I raised the issue in “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? On the failure of a popular apologetic response“. As I said there; “if God is perfectly good, why would he act upon the will of a human being to lead that human being to engage in an act of evil?” That is, why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
I then followed up with my first proposed solution. In “Why a perfect God might have hardened Pharaoh’s heart” I pointed out that there is no contradiction between God being omnibenevolent and perfectly good and God occasionally acting upon the will of a human being to lead that human being to engage in an act of evil.
This brings me to my second response, and this one provides a very different approach.
Let’s shift gears for a moment and take a look at a passage from Psalm 104 which describes in eloquent terms God’s action in the world. In the following passage the psalmist describes God’s role in the flood:
5 He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
8 they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.
9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth
Note that this passage links the flow of water directly to the divine will. And it isn’t just the flood. The rest of the psalm continues in similar fashion in that it describes events in nature as resulting from the divine will acting directly upon the world. God governs the flow of waters into ravines (v. 10), he makes grass and plants grow (v. 14), he makes wine (v. 15) [presumably this means God controls the process of fermentation], he controls the cycling of the celestial bodies (v. 19) and the coming of night (v. 20), he feeds creatures (v. 27), he sustains life by giving his Spirit (v. 30) and takes life by withdrawing his Spirit (v. 29).
Needless to say, this ancient near eastern conception of the God/world relation is very different from the way people think about divine action today. If we want to understand the flow of water in a flood, we turn not to the oracle or prophet. We turn to the hydrologist. To be sure, this is not to exclude instances of special divine action in the world. But it is to understand any such instances of special divine action to be occurring within a world of nature in which created things have their own increated properties, potentialities and law-like relations.
We still read Psalm 104 with profit as an inspired poetic hymn while recognizing we don’t share the same thought-world as the original author. We can share with that original author a sense of the divine sovereignty and providential governance without sharing his direct command framework for divine action.
Now let’s turn back to the Exodus narrative. Countless readers have been perplexed by the seamless way the author describes God hardening Pharaoh’s heart with Pharaoh hardening his own heart. The picture of God directly determining the human will calls to mind the images in Psalm 104 of God directly determining the water’s course and other natural events.
This brings us to the conclusion. Just as the ancient authors of scripture freely saw nature as the product of direct divine willing, so it was for human agents: the interrelation of divine will to human will was as seamless as divine will to water flow. But today we understand an autonomous sphere of human mind and will as surely as we recognize an autonomous sphere of hydrological laws.
I noted above that we can share the writer of the psalm’s view of God’s sovereignty and providence without accepting his denial of an autonomous sphere of nature. Likewise, we can accept the writer of Exodus’ view of God’s sovereignty and providence without accepting his denial of an autonomous sphere of human willing. In each case, God accommodates to ancient theological thought-forms to communicate important theological truths. We can recognize the truths presented without accepting the ancient thought-form through which they are conveyed.
Somebody might offer the following objection: “You concede that in an autonomous sphere of nature there are still cases of special divine intervention. So if you do likewise in the case of human agents, wouldn’t you recognize that God is acting specially upon Pharaoh’s will in the narrative?”
This is a clever rejoinder. (I don’t mind saying that since I came up with it.) However, I don’t think it works. Let’s go back to Psalm 104. Imagine if somebody concedes the point I made regarding nature. That is, they agree that God created an autonomous nature. However, they then say, “Even so, perhaps God does intervene in this autonomous nature when he commands in Psalm 104:7 that the waters must recede.” One could argue that, I suppose. But it misses the point that the language of rebuking the flood is itself indicative of the ancient worldview to which God accommodated. To insist that such language be retained in our contemporary understanding of nature is akin to recognizing that the tortoise and the hare is a fable but then adding “However, there could have been a tortoise, right?”
By the same token, if the language of hardening of hearts is borne of a worldview that has no conception of an autonomous sphere of human agency, then it is as arbitrary to retain the hardening as an instance of special divine action upon the mind as it is to retain the command that waters recede as an instance of special divine action upon water.