The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Its Literary and Cultural Contexts -- By: Dorian G. Coover Cox

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 163:651 (Jul 2006)
Article: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Its Literary and Cultural Contexts
Author: Dorian G. Coover Cox


The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart
in Its Literary and Cultural Contexts

Dorian G. Coover Cox

Dorian G. Coover Cox is Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, and Associate Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.

In noting God’s plagues against Egypt and His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Book of Exodus, readers may feel pulled in two directions. On the one hand they may feel sympathy for Pharaoh and have doubts about the Lord’s justice. On the other hand they may be pulled toward allegiance to the Lord, who rescued the Israelites. The question of whether God was unfair in hardening Pharaoh’s heart comes up even in Romans 9. Sternberg maintains that “of the various challenges facing the biblical narrator as ideological persuader, the most basic and formidable derives from the tension between two constraints. One is his commitment to the divine system of norms, absolute and demanding and in application often ruthless; the other, his awareness of the necessity and difficulty of impressing it on a human audience. The problem is always. .. how to get man to adopt a world-picture that both transcends and threatens man; how to win the audience over to the side of God rather than of their fellow-mortals.”1

Sternberg is correct that this is no easy task. Eslinger, for example, contends that once the fact of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart is announced, “the narrator has discarded the possibility of telling a tale of real triumphs over the Egyptian king. After this,

any conflict or victory can only be seen as a sham.”2 Eslinger says that “for the reader whose knowledge is. .. of God’s educative intent, and of the contrivances he uses. .. it becomes difficult to applaud the divine pedagogy of the exodus. The reader does learn a lesson about who Yahweh is from the exodus event, but the knowledge leads anywhere but to a spot in Moses’ choir in Exodus 15.”3

A speech by Edmund Burke contains arguments that further highlight this problem, though he discussed another case entirely. In 1775 Burke told the House of Commons that England should give the long-cherished privileges of freedom-loving English citizens to the freedom-loving American colonists. “Slavery,” he said, “they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain; they may have it from Prussia; but, until you be...

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