Artwork depiciting the plague of flies afflicting Pharaoh and his court. Q: I would like to pose the following question in the Questions on the Faith section of CatholicNews. Why did God harden the following characters in the Bible which contradicted His gift of free will?

  • God hardened Pharaoh’s heart which resulted in many dying from devastating plagues (Exodus 9:12).
  • God hardened the hearts of Gentile kings so that they would not sign peace treaties with Israel which resulted in the total extermination of their peoples (Joshua 11:20).
  • St John mentioned that the reason why many Jews did not believe in Jesus was because God hardened their hearts (John 12:37-40).

David Woon. Singapore

A: When one approaches Scripture with an intent to learn and understand, it is always useful and perhaps even pertinent to know the difference and/or connection between doing hermeneutics and exegesis.
Generally speaking, hermeneutics deals with the philosophy and science of interpretation of the biblical text and would cover things like the role that divine illumination or insight plays in the interpretation of the text, and in this case, what was actually being communicated to us.

Exegesis draws the meaning out of the text, and covers things like grammar, terminology, and even literary criticism.  
Hermeneutics, if you will, is the field of how we interpret the Bible, and exegesis is the actual interpretation of the text by drawing out meaning from the text.  

Having established this difference, it will help to understand then that what I am offering you is more of a hermeneutical rather than exegetical explanation to address your question, though most of the time, it will be unjust to simply do one without any overlapping of the other.  

While it is true that one of the greatest gifts that God has bestowed on us is our free will, it is this very same gift that sees us struggle whenever we encounter parts of sacred scripture, which seem to suggest that an action of a human person has been imposed from God himself.  

It can appear that God is pushing himself on people and being unjust. This doesn’t bode well for our belief in a just and loving God.

If we take Ex. 9:12 out of context, it will indeed seem to imply that God did unilaterally make Pharaoh obstinate resulting in the plagues that ensued (pure exegesis could result in this). If we turn back a few pages of the same book, we will notice, however, that in quite a few other places before this event, it was Pharaoh himself that was obstinate (Ex. 7:13; 22; 8:15; 28 and 9:7).  

By the time we reach 9:12, we will realise that God didn’t have to do much hardening to an already self-hardened and calloused heart.  

What I am alluding to is this – our free will is something that God will never compromise even in the carrying out of His sovereign will. A terrible outcome that results from a stubbornness and an unyielding wilfulness on our part always begins on our part, and like a stone rolling down a steep slope, becomes more and more unyielding and hardened until it comes to a total rejection of God and His saving love for us.

God’s justice then, is displayed when he responds to the wickedness of His people by strengthening their resolve against him. In Pharaoh’s case, it is an act of judgment in response to a decision he had already made.  

God’s divine mercy still holds true in that He allows a hardened heart to return to Him but even this is never imposed unilaterally. Our reading of sacred scripture of these instances has one aim and purpose, and that is to remind us that as followers of Christ, that our hearts need to be constantly readied to be moulded and softened to yield to God’s will, to be mindful of which areas we may be obstinate, and to be ready to cooperate with God’s sovereign will.

Fr Luke Fong