God And Hardening Of Hearts

It was few minutes to 7 a.m. of February 16th in the city train, when I came across Joshua 11:20 in my morning readings, prayers and reflecting on the whole Bible in a year. In this verse, Joshua recorded the reason why the Canaanites: Jabin the king of Hazor and his companions did not seek truce but wage war against Israel (Joshua 11:1-19).

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. (Joshua 11:20 ESV)

This concept of hardening of heart was not foreign to me. I had wrestled with in Exodus 5-9 (God hardening pharaoh’s heart to display his glory) in Bible College almost 5 years ago. It is still hard to chew and swallow this passages. In this article I would share with you my reflection of Joshua 11:20, as I go through different commentaries trying to wrestle with it again. My aim is that we may rejoicing and delighting in God’s breathed words. Mostly in the tough ones like this.

God Harden Their Heart And Idiom

Raising the bar up, Robert G. Bratcher and Barday M. Newman in A translator’s handbook on the book of Joshua wrote:

Verse 20 provides the theological justification for the wholesale massacre of the people: the Lord “hardened their hearts” (see rsv), that is, made them proud and stubborn (tev determined to fight). Again the Hebrew verb condemned to total destruction is used, and it is said that this was done in obedience to the Lord’s command to Moses. (Bratcher & Newman: 1983: 166-7)

Bratcher and Newman argued that many languages would have idiomatic expression equivalent to “harden their hearts” of the Hebrew; e.g. “stiffen their necks” or “make their eyes glare.” With that in mind, in a plan language, Joshua 11:20 could be understood as:

So that they would be condemned to total destruction and all be killed without mercy may be changed to an active construction and translated as a separate sentence: “He did this so that the people of Israel would condemn them to total destruction and kill them all without mercy.”

This was what is somewhat ambiguous in tev. It actually refers only to the clause which begins so that; it does not refer back to the entire previous sentence. One may translate “The LORD had commanded Moses to kill all the people of the land.” (Bratcher & Newman: ibid)

God Hardening Their Hearts And Commentaries

In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Donald H. Madvig concisely commented on Joshua 11:20:

God hardened the Canaanites’ hearts, not to keep them from repenting, but to prevent them from surrendering to Israel in unrepentance. The examples of Rahab and the Gibeonites demonstrate the unchanging purpose of God that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). As in the case of Pharaoh, God may be said to harden the hearts of those who harden their own (cf. Exod 8:32 with Exod 9:12). God was patient as long as there was any hope of repentance (Rom 2:4), but the sin of the Amorites had reached its full measure (Gen 15:16). The writer celebrated the annihilation of the Canaanites, which is so offensive to the modern mind, because he knew there was no other way that God’s gracious purpose could be fulfilled. (Madvig: 1992: 311-12)

As a person who is not satisfied with concise explanations, I want more. How do I deal with this “offensive” tough concept of “the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle”?

J. J. Lias quoted Julius Müller ‘Christian Doctrine of Sin,’ ii. 412, “Scripture never speaks of God’s hardening men’s hearts, save in connection with His revelations through Moses or Christ.” and point out how Joshua 11:20 evidently had not occurred to Müller in his writing. Lias went on to argued that:

We are not to suppose that the free-will of the Canaanites was in any way interfered with. God no doubt left them to themselves as the due punishment of their iniquities. Sin in general, by God’s own appointment, and especially the sensual sins in which the Canaanites were steeped, has a tendency to produce insensibility to moral or even prudential considerations, and to beget a recklessness which urges on the sinner to his ruin. Some have argued that had they all come, like the Gibeonites, as suppliants, they must all have been massacred in cold blood. But this is not likely. Rather we must imagine that God foresaw that they would not believe the signs He would give in favour of the Israelites, and that by meeting them in battle they brought a swift and speedy destruction on themselves. ( Spence-Jones: 2004: 192)

David M. Howard, Jr in The New American Commentary went deeper:

“Verses 19–20 show that the events of chaps. 10–11 were orchestrated by God himself. No city made peace with the Israelites as Gibeon had done (chap. 9); rather, Israel took them all in battle. The reason that no city took it upon itself to make peace with Israel was that God hardened their hearts so that he could completely destroy them. They had followed a pattern of opposing God by attacking the Israelites (see 9:1; 10:1–5; 11:1–5; and the comments introducing chap. 9). Thus, the text is stark and harsh: the idea and activity of hardening originated from God himself, and it was for the purpose of destroying the Canaanites through battle. The destructions wrought among the Canaanites had been anticipated and commanded by Moses (see especially Deut 7:1–5; 20:16–18). The people were to make no treaty with the Canaanites and show them no mercy (Deut 7:2). The Canaanites’ time for punishment had now come (cf. Gen 15:16).” (Howard: 2001: 273-274)

Howard also pointed out that God’s hardening the Canaanites’ heart recalls the drama in Exodus 9-11 viz.: God hardened the pharaoh’s heart and sent the plagues to show his glory and majesty. Pointing at Exodus 5:2 “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” and pharaoh’s repeatedly hardened his own heart (7:13–14, 22; 8:15), Howard argued that the drama of God hardening pharaoh’s heart is tied to pharaoh’s own defiance.

Thus, he continued:

God could have forced Israel’s release after just one plague, but his purpose was to display his own power against the Egyptians and against their gods (Exod 12:12 states this clearly: “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord”). God’s hardening of the pharaoh’s heart must be seen in the context of the pharaoh’s stubbornness and resistance of the Lord.

