“I will harden his heart.” This is an example of a widely-recognized Semitic idiom often referred to as “the idiom of permission.” In the Semitic languages, an active verb can be used in a permissive sense. In other words, if anything God has done has contributed to Pharaoh’s hard heart, then God can be said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart even though it was Pharaoh who hardened his own heart.
In the case of Pharaoh in Exodus, God asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. At that point Pharaoh could have said, “Okay,” and let them go, and he and Egypt would have been unhurt. But God’s demand forced Pharaoh to make a choice: he could either let God’s people go or harden his heart and say, “No,” which is what he did. As Pharaoh continued to say “No,” time after time, God put more and more pressure on him in the form of plagues that affected the land and people of Egypt. As the intensity of the plagues increased and there was more and more damage to Egypt and the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s heart had to become harder and harder in order for him to keep saying “No” to releasing the Israelites. But God was not the problem; Pharaoh was the problem. However, because God was the one making the request and putting the pressure on Pharaoh, the Semitic idiom of permission words the phrase that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” It simply means that God acted in such a way that Pharaoh had to harden his heart to resist God. God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardened his own heart because he did not want to obey God’s request.
We use the same kind of idiom in English. If a person does something that upsets us, we might say to them, “You made me mad.” But the person did not actually “make” us mad; anger was our personal response to what the person did to us. Someone else may have the same thing happen to them as happened to us but not get angry at all. So, when we say, “You made me mad,” we are using an idiom that expresses that anger was our response to what someone else did. A trained psychologist would not say, “You made me mad,” they would say, “I responded with anger when you did what you did.”
It was due to his understanding of the Semitic idiom of permission that Joseph Rotherham, in his Emphasized Bible, translated Exodus 4:21 as, “I will let his heart wax bold,” rather than “I will harden his heart.” The literal truth of what was going on with Pharaoh is stated in Exodus 9:34, that he hardened his own heart. God is love. He does not do evil. But because He created people with free will, and because He set laws and norms in place that require people to live righteous lives, when people do evil it is often, via the Semitic idiom of permission, spoken of as if God was the one who did the evil.
In the account of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Hebrew text uses three different words to express the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It uses chazaq (#02388 חָזַק) which most often means “to strengthen or make strong,” but can mean things such as “firm, courageous, hard.” It uses kabad (#03513 כָּבַד), which refers to being heavy or weighty in either a good or bad sense, and thus can mean “heavy, hard, grievous, burdensome, insensitive, stubborn, unyielding, unresponsive, dull, rich, honorable, glorious.” Also, it uses qashah (#07185 קָשָׁה) which means to be hard, difficult, severe, fierce, harsh, stiff (used in “stiff-necked”), stubborn, obstinate.
The pattern in Exodus is as follows: God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart ten times:
Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, or his heart is said to be hard, ten times:
The three different words reflect some differences in what was happening in Pharaoh’s heart, sometimes simply letting the reader know that it was hard, sometimes emphasizing that it was stubborn or unresponsive to what was happening in Egypt.
There is another reason that we should be able to comprehend that God was not making Pharaoh’s heart hard so that he would disobey God. We are all like Pharaoh to a degree, because we all have some pride, some stubbornness, and some resistance to doing the whole will of God, and thus all of us disobey God from time to time. Sometimes our disobedience is out of stubbornness or just being insensitive and unresponsive to God’s desires, and in those times it is not God “making” us disobey, it is our weak and sinful human nature, likely intermixed with a lack of focus on God and too much focus on what we ourselves want, that causes us to disobey.
God is love, and He loved the Egyptians just as much as He loved Israel. He did not want to hurt Egypt, but neither was He going to stand by while the Egyptians hurt His people and defied His will. But God did not take away Pharaoh’s free will and harden his heart; He gave Pharaoh choices. Pharaoh decided to harden his heart and defy God, but that was Pharaoh’s own doing.
[For more on the idiom of permission, see commentary on Romans 9:18].
John Schoenheit teaches on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4:21.