What does the Torah mean when it talks about “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”? Does it mean that Pharaoh had no choice, that he was a forced by Divine Will to act the way he did? In which case why was he punished?
Remember that the Torah uses language both poetically and in a context that people at the time would have understood. As the rabbis say “The Torah speaks in the language human beings use.” We know how people are conditioned by genes, society and subliminal advertising to act in predictable ways. Humans are indeed predictable and even so they act irrationally all the time. Does that mean they have no choices? If I describe someone is stubborn that might just mean he or she is very fixed in an opinion and refuse to listen to reason. Does that mean they have no choice? I don’t think so.
Pharaoh was so convinced his civilization was the most advanced and best of his age he could not conceive that another might be better or might have something else to offer. Ironically nowadays there are so many fads, fake religions and placebos that we are conditioned to accept anything that brings us passing relief. And others amongst us are so sure religion has nothing to offer they harden their hearts against living a religious life.
We are conditioned like Pharaoh to ignore all the wonderful things our own tradition has , proved and tested over thousands of years, in favor of any passing fad. And conversely many religious leaders refuse to face the reality of the good things that modernity has to offer. Our hearts are indeed hardened just like Pharaoh’s.