We must examine the Canaanites’ resistance to the Lord in a similar light. We have noted numerous times that the Canaanites heard (šmʿ) about Israel’s victories (2:9–11; 5:1; 9:1, 3; 10:1; 11:1) and that they reacted differently at different times. Rahab and the Gibeonites were Canaanites who were spared, even if they were for different reasons. Those Canaanites who resisted Israel and its God, however, were shown no mercy and were annihilated. God’s hardening of their hearts, then, was due, at least in part, to their own stubbornness and resistance of Israel’s God. Had they been willing to react as Rahab (or even the Gibeonites) had done, undoubtedly the results would have been different. (Howard: 2001: ibid)

Joshua 11:20 And The righteousness of the Lord

Roger Ellsworth in Opening Up Joshua takes another angle in expounding Joshua 11:20. He notices that modern reader, like me, are ‘put off’ by the gory details of Israel putting Canaanites to death during the conquest. He advised that:

We must keep in mind that these nations were utterly corrupt. They practised every perversion conceivable, even to the point of sacrificing their own children to their idols. We should also remember that these same nations were given every opportunity to turn from their wicked ways, as Rahab did (Josh. 2), but adamantly refused to do so (Gen. 15:16).

The judgement of these Canaanites was a declaration that God is righteous and will ultimately judge all sin. His patience ensures that his judgement comes slowly, but his righteousness guarantees that his judgement comes surely. Instead of lamenting the judgement of ancient Canaanites, we would do well to lament the judgement that will come our way if we do not repent(Ellsworth: 2008: 97-8).

He went on to argue that a part of God’s judgment is his hardening of human hearts. If not for his mercy all human, after the fall, do not seek to surrender to God. We keep rejecting God’s truth and as a result he judges us by hardening our hearts against the truth.

Reflections and Application:

Reading Joshua 11:20, as a fallen creature redeemed by the blood of Christ and continuously sanctified by the Spirit, I could not help it but reach the conclusion that would be predictable by a fallen man’s logic, viz.: Is God fair? Paul also anticipated this conclusion when he wrote to the Romans:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.(Romans 9:14-18 ESV)

God shows no injustice. We all receive justice, but for us whom God mercifully gave a new heart, and a new spirit put within us as the Holy Spirit removes the heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), His justice on us felled down on our Lord and Savor Jesus, at the cross.

We can demand God’s justice but never his mercy. Mercy is solely of God own pleasure.

After the fall, we are all Canaanites. We were hardening our hearts in sin. Paul would say “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind”(Ephesians 2:3).

Glory to God that when we “did not see fit to acknowledge God”, He did not gave all of us up to our debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Roman 1:28). But gave his Son Jesus Christ(John 3:16-19 and Roman 5:8-9)

Reading Joshua 11:20 with Roman 1 in mind, I can see that God hardening of our hearts is not a cause of sin but a fruit of it.

A Prayer of Adoration

Holy God, like a Canaanite, I also was blind, deaf and dead in my sin. In my own freewill I hardened my heart. I could not come to Christ Jesus(John 6:44, 17:1-2,6,9,24). In my perishing, the message of cross of your Son was foolish to me (1 Corinthians 1:18), I did not love you O Lord, but you loved me. Thank you for drawing me to your Son. Thank you for the Holy Spirit breathing life in my dead body, sight in my blindness and your voice in my deafness. It is by grace you saved me through faith in the person and finished work of your beloved Son. O Lord all this, including my faith, is not my own doing; it is your merciful gift (Ephesian 2:8). Keep us falling in love with you with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And like Joshua, may we walk in your ways. In Christ Jesus, my Lord and my God (John 20:28). Amen.

The Ending That Is The Beginning

It is few minutes to 11 a.m. of March 8th at home on my studying desk, when I finished my reflection and prayers on Joshua 11:20. Do I fully understand it now? Sadly no. But I can now delight with King David: “ Whatever Yahweh pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). Yes, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”(Psalm 115:3)

Have you wrestled with Joshua 11:20? Be kind and share it with us.


Bratcher, R. G., & Newman, B. M. (1983). A translator’s handbook on the book of Joshua. Helps for translators. London; New York: United Bible

Gaebelein, F. E., Kalland, E. S., Madvig, D. H., Wolf, H., Huey, F. B., Jr, & Youngblood, R. F. (1992). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 3: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel . Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

The Pulpit Commentary: Joshua. 2004 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Howard, D. M., Jr. (2001). Vol. 5: Joshua (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Ellsworth, R. (2008). Opening up Joshua . Leominster: Day One Publications.

3 thoughts on “God And Hardening Of Hearts

  1. temu,

    I think perhaps a better way of putting it along the same lines would be to say that God has removed restraints on the sinner’s ways. We are all sinful but through common grace we do not do all the wicked things we might. At times, God has turned men over to their own desires by withdrawing this common grace and allowing them to fully act upon their own wickedness. See, for example, Paul’s explanation of the wrath of God poured out for idolatry in Romans 1:18-25. I believe such restraints of common grace on pharaoh were lifted by God to punish Egypt for its evil and witness to Israel the power of God.

  2. I’ve studied before that whenever the bible says that God hardened someones heart, its a hebrew way of phrasing….its not to say that God hardened the persons heart per se, but God allowed the persons heart to stay hard rather than step in with his Holy Spirit…God allows the devil or us sometimes to carry on in our ways so that we can see the effect of the unregenerated heart, i.e. Pharaoh even in the face of obvious miracles and his own promise to let the people go still couldn’t due to his heart which did not have the loving spirit of God so could only be hard even if it didn’t want to be.

  3. Hello Brother, Thank you for your wonderful blog site. It is very honest of you to bring up difficult scriptures. It seems the unforgiven sin in the old and new testaments, is not believing. All sin can be forgiven except the sin of unbelief. God Bless.

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