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Parashat Vay'era / Bo - Hardening of Heart
Thutmose III

Hardening of Heart

Further thoughts on Parashat Va'era / Bo

by John J. Parsons

The term hashgachah (הַשְׁגָּחָה) is sometimes used to refer to God's providential decrees.  A midrash says, "God appoints an angel and tells it to cause a blade of grass to grow. Only then does that tiny blade flourish" (Bereshit Rabbah). There are no coincidences in God's universe; no "butterfly effect" apart from His hand.

In Jewish theology, there is elaborate discussion about how God's decrees (gezerah merosh) do not violate man's free will (bechirah chofshit). In general, the sages decided that hashgachah refers to events we can't control, whereas it's our responsibility to make godly choices. This compatibilism became enshrined in the maxim: "Everything is foreseen by God, yet free will is granted to man" (Pirke Avot 3:19).


Though this idea of reconciling God's omniscience and human freedom may seem paradoxical, the Scriptures actually go further and state that God's decrees can overrule human decision entirely. "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He directs it to whatever He wishes" (Prov. 21:1).

During the account of the Exodus, in several places the Torah says that the LORD "hardened Pharaoh's heart" (וַיְחַזֵּק יהוה אֶת־לֵב פַּרְעה) so that he would not change his mind and set the Israelites free. How do we make sense of this idea? Does this imply that people do not have free will (בְּחִירָת חָפְשִׁית) after all?

The midrash (Shemot Rabbah) notes that God indeed hardened Pharaoh's heart, but only after the despot had already hardened it by refusing the message of the first five plagues (Exod. 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7). After the sixth plague, however, the text reads, "And the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart" / וַיְחַזֵּק יהוה אֶת־לֵב פַּרְעה (Exod. 9:12). Notice that the word "hardened" comes from chazak (strong), suggesting that Pharaoh's will was made more resolute, defiant and obstinate.

Such hardening of heart is a form of punishment (or correction). If someone refuses to submit to God and strengthens his or her resolve to do so, God may ratify the person's decision and foreclose repentance for a season...  As Shemot Rabbah 13:5 says:

    The Holy One, blessed be He, gives someone a chance to repent, and not only one opportunity but several chances: once, twice, three times. But then, if the person still has not repented, God locks the person's heart altogether, cutting off the possibility of repentance in the future.

    Amenhotep II

Proverbs 28:14 says, "Happy is the man who fears always, but the one who hardens his heart will fall into evil."  If we find ourselves opposing God, our punishment might be prolonged through the process of hardening. This is the phenomenological aspect of our own inward rebellion.  Often we are not conscious of it within ourselves, and then -- when we are made conscious -- we find ourselves helpless to change direction. The sages wrote, "God leads men along a path which they themselves choose. If a man wants to be good, God leads him toward goodness; if he wants to travel an evil road, God helps him do that, too."  "The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps" (Prov. 16:9):

לֵב אָדָם יְחַשֵּׁב דַּרְכּוֹ וַיהוָה יָכִין צַעֲדוֹ

lev  a·dam  ye·cha·shev  dar·ko,  va'Adonai  ya·khin  tza·a·do

"The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD directs his steps" (Prov. 16:9)

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What the sages perhaps overlooked is that the hardening of heart can eventually lead to a sense of brokenness and despair -- i.e., the realization that the strength of own self-sufficiency is proven to be of no avail.  Turning to the LORD in despair of ourselves is a mark of humility. When we are emptied of ourselves, we are delivered from pride and thereby enabled to confess our need for God's help... This is a miracle, since most of us have "a little Pharaoh inside," clamoring that we be the center of our universe and refusing to submit to the Presence of the LORD...


Finally, it should be remembered that the Apostle Paul addressed this very question in the Book of Romans (chapter 9). When discussing God's sovereign election of Israel, Paul quoted the prophet Malachi who wrote, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (Rom. 9:13, Mal. 1:2-3). This, of course, refers back to the ancient struggle within Rebekah's womb, the prophecy that the "elder shall serve the younger," and the blessing Jacob received from Isaac (see parashat Toldot). Though Esau and Jacob were not yet born and had done neither good nor bad, God sovereignly chose Jacob to be the recipient of the divine blessing (Rom. 9:11). Paul anticipates the objection that God's love seems rather arbitrary by rhetorically asking whether God is unfair in this matter of election (ἐκλογὴν).  By no means, he insists, and refers back to the revelation of the Divine Name given to Moses (Exod. 33:19): "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" / וְחַנּתִי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אָחן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם (Rom. 9:15). "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." Paul then applies this principle to the case of Pharaoh by quoting Exodus 9:16, a verse from this week's Torah: "For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth" (cp. Rom. 9:17). Paul concludes: "So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills."


