What About Pharaoh? An Interpretation of Romans 9:14-18

In the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, the interpretation of Romans 9:14-18 invariably comes up. Calvinists often see this paragraph as a prooftext of their position, asserting that Pharaoh serves as an example of a man not elected by God, whom God hardened in order to execute his purposes in the earth. Thus Pharaoh was not saved and could not be saved, because God predestined him for wrath. Moses serves as an example of one who was chosen by God for salvation apart from any desire on his part.

But this interpretation presupposes that the subject of Rom 9 is individual salvation. Ultimately, the interpretation of verses 14-18 is determined by the interpretation of the first five verses of the chapter. I have already proven in a previous article that Paul’s subject is the condition and destiny of the nation of Israel, not the salvation of individuals within the nation, so I will not repeat that argument here. But that conclusion will form the basis of the interpretation below. How does understanding national Israel as the subject of the chapter impact one’s interpretation of verses 14-18? If Paul is explaining the condition of the nation, why does he talk about Moses and Pharaoh?

Rom 9:14-18 as the hardening of a nation
In verses 1-5 Paul expresses the lostness of Israel, leading to the question: has God’s word failed (v. 6). verses 7-13 show that the current condition of Israel is according to God’s plan. Only a remnant of the people is currently experiencing the benefits of being his children, and that is the way it is supposed to be. Verses 14-18 go further, showing that not only has Israel’s unbelief not thwarted God’s plan; the situation exists because God has hardened Israel.

When Paul describes how God hardened Pharaoh but showed mercy to Moses, he is still explaining how God’s word has not failed despite Israel’s unbelief. His point is not to prove that Pharaoh went to hell because God predetermined it (as if anyone thought he would have been saved had God not hardened him); rather, his point is to identify unbelieving Israel with Pharaoh. When he says God, “hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18), he is telling the Romans that God wanted to harden Israel in order to fulfill his purposes. Not only is God’s word not thwarted; he made it happen this way.

It may seem strange that Paul would identify the nation of Israel with Pharaoh, rather than Moses. But this is not strange at all for Paul, whose identifications are based on faith versus unbelief, not physical birth as Jew or Gentile. In Gal 4:24-31Paul identifies the Jews under the Mosaic covenant with Hagar, while the church is identified with Sarah, the opposite of what any Jew would have done. The same theological idea seems to be working in Rom 9:14-18. Believers are to be identified with the people of faith and promise in Scripture, while unbelievers are identified with unbelievers and those who opposed God’s will. Isaiah taught the same thing. In Isa 29:10 he tells the people of Jerusalem: “the Lord has brought over you a deep sleep; he has sealed your eyes (the prophets); he has covered your heads (the seers). This word recalls Isaiah’s calling into the prophetic ministry, when God told him: “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isa 6:10). God called Isaiah to be his messenger of deafness and blindness so Israel would be hardened against the message. Interestingly, the only thing Isaiah did to fulfill this command was speak the word to the people. The word itself held the power to further harden the people against God. it really is true that the same sun that melts wax also hardens clay.

Jesus repeats this Scripture as an explanation of why he spoke in parables (Mark 4:12). With his parables he was able to teach his disciples the principles of the kingdom of God while everyone else remained in the dark. Paul understands the blindness of Israel in terms of a veil that covers their hearts and is only removed in Christ (2 Cor 3:14-15). Interestingly, Paul introduces this statement by saying, “their minds were made dull (v. 14a), which sounds very similar to Isaiah’s words: “make their ears dull.” And in v. 15 he uses the phrase “until today” (heos semeron) to describe the duration of the blindness, which is identical to the words found at the end of Rom 11:8, to which we now turn.

Rom 11:7-8 informs the meaning of 9:14-18
When Paul refers to Pharaoh’s hardening in Rom 9:14-18, he does not give a full explanation of his teaching. He introduces the idea and waits until chapter 11 to go full throttle and put all the pieces together. Recognizing the obvious close connection between the two passages, Dunn (Romans 9-16, 640-41) concludes that Rom 11:7-8 is a summary of his teaching in 9:14-18. In Rom 11:7-8, Paul says: “What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: God gave them a spirit of stupor; eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” Paul explicitly likens hardening (v. 7) to blindness and stupor (v. 8), referring the reader back to his initial teaching on hardening in 9:14-18.

In 11:7-8 Paul quotes from Deut 29:4 and Isa 29:10, to show that Israel’s hardness against the gospel is the same as it was in Moses’ day and in Isaiah’s, and it is the product of God’s divine work of hardening, or blinding. As I have argued elsewhere (Early Tannaitic, 61), Paul alludes to Isa 6:9, in verse 7, when he uses eporothesan for “hardened,” a word that does not appear in the LXX, but which John uses when he quotes from Isa 6:9 (Jn 12:40). Dunn (Romans 9-16, 641) says, “it would be surprising if Isa 6:9-10 was not in Paul’s mind” when he wrote Rom 11:7-8.”

So Paul’s teaching in Rom 9:14-18 is that God chooses whom he will harden and to whom he will show mercy, as demonstrated in the cases of Moses and Pharaoh. The hardening of Pharaoh is not to explain Pharaoh’s actions in the exodus, but to illustrate what has happened to Israel in Paul’s time. In other words, it is not Pharaoh’s hardening that Paul is concerned about, but Israel’s. By showing that God hardened Israel in 9:14-18, he can simply state the matter as a fact later, not only in 11:7, but also in 11:25, when he says “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” The “until” may be an explanation of his previous mention of “until today” in verse 8, showing that God’s hardening of Israel, taught throughout the OT, is not to cease until all the Gentiles are brought in at the end of the age.

When Paul compares the mercy shown to Moses with the hardening applied to Pharaoh, he does not do so randomly. Piper demonstrates a connection between the two OT passages using the words, “glory,’ “goodness,” and “name” (Justification, 88). Paul, being a Jewish exegete in the early Tannaitic period, used the exegetical method gezerah shavah (equal weights), which is the use of one Scripture to interpret another, connecting them by means of words common to both. Paul found that Exod 33:19 (“I will proclaim my name”) and 9:16 (“that my name might be proclaimed”) belonged together and should be used to interpret each other. From these two texts Paul teaches the sovereign right of God to show mercy or to harden whomever he wishes, but there is more to it than that.

It is not enough simply to say that God has the right to harden whomever he wills. What he wills is always for a reason, and even his hardening is for a good purpose, one that reveals the righteousness of God, not just his severity. Some people will not be saved; that much is clear. But God is not content simply to condemn them as a demonstration of his justice. He uses the unbelief of those who oppose his will as a vehicle of the salvation he is bringing to others and as a means to bring about his desired purposes on earth, which include the salvation of the very people group that is hardened today. In my next article I will show how God uses the hardening of Pharaoh and Israel as a means of bringing salvation to his people.

Steve Alt. Early Tanniatic Exegesis and Modern Hermeneutics: A Study of Paul’s Exegesis of Scripture in Romans and its Repeatability in the Twenty First Century. Master’s thesis. Virginia Beach: Regent University:1997.

James D.G. Dunn. Romans 9-16. Word Biblical Commentary vol 38b. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Baker, eds. Waco: Word, 1988.

John Piper. The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.


One comment on “What About Pharaoh? An Interpretation of Romans 9:14-18

  1. chaddamitz says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Very well argued.

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