One of those cultural icons of the post-modern era is Gary Larson’s cartoon series, The Far Side. Larson retired the series in 1995 after only 15 years, but the cartoons remain very popular. Their irreverent, bizarre depictions of people and circumstances continue to amuse, but more importantly, cause people to think about things we consider “normal”. Such is the case of Larson’s cartoon, “God at His computer”. The picture shows the Almighty sitting at a computer, with an image on the screen of a hapless victim walking under a piano suspended by a rope. God’s finger hovers over the keyboard, about to press a button labelled “Smite”.
There is no question that this particular cartoon is irreverent. Some might call it blasphemous. But why is it that humor is the most common reaction to this cartoon? Is it because we have this innate tendency to laugh at the misfortunes of other people – perhaps glad that the misfortune is not our own? Probably; comics and sadists have played on that tendency for centuries, all too frequently with tragic results. What strikes the chord in this particular cartoon, though, is that Gary Larson points to God as the cause of misfortune. In this case he is merely highlighting something we would rather not admit: our perception that God really does cause evil in the world, regardless how we might try to avoid it. This perception is rooted much deeper than we may be aware. Why, for instance, do contracts and insurance policies make allowances relieving the contracting parties from responsibility in the case of “acts of God”? Something like a tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster, is an unforeseen event that no one can predict or prepare for, and thus no one can be held responsible for its effects. No one, that is, except God, the self-proclaimed Creator and Almighty Power of the universe. God, therefore, gets the blame.
But why? How did this all get started? What established our tendency to think of the Creator as a capricious being ready to press the “Smite” button? And is it fair or right to blame God for misfortune? To find the answers we must travel far back in time, to the beginning of humanity’s existence. No doubt our earliest ancestors began blaming God for their problems soon after He expelled them from the Garden of Eden. However, what most likely caused us to think collectively about God in this way was His judgment on Egypt.
The tale of the Ten Plagues of Egypt is so big that it requires three Torah portions to cover. Va’Era (And I Appeared), Exodus 6:2-9:35, covers the first seven plagues: Blood, Frogs, Lice, Flies, Death of Livestock, Boils, Fiery Hail. Bo (Go), Exodus 10:1-13:16, recounts the plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and Death of the Firstborn. God sets the stage in the first portion from Exodus, Shemot (Names), Exodus 1:1-6:1, when He appears to Moses in the Burning Bush and commissions him with these instructions:
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. (Exodus 4:21 NASB, emphasis added)
This verse brings up a difficult question: does God intentionally create people to do evil for His glory? That seems to be the point of His statement that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. This verse and others like it in the Exodus account seem to be saying that God is purposefully inciting Pharaoh and the Egyptians to do evil. If that is correct, then we have a problem reconciling these passages with what the Apostle Peter tells us about our God:
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (II Peter 3:9 NASB; see also Ezekiel 18:23, 32, John 3:17, and II Timothy 2:1-4.)
In truth there is no contradiction. All it requires is a little investigation into the original language of the Scripture. In this Exodus account of the Ten Plagues there are five different Hebrew words translated as “hard” or “harden”:
- Chazak (חָזַק, Strongs H2388): to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore.
- Kabad (כָּבַד, Strong’s H3513): to be heavy, weighty, grievous, burdensome, hard, rich, honourable, glorious; to be honoured, to enjoy honour; to make honourable, to honour or glorify; to cause to be honoured; to get oneself glory or honour, to honour oneself; to be insensible, dull; to be made heavy, abundant; to make heavy, dull, insensible, or unresponsive; to make oneself heavy, dense, numerous.
- Kaved (כָּבֵד, Strong’s H3515): heavy, great, massive, abundant, numerous, dull, difficult, burdensome, very oppressive, numerous, rich.
- Kashah (קָשָׁה, Strongs H7185): to be hard, difficult, severe, fierce, or harsh, to be ill-treated or hard pressed; to make difficult, severe, or burdensome; to make hard, stiff, or stubborn; to show stubbornness.
