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Friday, May 13, 2016

Hardening Hearts? A Reflection

Part 1 Some Commentators
The issue of God hardening Pharaoh's heart is much discussed. As I begin this excursus I would remind the reader that any time we speak about God's activity in the world we are trying to explain  mystery beyond comprehension. All God-talk is metaphorical and analogical, we use limited human language to describe the eternal God. In addition, the earliest authors were Israelites living about three thousand years ago in the Middle East--a very different intellectual environment than post-modern Westerners!

For me, the best explanation is the process of how the heart is "hardened" (arguably not the best term)--by mercy. If God dropped the "Bomb" at Pharaoh's first refusal then the whole matter would have been taken care of immediately. Pharaoh would have caved. However, as we reflect on how things played out, Pharaoh, who was dismissive of YHWH, is never really open to repent or submit. In fact, the willingness of God to begin to punish, then withhold the full punishment, is arguably what makes Pharaoh more and more bold. Pharaoh is toughened and strengthened to resist because he escapes the full brunt of the divine rescue effort. This is the psychological problem of threats, the threatened person can become indifferent to the threat when it does not happen, or after it ends. The desire to do "my will" rather than "God's will" means that I must be coerced. Someone motivated by fear or threat is prone to non-compliance when the "pressure" is off. What we see with Pharaoh is a yo-yo response to YHWH, outwardly compliant when he feels the pain but then immediately resistant, sadly to the bitter end. With each round of "sign of judgment and escape" Pharaoh becomes more and more emboldened to resist!

I will review the commentaries I use and then provide my own thoughts about the subject.
Richard Friedman, as pointed out in chapter 7, makes note of the interaction of the root word kbd (heavy) to describe Moses' tongue (4:10), the labors of the people (5:9) and Pharaoh's heart. In addition, he notes four of the plagues will be heavy [insects (8:20), pestilence (9:3), hail (9:18, 24) and locusts (10:14). Additionally, from Friedman (p187), we learn that the word is used in 12:38 (cattle), 17:12 (Moses arms), 18:18 (governing people) and 19:16 (cloud on Sinai). The repetition, Friedman says, is a Biblical technique which ties together the narrative as a unity. He also believes that the term "strengthen" is better than "hardened." He says Dtn 5:26 indicates human freedom and that God may strengthen the resolve of a person (Pharaoh) but does not create the initial choice. I want to emphasize that the Hebrew writers frequently repeat words (or roots of words) which connect story to story. It is something I have noted again and again in my studies. 

Everett Fox (p254) offers that in the beginning Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and then later God is the subject of the act. The repetitive choices creating a new reality from which he cannot escape. The key for Fox is the refusal to listen/obey which is the only element that he sees repeated in each case of interaction. The hope for mercy is lost in the face of evil begetting evil in an endless cycle which ends in destruction.

Brevard Childs (The Old Testament Library, The Book of Exodus) offers a more extensive (and technical review, pp 170-175). He notes that in one of the literary sources (called J) "the hardening phrase comes consistently at the end of the episode, in fact after the plague has been removed...the hardening does not function as a cause of the plagues. Rather, the hardening appears as a reaction to the plagues, or more specifically, to the removal of the plagues." Childs continues, saying the purpose of the plagues is to reveal YHWH, so Pharaoh (and Egypt) will know He is God. The hardening is a refusal to recognize and know God. Hence, there are two streams which Child says try to answer the question, "why did God do these signs and Pharaoh did not recognize Him?" The issue of divine causality and supreme control remain an element in other Biblical sources and clearly the debate on this issue has raged for many years. Suffice to say, the elements of hardening (or being hardened) have both subjective and objective readings. It is something Pharaoh and YHWH both do. How the original Hebrew authors understood this language is lost to us. Looking on these texts today, with our minds filled with all manner of assumptions which are foreign to the ancient middle east, we should try to ponder them with an open heart.

Part 2 The Hebrew Words

There are three Hebrew words used to describe what Pharaoh and/or YHWH do with the heart: kabed, hazaq, hiqsah (with definitions as found in the Blue Letter Bible)
kabed, kabad: "to be heavy, be weighty, be grievous, be hard, be rich, be honorable, be glorious, be burdensome, be honored" It can also mean heavy, dull, insensible, unresponsive, as well.
It appears 132 x in 106 verses. It first shows up in Genesis 18:20 to describe the serious (heavy) sin of Sodom, next Gen 34:19 to describe a young man as the most honorable of his clan and a third Gen 48:10 to say that Jacob's eyesight had grown dim. I make note of this because it demonstrates the various meanings and nuances of meaning the word can have. As noted above it appears frequently in Exodus, beginning as a reference to the hard labor of the Hebrew slaves, then in reference to Pharaoh's heart but in Exodus 14:17 & 18 it twice describes the honor YHWH will get from Pharaoh! Here the punning nature of the Hebrew text is manifest. Lastly, this is the word (Dtn 5:16) translated as "honor" your father and mother in the ten commandments.
chazaq: "to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore" It can also mean to encourage, make stout, to strengthen and sustain or make bold. This word appears 383x in 267 verses. In Exodus 4:4 it is the verb for "grab" the serpent and Ex 9:2 for Pharaoh "holding" Israel and keeping them from leaving. In between (4:21, 7:13, 7:22, 8:19) there are four references to Pharaoh's heart being 'strengthened' or 'encouraged' or 'hardened'. However, we have noted before the use of words to tie together a narrative and it is also true here. In 14:4 both chazaq and kabed appear together, one referring to Pharaoh's heart and the other to the Lord's glory.
In 12:33 the Egyptians "urge" (chazaq) the people to let the Hebrew slaves go because otherwise we are dead men. In 19:19 the Lord appears on the mountain and their is fire. smoke, lightning and trumpet blast. The trumpet blast gets louder (chazaq) and louder. So the term ties together the heart of Pharaoh with several other elements.
qasha: to be hard, be severe, be fierce, be harsh, to have severe labor, to be ill-treated, to make hard, make stiff, make stubborn. Only 35x in 28 verses, the first two in Genesis refer to Rachel's hard labor. It only appears twice in Exodus 7:3 and 13 in a summary of the entire story.

Clearly, the tenses of the Hebrew have a bearing on the exact meaning of the word, but I hope it is helpful to see both the multiple uses of these terms within Exodus and the connections the "hard" heart (whether active or passive) has to other aspects of the story. Whatever else the revelation in the Book of Exodus means, it does not seem to be the case that we are to see Pharaoh as a helpless sock puppet whom God is forcing into sin.

Part 3
In conclusion, I am no scholar!!!! I think our understanding of God (He desires all people be saved, God redeems His people, God is a God of justice who acts on behalf of the oppressed, God expects right relationship with people) must be the framework for interpreting these events and the deeper meaning of the "strengthening/hardening/etc." taking place. God does not author sin, but He uses sin for His saving intent. Would God have softened Pharaoh's heart if Pharaoh were open to right relationship? I assume so. All I know is talking about God is a difficult thing. We have minds too small and vocabulary too limited to ever really express or explain His interactions with His world.

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