"literally, 'harden his heart.' God permitted Pharaoh to be stubborn..."OK, but that's not the same thing. That's too soft. If it's literally "harden his heart", that's not the same as permitting him to be stubborn. No, what it seems to say is that God made him stubborn -- resulting in more suffering for the Hebrew people. What's that all about? What kind of a father would do that to his children???
But to me, it's the same kind of parenting that tells the White House staff not to make the little girls' beds. Now I think I'd be pretty annoyed at that, if I were Malia or Sasha. "We've got a houseful of servants, Mom, why don't we just let them do their job? Why do you just want to MAKE us work?" What's the point? Obvious, isn't it, that the point is to train the little girls to become better adults? To create their own orderly, pleasant environment, because there will not always be a houseful of servants around, and even if there are, there are messes in life that nobody but they themselves will be able to clean up. They have to learn. Believe me, I did not learn those good housekeeping habits as a child, I was not trained up with good discipline and a strong work ethic, and I struggle as an adult because of it.
People do not naturally tend to do what is right. Children do not naturally treat each other well all the time. They have to be taught to share their toys, and you don't just tell them once and they get it, either. They have to be trained to share their toys. They have to be stopped from hitting each other. They have to be trained not to interrupt (or taught to politely interrupt, "excuse me, Mom") other people's conversations, and to stop and listen when someone else is talking to them. We are not created perfect. In relation to God, we are always children in need of training.
And there are levels and levels of training. Being trained to listen to each other is hard enough, and most of us don't do it very well. But learning to listen to God, who doesn't shout, doesn't get in our faces, who speaks in a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12) ... wow, that's really hard. We have to WANT to hear God to hear Him. We have to go looking for Him, or rather, we have to ask Him to speak to us, invite Him in and make some room for Him in our personal temple, and then really get quiet and listen, very closely and open-mindedly. "Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10).
And we don't do that very easily or very readily. We forget, we get distracted by the things we perceive with our natural senses, and by the concerns we can understand with our human intellect, and we forget that overriding Reality that has to be sought to be seen. It takes training, and training takes work, and training takes pain. You don't go to the gym and pay good money to a personal trainer so he can tell you to go relax in the hot tub! You expect to be pushed hard, and to wake up the next day with aching muscles. Because you know that's what it takes to achieve your goal. Well, that's what it takes to achieve spiritual growth and moral growth, too.
God didn't harden Pharaoh's heart out of some sick sadistic impulse to hurt the Hebrews and kill a lot of Egyptians. He did it to train both nations to know God and take Him seriously; to train the Egyptians that they cannot always do wrong and get away with it, and to train the Hebrews to stand up, and take the consequences for standing up, against oppression.
And His tough love isn't all tough, either. No, it's all about training, loving and sensitive parenting: tough when we need the toughness and gentle when we need the gentleness. In Exodus 13:17, when they are finally getting out of Egypt, "God did not lead them by way of the Philistines' land, though this was the nearest; for he thought, should the people see that they would have to fight, they might change their minds and return to Egypt." As it was, when the Egyptians came after them, "they complained to Moses, 'Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you do this to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, "Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians"? Far better for us to be the slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert.'" (Ex 13:11-12). So they protest, but they go forward anyway, and then God does the impossible (parts the Red Sea) to get them across.
God asks more of us than we think we can handle ... but never more than He thinks we can handle. Seek (pray & meditate) ... then stretch ... then trust. And so we grow.
2nd Monday of Lent