Pharaoh’s mistaken belief in his divine sovereignty must have led him to issue the edict that the firstborn males of Israel were to be killed by the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:16), and when this failed, he ordered the firstborn to be drowned in a river (Ex. 1:22). Not only did Pharaoh’s attempts to overcome Israel fail, but his edicts declaring the killing of the firstborn were providentially reversed so that they fell on him in judgment. Not only did God kill the firstborn of every Egyptian family (Ex. 12:29), but he also drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.
From Greg Beale’s Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom:
A Preincarnate Hitler
The pharaoh of ancient Egypt is one of the best examples of ironic judgment, since in great arrogance he hotly pursued afflicted Israel but was “caught in the plots which [he had] devised” (Ps. 10:2). Pharaoh’s first mistake was to claim to be God. He gave to himself such titles as “savior of Egypt,” “Lord of the living,” “Universal god,” and the sovereign “god of heaven and earth.” As such he was also held to be the divine judge after death.4 This is, no doubt, why Pharaoh responds to Moses’s message that begins, “Thus says the Lord” (Ex. 5:1), with an equally authoritative, “Thus says Pharaoh” (Ex. 5:10). But, indeed, such a divine claim was farthest from the truth since, ironically, Scripture identifies the pharaoh of the exodus with Satan, “the dragon” (Isa. 51:9; cf. Ps. 74:13–14 and Rev. 12:3–4, 7–9), and the “sea monster” (Ps. 89:10; cf. also Ps. 87:4; Isa. 30:7; Ezek. 32:2). Pharaoh’s obstinate claim to deity, even in spite of the plagues that came upon him in Exodus 7–13, was the reason for his judgment.
Pharaoh’s mistaken belief in his divine sovereignty must have led him to issue the edict that the firstborn males of Israel were to be killed by the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:16), and when this failed, he ordered the firstborn to be drowned in a river (Ex. 1:22). Not only did Pharaoh’s attempts to overcome Israel fail, but his edicts declaring the killing of the firstborn were providentially reversed so that they fell on him in judgment. Not only did God kill the firstborn of every Egyptian family (Ex. 12:29), but he also drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1–12). His sins came back on his own head, since he was punished ironically by the very things he perpetrated against Israel.
No Truth and No Consequences
Before we leave this discussion of Pharaoh, it is further enlightening to understand his role as the purported savior of those who died and faced imminent judgment. The Egyptians believed that after death, people had to go through a trial in the Hall of Judgment to determine whether they were guilty of earthly sin. If found innocent, a person inherited eternal bliss, but if found guilty, he or she suffered judgment. There were two parts to this judgment process. (1) The deceased person arrived at one end of the Hall of Judgment and was presented with a long list of sins characteristic of human life, which he or she categorically denied. (2) While the denial of sin was taking place, the deceased’s heart was being weighed on the “scales of judgment” at the other end of the hall in order to see if its testimony supported the person’s denial. The Egyptians believed that all people are sinful and that the heart would tell the truth if it were separated from the bad influence of the body, so when the heart confessed the deceased’s sins, it would become “heavy” with sin, and the disequilibrium of the scales would indicate guilt and judgment. Therefore, the heart’s confession of sin would demonstrate that the deceased’s denial was a lie, with the result of impending judgment.
Since the Egyptians believed in the universal sinfulness of humanity, it seems that no Egyptian had a chance for salvation. This was a tremendous theological dilemma. However, the Egyptians also believed that the heart could be stopped from naturally confessing sin so that salvation could still be possible. This was thought to be accomplished by placing a stone scarab beetle, shaped in the form of a heart, either in the mummified clothes encasing the deceased or tied to the chest. The scarab beetle was a symbol of the sun god, of whom Pharaoh was viewed as the incarnation, and they thought it had magical powers to suppress the heart’s tendency to confess sin so that salvation could be secured. Thus it was actually the magical power of the divine Pharaoh that imposed this silence upon the heart and was responsible for the individual’s salvation.
There were various magical spells written on the stone scarab heart to bring about the silence of the human heart. The magical power of the sun god (and Pharaoh) was believed to transfer the stillness of the stone heart to the deceased so that the heart’s movements to confess sin would be transformed into the stonelike stillness of silence. This suppression of the heart’s confession apparently came to be seen as a kind of “hardening of the heart.”5
Could this immoral Egyptian concept of salvation through “hardening of the heart” be the background against which to understand the Lord’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? Moses repeatedly commanded Pharaoh to let the people go, but God repeatedly hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not release Israel. But perhaps this was not the only purpose of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Whereas the pharaoh’s magical hardening caused a nonconfession of sin and an apparent sinless heart, resulting in salvation, the Lord’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart appears to have led to his own heart confessing sin (cf. Ex. 9:27, 34; 10:16–17) and acknowledging his sinfully heavy condition, resulting in judgment (cf. Ex. 14:4, 17–28). Whereas Pharaoh’s hardening the hearts of others falsely suppressed sin, the Lord’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart rightly revealed the monarch’s sin.
The Lord’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart may have been intended, in part, to show that the Egyptian way of salvation is a sham and was really the very opposite—a way of damnation. In fact, is it not interesting that the dead Pharaoh was the only Egyptian who did not have to go through the judgment process, but now, more than any other Egyptian in the exodus narrative, he is the focus of God’s hardening judgment? It is probably no coincidence that one of the Hebrew words used for the Lord’s hardening of Pharaoh means “to make heavy.” Ironically, the pharaoh who claimed to remove the sinful heaviness of others’ hearts could not remove his own. The pharaoh himself had now “been weighed on the scales and found deficient” (Dan. 5:27) and awaited impending judgment at the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s heart became literally like the stone heart that symbolized his power and ironically caused him to be hard and insensitive to God’s commands, which led to his destruction. Because of his stone heart, he sank like a stone in the Red Sea.
4 For a background of Pharaoh’s divine names and functions consult I. Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1967); S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960); E. L. R. Meyerowitz, The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt (London: Faber & Faber, 1960); H. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
5 For an argument supporting this contention see A. Hermann, “Das Steinhartes Herz,” in Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 4 (Münster: Aschendorff’sche, 1961), 102–5. I have also argued this in my “The Exodus Hardening Motif of Yahweh as a Polemic,” ThM Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (1976), 48–52.