Exodus 9 and Free Will


Random question about the Bible and Exodus 9.

I am going to paste the entire chapter of Exodus 9 below; in it Moses is attempting to convince the Pharaoh to let his people the Israelites go but the Pharaoh will not let him.

Now, read the section in RED carefully, at one point the Pharaoh of Egypt was going to let the Israelites go but then God (the Lord in the text below) hardens the Pharaoh’s heart.

Can’t we say that the Pharaoh didn’t have free will at that point and that God made the Pharaoh keep doing the wrong thing rather than letting the Israelites go?


The Plague on Livestock

1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.”

2 If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back,

3 the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses, donkeys and camels and on your cattle, sheep and goats.

4 But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die.’ ”

5 The LORD set a time and said, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this in the land.”

6 And the next day the LORD did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.

7 Pharaoh investigated and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died. Yet his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go.

The Plague of Boils

8 Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh.

9 It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.”

10 So they took soot from a furnace and stood before Pharaoh. Moses tossed it into the air, and festering boils broke out on people and animals.

11 The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all the Egyptians.

12 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said to Moses.

Link to remainder of chapter.


I believe it links back to Exodus 4:21… What I believe it means is that Pharoah had already been hardening his heart to the cries and pleas of the Israelites, so God withdrew the grace that makes men’s hearts pliable to the will of God.


Hmmm, this seems to reinforce the notion I am having.

Here is Exodus 4:21.

21 The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son,

23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”

Seems to me that even when the Pharaoh tried to do the right thing God prevented him from doing so, as evidenced in Exodus 9.

Big problem for me.


I always thought about this too.


If you read the earlier chapters in Exodus, you’ll see what Pharaoh was doing to God’s people… he enslaved them, crushed them and killed them. And even in the verses above I don’t see Pharaoh trying to do the right thing.

Do you not believe that God is a merciful God? Didn’t you know that God wishes all people to be saved… but they must turn away from sin and love one another as He loves us. If God uses Pharaoh’s hardness of heart for us to see His might, do you think that’s wrong?

We absolutely have free will. God wants all people to reject sin and to trust in Him… he doesn’t force this on us. Just because you don’t understand the language used in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that God isn’t merciful… some things are difficult to understand but we must take Scripture as a whole, not break it down into verses and try to reason over every single passage. God wants us to approach Him as little children. Please pray and put your trust in God. Pray to the Holy Spirit for understanding.


God, though careful to not overpower our free will, can withdraw His usual grace of wisdom and counsel to rulers. We are so accustomed to not seeing Him in our lives we tend to be blind to these graces and protections.

Here are two notations from Catholic Bible commentaries that tell of this:

***I shall harden, &c.***; not by being the efficient cause of his hardness of heart, but by permitting it; and by withdrawing grace from him, in punishment of his malice; which alone was the proper cause of his being hardened. (Challoner) — He took occasion even from the miracles to become more obdurate. (Haydock)


The Heart is the center of the Will in people. It is the place of Love and Hate, which have to do with Will.
The word for “Harden” in Hebrew also means “Strengthen”, like steel is hardened.

There is a difference between Will and Free-Will.
Will is concerning a final goal or “end” you desire (pharaoh’s WILL was to have slaves, but a secondary goal of his WILL was to stop the plagues).
Free Will is about “means to achieve a goal”, thus we have the phrase that “the ends do not justify the means”, Pharaoh’s Free Will was in looking at the means to protect his country from plagues and to keep slaves.

“Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart” could also be translated, “The LORD strengthened Pharaoh’s will (desire for slaves), so that Pharaoh chose (free will) not to obey Moses in order to keep what he willed to keep (loved to keep), which was his slaves.” In other words, the LORD made pharaoh fearless in the face of the plagues. Without fear of the plagues, he freely chose to refuse Moses’ requests to let the people go.


[quote=Prov 21:1 (NAS)] The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.

[quote= Isa 29:15-16 (NAS)] Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the LORD, And whose deeds are done in a dark place, And they say, “Who sees us?” or “Who knows us?” You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, That what is made should say to its maker, “He did not make me”; Or what is formed say to him who formed it, "He has no understanding "?

God, as the Potter, has the right to harden or soften any heart He wishes. However, just because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that does not mean Pharaoh is not responsible before God for his actions.

