The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

In the Book of Exodus, there is a report of a fascinating occurrence that is lost to most modern readers of the English Bibles and those not familiar with the Hebrew language and ancient Egyptian religion. Over and over again, the author of Exodus talks about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. On the surface, it would appear that the only message is that Pharaoh was really stubborn and was determined not to let the children of Israel go. That indeed was true, but there was much more going on than is apparent to the readers of English Bibles.

I was made aware of this ‘inside information’ while sitting in Dr. John D. Currid’s seminary class at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, MS in 1997. Dr. Currid is, at the time of this post, serving on the faculty of the Charlotte campus of RTS and is currently an adjunct faculty member at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem, Israel. Dr. Currid has served as Project Director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project in Israel since 1995. In his first book, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, Dr. Currid relates the relationship between the condition of Pharaoh’s heart and the prevailing Egyptian religious beliefs at the time. In the afterlife, the Egyptian was judged based on the condition or weight of his heart. Dr. Currid relates an incident taken from The Book of the Dead (the Papyrus of Ani) in which the deceased Ani is standing in the hall of judgment. Ani’s heart is placed on a scale and is weighed against the feather of truth and righteousness. If the heart is too heavy, Ani will be adjudged a sinner and devoured. But, if the heart achieves balance with the feather, Ani will receive the reward of eternal life.[1]

Now, here is the real interesting thing in regard to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as it is related in Exodus. In the English Bibles, every occurrence is translated as ‘hardened’ or ‘harden,’ but in the Hebrew text, the writer actually used three different Hebrew terms! The first term; ‘qashah,’ is found only once at Exodus 7:3, where the text records Yahweh as saying: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” (New American Standard Bible: NASB) The term means, ‘to be hard, to be severe, to be difficult’ and refers to the stubbornness of Pharaoh’s heart not to let Israel go. The second term, chazaq, is found twelve times. Eleven times in direct reference to Pharaoh and once in reference to the Egyptians in general (Exodus 4:21; 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). This term means, ‘to be strong’ and bears the idea of Pharaoh having a strong, determined will not to give in to Yahweh’s demand to let Israel go. The last term is the one that is most significant for our discussion. It is ‘kabad’ (also translated as ‘glory’ and ‘honor’ in other places in the English translations of the Old Testament), which means, ‘to be heavy.’ This term is found six times in Exodus. (Exodus 7:14; 8:15, 32; 9:7, 34; 10:1) Each time, it is a verbal form; five times with Pharaoh as the subject and once with Yahweh as the subject.

The theological point of this discussion is centralized in Exodus 9:34. The text says: “And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants.” (KJV) Pharaoh ‘kabad’ his heart! Pharaoh made his heart heavy or weighty and in doing so, he tipped the scales to seal his own destruction and damnation according to his own religious system! When the text says that Pharaoh ‘sinned yet more,’ I don’t think the author was just talking about sinning against Yahweh, I think the author was also saying that Pharaoh sinned against his own religious system! Pharaoh sinned to the point that his own gods condemned him! Dr. Currid notes: “The assertion of the Exodus writer that Yahweh made Pharaoh’s heart heavy has added dimensions for us when we take the Egyptian background into account. Obviously, the God of the Hebrews was serving as the judge of Pharaoh. Yahweh was weighing the heart of the Egyptian king, and then proclaiming the results for all to see. Pharaoh was adjudged an imperfect being worthy of condemnation. This is especially striking in light of the ancient Egyptian belief in the purity of Pharaoh. . . Yahweh’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a polemic against the prevailing notion that Pharaoh’s character was pure and untainted. . .Yahweh assaulted the heart of Pharaoh to demonstrate that only the God of the Hebrews is the sovereign of the universe.”[2]

Thank you Dr. Currid (or ‘Dr. J.D.’ as we used to fondly call you in class) for your excellent scholarship in this area. There wasn’t a day we sat in your class that we were not amazed at the great treasures of biblical knowledge you shared with us!

[1] John. D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, Baker Books House Company, 1997, 96-103.

[2] Currid, 102-103.

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