Pharaoh is one bad dude. You might even call him borderline insane. When presented with what are clearly signs (plagues) sent by God, he continues to deny the Israelites the right to worship, even after these signs devastate his people. Plenty of lessons in this one: miracles aren’t proof enough for the hard at heart, have faith that God will honor his promises, and a bit of history with the origins of Passover, among several others. Oh, there’s one key bit of information missing from my synopsis that can teach us even more: God deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not submit to Moses’ demands. Whoa. So, I guess free will isn’t so free.
The violation of Pharaoh’s free will changes the tone of Exodus quite a bit. Instead of being a story of perserverence and faith, it’s a story of manipulation and inevitability. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are merely puppets in a scheme to make God famous thoughout the world (Ex. 9:16).
A few minutes spent online will show that apologists* have been hard at work to protect the goodness of God and the freeness of their will. Of course God didn’t make Pharaoh do evil. He simply allowed Pharaoh to do what comes naturally to him and every other human, which is, um, to do evil. Take Abimelek, for example. So Pharaoh hardened his own heart, because God allowed him to.
This rationalization, however, creates a difficult, though tired, philosophical challenge: if all goodness comes from God, and evil is the result of God removing himself, then God is morally culpable for the evil that results from his removal. Let me put it another way: if you are capable of stopping a horrendous crime –let’s say, oh I don’t know, the genocide of Egyptian firstborns c.1300 B.C.E.– and you know that you could stop it with no harm to yourself or any innocents, but fail to act, you’re an asshole. You’re also responsible for the consequences. Maybe it’s not as evil as actually committing genocide (this is certainly arguable), but it is still evil. And considering that, in the end, God is the one who commits the genocide, I think we’re splitting (evil) hairs.
Of course, this whole argument is ridiculous because the book plainly says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Yes, it also says that Pharaoh hardened his heart several times, but God always takes the credit (Ex. 4:21-23, Ex. 7:3-4, Ex. 10:1-2, Ex. 14:4, and Ex. 14:17-19). God actually does it outright several times (Ex. 9:12, Ex. 10:20, Ex. 10:27, and Ex. 11:10). Unless there’s good proof that God doesn’t mean what he says or that the divine vocabulary doesn’t translate well into Hebrew (and on to English), I think that pretty much settles it.
One thing we need to get straight, however, is that regardless of who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, God alone is responsible for bringing on the plagues. He could have used his omnipotence in a way that didn’t result in the death of every firstborn in Egypt. Otherwise he’s impotent. One more time: the all powerful God of Abraham decided that the best way to bring glory to himself was to kill innocent children.
*I’m not arguing a straw man here. I’m pulling this from some the sites returned from the search at that link and from the Life Applications Study Bible (NIV). The specific note I’m referring to is for Ex. 11:10.