Why would the God of mercy and compassion harden the heart of the evil-doing Pharaoh rather than, say, softening his heart to relent and give way to a solution with Moses?
And wouldn’t God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart remove his culpability for wrongdoing?
The sages offer several answers and explanations to these difficult questions.
First, let’s recall that Pharaoh’s heart hardens of its own volition during the first plagues. Early on, Pharaoh could have changed, but he gets so deeply onto the destructive path there is no turning back.
In other words, as one’s evil compounds, one’s freedom to make a different choice is constricted. This reality in nature could be what is meant by God’s hardening of the heart.
Yet, it appears even more is at stake in the enslavement in Egypt. A short term “political victory” is not God’s intention here. This is to be a signal intervention in history, one all mankind will recall forever – as a sign of God’s sovereignty in the world, a force that drives both toward a real abiding sense of freedom from tyranny as well as a commitment of all to walk in God’s ways.
God deploys Divine wonders to fulfill a complete, not a partial or temporary, redemption from material-governed tyranny. This sort of victory doesn’t happen easily or quickly, or without pain and real transformation. While it might feel better if this weren’t so, it is so, both for the oppressor and the oppressed.
Further, it is natural for an evil person to press ahead strongly, even to the point of his/her destruction. Isn’t this proclivity also suggestive of a toughening of the heart? Tyrants don’t listen or often reflect on or heed consequences; they don’t give ground. As things get bad especially, they often temporize and steel up to avoid fear or truth.
The redemption of the Israelites from the Pharaoh was God’s wish. Our redemption from all things-Pharaoh in our own lives is also God’s wish. We must understand that the heart of Pharaoh – both then and now – never softens.