The trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming epic Exodus: Gods and Kings offers a revealing glimpse of Pharaoh’s character, showing the angry king shouting defiantly, “I am the god! I am the god!” The ancient Egyptian pharaohs were indeed considered gods. They were absolute monarchs of what was probably the most powerful nation on Earth. They exercised the right of life or death over everyone in their realm and were accustomed to having their every decree obeyed promptly and without question. Fawning courtiers rarely, if ever, challenged them.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the Pharaoh of Exodus would refuse to obey the command to set free thousands of Israelite slaves. In Exodus 7, God reveals Pharaoh’s character to Moses.
You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst (Exodus 7:2-5, NASB).
The Hebrew word translated “harden” in this passage is qâshâh, implying anger and stubbornness. But how did God make Pharaoh angry and stubborn in the ensuing drama of the ten plagues?
We recognize that this is not a question that needs to be answered for those who believe in absolute predestination and that books have been (and will continue to be) dedicated to the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will. We do not seek to engage that debate. Instead, we respectfully ask the reader to allow us to consider human free will—or free agency, as some theologians prefer—and propose an explanation in that context for how God may have influenced Pharaoh’s behavior so as to bring about His will. We suggest that God may have acted hypernaturally to harden Pharaoh’s heart.
To review, hypernaturalism is the extraordinary use of natural law by the orthodox Judeo-Christian God to effect His will. In a hypernatural miracle, God’s authority over nature and foreknowledge of natural events allows Him to exercise extraordinary control for a particular purpose, without violating the laws of nature as would occur in a supernatural miracle.
How might God have used hypernatural action to influence Pharaoh’s behavior? For Christians, the indwelling Holy Spirit guides us with the small voice we often refer to as “conscience.” But how does this happen with nonbelievers? How does God influence pagans to do His will?
It can be argued that God the Creator knows each of us intimately and He knows how each person will react to experiences and circumstances. Our study of Exodus 7–14 leads us to believe God used a technique we today call “applied psychology.” God did not need to get directly into the head of the pagan Pharaoh; He merely gave His servant Moses the words to influence Pharaoh as He sent the plagues.
Each plague was a miracle so powerful that Pharaoh should have realized he must submit to God; but afterward, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he refused to let the Israelites go. God did this “that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt . . . [so that] the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 7:3, 5, NASB).
It is instructive that three different Hebrew words in Exodus 7–14 are translated into the English word “harden”:1
Pharaoh’s weakness was his position and authority as an absolute monarch, believed to be a god. God exploited this to harden his heart. The focus is on the heart because, to an Egyptian, the heart represented a person’s essence, or real being, and it would be judged.
God’s technique in Exodus 7:3 (above)—to make Pharaoh angry and stubborn—is apparent in the first confrontation in which Moses warned that if Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, “The God of the Hebrews…[will] fall upon us with pestilence” (Exodus 5:3, NASB). But Pharaoh refused to acknowledge the power of an unknown God. In anger, he placed extra burdens on the slaves.
Then God brought on the plagues. They began small and worked up to a climax: first affecting Pharaoh indirectly, then directly. There might have been a psychological reason for this. It is often said that if a person can be induced to say yes to a series of minor questions, it’s easier to get him or her to say yes to a big question. God might have been reversing such a technique by getting Pharaoh to start saying no, and thus encouraging him to continue saying no—even as God brought increasing pestilence.
Each plague confronted Pharaoh with a power much greater than himself and his religion. This was a new experience; Pharaoh didn’t know how to handle it. The first plague (turning the Nile River into something that looked like blood) ought to have seemed God-like in origin to Pharaoh. An ancient Egyptian text known as the Book of the Heavenly Cow records a myth in which the Egyptian chief god, Ra, did something similar.2 After the third plague (gnats), Pharaoh’s magicians recognized the power of God at work (Exodus 8:19, NASB), thus breaking the myth of Pharaoh’s divinity. Yet he was proud [kâbad] and resolute [châzaq] and refused to let the Israelites go. And although Pharaoh acted as God wanted, his decisions were made through his own free will.
With the plagues building to a climax, Moses taunted Pharaoh as he continued to demand that Pharaoh recognize God’s greater power and acknowledge his subservience. Pharaoh remained proud [kâbad]; and Moses’ taunting made him intensely resolute [châzaq, in the Piel form]. Pharaoh’s pride and anger made him stubborn and recalcitrant and unwilling to yield to God. We believe this was exactly the reaction God intended. Although the plagues decimated Egypt’s food supply, through his own free will Pharaoh still refused to free his slaves. And Pharaoh’s stubborn delay allowed a full demonstration of God’s power.
After the death of his firstborn son and all firstborns in Egypt, Pharaoh finally relented. But, rather than leaving quietly, the Israelites departed “boldly” (Exodus 14:8, NASB). The Hebrew literally reads “in a high hand”; in the modern vernacular they were “spiking the football.” This antagonized Pharaoh and made him again intensely resolute [châzaq, in the Piel form]. He sent his army to chase down the Israelites, who only escaped through the parting of the Red Sea.
This is a brief summary of our review of the psychological interplay detailed in Exodus 7–14, but we believe the full text shows that, although Pharaoh acted in precisely the way God wanted, his decisions were made through his actual free will. We suggest that this series of dramatic events in redemptive history might reflect another example of God’s hypernatural activity.
Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.
- See Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Online version available at studylight.org.
- Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 74–75.