The meaning of “harden” in Rom 11:7-8 should be clear by now. And I know it’s hard to imagine me — of all people — over-arguing a case. But the point is not just to define Paul’s word. It’s to demonstrate a better way of reading the text — not just this text but all texts. So humor me as we dig more deeply into “harden.”
“Harden” in Exodus
The concept first appears when Moses demands that Pharaoh let God’s people go.
(Exod. 4:21 ESV) 21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
(Exod. 7:3 ESV) 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt,
(Exod. 7:13-14 ESV) 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.”
(Exod. 7:22 ESV) 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.
(Exod. 8:15 ESV) 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.
(Exod. 8:19 ESV) 19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.
(Exod. 8:32 ESV) 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.
(Exod. 9:7 ESV) And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.
(Exod. 9:12 ESV) But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses.
(Exod. 9:34 ESV) But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants.
(Exod. 9:35 ESV) So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses.
(Exod. 10:1 ESV) Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them,
(Exod. 10:20 ESV) But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go.
(Exod. 10:27 ESV) But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.
(Exod. 11:10 ESV) Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.
(Exod. 14:4 ESV) And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.
(Exod. 14:8 ESV) And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly.
(Exod. 14:17 ESV) And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.
Alan Cole explains,
I will harden his heart. This sometimes appears to us as a moral problem, but unfairly, because the Bible uses, side by side, three different ways of describing the same situation, with no sense of internal contradiction. Three different Hebrew verbs are used, but there is no essential difference in their meaning. Sometimes it is said that God hardens pharaoh’s heart, as here. Sometimes pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, as in Exodus 8:15. Sometimes the position is described neutrally, by saying that pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as in Exodus 7:13.
Even to the Western scholar, it is a problem of theological interpretation, not one of history and fact. No-one doubts that pharaoh was stubborn, that he had an iron will and purpose, that he found it impossible to change his pattern of thought and adjust to new ideas. These and more are all implied in the biblical ‘hard-hearted’, which does not refer to emotion, as in English, but to mind, will, intelligence and response. Often ‘dull-witted’ would be a good translation.
Different theological schools have battled over this passage in past centuries. Paul (in Rom. 9:14–18) uses it as an example not only of the absolute power and inscrutable will of God, but also of his merciful dealing with men. Paul, at the last, must find refuge in the knowledge of the absolute justice of God, as all of us must.
However, the Hebrew writer did not even see a problem here. To him, God was the first cause of everything, without in any sense denying the reality, and moral responsibility, of the human agent involved.
To see this ambivalence as the mark of two conflicting sources is to come perilously close to ignoring Hebrew psychology. The same train of thought will allow the Hebrew to see the crossing of the Red Sea as due to God’s sovereign action, and yet as due to a conjunction of tide and wind (Exod. 14). These are not mutually exclusive explanations, nor even equally valid alternative explanations. To the Hebrew they are essentially the same explanation, phrased differently.
Driver says: ‘The means by which God hardens a man is not necessarily by any extraordinary intervention on His part; it may be by the ordinary experiences of life, operating through the principles and character of human nature, which are of His appointment.’ This is thoroughly Hebraic. A similar example of Semitic thought-form is to be found in the Lord’s stated reason for couching truth in parables (Mark 4:12).
R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale OTC 2; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 83-84 (paragraphing and emphasis added).
In other words, to the Hebrew mind, all the world is under the sovereignty of God. The Western mind divides the world between natural and super-natural. To us, God doesn’t act unless he does a miracle.
To Moses (and the NT writers), God is actively involved in everything that happens. Just as the pagans saw a god in every tree and in every storm, the Jews saw God in everything.
(Col. 1:15-17 ESV) 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
(Heb. 1:3a ESV) 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
(Jn. 1:1-4 ESV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
(The Word — Logos — in Greek thought was the force that governed nature. To borrow from Stephen Hawking, it’s what puts the fire in the equations of the laws of nature.)
But the Jews were not determinists. They did not believe that God’s involvement in literally everything meant that man had no free will. The OT teaches quite the opposite. The Israelites were often given choices by God, and they suffered the consequences of poor choices and the blessings that came with godly choices.
Hence, God’s sovereignty does not contradict free will. Just why that’s true or how that works is not worked out in detail in scripture. Rather, it’s part of the Jewish worldview — so obvious that it need not be explained.