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Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart? (2003)

At first blush, it appears from a reading of Exodus 7-11 that God was pretty hard on old Pharaoh – first God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and then God punished Pharaoh for being hard-hearted. This is not true, but the explanation is a bit complicated.

First, let me make a general comment on a subtle translation difficulty in this passage. There are at least 28 basic meanings for “hard” in English (American Heritage). Meantime, there are 15 Hebrew words that the King James Version (KJV) translates “hard,” “harden,” or “hardness” (Young’s pp. 451-452). In the plague passage in Exodus, three Hebrew words are translated “hard” or “harden” in the King James and Revised Standard Versions (RSV). None of the three means what English means by “hard” in the compound “hard-hearted.”

The epitome of hard-heartedness in English is Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah (Appendix A). Hard-Hearted Hannah is mean, cruel, and cold. She would pour water on a drowning man. In English, “hard-hearted” means “cruel” or “pitiless or unfeeling.” In Hebrew, “hard-hearted” means “stubborn” or “resolute,” depending on whether the connotation is negative or positive. That’s because English-speaking people think with their brains and feel emotion with their hearts. Hebrew-speaking people think with their hearts and feel emotion with various abdominal organs, e.g., their bowels or livers. So the first important thing to keep in your mind is that “hard-headed” would be a better English description of Pharaoh than “hard-hearted.” And when his “heart is hardened,” a more idiomatic English description would be that his “mind is steeled.”

Second, notice that for the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. God does not do anything to Pharaoh’s heart until the sixth plague (Ex. 9:12). God’s comments to Moses before the plagues (Ex. 4:21, 7:3) are predictions (Forster and Marsten 1973). God is saying, “I’ve known Pharaoh all his life. He is stubborn and won’t listen to reason. I know that he will react to my actions by becoming even more stubborn – in this sense, I will make Pharaoh steel-willed.” Pharaoh’s reaction to the first five plagues – hardening his own heart – show that he is determined not to obey God’s will. Along about the sixth plague, however, most people would have given way to God simply out of fear, and not because they were repentant (Forster and Marsten 1973). Notice that in Ex. 9:20, many of Pharaoh’s courtiers heed God’s warning and immediately take their livestock indoors. By the eighth plague, his courtiers are actively trying to persuade Pharaoh to give in (Ex. 10:7). After the sixth plague, for the first time, God gives Pharaoh the courage to continue in the course that Pharaoh has chosen for himself, and in fact Pharaoh continues to harden his own heart during the rest of the plagues.

Finally, let’s look at the three Hebrew words for “hard” or “harden” in more detail (Table 1). These words are kabed, qasheh or qashah, and chazaq. Note from Table 1 that only the KJV and Revised Standard Version (RSV) translate all three words as “hard.” The Jerusalem Bible and the Schocken Bible each use “harden” once only; otherwise they and the remainder of the modern translations cited use a variety of English synonyms for “stubborn.” Nevertheless, the influence of the KJV cannot be overstated. I haven’t read the KJV routinely for about 25 years, I have read all the modern translations listed, and I still think of Pharaoh as hard-hearted, not stubborn. In my experience, most adults who are beginning to study the Bible seriously for the first time own either KJV or RSV Bibles.

The plague narrative uses kabed 10 times – five times for Pharaoh’s heart and five times for the plagues (Fox p. 293). The basic meaning of this word is “heavy.” Things or people can be kabed with weight (e.g., Eli in 1 Sam 4:18) or kabed with honor or glory (e.g., the name Ichabod, 1 Sam. 4:21). In Exodus, Pharaoh’s heart is heavy with stubbornness.

The Hebrew word chazaq appears nine times in the plague narrative. Outside of the plague passage, chazaq is most often translated “strengthen” or “encourage” when applied to a person and “mend” or “repair” when applied to a thing (Forster and Marston, p. 158-159). The Schocken Bible uses “strong-willed.” Being strong-willed is not necessarily a bad thing. Forster and Marston (p. 157) point out that God makes his prophet Ezekiel chazaq (positive connotation) in order that Ezekiel may better deal with the chazaq people of Israel (negative connotation) (Ezek. 3:7-9). In Joshua 11:20, God makes the hearts of the soldiers chazaq. Other modern translations use “stubborn” for Pharaoh, which may have a more negative connotation than “strong-willed.”

Finally, qasheh is used twice. Both times speak of the entire process. The first time, God predicts that he will qasheh Pharaoh’s heart, and the second time, Pharaoh qasheh refused to let the people go. (Note that the second use of qasheh is the only time that the RSV departs from the usage of the KJV.) Qasheh can mean hard, heavy, stubborn, or cruel.

So what we see is that Pharaoh was a hard-headed, stubborn, defiant man. He repeatedly refused to obey God’s will. When he started getting nervous, God gave him the courage to continue in his ill-chosen path, and it led him to a bad end. God was able to use Pharaoh’s stubbornness for God’s own purpose of demonstrating his power, but God did not cause Pharaoh’s stubbornness or force him into a defiant course of action. God would have much preferred that Pharaoh repent: “Have I any desire, says the Lord God, for the death of a wicked man? Would I not rather that he should mend his ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23, New English).


American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1982.

God's Strategy in Human History, Roger T. Forster and V. Paul Marston, Highland Books, Suffolk, England, 1973.

The Bible, An American Translation, J. M. Powis Smith, Editor of the Old Testament, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1935.

The Schocken Bible: Volume 1, The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox, Translator, Schocken Books, New York, 1995.

Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, 22nd American Edition, Robert Young, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.

Appendix A. Hard Hearted Hannah

Lyrics by Milton Ager, 1924. Copyright Warner Bros.

In old Savannah, I said Savannah,
The weather there is nice and warm!
The climate's of a Southern brand,
But here's what I don't understand:
They got a gal there, a pretty gal there,
Who's colder than an Arctic storm,
She's got a heart just like a stone,
Even the ice men leave her alone!

They call her Hard Hearted Hannah,
The vamp of Savannah,
The meanest gal in town;
Leather is tough, but Hannah's heart is tougher,
She's a gal who loves to see men suffer!
To tease 'em, and thrill 'em, to torture and kill 'em,
Is her delight, they say,
I saw her at the seashore with a great big can,
There was Hannah pouring water on a drownding man!
She's Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA!

They call her Hard Hearted Hannah,
The vamp of Savannah,
The meanest gal in town;
Talk of your cold, refrigeratin' mamas,
Brother, she's a polar bear's pajamas!
To tease 'em, and thrill 'em, to torture and kill 'em,
Is her delight, they say,
An evening spent with Hannah sittin' on your knees,
Is like drivin' through Alaska in your BVDs. She's just Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA!

Copyright 2003, 2012 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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