- Kasheh (קָשֶׁה, Strongs H7186): hard, cruel, severe, obstinate, stiffnecked.
These words appear 43 times in 40 verses throughout the book of Exodus. Kabad and kaved often refer to things like the glory and honor of God (Exodus 14:4, 17-18), or the severity of the various plagues (e.g., “grievous hail”; Exodus 8:24, 9:3, 18, 24, 10:14). The words that concern us most, therefore, are chazak, kashah, and kasheh. The latter two convey the meanings of stubbornness and obstinacy. Later in Exodus God uses kasheh in referring to the “stiffnecked” people of Israel (Exodus 32:9, 33:3-5, 34:9). The words have application to Pharaoh as well in the sense that he made himself obstinate or stubborn (Exodus 13:15). More troubling is the use of kashah in God’s instructions to Moses just before the first plagues come about:
But I will harden [kashah] Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3 NASB)
Does this mean that God is deliberately making Pharaoh stubborn just so He can bring judgment on Egypt? Not really. Remember that the plagues did not begin without prior notice. Moses and Aaron had already appeared to Pharaoh with the message from the Lord that it was time for the Hebrew people to leave Egypt. Pharaoh responded by rejecting the message, the messengers, and the One Who sent them. Then he took steps to demonstrate his power over all Egypt and everyone in it by increasing the Hebrews’ workload. That was not only an action to show his power over Israel; since Pharaoh was worshipped as a god, he was demonstrating his power over the God of Israel. In other words, he had already determined in his heart what he was going to do, which brings us to the most important of these five Hebrew words: chazak.
Remember that chazak carries the connotation of being strong, courageous, firm, and resolute. A Jewish tradition at the conclusion of reading each book of the Torah is to say, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” (חְַזַק חְַזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק), which means, “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” The word appears 290 times in Scripture, and in the King James is often translated as “strong”, “strengthened”, “strengthen”, or “encourage”. It is translated as “harden” only 13 times. The King James uses “harden” 12 times in Exodus in the context of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, and then once more in Joshua 11:20 in describing why the Canaanite kings came to fight Israel:
For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:20 NASB)
It does seem that God is purposefully inciting people to evil if we translate chazak as “harden”. But what if the correct translation is “strengthen”? That is how Young’s Literal Translation renders chazak in Exodus 4:21 and elsewhere:
And Jehovah saith unto Moses, ‘In thy going to turn back to Egypt, see–all the wonders which I have put in thy hand–that thou hast done them before Pharaoh, and I–I strengthen his heart, and he doth not send the people away;’ (Exodus 4:21 YLT98, emphasis added. See also Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17.
When we see the passage this way, we understand that God did not force Pharaoh to do anything he did not want to do. All God did was confirm Pharaoh and his people in the choices they had already made. Pharaoh had determined to resist Moses and keep the people enslaved, so he refused the demand Moses brought from God. Since he had already made that choice, God let him and his nation experience the consequences. This puts another perspective on Paul’s explanation of the story:
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 NASB, emphasis added)
In this passage Paul uses the word sklērynō (σκληρύνω, Strongs G4645). The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) used sklērynō for chazak in Exodus 4:21. In the Apostolic Writings (New Testament), five of the six uses of the word refer to actions of individuals in hardening their own hearts (see Acts 19:9; Hebrews 3:8, 13, 15, and 4:7). Thus, Paul’s use of sklērynō in Romans 9:18 is in the same sense as chazak in Exodus 4:21 – God confirms or strengthens people in the choices they have already made.
Remember that God is able to see all of time all the time. He knows our choices and the consequences, and He will not stand in our way to prevent our choices. He will have mercy on us if we meet him even part way. He even had a measure of mercy on wicked King Ahab when he repented of plotting with Jezebel to murder Naboth the Jezreelite and steal his vineyard (I Kings 21). However, if there is no repentance, God allows the consequences fall on us. If Pharaoh had repented, God would have blessed him and would have gained great glory through the salvation that would have happened in Egypt. Such was the case centuries later in Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar repented before God (see Daniel 4), and in Persia, when Cyrus let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1). Cyrus was prophesied to do this long before he was even born (Isaiah 44:24-28, 45:1-7). But what if Cyrus had chosen to resist God? In that case he and Persia would have suffered judgment just like Egypt, and the people would still have returned. God would have been glorified, but not in the way He preferred.
