Exodus 7:3–5 (RSVCE): But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you; then I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring forth my hosts, my people the sons of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth my hand upon Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.
Hold on, just a minute. Do you mean to tell me that God would hold someone back from doing something and then punish that person for not doing that same thing? I may not be looking at this right, but no matter how you slice that one, it's still baloney.
I've always had a problem with the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. The idea of the stiffening or hardening of his heart runs throughout Exodus. It mentions the term 20 times. There are about half where it seems God did something to harden it, and the other half refers to Pharaoh's lousy character. This description of the heart as indicative of a man's character is in keeping with the ancient world. The heart was the center of a person's intellectual and moral life. It reflected a person's character and how they related to God and the world. The heart, in other words, determines action and attitude. If one had a hardened heart, it meant that person was morally corrupt and lacking all compassion. Pharaoh certainly fits this bill. He was a murderer, a bully, and a generally evil person.
But his culpability still doesn't answer the justice of God's action. Why would God harden his heart?
The Mishnah of the Jewish oral tradition views Pharaoh as one whose evil behavior had become so entrenched that it was irreversible. His "character," as Nahum Sarna says, "becomes his destiny." He has been filled with evil intent and action for so long that it's irreversible. God uses Pharaoh's intransigence to show God's strength and ultimate plan. He doesn't want to change, but God uses his intransigence for good.
So what? What difference does some crackpot king's action have to do with us? We are, after all, "modern" people.
How often do we engage in behavior we recognize as bad but refuse to change? Or we know a change is necessary but, like Pharaoh with one of the plagues to come, want to push it off to tomorrow. We grow accustomed to our bad habits. At some level, we even enjoy them to the point that stopping could rob us of some warped joy. Maybe we don't want to be inconvenienced. It will take too much time. I have other more pressing things. It certainly was for Pharaoh. He relied on the Hebrew productivity and could tolerate inhumane behavior for the empire's bottom line.
Character, actions, and how we treat people can become our destiny. Our habits are important. They can shape us for good or bad. They can paralyze us and freeze us in place. Like Dante's frozen lake in the ninth circle, we become devoid of love, which influences everything and everyone around us. Pray I have the strength to ask for and accept what Thomas Aquinas called "additional habits" from God that will lead me to reflect God's character.