When God sends Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, he sends them with a pretty specific message, "Let my people go," but then God immediately tells Moses and Aaron that he will harden Pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go. Many readers immediately cry "foul" at this point. What type of god forces a man to make a decision that will condemn himself? When people read this passage they immediately pick up on the hypocrisy of a god who seems to value free will taking free will away. This is an understandable read, and therefore an understandable complaint, considering we, as Westerners and specifically Americans, value the rights of the individual to a fault. If I were Pharaoh I wouldn't want God treating me like that. And if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, how do I know he isn't hardening my heart. And if God is hardening my heart without my knowledge, how dare he condemn me to eternal punishment? That's unfair; that's unjust. Why would someone worship such a god? Why would God do such a thing? Atheists have a ready answer. There is no God. The Bible is made up. Trash it and move on. As a Christian, I think there is a better solution.
This passage is a perfect example of how reading our own issues into a text backs us into a corner. If this story is about the rights of an individual, then we have a problem. If however, this story is about tyranny, oppression, corruption, and whether there is any hope of things ever changing, of dictators ever being held accountable, well then, this is a pretty good story.
The Pharaoh of this story isn't a kind ruler, a good family man just minding his own business that God decides to single to and make an example of. This Pharaoh uses all the tools of his trade, that trade being the ruling of an oppressive regime built on the broken spirits of its own citizens. When Moses and Aaron ask the Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to have three days to worship God, what is the Pharaoh's response? "Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!" In other words: you want to give our largest work force three days off? That costs money! Production will drop! Do you know how much paper work that will cause in Human Resources! And of course, that's all people were to the Pharaoh and his cronies, resources to be used, and when they dropped dead, well, there were always more "citizens" to press into the labor force.
"Lazy," the Pharaoh cries, "lazy!" Three days off...only lazy people need breaks. So what does the Pharaoh do? He not only refuses to allow them time to worship God, he forces them to gather their own raw materials. That'll teach 'em! And then when, predictably, the Hebrews overseers (who have been living in Egypt as Egyptians for 400 years) come before Pharaoh and say, "Why do you treat your servants like this? You are unjust to your own people," how does he respond? He responds with, "See, proof! You are lazy. Lazy I say! Now go back to work."
We know this Pharaoh well. This is the fear monger on national television. This is the sleazy union leader lining his own pockets while supposedly "helping" his union. This is the professional politician who cries, "Tax breaks for the rich!" while making sure minimum wage never moves. This is the queen who says, as her people starve, "Let them eat cake!" But, in the Pharaoh's defense, the problem in Egypt is much bigger than the man sitting on the throne. Egypt, as a country, as a super power, had systemic problems that were bigger than any one individual. Moses and Aaron weren't just butting heads with Pharaoh; they were butting heads with all he represented, a specific way of seeing the world and a specific way of doing things that those who had any influence assumed was the only way of doing things, and who could do anything about that?
God can. That is what this story is about. Why does God harden Pharaoh's heart? Because someone has to bring this circus to an end. Someone has to say to the oppressive establishment, "You can't do this anymore." The Hebrews weren't going to accomplish that, neither were any other common Egyptian (looking ahead, many Egyptians leave with the Hebrews. God wasn't only freeing the Hebrews from the Pharaoh; he was giving an opportunity for the Egyptians to find freedom also.). Some things are bigger than us. Poverty, tyranny, half truths told by those whom we cannot hold accountable, what can we do about these things? Most people are just trying to manage their own specific issues. They're trying to make bricks and find straw. How will things ever change? Here, at the beginning of Exodus, God steps into Moses' and Aaron's life and says, "I will change this." It's not surprising that the Hebrews don't believe it, (honestly, how many of us believe our own nation's problems will ever really change?), but God would do it anyway.
This story isn't about God taking away free will. This story is about the fact that we live in a corrupt, fallen world, and we want that to change but don't have the power to make it so. Banks tank our economy, and then when they're bailed out, refuse to make loans to the people who gave them the money. Companies with no long term vision, only short term greed, continue to give huge bonuses while cutting jobs and shaving salaries. I'm not going to do anything about that, and most likely, neither are you, but God can. God will. He will not put up with oppression forever. He will give people and communities time to change their ways, but eventually enough is enough. God will bring the mighty low and lift the lowly high. We have a word for this: justice. God is not manipulating Pharaoh. God is not playing unfair. God is bringing justice into a land that has forgotten its meaning. Is this not what we want to begin with, justice to flow down like rivers of water?
Stopping point: Exodus 6