Not long ago I received this Q&A:
“The story of Moses and the Israelites? In Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery. He does this by going to Pharaoh, who refused to let the Israelites leave because God “hardened his heart” so that He could show his powers through the plagues. God kept pharaoh’s heart hard until he told the Israelites to leave. They left. But pharaoh’s heart was again hardened by God and he went after the Israelites. This led to the Egyptians who were in pursuit of the Israelites, (both the pharaoh and the men acting under orders from pharaoh) to their death when the walls of the Red Sea came down on them, killing them all. Doesn’t this effectively make God a murderer because it was God who hardened pharaohs heart leading to all of [the Egyptians] deaths as opposed to simply opening pharaoh’s heart through the actions of Moses and his brother?”
The story takes place in Exodus chapters 6 through 14. It is a passage that has been discussed and debated by many for the very reasons stated by our questioner. Essentially, the question is this: If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, did Pharaoh really have a choice? And if he didn’t have a choice, as stated by the questioner, “doesn’t that effectively make God a murderer?”
When dealing with a question of this magnitude let me first say that my addressing of the question at hand may not prove adequate or perhaps even accurate for some. The sovereignty of God and the free will of man, and how they work together, is a complex and mysterious subject. My response is based on my understanding of the nature of God as revealed in His word.
Now, as to the question itself, it is important to keep a couple of absolute truths in mind concerning the nature and attributes of God. First, God is holy. He is unlike any other. Included in His “otherness” is His absolute righteousness. God cannot be other than He is. Because He is righteous, everything that God does is righteous. God cannot be unrighteous or do unrighteous acts because it is not in His nature to be unrighteous.
For the purposes of this question that means that the actions God took in securing the release of His people from slavery in Egypt were righteous for the simple fact that God is incapable of being unrighteous. God cannot be a murderer (someone who takes an innocent life) because God’s righteous nature precludes the possibility of Him committing murder. We may not see or understand all of the reasons behind the actions that God takes, but our ignorance, a characteristic of our finiteness, cannot be the basis by which we judge God’s righteousness and actions.
Second, God is omniscient; meaning, God knows everything. He not only knows everything that was, everything that is and everything that will ever be. God knows everything that could be. He knows all possibilities and every scenario. He knows each person’s heart and motive better than we do ourselves.
For the purposes of this question that means that the actions that God took in connection to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart were based on His knowledge of Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, Pharaoh’s heart was hard against God’s people long before Moses came along demanding in the name of God to let God’s people go. It was the Egyptians who had forced the people of God into slavery. It was Pharaoh (probably the father of the Pharaoh of the Exodus) who had ordered the execution of the Israelite male babies. And every indication was that this Pharaoh was as ruthless and hard on the people of God as any Pharaoh had been.
God simply took what was already in the heart of Pharaoh and used it to bring glory to His name. In a sense, you could say that God gave Pharaoh what Pharaoh wanted, and then God used it to spread His fame. In Exodus 6:5, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.” And then in Exodus 14:31, “And when Israel saw the great power which the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and His servant Moses.”
The Egyptians had multiple gods that they worshipped. Many of the Israelites had lost an understanding of who the real God was. Both of them needed to see the power of God at work. God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He would take their descendants into a land especially for them. He also promised: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
God always keeps His word. His just and righteous nature makes sure of that. And, the biblical principle of sowing and reaping is very much in play in this story. Pharaoh, and the nation of Egypt, reaped exactly what they sowed. If you ignore and dishonor the God of righteousness, you will suffer the righteous consequences of that rebellion.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
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