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SBL e-journal

David Frankel





When Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Caught God by Surprise



APA e-journal

David Frankel





When Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Caught God by Surprise






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When Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Caught God by Surprise

The free-will conundrum of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart—a supplementary approach.


When Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Caught God by Surprise

Pharaoh Amenhotep II, 1400 BC, statue made of granite

Drowning Pharaoh’s Army to Glorify God

Exodus 14 tells the story of how the Israelites, trapped by the sea, witness the Egyptian army drowning in the water. Twice, the story discloses, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he might gain glory through Pharaoh and his host, and so that the Egyptians (presumably, those back in the homeland) might come to know that he is the Lord.

First, God commands Moses to have the Israelites turn back and encamp by the sea. This would make Pharaoh think that the Israelites have lost their way. God will then harden Pharaoh’s heart and have him chase after the Israelites (verses 1-4, 8-9). Second, when God commands Moses to split the sea and lead the Israelites through it, God again states that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh and his army will follow the Israelites into the sea (verses 15-18).

Thus, it is due to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart that the Egyptians set out in pursuit of the Israelites after having let them go, and then foolishly enter the split sea. All of this was calculated to bring glory to God and to teach the Egyptians that God is the Lord.

Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart: The Moral Dilemma

The issue of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart has troubled interpreters for generations. We usually think of the Torah as teaching freedom of will. This is what God seems to say to Cain in Genesis 4:7 – even though sin crouches at the door to bring people down, people can rule over sin (ואתה תמשל בו). And this is what Moses clearly implies when he tells the Israelites that he has placed before them two alternatives, life or death, and they should choose life (Deut. 30:19; ובחרת בחיים). So why does God take away Pharaoh’s free will and harden his heart?

In this essay, I want to take a step back from this problem and point to the textual evidence that the idea of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not the only version of the story, but actually reflects a late development in the Torah’s redaction. In earlier layers of the story this motif is absent. In order to begin to get a perspective on this complex issue, we must start in Exodus 3, where the issue first comes up.[1]

Does God Know Pharaoh Will Be so Stubborn, or Is It a Surprise?

The non-Priestly report of the appointment of Moses (Exodus 3-6:1)[2] itself seems to reflect more than one point of view.

When God first appoints Moses at the burning bush, he tells Moses the following:

שמות ג:יט וַאֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי לֹא יִתֵּן אֶתְכֶם מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַהֲלֹךְ וְלֹא בְּיָד חֲזָקָה. ג:כ וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת יָדִי וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת מִצְרַיִם בְּכֹל נִפְלְאֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּקִרְבּוֹ וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם.
Exodus 3:19 Yet I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go except by a mighty hand. 3:20 So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them and after that he shall let you go.

According to this speech, God is fully aware of the fact that a simple request will not convince Pharaoh that he should let the Israelites go. In fact, he explicitly informs Moses that Pharaoh will refuse the request. Only after God stretches his hand and smites the Egyptians with various plagues will Pharaoh agree to let the Israelites go.

This text never mentions that God plans to harden Pharaoh’s heart. This idea, as we will see, will come up elsewhere, mostly in the Priestly material.[3] Here, Moses is simply told that God knows that Pharaoh will not readily agree to free the Israelites, and that he will have to first suffer several mighty blows.

Moses Is Shocked that Pharaoh Did not Listen

There is, however, a problem with this. If this is what God told Moses, why does Moses get so bent out of shape when, two chapters later (still within the non-Priestly stratum), Pharaoh ignores his request to let Israel go?!

ה:כב וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְהוָה וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. ה:כג וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ הֵרַע לָעָם הַזֶּה וְהַצֵּל לֹא הִצַּלְתָּ אֶת עַמֶּךָ. ו:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עַתָּה תִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה יְשַׁלְּחֵם וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.
5:22 And Moses returned to Yhwh and said, “My Lord, why have you caused evil to this people, why did you send me? 5:23 Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name it has become worse for this people, and you have not at all saved your people!” 6:1 Yhwh said to Moses, “Now you will see that which I shall do to Pharaoh, for he shall send them with a mighty hand;[4] and with a mighty hand he shall expel them from his land.”