We have “free will” before God in the same way a child has free will before his parents. I’ve raised children, and I’ve had to enforce my will on them at times (eat your veggies, take a bath, pick up your toys, etc…). 2 of my children are now grown and married and have kids of their own, and they enforce their will on their kids in the same way I did (as any good parent should). If God really is your Father, then why wouldn’t He enforce His will when necessary?

Hope this helps!


Far enough on the Pharaoh not trying to do the right thing, however it is fair to say he was prevented from doing the right thing with being manipulated by God.

Yes, it is 100% wrong. Frankly, what kind of logic is this?

So God wants everyone to be saved but “He” will manipulate the hearts of some directly to prevent them from being saved or even doing the decent thing in their lives.

And if the Pharaoh’s heart was manipulated directly who else does “He” deny free will to?

Isn’t this one of the cornerstones of Christian thought in general? That God gives you free will to chose “Him”? If you don’t have free will then the whole Christian philosophy falls apart.

What part of “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart” is there to misunderstand?

The Bible says this multiple times.

Either you have free will or you don’t.

And if God can come in at any point and change your mind from what you set out to do then you don’t have free will, do you…


Withdrawing of wisdom and hardening of the heart are two separate things. And various passages in context clearly reads that the Pharaoh’s conscience was changed such that he wouldn’t free the Israelites.


This is reinforcing my point.

If I harden/strengthen/reinforce/etc. someone’s desire from what their desire normally is that is still manipulating their free will.

Let’s translate this to modern times.

Suppose I know that a person, let’s call him Jack, is a thief by trade and he loves to steal.

However, Jack stopped and is currently not stealing anything.

If I strengthened/hardened/whatever Jack’s desire to steal by 1000% and he ends up breaking into 10 houses as a result, am I not responsible for those 10 houses being broken into?


Pharaoh’s desire to sin (free will) was not strengthened.
Pharaoh’s love of what he loved was strengthened.

Pharaoh still had human reason to evaluate whether it was good or evil to keep the people. But he refused (free will) to listen to his reason. Instead he reacted to his love of having a possession (the slaves).

Free will is about making a rational choice to do or not do some action.

Pharaoh was a King. Moses was not a king. God sent a non-king to tell a king what to do, to give an order to a king. He did not send Moses to reason with Pharaoh but to order him to comply with threats.

That is how God hardened Pharaoh, threatening him if he would not let go of his possession, through the words of a nobody. So Pharaoh reacted from instinct and chose to ignore reason. There was no divine intervention into the soul of Pharaoh, but it was all through the approach of the person and words of Moses.


There are multiple other passages in Exodus that say Pharoah hardened his own heart. That God hardened his heart is apparently an idiom for God confirming Pharoah’s own decision.



I went into this concept of heart hardening (but focusing on Romans 9:18 instead) here and here.

This may be of use to you in this thread too.

God bless.



If you wish to see a literal example of God hardening hearts, showing exactly what is done, read John chapter 6, starting at verse 22 to the end of the chapter.
Just as Moses told Pharaoh “you must let the people go”, Jesus told the crowds listening to him, “you must feed on my flesh and drink my blood, or you have no life in you”.

Then you see his disciples saying “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” and the majority of his disciples left him after this.

And only 12 remained with him, because they were following the Person, whatever he said, while the disciples who left were hearing the words without loving and trusting the person.

Pharaoh did not look at Moses’ person as being from God, and he did not look at God.
He only looked at words and ideas and at himself.

Faith is about looking at a person, and it’s heart cannot be hardened.
A “hardenable heart” is one that sees only the words but ignores who is saying the words.

Jesus said difficult words, as did Moses.
And hearts were hardened based upon what the hearts were looking at, the words or the person speaking.

Free Will is the choice to believe the Person or Ignore the Person (and then throw away the words).


You seem to have misunderstood what I was saying. First of all I disagree that ‘he [Pharaoh] was prevented [by God] from doing the right thing with being manipulated by God.’ I certainly didn’t use the word manipulate, you’re the only one doing that. If you read my post #2, I said that I believe that God withdrew His grace because Pharaoh was already choosing [by free will] to do bad… it seems that the other posters agree. And I said that God may use the situation in any way He sees fit, in saying that I meant that He intervened by prompting Moses with what to say and do.

