This chapter has all sorts of interesting things about it – Moses refusing God multiple times, Aaron becoming the spokesman, Zipporah protecting Moses from the angel (and why wasn’t Moses circumcised?). The one that causes the most debate is verse 21 – God says He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people go. Why would God do that?
There are a couple of things that help make this more understandable. First, this is the only time in Scripture where God is described as hardening someone’s heart. More often, people harden their own hearts, and in Romans 1 it says God gives people over to the hardening of their hearts. Second, Pharaoh is also described as hardening his own heart (later in Exodus) – and that is the real key. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is done by his own choice – because he does not want to let his slave labor go, and it is also done by God – because He wants to show His people who He is, and teach Pharaoh to leave His people alone and set them free. This begins a huge showdown between Pharaoh and God, between the magicians and Moses, between the gods of Egypt and the true Lord.
The point in all of these hard stories is not that God is arbitrary or that His ways are mean – but that He is HOLY, and our call is to follow Him obediently. And yet in His holiness He has love, tenderness, and patience, just like He did with Moses.