Mailbag: Why Would God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?

Question: Can you offer any insight into God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? If God is good, why would he do that?

Answer: Eleonore Stump, in her magisterial Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (and an older article on sanctification, freedom, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), offers some very useful insights that may shed some light on this topic. In a nutshell, we’re as human beings all of us, to one degree or another, internally fragmented, double minded, and in a real sense our deepest freedom is compromised when there’s a fundamental disconnect between our (1st order) desires and our (2nd order) desires about our desires. So if I have an overwhelming desire to gamble but a desire not to have that desire, I’m in that sort of dissonant state and my deepest agency is somewhat compromised.

Suppose I ask God for help and to take away my desire to gamble, and in an act of miraculous deliverance he does. He’s not thereby vitiated my freedom by this gift of sanctification; to the contrary, he’s enhanced it, by enabling my first order and second order desires to move into alignment and for me to live more effectively as the person I want to be.

An inverted example is a case like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Nazi propagandist, who wanted his own heart to harden so he wouldn’t feel compassion for the suffering Poles when he saw a graphic account of the hideous atrocities they were suffering at the hands of German soldiers. “Be hard, my heart, be hard,” he told himself. On reflection his choice was to be that kind of uncompassionate person. His first order desire, at least fleetingly, was one of compassion, but his second order desire, which more accurately reflected who he wanted and deliberatively chose to be, was not to have those compassionate desires.

If God, suppose, were to intervene and harden Goebbels’ heart, taking away some of that compassion, he would be bringing Goebbels’ lower and higher order desires into alignment, making him a more internally integrated person. Rather than detracting from his free will, in a real sense he would be enhancing it a bit. He certainly wouldn’t be making Goebbels less free. God would be giving Goebbels what he really wanted down deep, what he chose when, presumably he could and should have done otherwise. (For all we know, God doing this might help Goebbels see the horror of his choices and choose to repent and change course.)

So when Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God hardened it even more, God was actually honoring Pharaoh’s choice, not detracting from his freedom. God loves us, and desires that none would perish; love isn’t just what God does, it’s who he is. But God will also honor our choices if we decide to hold on to sin tighter than we hold on to him; if we renounce the only ultimate source of Joy there is, we may just get what we want.

That’s the basic idea, and I think it’s a helpful analysis to get our minds, at least a little, around what’s going on in the Pharaoh passage that, for many, poses quite the bête noire of OT stories. Of course the clearest picture we have of the immeasurable love of God is the cross; the Pharaoh passage is one of those challenging ones we have to think about a bit more to understand—in light of the cross.


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With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.  

A Twilight Musing: The Education of Jonah

 

                  Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh.  We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction.  But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).  Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.”  So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.

          Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).  God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide?  I can do you one better than the hold of a ship.  How about the belly of a big fish?”  From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh.  He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom.  But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!

          We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book.  First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy.  God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”

          The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values.  When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad.  But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die.  God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing?  God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

          We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.


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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

         

         

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 10: “Legal and Theological Objections Concerning Genocide”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Having made a compelling case for a hyperbolic interpretation of the claims of genocide in the conquest narratives of Joshua, F&C turn in this chapter to a consideration of objections raised from the legal and theological standpoints. Some critics hold that, even if the commands to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites are taken to be hyperbole, there is still a concern that some form of genocide is still being commanded and carried out.

F&C raise the point that some critics may not be satisfied with the hyperbolic explanation because, while the conquest narratives may not be describing the entire annihilation of a people group, they are describing the physical destruction of a substantial number of Caananites, enough to still qualify under the legal concept of genocide. The ICPPCG definition of genocide does not require entire destruction, but just the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group” (quoted on 126, emphasis mine).

F&C begin to address this criticism by quoting a more complete statement of the meaning of genocide according to the ICPPCG which includes the following condition: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Critics might point out that driving out the Canaanites would be considered part of fulfilling this condition and hence the legal concept of genocide would be met by the actions of the Israelites.

However, as F&C argue, while such actions could lead to fulfilling this condition, the evidence shows that this is not the case in the conquest narratives. They point out that one of the key aspects of this concept of genocide is the intention to cause the complete physical destruction of the people group in question. However, as our previous studies have shown, this was not the intent in driving the Canaanites out of the land. The intention of the commands given to Joshua and the fulfilling of those commands were just to drive the people from the land. It was not for the intention of the complete physical destruction of the Canaanites.