Paul anticipates the problem of our self-sufficiency (i.e., "hardheartedness") in this matter. Again he rhetorically asks, "Why does God still find fault? For who can resist his will?"  In other words, if God hardens a person's heart, how can God find fault with the person's hardened condition?  Paul then quotes the prophet Isaiah: "Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, 'What are you making?' (Isa. 45:9). In other words, it is the prerogative of the Divine "Potter" to use the same "lump of clay" to create some people for "honored use" and others for "dishonorable use." If God wants to show his wrath and make His power known to some people (as He did with Pharaoh) for the purpose of making His glorious mercy known to others (as He did with Israel), then that is His business. But for those who are called, both Jew and non-Jew, this constitutes a glorious promise: "Those who were not my people (Lo-Ammi) I will call 'my people' (Ammi Attah) and her who was not beloved (Lo-Ruchama) I will call 'beloved'. And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people' (Lo-Ammi attah) there they will be called 'sons of the living God' (b'nei El-chai)" (Rom. 9:25-26; cp. Hos. 2:23, Hos. 1:10).

God has always had a remnant of Israel (she'arit Yisrael) that were His own; just as He has chosen some among the Gentiles to become part of His glorious kingdom of the redeemed. Both groups are sovereignly "grafted into" the Olive Tree of Israel, made "one new man" in Messiah, and are co-heirs of God's glory. 


Inclusion in the Kingdom turns on our heart's response to Yeshua the Messiah, the true Lamb of God (seh ha-Elohim). Yeshua came and shed His blood on the cross so that we can partake of the greater Exodus from slavery to this world and bondage to sin. We apply the blood to the "door posts" of our heart through faith, thereby escaping the Angel of death and wrath of God (2 Cor. 5:21, John 3:36). Paul again quotes the prophet Isaiah: "Thus says the Lord God, 'Behold, I am the one who is laying as a foundation (יְסוֹד) in Zion, a stone (אֶבֶן), a tested stone (אֶבֶן בּחַן), a precious cornerstone (פִּנַּת יִקְרַת), of a sure foundation: The one who believes (הַמַּאֲמִין) will not be in haste (i.e. will not panic or fear)" (Isa. 28:16, cp. Rom. 9:33). Yeshua is Rosh Pinnah (ראשׁ פִּנָּה) - the chief cornerstone of God's Temple made without hands (John 2:21). Those who belong to Him are called out from the world by the Father Himself (John 10:27-30; 15:16). Salvation is a gift of God, not based on personal merits -- just as it was given to the Jews in Egypt (Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5). In the case of the Israelites in Egypt, God dramatically intervened, instituted the Passover, and the people were delivered. All this was meant to foreshadow the greater deliverance that would include the entire world: God intervened, died on the cross, and gives spiritual deliverance to all who call on His Name. Paul later quotes the prophet Joel, כּל אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה יִמָּלֵט / "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13, cp. Joel 2:32). The Lord is Yeshua - YHVH in the flesh - King of the Jews.

I began this discussion with the question of what the Torah means when it says that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart." After looking at some traditional Jewish views on the subject, I considered the Apostle Paul, surely the greatest Torah sage of his day, and his words in Romans 9.  In light of the Torah, Paul understood the Exodus and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart as part of God's greater sovereign plan for the ages, especially for ethnic Israel.  Paul was unapologetically a believer in divine election (ἐκλογὴν) and predestination (προορίζω), though these concepts were broadened to make room for the Gentiles who trust in the Jewish Messiah. In the end, there will be one Olive Tree, one Israel, one flock, one people of God -- though in terms of human history, this plan is still being worked out.... The "church" constitutes those who are grafted into the original covenantal blessings and promises given to Israel.

So what application does this all have for those of us of faith? What existential difference does this make?  Well, primarily this is a matter of the heart before God. If you are someone who genuinely trusts in Yeshua and His salvation, then you can be assured that you were personally chosen by God Himself to be part of His family. You are now a child of the Living God. You are partaker of Israel: you share the Jewish heritage with the great Jews of history. Most importantly, you can rest in His love and grace and kindness toward you.... Please, for the sake of Messiah, accept that you are accepted.

Intuitively we believe in the utter sovereignty of God.  Whenever we confess the Shema and rightfully regard the LORD as the Master of the Universe, we confess that He is the Authority of the universe. When we are on our knees, we confess that God alone sustains all things by the Word of His power (Col. 1:17). We realize that our heartbeat, our breathing, indeed, our very thoughts and words are the result of God's will alone. "Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether" (Psalm 139:4). "Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask Him," said Jesus.

Here's a pop-quiz question for you. Was Abraham a Jew or a Gentile?  He was a Gentile, of course, before he became a Jew. It was brit milah (circumcision) - literally the "Covenant of the Word" (בּרית מילה) - that transformed him into being a Jew. Abraham is also called the father of a multitude, and those who trust in the Mashiach are named among his descendants (Gal. 3:7). A Jew (יְהוּדִי) is one who praises (יָדָה) God in the truth, not merely someone who was born of Jewish parents (Rom 2:29). Circumcision itself foreshadowed a deeper work of the Holy Spirit given to those who would become members of the new and better covenant (Col. 2:11, Heb. 8:6). The issue of salvation centers on Yeshua and your relationship to Him... All other matters are secondary.

Time is short. If you have not already done so, I urge you to call upon the Name of the LORD Yeshua to be saved.... Whether you were born a Jew or not, eternal salvation comes solely through His Name (Acts 4:12).

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