16 So Joshua took all that land, the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland 17 from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. And he captured all their kings and struck them and put them to death. 18 Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. 19 There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. 20 For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.
Here’s a troubling phrase — “It was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts.” We see it in Exodus, time and again, as Pharaoh deals with the various plagues God sends upon Egypt. Before the locusts, Pharaoh sins, and his heart is hardened — a passive construction, one without a proper subject. At best, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. It just seems to happen.
But once the locusts descend upon Egypt, and strip the place bare, God is no longer messing around. “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them…” (Exodus 10:1) From there on, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is no passive act, but an active one, in which the Lord God of Israel is doing the hardening.
And here, we have Canaanites, whose hearts not long ago melted in fear thanks to the reports of Israel and it’s God, now possessing hearts of hard, flinty stone. Canaanites fighting pointlessly, failing or refusing to make peace with Israel (a peace Israel was not allowed to make in the first place, if we remember the command of Deuteronomy 7), fighting valiantly and receiving neither mercy nor quarter.
Why would God harden their hearts? I’ve heard that question asked a lot. Why? It seems cruel. And pointless.
Well, there’s God’s own testimony on the matter — “to show these signs of mine among them.” And that’s okay, so far as it goes.
But what if … these accounts were not objective descriptions of the motivation of God? Rather, they were Israel’s subjective recollection of events, of meeting God, and trying to make sense of things?
What if this “hardening of hearts” is an attempt at an explanation of the inexplicable?
God laid waste to Egypt. Between the frogs, the blood, the gnats, the boils, the flies, the hail, the locusts, all those dead cows, the darkness, and the deaths of all the firstborn, there’s not much left undone to that land. (Earthquakes? Smog?) Even the hardest hearted Egyptian advisor to Pharaoh could see that this battle between the Boss and Israel’s God was going to end badly for Egypt.
And yet they stood fast in opposition. They struggled hard to maintain power and prestige and the ignominious position of their Israelite slaves. In fact, the more God cursed Egypt with plagues, the more Egyptian officials dug in their heels. Even with the death of the first born, Pharaoh reneges on his promise to let Israel go, following them to his death at the Red Sea.
It made no sense to fight Israel or its God. I would have sent them on their way before the locusts.
But we’ve all been in those situations, encountered opponents and resistance that makes no reasonable sense. How can we explain such things except to say, “their hearts were hardened.” I think the hearts of many in ELCA candidacy committees were hardened when they dealt with me and my calling to be a pastor.
Canaanites can make peace with Israel now. They don’t. There is no real reason why, except to say that God hardened their hearts.
Our hearts get hard too. Isaiah asked God why he made us wander from God’s path, and hardened our hearts so that we do not fear him? Ezekiel spoke of a promise from God, in which God will take out those hearts of stone and give us beating hearts of flesh. And a new Spirit.
Sometimes things happen and they don’t make sense. They cannot be explained. God is not listened to. God’s teaching is not followed. Those seeking justice or freedom or even a little bread get none. People are cruel and brutal and they hate for no discernible reason. There is suffering and death and no apparent meaning to any of it. So yeah, it makes sense, as we stand in a frequently senseless and meaningless world, to say “God hardened their hearts.”