Today, I spent a little time reflecting on Exodus 7:3 which says, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.”
And of course I had the obvious question that people have had for millennia which is: Why would God need to harden Pharaoh’s heart since he was already obstinate?
Keshet Starr sums up several Jewish commentaries on this saying:
In all of these commentaries, the key takeaway is that the beginning matters — once we start moving in a certain direction, the window of opportunity for redirecting our path grows smaller and smaller. And while G-d is acting here to keep Pharaoh resolute against permitting the Jews to leave, this is really an extension of Pharaoh’s early resistance to doing the right thing.
I really like this explanation of how God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart could have helped to preserve Pharaoh’s free will rather than undermining it:
According to what I call “the bold claim,” Pharaoh’s act of keeping the Israelites enslaved is in truth free, despite God’s intervention. When God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart, this means merely that he strengthens Pharaoh’s heart, giving him the fortitude not to let the plagues automatically dictate a decision to release the Israelites. […] Hardening is God’s way of respecting Pharaoh’s own prior choices, of helping him to follow in his previously freely chosen path while imposing upon him full responsibility for those hardened acts. He has the opportunity to act in accordance with his true self. (There are, of course, alternate interpretations and objections to this view.)
And another article offers this simple analogy and interpretation:
Pharaoh’s freeing the Israelites after their G‑d had ravaged his land with frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, etc., can be compared to handing over one’s wallet to an armed mugger: neither is an act of “free” choice.
The extent to which God went to ensure the integrity of Pharaoh’s free choice is nothing short of incredible. And the intended moral is equally compelling and uplifting.
If the benevolent and all-merciful Creator manipulated Pharaoh’s psyche and cognitive abilities to guarantee his ability to choose evil, certainly He does anything necessary to ensure our ability to choose good!
It’s cool to contemplate the lengths to which God goes to preserve our free will so that our actions have moral weight and meaning in the drama of human life in relation to God.
There’s a lot more to explore on this, but that’s the quick post for today.