People read in the biblical account of the Exodus that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Some conclude that Pharaoh had no choice in the matter and that an unfair God mercilessly controlled him against his will. The English translation, however, hides a word play that is employed in the Hebrew text. Two Hebrew words are translated as “hardened” in the English account, but they are also used to convey such diverse concepts as severity, honor and urgency. In the original text these two words play off one another so as to highlight the pharaoh’s struggle against God.
The act of “hardening” was started by Pharaoh as he increased (or made more hard) the workload of the Israelites (Exodus 5:9). He then hardened his own heart against Moses’ requests to let the slaves go (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:7, 34). In each of these verses the Hebrew is kabed, which means “to make heavy or severe” or “to make unresponsive” or “to refuse to submit.”
Exodus 9 marks the turning point in Pharaoh’s bid to establish his power over the God of Israel. In response to Pharaoh’s behavior, the Bible records that God caused the Egyptian’s heart to harden. Here the Hebrew word is chazaq, which means “to strengthen” or “to make obstinate” (i.e., to set). God told Pharaoh that if he refused to let the people go by hardening (chazaq) himself against their release, then the God of Israel was going to bring “hardness” or severe (kabed) problems on the Egyptian livestock (verses 2–3). By the end of the chapter, the tables have turned against Pharaoh. The sense is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by strengthening or setting what was already there, thereby allowing its full expression (Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4).
Eventually the Egyptian people became “hardened” as well (chazaq), or as translated into English, they “urged” the Israelites to leave the land (Exodus 12:33).
Finally, the God of Israel “hardened” (chazaq) the heart of Pharaoh so that God received the ultimate honor and glory. The word kabed, here translated “I [God] will gain honor,” is used in such a way as to highlight God’s greatness (Exodus 14:4, 17, 18).
The overwhelming sense of these passages is that Pharaoh was consumed by his own vanity and sense of importance. God merely allowed the fullest expression of his already obdurate frame of mind. “After all,” Pharaoh may have thought, “if I am a god in this powerful kingdom, why should I submit to a god of slaves?”
The God of the Hebrew slaves demonstrated to Pharaoh that He was the only true God. God humbled him by successive plagues until he was worn down, struggling reluctantly every inch of the way, and coming to the painful realization of God’s awesome power and His irresistible bidding. In the process, Egypt was ruined (Exodus 10:7) and the army decimated (Exodus 14:27–28). The futility of human vanity and rejection of God was a very hard lesson to learn.