Bible Q&A: Did God Take Away Pharaoh’s Free Will?

In Exodus Pharaoh hardens his heart during the first five plagues. God hardens his heart during the second five plagues.  Is this an example of God taking away free will?

It’s true that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  He did so during the plague of the boils (Ex. 9:12), after the plague of the locusts (Ex. 10:20), after the plague of darkness (Ex. 10:27), and before the final plague of the killing of the firstborn (Ex. 11:10).  In fact, God told Moses ahead of time that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; cf. 7:3) and told him specifically why:  “so that he will not let the people go.”  Later, God told Moses twice that he would again harden both the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Ex. 14:4, 17), giving another specific reason as to why:  “…and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”

HOW did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?  It must first be pointed out that the Bible specifies that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34).  Pharaoh by his own admission sinned by refusing to let Israel go (Ex. 9:27).  Calvinists teach that God was completely responsible for Pharaoh resisting his command to give Israel their freedom, meaning that God would be responsible for Pharaoh’s sin, a blasphemous notion (James 1:13; 1 Cor. 10:13).

Remember that Pharaoh was the head of Egypt.  The name “Pharaoh” means “Great House.”  He was worshiped as the incarnation of the Egyptian sun god Amun-Ra.  His enormous power and prestige depended upon his control over his subjects, including the Israelite slaves who built his cities.  It would be against his political and economic interests to let the Israelites go.

This is important to remember when trying to understand how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  Being all-knowing, God knew the condition of Pharaoh’s heart already (Ex. 4:21; 7:3).  He foresaw what Pharaoh would freely do.  Because of his pride and selfishness, Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34) by letting his own interests dry up his conscience and morality, rendering them callous and unyielding (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-2).  God’s part in hardening Pharaoh’s heart lay in the fact that he gave the demand to let Israel go, a command which Pharaoh rebelled against.

Calvinists disagree, citing Romans 9:17-21 as proof that the Lord forced Pharaoh to sin against him.  They believe Paul said that God predestined Pharaoh would resist giving Israel their freedom, that God made Pharaoh do what he did so that God’s power could be shown through the plagues.  In his commentary on Romans, John Calvin said that Pharaoh’s “character was given to him by God.”  Calvinists believe Pharaoh was passive, like the clay in the hands of the potter.  They believe God alone actively and directly made Pharaoh and his moral condition, and that God does the same to each and every one of us today.

However, if that is the case and Romans 9:17-21 is a prime example of how God directly controls all of us, why would God inspire Paul to give mankind so many specific obligations concerning salvation in the next chapter of Romans (10:13-15)?  If God molds some of us to be created as nothing but good (so that he gives them mercy), and others of us to be created as nothing but bad (so that he hardens them), then there is no need for preaching.  No good would be accomplished by anything any preacher would say.

The concept of God the potter molding man the clay into what he wants does not necessarily prevent man from having free will.  After telling Judah that he had power over them like the potter has power over the clay, God specifically affirmed that Judah had free will to sin against him in spite of his warnings and pleas for them to repent (Jer. 18:1-12).

That’s what happened with Pharaoh.  God through Moses told Pharaoh of his will for him, but Pharaoh chose to follow his own plans according to the stubbornness of his heart (cf. Prov. 16:9a).  God did not turn him into a puppet.  Rather, God simply told Pharaoh to do something he was already set against doing anyway.  In that way, Pharaoh also hardened his own heart and made the choice himself to sin.

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