Romans 9: Pharaoh

, posted by SEA

Up to this point, I have argued that the passages dealing with election in Romans 9 must be interpreted in the context of Paul’s overall theme in chapters 9-11 of the implications of the Gospel for ethnic Israelites, and that Paul’s use of the examples of Isaac and Jacob refer not to each as an individual and election to salvation, but rather to the nation of Israel that descended from them and election to membership among the covenant people.

Paul buttresses his contention that his doctrine does not in fact imply injustice with God by citing Exodus 33:19, where in reference to Moses, God states

I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. (Rom. 9:18)

Because in Romans Paul moves on to discuss the Pharaoh of the Exodus, this quote is ordinarily understood primarily to imply its negation—that God also has the right to refuse mercy and compassion on whom He wills. However, in its original context in Exodus, God does not make this statement to justify His refusal of mercy to anyone, but rather to justify his granting of Moses’ request to show him His glory (Ex. 33:18). This comes in the larger context of the episode of the golden calf and of Moses’ destruction of the first two tablets of the Testimony (chs. 32-33). Moses’ conversation with God (33:12-20) seems to reveal genuine concern that God will abandon His people and that Moses will be left to lead them on his own. The fact that Moses had to chisel out the second set of stone tablets himself has led some interpreters to suggest that Moses wasn’t entirely guiltless in his response to the Israelites. A subsequent outburst of anger would prevent Moses from entering the Promised Land. Nonetheless, God chooses to have mercy on Moses and to allow him to see His glory. Therefore, as Paul notes in 9:16, God’s favor does not “depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” Even Moses didn’t receive blessings as a result of descent from Abraham or lawkeeping. He was a recipient of God’s mercy. Those who expected God’s blessings based on ethnicity or following God’s commandments couldn’t very well exalt themselves above even Moses in that regard!

Paul then turns to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:17). This is typically taken to mean that Pharaoh was raised up to a position of power specifically to be destroyed by the plagues on Egypt, and thus to mean that God can justly create people for the purpose of condemning them and thus glorify Himself. Again, an examination of the quote in its original context provides a different view:

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up[or have spared you, NIV mg.] for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:15-16)

In other words, the Lord’s point to Pharaoh was not that He was destroying Pharaoh to show His power, but that He had not yet destroyed Pharaoh, in order further to demonstrate His power. The NIV margin captures the sense perfectly—God’s power had been demonstrated precisely by sparing Pharaoh and not by destroying Egypt more quickly.[1] The larger context (vv. 13-17) places this statement in one of a number of appeals to Pharaoh to let Israel go, or else another plague would come, and specifically indicts Pharaoh on his own stubbornness in refusing to let the people go.

Therefore, when Paul in Romans 9 draws the conclusion that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18), it is typically understood that Pharaoh is Paul’s example of hardening. In fact, as the quote above demonstrates, Pharaoh is an example both of God’s mercy and of His hardening. God is merciful to Pharaoh up to a point, in that He doesn’t wipe Egypt out immediately but rather warns Pharaoh through the plagues. He also, as we know, hardens Pharaoh as well, although Pharaoh is also said to have hardened himself.

But what are we to make of God’s hardening of Pharaoh? Paul neither quotes any passage referring directly to Pharaoh’s hardening, nor gives any explanation of the hardening, although he clearly refers to it. In Exodus, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed in four ways: the Lord prophesies ahead of time that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21, 7:3, 14:4); the hardening is expressed passively, without an expressed subject (i.e., “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened”: 7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:35); Pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart (8:15, 32, 9:34); and the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart (9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:8). In general, it appears that the hardening is either expressed passively or attributed to Pharaoh early on in the plagues, and attributed more frequently to the direct action of the Lord in the later plagues. One way of looking at the hardening, therefore, is that Pharaoh incurs judgment upon himself by hardening his own heart early on, and was thereafter hardened by the Lord, in order to demonstrate the Lord’s power better. The Lord, of course, knew that this would happen, and foretold to Moses that fact.

Another way of looking at the hardening is to recognize various types of causation. What the Lord actually does is confront Pharaoh through Moses and send the plagues. What Pharaoh does is respond by refusing Moses’ demand; in other words, by hardening his heart. Pharaoh therefore hardens his own heart, in the sense that he chooses that response; the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, in the sense that He provides the impetus for Pharaoh to respond as he does. In the same way, we all may say that a person angered us, but in fact that person merely provided the impetus for us to become angry; we were the ones who responded in anger.

At any rate, no one imagines that God forced Pharaoh to harden his heart despite himself; in other words, that God made Pharaoh harden his heart when he otherwise would not have done so. Everyone agrees that Pharaoh was himself culpable for the hardening, regardless of whether it was predestined or not. The fact that God “hardens whom he wills” does not obviate the fact that those whom He hardens, also harden themselves. In other words, we are told that God “hardens whom he wills,” but not told on what basis he chooses to harden some and not others.

This discussion of Pharaoh’s hardening becomes relevant in the interpretation of Romans 9 when we examine the following verse: “One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” (v. 19). Typically, the understanding of this verse is to see Pharaoh, as typical of the non-elect, having been hardened by the Lord, nonetheless blamed by God, and to see the hypothetical questioner questioning the justice of this situation. “How can God blame Pharaoh,” the questioner asks, “or by extension, any of the non-elect, when He Himself has predestined their response?” Thus, the typical interpretation views the questioner as mirroring precisely the Arminian position. (e.g., Calvin, Institutes 3.22.8)

This interpretation, however, makes the hypothetical questioner identify too strongly with Pharaoh. (NIV recognizes this problem by making the object of the Lord’s blame “us,” although the Greek provides no such referent.) The questioner has no interest in whether God has dealt justly with Pharaoh! He sees, rather, the point that Paul is making with regard to ethnic Israel. God is not unjust (v. 14) in choosing Gentiles who have faith, as opposed to Jews who try to keep the Law, because God “has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18). If God wants to have mercy on those who come to Him in faith, and harden those who do not, regardless of their ethnicity or relative adherence to the Law, that is His business. Paul’s point regarding Pharaoh is not that God had mercy on Moses and reprobated Pharaoh, which would easily fall in line with the Jewish self-understanding; his point is that God has the right sovereignly to set the criteria on which he will have mercy or harden.

[1] Supported by LXX dietarathas, kept or preserved. Paul’s translation in Rom. 9:17 uses exegeiro, to raise up, but in the sense of arousal from sleep or being stirred up or incited. It does not mean “raised into a position of power.” The only other occurrence of this word in the NT is 1 Cor. 6:14, in which it refers to the resurrection of the believer.

Keith Schooley
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