Abarbanel, in his commentary to Parashat Vaera (7:3), takes strong objection to the famous view taken by the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 6:3) that God interfered with Pharaoh’s free will in punishment for his crimes against Benei Yisrael. The notion that God would deny a sinner the opportunity for repentance, Abarbanel writes, is “zar ve-kasheh me’od” – “very strange and difficult.” He notes that the prophets emphasized the fact that God desires the repentance of sinners, and he points to examples of especially grievous sinners – such as King Achav and King Menashe – who repented and whose prayers were answered, making it difficult to imagine that God would ever deny somebody the ability to repent.
Abarbanel therefore offers other explanations for the verses in the story of the Exodus that speak of God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. His third approach, which he claims to be the most correct, explains that God did not actually impair Pharaoh’s decision-making capabilities, but rather created a situation whereby Pharaoh could deny God’s power. Each time a plague struck Egypt, it ended – usually after Pharaoh called to Moshe and ask that he bring an end to the destruction – and this misled Pharaoh. By ending each plague, rather than allowing it continue until Pharaoh actually released Benei Yisrael, God in effect “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, allowing him a way to feel he could win such that he persisted in his intransigence.
Abarbanel applies this approach to explain the other instance in the Torah where we find a description of God “hardening” somebody’s heart. In Sefer Devarim (2:30), Moshe tells Benei Yisrael that when he requested passage rights through the territory of the Emorite kingdom, the Emorite king, Sichon, refused to grant the request and promptly attacked Benei Yisrael “because the Lord your God hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart, in order to give him into your hands.” It seems, at first glance, that God seized control of Sichon’s rational faculties and somehow forced him to decide to launch an attack on Benei Yisrael. Abarbanel, however, explains that God lured Sichon to attack Benei Yisrael by making him feel confident in his nation’s military superiority. Prior to Benei Yisrael’s arrival at the Emorite border, they had passed the borders of two other nations – Edom and Moav – who refused to allow them passage, as the Torah relates in Parashat Devarim. Benei Yisrael circumvented these territories, rather than engage these nations in conflict, and this led Sichon to believe that Benei Yisrael were weaker than Edom and Moav. As Sichon had recently conquered a large swath of territory from Moav (Bamidbar 21:26), he reasoned that if Benei Yisrael feared Moav, then he could certainly defeat them. The truth was that Benei Yisrael avoided military conflict with Edom and Moav in compliance with God’s command, not out of any sort of fear. Thus, Sichon’s heart was “hardened” by the misleading sequence of events, which gave Sichon the impression that he could easily defeat Benei Yisrael.
This approach was also developed more recently by the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Yaakov Medan shelit”a, who noted another instance of the “hardening” of hearts. In Sefer Yehoshua (11:20), we are told that God “hardened” the hearts of the Canaanite peoples, leading them to wage war against Benei Yisrael. Rav Medan explained that we would have expected the Canaanites to simply surrender to Benei Yisrael, whom they feared. As the Israelite spies heard during their stay in Yericho (Yehoshua 2:10-11), the Canaanites dreaded Benei Yisrael’s power, having heard of their miraculous triumphs over Egypt and the Emorites. Why, then, did they decide to wage war against the feared nation, rather than just surrender? The aforementioned verse answers this question by telling that their hearts were “hardened.” Rav Medan explained this as referring to the first battle waged by Benei Yisrael against the city of Ha-ai (Yehoshua, chapter 7), which resulted in Benei Yisrael’s defeat. Although Benei Yisrael later conquered the city, Rav Medan suggested that the first battle had the effect of eliminating Benei Yisrael’s aura of invincibility in the eyes of the Canaanite nations, who suddenly felt capable of meeting the challenge and defeating the threatening Israelites. It was this battle which “hardened” the Canaanites’ hearts and led them to try to resist Benei Yisrael’s conquest, rather than surrender.