What sense does Moses’ complaint make? Didn’t God already warn him that this would happen?

From Pharaoh’s Unexpected Stubbornness to God's Foreknowledge in Non-P

It would seem, then, that the passage describing Moses’ complaint was written before the passage in which God tells Moses about Pharaoh’s stubbornness and the many plagues that will be needed (3:18-20). In other words, we can isolate two stages in the growth of Non-P thus far:

  • Stage 1 (5:22-6:1) – Pharaoh unexpectedly ignores Moses and the signs from God. Moses, having expected his speech and demonstration to work, panics when this occurs and God promises to take care of it.
  • Stage 2 (3:18ff) – God knows in advance that Pharaoh will ignore Moses, and warns Moses accordingly.

The supplementary character of the later material in chapter 3 within the non-P stratum is also indicated by the fact that it clashes with Exodus 4:1, where Moses says, “But they won’t believe me and they won’t listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” It is difficult to imagine Moses saying this directly after God specifically tells him in 3:18, “they will listen to your voice.” Thus, I suggest, 4:1 originally followed immediately after 3:17.

ג:טז לֵךְ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם נִרְאָה אֵלַי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד פָּקַדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת הֶעָשׂוּי לָכֶם בְּמִצְרָיִם. ג:יז וָאֹמַר אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵעֳנִי מִצְרַיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי... ד:א וַיַּעַן מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר וְהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי כִּי יֹאמְרוּ לֹא נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה.
3:16 Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, I have taken note of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt; 3:17 and I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites… 4:1 But Moses spoke up and said: “But they won’t believe me and they won’t listen to my voice, for they will say, The Lord has not appeared to you.”

The verses in between, 3:17-3:22, were added later, interrupting the flow of this narrative. But why would an author or editor seek to add this section here? It seems to me that the addition of this material can best be understood in light of what we find in many parts of the non-Priestly stratum concerning the plagues.

The Failure of the Plagues

Let us look, for example, at the non-P account of the plague of blood, which starts in 7:14ff.[5] In 7:14 God tells Moses, “The heart of Pharaoh is heavy (כבד); he refuses to send the people.” This pattern is found in nearly all the non-P plague texts (8:11a,[6] 28; 9:7, 34). Note that it is Pharaoh who makes his own heart heavy, or whose heart is simply heavy by itself; God does not cause it to be so, and the verse does not add the standard (Priestly) refrain, “as foretold by God.”

In this earliest stratum, God does not seem to have anticipated so much resistance from Pharaoh. In spite of the terrible plague of blood, Pharaoh simply pays no regard to it (7:23). Moreover, Exodus 7:24 tells us, “All the Egyptians dug up water from the outskirts of the Nile to drink, because they could not drink water from the Nile.”[7] The basic implication, though not explicitly stated, is that the Egyptians did not die of thirst during the seven day blood plague, since they maneuvered their way around the plague by digging up water round about the Nile (since in non-P, only the Nile was afflicted). In other words, the plague didn’t quite do the trick, as God had expected, so God had to send another plague, and then another.

Pharaoh Deceives God

What is more, at least parts of the non-Priestly plague account suggest that God is being toyed with. Pharaoh continuously promises to let the Israelites out, yet as soon as God removes the plague, his heart becomes heavy and he refuses to let them go.

Thus, in the non-Priestly story of the plague of ערוב (probably swarms of insects), Moses promises Pharaoh that he will remove the plague, but pleads with him, “but let not Pharaoh act deceitfully yet again by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord” (8:25).[8] But, sure enough, as soon as God removed the plague: “Pharaoh made his heart heavy this time also, and would not let the people go” (v. 28).[9]

Similarly, in the non-Priestly account of the ברד, the hail plague, Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go, but retracts as soon as the plague is stopped. In 9:34 we read, “But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he continued to sin and his heart became heavy, his and those of his courtiers.”[10]

So why does God continually stop the plagues in the middle, before getting what he wants? If the plagues are meant as a pressure tactic to force the Egyptians to let the Israelites go (as God does with the Ashdodites in 1 Sam. 5:6 for instance),[11] then it seems to have taken an inordinately long time to get the job done.

