to the Word of the Lord, eventually he will not be able to hear the Word of the Lord. There is such thing as the point of no return, there is such thing as a lost cause. I should add the immediate caveat: we can never know when someone has reached that point. We can merely warn against refusing to listen to the Word of the Lord. Nevertheless the fact remains: Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his heart, and the time came when the Lord not only gave him over to that hardness, but increased it.
Notably, it’s when the Lord begins hardening Pharaoh’s heart that he says, “For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to make you see my power, so that my name may be recounted in all the earth” (Ex. 9:15-16). Paul quotes Ex. 9:16 in Rom. 9:17. Understanding the flow of the exodus account gives a much better understanding of Romans 9.
Exodus 9:34 sounds like 8:15, “And Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, and he sinned again, and he made his heart heavy, he and his servants.” Pharaoh sees the wrath of God subside (for the moment) and once again supposes that he has won. He does not turn and thank the Lord, rather the Lord’s mercy becomes an occasion for Pharaoh to sin and puff himself up with pride. Here Pharaoh’s servants join him in making their hearts heavy. It is significant that they’re the agents hardening their own hearts before the Lord says in Ex. 10:1, “I myself have made his heart heavy, and the heart of his servants.” Man hardens, then the Lord hardens. I say this not to uphold the free will of unregenerate man, but to show that the Lord does not predestine some people to hell. He holds forth his Word and desires that all hear it and believe it.
Exodus 9:35 repeats the familiar phrase, “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” I’ve covered Ex. 10:1. Exodus 10:20, 27, and 11:10 all use the same phrase: “And YHWH made Pharaoh’s heart hard.” Now the Lord is the prime agent in hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
In Ex. 14:4 the Lord says, “I will make Pharaoh’s heart hard,” and gives the reason, “so that he pursues after them. And I will be glorified by Pharaoh and by all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am YHWH.” In Ex. 14:8 the Lord brings this to pass: “And YHWH hardened the heart of Pharaoh, king of the Egyptians, and he pursued after the sons of Israel while the sons of Israel were going out with/by a high hand.”
The final verse in the exodus account concerning hardening hearts is Ex. 14:17. The Lord says, “And I, behold, I am hardening the heart of the Egyptians, and they will go in after them, and I will be glorified by Pharaoh and by his army, by his chariotry, and by his horsemen.” Then the Lord drowns them all in the Red Sea. They would not listen, they hardened their hearts, they did not believe.
And the report of this event did go out into all the earth. News reached Jericho and Rahab says to the spies, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt…” (Josh. 2:9-10).
Pharaoh and his servants rejected the Word of the Lord, and the Lord turned their utter destruction into an even greater Word of the Lord: the Word that tells how the Lord destroys the disobedient (unhearing) and saves his people. Rahab (and others) heard this Word and believed it. The destruction of Pharaoh became occasion for others to believe.
And how do we answer the initial questions: Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and how did it become hard? First Pharaoh hardened his heart, and he did it by refusing to listen to the Word of the Lord. After some time the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he couldn’t hear the Word. Pharaoh serves as a strong warning to us not to close our ears to God’s Word, because there is a point of no return. At the same time the Lord’s strong hand against Pharaoh serves as comfort for us who trust in the Lord.