God sent Moses to demand that Pharaoh release the Hebrews from bondage, threatening that should the Egyptian king refuse, the country would suffer. So it seems incredibly unjust that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12), seemingly taking away his free will to choose to let them go. The concept of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is apparently central to the Exodus story, appearing no less than 20 times in the Book of Exodus.
It should be noted that when God initially instructs Moses, he forewarns that he would do so in order to “increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3, 4:21). This implies that God did not want Pharaoh to comply too quickly because that would not allow the full spectacle of God’s glory to be revealed via the Exodus of the Hebrews.
But free choice is the basis of reward and punishment. Divine punishment raining down on Egypt would become a cruel farce if Egypt had its actions manipulated.
Rabbi Moses ben Nachmanides, also known as the Ramban, offered an explanation that is both counterintuitive and brilliantly insightful. The Ramban explains that by hardening his heart, God was actually granting free will to Pharaoh. Had God not done so, Pharaoh’s actions would not have been a true reflection of his will. Pharaoh would have been influenced by events, by the plagues, capitulating to the difficulties while wishing that he could act differently. Though Pharaoh may have truly wanted to defy God and retain the Jews as slaves, the hardships brought about by the plagues would have compelled the king to act differently.
The Ramban points out that God did not need to harden Pharaoh’s heart for the first five plagues since Pharaoh hardened his own heart (for example Exodus 8:11). The Ramban also cites Shemot Rabbah which explains that while each of us exercises free will, if we continually make poor choices, God eventually closes the door to teshuvah (repentance).
By hardening Pharaoh’s heart God restored his free will, allowing him to act independently of potential consequences and to demonstrate his true character. In essence, this is a higher level of free will normally attainable to the average person. How would you act if the consequences of your choices did not affect you?
In his Laws of Repentance (6:3), the Rambam, or Maimonides, explained the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in a similar vein to Shemot Rabbah:
“[God hardened Pharaoh’s heart] in order to teach everyone that when Hashem withholds teshuva [the ability to repent] from a sinner, he is not able to repent; he dies in his wickedness which he performed at first of his own free will…Hashem did not decree upon Pharaoh to cause evil to Israel, nor did He cause Sihon to sin in his land, nor the Canaanites to perform abominations, nor the Israelites to engage in idolatry. All of these sinned of their own accord, and all were punished by having teshuva withheld from them.”
By this we see that the ability to repent, to change our actions and choose a different path, is a gift from God. Free choice is the basis of repentance and also a great gift. Shemot Rabbah (13:3) declares that since Pharaoh was an exceptional sinner, he did not merit the gift of free will.
Rashi explains that it was essential to draw out the process of the Exodus by hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Had Pharaoh granted Moses and Aaron’s request after any of the first five plagues, such peace would have been fleeting, and Pharaoh eventually would have returned to his oppressive nature. This was evidenced by Pharaoh’s decision to chase the Hebrews into the sea with his army after he had already set them free.
It may be that the process of the plagues and the Exodus were not a result of free choice. Pharaoh was not really being offered a choice to let the Hebrews go and then being judged on his choice. After hundreds of years of horrific cruelty towards God’s chosen people, Moses was not presenting a choice to Pharaoh, but rather placing before him the Divine sentencing that came as a result of his previous actions.