Let’s look at this from another angle for a sec… Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household… he was like a brother to Pharaoh and yet he couldn’t convince him to let God’s people go. This wasn’t a new enslavement… this had been going on for a long time… even before Moses was born. Pharaoh had decreed that the male children were to be killed, which is how Moses came to be in Pharaoh’s household in the first place.

It seems such a pity that God didn’t create you in that time period as it seems you imagine you may have been able to persuade Pharaoh where Moses failed, but don’t you remember that even after Pharaoh did finally release God’s people, Pharaoh changed his mind and went after them… surely you really can’t suppose that he would let his slaves go by choice… they were far too valuable to him.


I have tabulated the sequence of events and numbered the acts. Indeed you can see that God is merciful and gave Pharaoh many chances before God decided to harden Pharoah’s heart eventually.

Ex 4:21 God says he will hardened Pharoah’s heart. He hasn’t done it yet though. (God’s foreknowledge)
Ex 5 Pharoah punished the Hebrews for the audacity to ask for time off to worship God.
Ex 7:3 God repeated that he will harden Pharoah’s heart. Going to, but haven’t done it yet.
Ex 7:10-13 God displayed his superior power over Pharoah’s magicians’ serpents . Pharoah’s heart remained harden. This suggest that this condition is an existing condition and not one induced by God. (Act 1)
Ex 7:22 God turned Nile waters red and so did Pharoah’s magicians. Pharoah’s heart remained harden. (Act 2) He probably thought that wasn’t a big deal.
Ex 8:6-15 The frog plague. Pharoah’s magicians duplicated this feat as well. Pharoah broke his word to let Moses people go and he hardened his heart. (Act 3)
Ex 8:16-19 The gnats plague. Pharoah’s magicians were not able to reproduce this plague. Pharoah’s heart remained hardened. (Act 4)
Ex 8:24-32 Flies plague. Pharoah gave his word to let the Hebrews go but promptly broke it again. He hardened his heart. (Act 5)
Ex 9:6-7 Livestock plague. Pharoah hardened his heart. (Act 6)
Ex 9:8-12 Boils plague. here, God decided to harden Pharoah’s heart. (Act 7). The number seven has always been a special number…
Ex 9:22-35 Thunder/hail plague. Pharoah broke his word again to let the Hebrews go and hardened his heart. (Act 8) This was the 3rd time he broke his word to let the Hebrews go and from now on God “unleashed” Pharoah’s heart.
Ex 10-11 Locust, darkness, death of last born plagues. God hardened Pharoah’s heart each time.

What I made out of this is that God foreknew Pharoah hardness of heart. And he gave Pharoah many chances to repent which he didn’t. After the 3rd time lying to God to let his people go, God decided to let Pharoah have his ego and stop interfering. The original hardness of heart is of the Pharoah’s own making. God demonstrated his powers and yet Pharoah won’t submit. Even when his magicians acknowledge God’s superiority, his pride/ego won’t let him. He lied to God 3 times before God let him have what he wanted i.e. his pride. And pride leads to the downfall of many. Divine hardening can be construed as a punishment for rejection of God’s word.

The moral of the story is that if we insist on rejecting God’s word even after many chances and with sufficient evidence of God, one day God will remove his graces and we will wallow in our own self-made cesspool ( err, I mean environment). God’s grace is sufficient for all, but only those who respond correctly will be saved. Some say we need more time e.g. Pharoah need more chances but that is another topic.


Pharaoh was not trying to do the right thing. He wanted to let the Israelites go out of fear of the plagues God had sent. God “hardened” Pharaohs heart so that he could send all the punishments prepared for Pharaoh for his cruelty against God’s people. It was also to manifest God’s greatness. These plagues weren’t just random. They were deliberate, targeting specific gods the Egyptians worshipped to show there are no gods beside Yahweh… Here’s a helpful link.



The question regarding God’s sovereignty vs man’s free will is not such an easy one to answer. But the catechism shows us that the Church does not teach predestination in the sense of strict determinism:

600 To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: “In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.


I’d like to apologize to ckoeber for part of my comment in post #16… the bit about you being created in that time period. It seems callous in hindsight and I am sorry. We’ve all had questions about bible verses which don’t make sense to us straight away, and that particular comment of mine was not helpful.

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