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Go to Bible: Exodus 4
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“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.
“my firstborn.” When God said that Israel was His “firstborn son,” He was opening the door for others besides Israel to be accepted into His family. We see this to a small degree in the Old Testament when Gentiles become an important part of Israelite society (cp. Rehab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabitess, Uriah the Hittite), and Jesus Christ spoke of it too: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice. And there will be one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16). But the door was fully opened after the Day of Pentecost when God made “one new person” out of both Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-14).(top)
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4:24-26. This record in Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the great records in the Word of God that reminds us how important it is to obey God’s commands. Only when we obey God can we stand legally under his protection and blessing. This is especially true for leaders. The spiritual warfare that rages around God’s leaders makes it imperative that they do their best to obey God.
Many years before Moses lived God had made it clear to Abraham that if a person was going to be included in the covenant he must be circumcised, and that anyone, even those people who were bought to be slaves, were to be circumcised (Gen. 17:9-14). Any uncircumcised male was considered to have broken the covenant (Gen. 17:14). Children were to be circumcised when they were eight days old (Gen. 17:12). This was the responsibility of the parents, and culturally that responsibility fell upon the father.
Moses had not circumcised at least one of his sons (perhaps both of them), because Zipporah is said to only circumcise one of them (Exod. 4:25). The Bible does not tell us why Moses did not circumcise his son, so we do not really know. One possibility is that it could have been due to a request by his Midianite wife. Perhaps if he did circumcise his oldest son there was an inordinate amount of suffering and so she resisted circumcising their second son. What is clear is that Moses did not circumcise at least one of his sons, and in doing that he opened himself up to the attack of the Adversary. The text is also not clear how Zipporah figured out that the attack upon Moses was related to his son not being circumcised, but she did figure it out. The Hebrew text says that once the child was circumcised, God “let him [Moses] go.” Even though it saved her husband’s life, Zipporah’s disgust with the whole situation is clear. She took her son’s foreskin “and threw it at Moses’ feet” (Exod. 4:25 NASB). Some commentators argue that she just “touched” his feet with it, but given the vocabulary and the obvious emotion in the text, “threw” is no doubt what happened. Also, although the Hebrew text does not say “Moses’ feet,” but rather “his feet,” the context and the fact that she then spoke to Moses, makes it clear that it was Moses’ feet and not her son’s feet (cp. Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary). Zipporah’s disgust is also communicated effectively by her words, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me” (Exod. 4:25 NASB). Although exactly what she meant is not explained, the fact that she had to shed her son’s blood and cause him (especially at his now older age) significant pain and suffering caused her to call Moses “a bridegroom of blood.”
As stated above, this record of the incident reminds us of the importance of keeping God’s commands and the seriousness of disobeying them, but it also no doubt indelibly impressed the same lesson in Moses’ mind. He was guilty of a grave sin in the eyes of God, which the Adversary was not just going to overlook. The Hebrew text says that “the LORD met him [Moses] and sought to put him to death,” but we know from the scope of Scripture as well as the Semitic way of speaking that this is no doubt the idiom we refer to as the “idiom of permission” where the active verb “met” is used in a permissive sense, “allowed him to be met” [for more on the idiom of permission, see commentary on Rom. 9:18, and the book, Don’t Blame God!, by Graeser, Lynn, and Schoenheit, chapters 4-6]. Moses’ sin meant that Yahweh could not effectively protect Moses, which allowed Moses to be met by the Adversary. God does not desire to put people to death even when they sin. In direct contrast, the Adversary always looks for openings to afflict leaders, and he had every reason to try to kill Moses, whom he had no doubt been watching since his birth and divinely protected childhood. To Moses, the importance of the lesson did not revolve around “who” was trying to kill him, but rather “why.” If someone is outside the covenant or the will of God, that person is exposed to a death sentence, and that can be especially true of leaders. This is a very important lesson, and became very apparent in the coming years both in Egypt, where many died due to disobedience, and in the Wilderness Wanderings, when Aaron’s two sons, and leaders such as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, died due to their rebellion (Lev. 10:2; Num. 16:25-33).
The Hebrew text makes it clear that Zipporah performed the circumcision with a flint knife. Far from being barbaric, microscopic studies of the edges of flint and steel knives reveal that the edge of a well knapped flint knife can be actually sharper than surgical steel, and a freshly knapped edge is completely sterile, protecting anyone who is cut with it from infection.
Another thing that is not specifically stated in the record, but can be gleaned by reading about Moses in Egypt and Exodus 18:2, is that after this incident Moses sent Zipporah and his sons back to her father, Jethro the priest of Midian, where she stayed until after the Exodus from Egypt, many months later.(top)
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“had visited the children of Israel.” God had remembered the Israelites and had started the process of their deliverance. See commentary on Exodus 3:16.(top)