by Lois Tverberg
The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said. – Exodus 8:19
Many of us struggle with the fact that God said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that God could bring all ten plagues on Egypt before he finally would free the Israelites. It seems like Pharaoh might be innocent pawn which God callously manipulates.
It helps to examine the story more closely. The idea of “hardening the heart” is mentioned twenty times in the Exodus story. The text says ten times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and ten times that God hardened it. The first time that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was in the sixth plague, after Pharaoh had already had five chances to change his mind. With each plague that Pharaoh ignored, it showed that he cruelly cared nothing of the misery of his subjects.
After the third plague, Pharaoh’s magicians declared that the plague of gnats were the “finger of God” – meaning that they were up against something mightier than anything they’d ever known. But in spite of the fact that it was irrational to think that he could defeat this God, Pharaoh refused to yield. At this point, it seems to have become a test of wills between Pharaoh, who considered himself a god, and the real God. Because Pharaoh was understood to be a god himself, his will was absolutely supreme. All decisions of his were uncontested because he held all authority. The fact that God was in control over his power of decision showed that God was ultimately supreme even over him.
We can learn a valuable lesson from this too. When we fall into sin, God is generous with his offers to repent, but at a certain point, our hearts become hardened because of our own desires. As the rabbis used to say, “When sin starts out, it is weak like a spider’s web, but then it becomes as strong as an iron chain.” We should examine ourselves and repent before sin has hardened our wills to the point where we can no longer turn back.