Even the plague of the firstborn doesn’t seem to have completed the job. In the non-Priestly account of the miracle at the sea,[12] Pharaoh and his courtiers have “a change of heart about the people” (ויהפך לבב פרעה ועבדיו אל העם) when they hear that they have fled (Exodus 14:5).[13]

The Early Narrative: God Does not Know What Will Happen

In this early layer of non-Priestly plague narrative, God learns of Pharaoh’s stubbornness through his encounter with him, and gradually steps up his efforts to get Pharaoh to release the Israelites as Pharaoh’s resistance persists. Later editors could not accept the notion that God is not all-knowing and is taken aback by Pharaoh’s actions.

If this seems surprising, it is worth reflecting that the idea that God knows in advance how human beings will choose to act is not the only one we find in the Torah (see, e.g., Gen. 15:13-16; Deut. 31:16-18). For example, it is only after God sees that Abraham binds his son on the altar that he learns of Abraham’s devotion to him (Gen. 22:12)—the text explicitly says, “for now I know (כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי).” Indeed, God’s uncertainty as to how people will act is the basis of his decision to try them. In the non-P flood story, God is saddened because of the evil that human beings carry out. He even regrets having created mankind on earth (Gen. 6:6). Obviously, radical human corruption was not something that God had foreseen.

Integrating Gods’ Omniscience into the Text

The secondary passage in Exodus 3 attempts to solve the theological problem of Pharaoh surprising God by his defiance. It unequivocally asserts that God knows about the long and difficult road ahead in his confrontation with the Egyptians. There is nothing surprising about this for God, and, therefore, God appropriately prepares Moses for the fact that many plagues will be needed. Similarly, each time God brings on a new plague, and each time he stops it in the middle, God knows full well what will happen next.

Demonstrating God’s Might

This solution begets a new problem. If God indeed knows all of this in advance, why doesn’t he start with the most severe and effective plague, the plague of the firstborn, or simply kill the Egyptians and take the Israelites out?

The answer, implicit in our secondary passage, is that the plagues are not only meant to exert pressure of Pharaoh to let the Israelites out. They are also meant as signs of God’s might and power. This is what God means when he says to Moses in 3:20, “I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them.” The plagues are נפלאות (wonders) not merely מכות (beatings). God is counting on Pharaoh’s stubbornness to display his might and assert his power.[14] Although the text states that the Egyptians are to benefit from this knowledge, since the story is recorded and read by Israel, the Israelites are taught of God’s greatness.

Thus, even though God is earnestly trying to relieve the Israelites from their terrible suffering as quickly as possible, he is also not quite that much in a hurry. After all, the longer Pharaoh resists God’s demands, the longer God can show off his might, teaching the Egyptians, and indirectly the Israelites, of his greatness.

Pharaoh’s Stubbornness, not God’s

It is important to emphasize, once again, that at this second level of tradition, God knows in advance that Pharaoh will consistently make his heart heavy, but God does not force him to do so,[15] and with good reason. For if God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, it becomes impossible to claim Pharaoh “sinned” in refusing to let the Israelites go (9:34). Consequently, any punishment of Pharaoh and the Egyptians becomes extremely problematic.

By insisting only on God’s foreknowledge of things but not his pre-determination of things, these biblical authors can “have their cake and eat it too.” That is, they can blame Pharaoh for his unrelenting refusal to let the Israelites go and at the same time protect God from appearing seriously challenged in his efforts to break Pharaoh’s rebellious spirit.


The above only explains the first two stages of development. As described in the opening, the final stage is the move from God knowing that Pharaoh’s heart will be heavy to God making Pharaoh’s heart heavy, i.e., hardening his heart. Why was this final move taken? This is the subject of my subsequent essay, “Taking Control of the Story: God Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart.”


January 28, 2015


Last Updated

March 27, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).