We serve a God of mercy, and whenever possible He will render mercy, but it depends on how we receive Him. Again, Paul explains this to us:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 1:18-25 NASB)
The point is that God is not capricious, impulsive, or unpredictable. He does not want us to do evil and does not create us with that purpose. However, we have the capacity to do evil because God has created us with free will. He created Lucifer with that same free will. Lucifer made his choice, and God confirmed him in it, and thus the Son of the Morning Star became Satan, the liar and murderer (Isaiah 14:12-21; Ezekiel 28:11-19; John 8:44).
Since God is outside of time, He can see what we will do. That is how He can declare the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). So perhaps, when we ask how predestination works, we should look not so much on God’s actions, but on our own.
- And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden (chazak) his heart, that he shall not let the people go. (Exodus 4:21)
- And he hardened (chazak) Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said. (Exodus 7:13)
- And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (chazak), neither did he hearken unto them; as the LORD had said. (Exodus 7:22)
- Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, This is the finger of God: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (chazak), and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:19)
- And the LORD hardened (chazak) the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses. (Exodus 9:12)
- And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened (chazak), neither would he let the children of Israel go; as the LORD had spoken by Moses. (Exodus 9:35)
- But the LORD hardened (chazak) Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go. (Exodus 10:20)
- But the LORD hardened (chazak) Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. (Exodus 10:27)
- And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the LORD hardened (chazak) Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:10)
- And the LORD hardened (chazak) the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand. (Exodus 14:8)
Chazak (H2388); Kabad (H3513)
- And I will harden (chazak) Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured (kabad) upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD. And they did so. (Exodus 14:4)
- And I, behold, I will harden (chazak) the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honour (kabad) upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. (Exodus 14:17)
- Let there more work be laid (kabad) upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words. (Exodus 5:9)
- But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened (kabad) his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:15)
- And Pharaoh hardened (kabad) his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go. (Exodus 8:32)
- And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened (kabad), and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)
- And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened (kabad) his heart, he and his servants. (Exodus 9:34)
- And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened (kabad) his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him: (Exodus 10:1)
- And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten me honour (kabad) upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. (Exodus 14:18)
- Honour (kabad) thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20:12)
- And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow (kaved) of speech, and of a slow (kaved) (Exodus 4:10)
- And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened (kaved), he refuseth to let the people go. (Exodus 7:14)
- And the LORD did so; and there came a grievous (kaved) swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies. (Exodus 8:24)
- Behold, the hand of the LORD is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous (kaved) (Exodus 9:3)
- Behold, to morrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous (kaved) hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now. (Exodus 9:18)
- So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous (kaved), such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. (Exodus 9:24)
- And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous (kaved) were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such. (Exodus 10:14)
- And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds,even very much (kaved) (Exodus 12:38)
- But Moses’ hands were heavy (kaved); and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. (Exodus 17:12)
- Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy (kaved) for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. (Exodus 18:18)
- And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick (kaved) cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. (Exodus 19:16)
- And they made their lives bitter with hard (kasheh) bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour. (Exodus 1:14)
- And I will harden (kashah) Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3)
- And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly (kashah) let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem. (Exodus 13:15)
- And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel: but they hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel (kasheh) (Exodus 6:9)
- And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard (kasheh) causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves. (Exodus 18:26)
- And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked (kasheh) people: (Exodus 32:9)
- Unto a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked (kasheh) people: lest I consume thee in the way. (Exodus 33:3)
- For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked (kasheh) people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. (Exodus 33:5)
- And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked (kasheh) people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance. (Exodus 34:9)