F&C use current rulings concerning the recent charges in the conflict between the Bosnians/Herzegovina and Serbians to show two points concerning the issue of genocide: (1) that the destruction intended must be the physical-biological annihilation of a people group and (2) that the destruction entail a substantial number of the group. They quote from the case of Prosecutor v. Radislov Krstic (2004) where the ICTY stated, “The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole” (quoted on 127-128, emphasis theirs). Again Israel was not intending the annihilation of the Canaanites. They were merely attempting to end their criminal activity and to drive them from a land that was by all rights their own.

None of this is to say that there might not be other ethical problems and issues that need to be addressed in the conquest narratives (many of which will be discussed further in the book), but one cannot claim that Israel was guilty of genocide simply because it drove the Canaanites from the land. As the ICTY stated in the case of Prosecution v Milomar Stakic (2003), “A clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide” (quoted on 129, emphasis theirs). While the term “genocide” might have strong rhetorical impact, it is not the correct legal term to use concerning the conquest narratives.

F&C spend the rest of this chapter dealing with a number of theological objections that some might raise concerning the hyperbolic interpretation they offer. They first address an objection that some might raise concerning interpreting historical passages non-literally. Some might think, “Well if we can just claim that these descriptions are not literal, then what’s to stop one from claiming that all other historical passages should not be taken literally, such as miracle passages like the resurrection?” F&C address this by pointing out the failure of some to recognize different forms of genre present in scripture. Scripture uses a number of genres to communicate truth, and a sophisticated approach to biblical interpretation takes cares to consider genre when making one’s interpretive choices about passages to be taken as accurate historical descriptions and others that are non-literal, such as using hyperbole or metaphor. For example, one certainly does not believe that when Isaiah claims that “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is. 55:12) that this will literally occur.

One might ask, “How do we know when a passage is literal and when it is figurative?” Well let’s take a contemporary example. Suppose your friend comments, “Did you see that game last night? The Dodgers murdered the Cubs.” You can certainly know that he is not saying the same thing as a news report that states, “The jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the trial of Ted Bundy today.” Now how do you know one is a hyperbole and the other not? You look at the evidence. Were any Cubs really filled on the field? Is this first statement a common hyperbole used by sports fans in our culture? The context of the second statement is a news report about a trial—that tells you something, doesn’t it? In the same way we examine the evidence in scripture to help us determine how to interpret a passage. In the case of the conquest narratives, F&C have pointed to lines of evidence that are similar to our example. One is the usage in other conquest literature of the ancient Near East which tends to use hyperbole concerning military conquests. The other is the evidence of passages which claim that the Caananites were not “utterly destroyed” as many are still living after the event described.

A second objection raises concerns about God’s control over miscommunication and misinterpretation. If he did not mean the passages to be taken literally, why didn’t he simply allow it to be stated as thus when the scriptures were written down? F&C point out that there will always be the possibility of miscommunicating the message of scripture and certainly God cannot be responsible for each time someone misinterprets his word. Besides, he uses the styles of the authors in communicating his message. Again, hyperbole was a common style back then.

The final objection raised is when critics use an inappropriate analogy in objecting to the conquest narratives. An example would be, “What if the President decided to wipe out Iran because he thought God told him to do so?” However, such examples are bad analogies because they are relevantly similar to the relationship of Israel and God. Israel was a theodicy, and the US is not. The US has not been promised a land that Iran is now encroaching upon. There are other dissimilarities as well. The point is that one needs to be careful about making false analogous claims as objections to the historically conditioned situation in which the conquest narratives were written.

Having fully addressed the question of genocide and the conquest narratives, F&C move into a third part of the book and address the broader question, is it always wrong to kill innocent people?

 

Image: By Jörg Bittner Unna - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46476422

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Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.

New Book by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan: Did God Really Command Genocide?

Over at Baker Publishing's website, you can pick up a copy of  Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan's new book, Did God Really Command Genocide?.  Copan and Flannagan are leading the way in providing substantive responses to objections raised against the goodness of God in light of the Old Testament conquest narratives. While you wait for the book to arrive, you can listen to lectures by Flannagan!

Matthew Flannagan,  "Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands"