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The theme of "hardening" occurs twenty times between Exodus 4 and 14. But the most troublesome aspect of these verses is that in ten out of the twenty occurrences God himself is said to have hardened Pharaoh's heart. This fact troubles many readers of the Scriptures, for it appears God authors evil and then holds someone else responsible. Did God make it impossible for Pharaoh to respond and then find Pharaoh guilty for this behavior?
God twice predicts he will harden Pharaoh's heart. These two prophetic notices were given to Moses before the whole contest began (Ex 4:21; 7:3). However, if these two occurrences appear to cast the die against Pharaoh, it must be remembered that all God's prophecies to his prophets have a suppressed "unless you repent" attached to them. Few prophecies are unconditional; these few include God's covenant with the seasons in Genesis 8:22; his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David; his new covenant; and his covenant with the new heavens and the new earth in Isaiah 65--66.
In general, only the promises connected with nature and our salvation have no dependence on us; all others are much like Jonah's message to Nineveh. Even though Jonah never even hinted at the fact that Nineveh's imminent destruction (only forty days away) could be avoided by repentance, the king assumed such was the case, and Jonah's worst fears were realized: the nation repented and the barbarous Assyrians did not get what was coming to them!
In Pharaoh's case, Pharaoh initiated the whole process by hardening his own heart ten times during the first five plagues (Ex 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35; and 13:15). It was always and only Pharaoh who hardened his heart during these plagues! Rather than letting the work of God soften his heart during these plagues and concluding that Yahweh is the only true God, Pharaoh made this evidence the basis for hardening his heart. Meanwhile, the plagues must have had some impact on the general population of Egypt, for when the Israelites left Egypt, they were accompanied by "many other people" (Ex 12:38). Even Pharaoh's own magicians confessed, "This is the finger [the work] of God" (Ex 8:19), and they bowed out of the competition with the living God.
It appears that Pharaoh reached the limits of his circumscribed freedom during the fifth plague, for after that time, during the last five plagues, God consistently initiated the hardening (Ex 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17).
God is not the author of evil. There is no suggestion that he violated the freedom of Pharaoh's will or that he manipulated Pharaoh in order to heap further vengeance on the Egyptian people. God is not opposed to the cooperation of pagan monarchs. Pharaoh could have cooperated with God just as Cyrus did in the Babylonian exile; God was still glorified when that king decided on his own to let Israel return from Babylon. If Pharaoh had acted as King Cyrus would later do, the results of the exodus would have been the same. It is Pharaoh, not God, who is to be blamed for the hardening of his own heart.
Note that the same topic is raised again in Deuteronomy 2:30, Joshua 11:20 and 1 Samuel 6:6. While these allusions are briefer, one can be sure that the process of accountability and human responsibility was just as fair as in the case of Pharaoh.