Mormonism and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart

The 8th "Article of Faith" of the Mormon Church states:

"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God."

I have often asked Mormons to give me a specific example of a place in the Bible that they believe is not translated correctly. To date, every single Mormon to whom I have asked this question has responded with the same supposed example: the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

The Passages

The Book of Exodus begins with Israel's oppression in Egypt under the cruelty of a wicked Pharaoh. God reveals to Moses that He is going to deliver Israel through a series of mighty signs, yet just as Moses sets out for Egypt, God also makes a startling declaration:

"The Lord said to Moses, 'When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn,"'" (Exodus 4:21-23).

God says that He will harden Pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go. God explains that He is doing so for the purpose of ultimately bringing about the Passover, an event that will define God's people for generations to come and will even become the backdrop for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God had a plan, and He was letting Moses know exactly how this plan was going to play out, including Pharaoh's hard heart, which was not an obstacle to the plan but was rather part of the plan for which God Himself was, in some sense, taking credit. God would reiterate this, later on, stating:

"You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst,” (Exodus 7:2-5).

Again, God not only says that He will harden Pharaoh's heart, but He also explains His purpose in doing so. As if this was not clear enough, God would explain yet again:

"Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son, and of your grandson, how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, that you may know that I am the Lord,” (Exodus 10:1-2).

In numerous other places, the text testifies repeatedly that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. That the story also mentions several occasions where Pharaoh hardened his own heart shows us that Pharaoh was not an otherwise humble, reasonable or righteous man whose heart God hardened maliciously. Nevertheless, it is clear that God had a particular purpose in what He was doing, and hardening Pharaoh's heart was a part of seeing that plan through. God did harden Pharaoh's heart.

To the Mormon, however, this is simply unacceptable. When I ask how they know that this is a mistranslation, the answer is always the same. It cannot be a correct translation of the text because "God wouldn't do something like that." They cannot show any older manuscripts that read differently, nor is there anything problematic in the grammar, syntax, or narrative flow. The idea of God hardening Pharaoh's heart doesn't fit the Mormon's conception of God, and therefore it is the Bible that must change, not their conception.

Of course, there is perhaps a bit more to it than just that. This is not, after all, a recent development in Mormonism. It goes back to Joseph Smith himself. Joseph set out to produce an "inspired translation" of the Bible that would correct all the places that human translators supposedly got the Greek and Hebrew wrong. When approaching Exodus, Joseph Smith changed every instance where the text says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart and switched it to say that Pharaoh hardened his heart. Such changes completely destroy the otherwise clear message in the story that God was in control, that God desired to make known to both Israel and Egypt that He was God and that their idols were not, and that God intended from the beginning to bring about the Passover to be passed down as a testimony to future generations. Joseph Smith's "inspired" translation of the Bible was never formally adopted by the LDS church. They still officially publish and use the KJV. Still, though I have never personally heard a Mormon put it forward as an argument, the fact that Joseph Smith stated as prophetic revelation the idea that God hardening Pharaoh's heart was a mistranslation may be a huge part of why so many Mormon's think so today.

This means there are two issues to address here:

  1. Is there any chance that Joseph Smith was right and this passage is rendered incorrectly in our Bibles?
  2. Is hardening Pharaoh's heart consistent with how the rest of the Bible portrays God?

The Textual Evidence

The manuscript evidence overwhelmingly supports the traditional reading that God hardened Pharaoh's heart:

  • The Masoretic Hebrew text, the family of manuscripts on which most modern Bible translations are based, unanimously and unambiguously says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls agree that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.
  • The Samaritan Torah, the slightly altered version of the books of Moses used by the Samaritans, also reads the same (except in Exodus 4:21, where God instead says that He "will hold Pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go." Even here, it is still God doing it and the essential meaning is entirely the same.)
  • The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament often quoted by the New Testament writers, upholds the reading that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.
  • The Targums, the Aramaic translations used by ancient Jews in the Synagogues, all say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.
  • The Latin Vulgate, which Jerome translated directly from the Hebrew rather than relying on any other existing translation, still came up with the wording that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.

In addition to the direct confirmation of every textual stream in every language, we also find this reading confirmed in every instance where these passages are cited and discussed by other ancient writers. For example, the 2nd-century Christian scholar Irenaeus cites an argument from the cult of Marcion. The Marcionites argued that the Old Testament God was evil because he hardened Pharaoh's heart.1 Irenaeus explains why this does not, in fact, make God evil. The point here, however, is not found in the details of their argument, but rather in the fact that the entire nature of the dispute shows that both sides understood the passages to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.

Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian writers in the Latin-speaking West, also writes on this passage in a manner that reflects the reading that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.2 Origen of Alexandria is worth noting as well since he specifically studied the different streams of transmission of the Old Testament text in both Greek and Hebrew. He wrestles with the passage's implications on human free will but certainly understood it to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.3 Further examples could be multiplied, but this is enough to show that, across regions, languages, and theological divisions, all agreed on the proper translation: God hardened Pharaoh's heart.

New Testament Evidence

"But what if," the argument might come back, "the Pharisees, the sectarians who made the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora, the Samaritans, the early Christians, the Marcionites, and all the other groups all corrupted their the exact same precisely the same verses...for no explicable reason. How can we know that these aren't all corruptions and mistranslations?" The chances of such a corruption permeating every stream of transmission without variation are simply beyond credulity. Still, there is yet another piece of evidence. The Apostle Paul, under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit in writing Holy Scripture, affirmed that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. In his letter to the Roman's, Paul writes:

"What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.' So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires," (Romans 9:14-18).

God raised Pharaoh up for a specific purpose, and he is Paul's quintessential example that God "hardens whom He desires." There is simply no other way to read this. Paul himself, in the Spirit of God, translated Exodus as saying that God hardened Pharaoh to fulfill His purpose. There is room to debate precisely what it means for God to "harden Pharaoh's heart," but there is no room to question whether or not Exodus says He did. God did harden Pharaoh's heart. There is no mistranslation here.

But would God do that?

Consider just a few other things the Bible says God does:

"Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed," (Isaiah 6:10).

"'If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?' But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for the Lord desired to put them to death," (1 Samuel 2:25).

"For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness," (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

"As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, 'To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven,'” (Mark 4:10-12).

"And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled," (Revelation 17:16-17).

The Bible has many such passages. It is perfectly consistent for the Bible also to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. There is plenty of room for discussion as to what these things mean, but if you are worshiping a god who simply would not do such things, then the god you worship is clearly not the God of the Bible. The untouchable supremacy of human autonomy even over divine purpose is a hallmark of Mormon theology, but it has no place in biblical revelation. God is God, and we are not. If your god didn't harden Pharaoh's heart, your god is not the God of Moses or Paul. He is not the God of ancient Israel or Christianity. He is not the God who purposed the Passover or fulfilled it in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Your god is a false god, an idol of your own making, and needs to be put away. We can't assume that someone has altered the Bible just because it says uncomfortable things. It is our theology that must be altered when it comes up against the clear teachings of Scripture.

  • 1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 29
  • 2. Tertullian, Five Books Against Marcion, Book 2, Chapter 14
  • 3. Origen, De Principiis, Book 3, Chapter 1, Sections 7-11