In the Bible, Exodus 3-14, God confronted Pharaoh through Moses. His message? “Let my people go!” But Pharaoh, a poor listener, rejected God’s call. At least in the beginning. Later he responded, but only in the face of repeated disasters. You might want to read the narrative.
So what was Pharaoh thinking? Was he a curmudgeon who hated God and God’s people? Or was he more complex? Did he feel he was too far above Moses to be bothered? Or perhaps he was ready to listen but only after he was sure of who was speaking? Or, again, was he simply a pragmatist, afraid to lose Israel’s cheap labor?
Whatever the case, Pharaoh was certainly hard-hearted—the Bible says so again and again. But what did that label mean then; and what does it mean today? We need to ask because it’s used throughout the Bible. Jesus even used it with his disciples at times, as when he asked, “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (Mark 8:17) Or, again, on why Moses allowed for divorce, “Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment’” (Mark 10:5).
We can begin with the obvious. In their first interview Pharaoh asked Moses, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” (Ex. 5:2). Both God and Moses still needed to catch his attention.
Second, we should ask if Pharaoh was irreligious. The narrative tells us otherwise. He was deeply religious because, as we learn from history, he was an Egyptian deity. So at the beginning of the conflict we find a key issue at stake: “‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold I will kill your firstborn son’” (Ex. 4:22-23). The warning soon came true.
God later extended his confrontation—“on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (12:12). God did this by manipulating the deified features of Egyptian life: the sun, the Nile river, cattle, and more.
Another aspect of Pharaoh’s religiosity appeared when he demanded a display of Moses’ power and God’s strength through a miracle (7:9). When Moses complied Pharaoh called on his own magicians “who also did the same by their secret arts” (7:11). But they were overmatched and eventually had to acknowledge, “This is the finger of [the true] God” (8:19). Pharaoh had relied on pseudo-priests to achieve pseudo-wonders. The true God was on Moses’ side.
Yet this evidence of divine power didn’t change Pharaoh’s mind. Economic issues were the real concern for him and gods were mainly useful for supporting his material ambitions. So when God’s plagues on Egypt hit this tender spot Pharaoh’s advisors reminded him (10:7): “Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” Only then did Pharaoh start to relent.
We should also think about the context the Bible offers. The story of Exodus came after four quiet centuries—when God was silent. Earlier, in Genesis 15, God promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan after “the iniquity of the Amorites” was “complete” (15:16). God saw the moral decline in Canaan increasing; and in another 430 years he planned to confront it. He also alerted Jacob—“Israel”—to this plan. For a time Jacob’s offspring would live in Egypt until “I will also bring you up again” (46:4). The immediate promise was that Jacob would have his body returned to Canaan for burial. But it also proved to be a proleptic notice that Israel’s “son” would return to Canaan when the time of the Amorites finally ended.
This larger account reminds us that people can be forgetful. It was an earlier Pharaoh, in Jacob’s time, who elevated his son Joseph to be the prime minister of Egypt. Why? Because God’s obvious blessing was on Joseph (Gen. 41:37-41). But over time this memory evaporated.
The story offers a lesson: even if God seems silent for a time we must never dismiss his words. A hard heart is one that underestimates God’s power and purposes—and then ignores him.
Today God is mostly silent. But this only repeats the quiet centuries between Genesis and Exodus. And the silent centuries between the Old and New Testaments. Yet we can be sure he is still a promise-keeping God. And when he bides his time he is being merciful in the face of evil.
And while he may seem quiet he has actually given us the Bible to tell us all we need to know about all we need to know. We’re wise to pay attention! To read, listen, and avoid hard hearts.