In the biblical book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron visit Egypt’s Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites asking that he let God’s people go out of slavery. After time and again of Pharaoh saying no and even punishing the Israelites for this (Exodus 5:6-9), God sends 10 plagues upon Egypt. As we see after each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh’s heart “became hard” or he “hardened his own heart.” Then in plagues 6-10, we see this pattern change; four of the last five times, the biblical author writes that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Seems counterintuitive, right?
As Pharaoh physically ruled over God’s chosen people, it became clear that he held evil intent for the Israelites. Not only that, but he could’ve saved his own people from the plagues had he only let the Hebrew people go. Instead, he questioned, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.”
The ensuing chapters show the result of Pharaoh's stubborn refusal to acknowledge God. All of Egypt’s water was turned to blood; the entire nation was filled with frogs and gnats and flies; even the livestock of every Egyptian fell dead while the Israelites’ remained standing. This wasn’t enough for Pharaoh to obey God’s voice. This shows that Pharaoh had reached a point of no return.
For a quick rundown, here’s a list from the Bible Project that shows the wording following each of the 10 plagues:
- Blood: Pharaoh’s heart “became hard” (7:22)
- Frogs: Pharaoh “hardened his own heart” (8:15)
- Gnats: Pharaoh’s heart “was hard” (8:19)
- Flies: “Pharaoh hardened his own heart” (8:32)
- Livestock die: Pharaoh’s heart “was hard” (9:7)
- Boils: “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (9:12)
- Hail: Pharaoh “hardened his own heart” (9:34)
- Locusts: God announces that he has “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:1,10:20)
- Darkness: God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27)
- Death of the firstborn: God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (11:10)
With each plague right there for reference, let’s analyze this section of Exodus and see why God acts this way.
Looking at it in black and white, without context, you may think God is engineering this evil in Pharaoh by hardening his heart; instead, he’s repurposing what’s already there. If you’ve also read Genesis, which immediately precedes Exodus, you might remember Joseph’s quote in chapter 50 verse 20 about God taking what humanity meant for evil and using it for good. A similar situation is taking place here.
In a decisively final way, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart by taking his firstborn son. Only then does Pharaoh let the Israelites go, and he still saddles up his army and decides to chase them through the Red Sea. This ultimately leads to his death and to disruption throughout Egypt.
If we remember that Pharaoh was given one chance after another to listen to God and let Israel go, then we will be less inclined to the knee-jerk reaction of making this passage about God’s anger instead of noticing his mercy. Before the first five plagues, God performed miracles through Moses and Aaron in front of Pharaoh, ones that his magicians couldn’t replicate and even caused them to believe in God. This is proof of one of God’s characteristics which he reveals to Moses later in Exodus 34:6-7, which is that He’s indeed slow to anger.
Pharaoh was handed over to his own evil which conclusively caused his downfall. This was all predicted by God from the start, in Exodus 4:21, when He said He’d harden Pharaoh’s heart against Him. Rather than indicating God created the evil inside Pharaoh from the get-go, this shows that He gives humans the choice to make their own decisions and turn to Him. When that wasn’t the case in this situation, He turned evil around and used it for good to deliver on His covenant promise to the family of Abraham.
Paul writes about this story in Romans 9:17-22. He says, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.” Later, Paul adds, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” This part of the Exodus story is effectively showing how God uses His power, which is totally unique to Him.
So why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? In one regard it was to accomplish His purpose of redemption. In another sense, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because that’s exactly the path that Pharaoh had already chosen for himself. This is a pivotal point in the Old Testament—really, the biblical story as a whole—and it’s a key example of God holding true to His covenant with the Israelites.