The Torah describes how Pharaoh resists Moshe’s requests to let his people go, so God sends waves of plagues. At multiple points in the Exodus story, Pharaoh is ready to concede, but God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, giving him the resolve to avoid doing the right thing, delaying the Jewish People’s eventual liberation.
Once he was ready to concede, what was the point of hardening his heart?
The Sforno suggests a compelling answer.
One of the keys to correctly understanding the Exodus story is that getting the Jewish People out of Egypt was not the only goal. It demands nothing of God to flatten Egypt or magic the Jews out. Instead, many other things happen that aren’t reducible to the purposes of a defeated Egypt and a free Jewish People. The Exodus, like Creation, was not instantaneous; it was a deliberately gradual and incremental process.
There are two words the Torah uses to describe what happens to Pharaoh’s heart: strength and heaviness – כבד / חזק. Where God acts directly, there is only חיזוק – God gives him the strength to carry on.
The story is very clear why, and it slips right under the radar. God explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague:
וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה’, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – “Egypt will know that I am the Lord when I stretch My hand over Egypt and take the Jews from them.” (7:17)
We’ve read this story a few times, and our eyes glaze over because we know it a little too well, and we ought to remember that at this point in the story, no one knows what God can do – not Moshe, and certainly not Pharaoh. The Jewish People only know they are descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov; and that they believe in the One God of their ancestors. But that’s really it – no one knew God had actual power; no one had ever seen or heard of a miracle. Quite arguably, there hadn’t been a miracle since the Flood, which had almost no survivors. So with good reason, Pharaoh mocked Moshe:
מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־ה וְגַם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ – “Who is this Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?! I don’t know this Lord, and I won’t let Israel go!” (5:2)
So when God flexed a strong and outstretched arm on Egypt, people were rightly terrified, and so Pharaoh needed strength to continue. If he tried to save Egypt out of fear of destruction, that would be the wrong reason! So God gave Pharaoh the resolve to withstand his own fear up to the seventh plague.
But after the seventh plague, the task is seemingly complete; and Pharaoh concedes entirely:
וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Pharaoh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. God is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beg the Lord to bring an end to this flaming hail; I will free you; you will be here no longer…” (9:27,28)
Egypt has been educated – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה – but this is not the end. With three more plagues to come, God tells Moshe that he has a new audience now:
וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I cast on them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)
Now it is about the Jewish People -‘ וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי-אֲנִי ה.
The Jewish People need to understand what God would do for them. It was understandably mind-bending for them to comprehend what was taking place, and they fought against a life of miracles for the rest of their days.
But even if that generation wouldn’t see it, their children would.