Climate Change and Pharaoh’s Hard Heart


Transcribed from the sermon preached October 15, 2017

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings:  Philippians 4:1-13, Exodus 7:15-19, 8:1-2, 15


The image most of us have of this scene with Pharaoh is no doubt influenced by the Movie, The Ten Commandments, with Charleton Heston. It seems a bit fantastic, and this is typically one of those scenes people like to point out in the bible as myth. As a kid I couldn’t understand how Pharaoh could be so stubborn and hard hearted. Then as a skeptical teenager and college student I figured it was all just myth, and my understanding of “myth” then was “not true.”

I want to talk a little about myth. Story becomes myth as it is passed down from generation to generation, one story teller to the other. Some of the details fall away and some get to be more prominent. The stories are fit with purpose, as history seen from a distance seems to reveal a pattern, a purpose, an intent, a destiny. No doubt once the destiny and meaning are shaped into the story, the story is then shaped by the meaning it has taken on. The story affirms the meaning and the meaning affirms the story. We can assume that the story becomes myth that will also serve the purpose of enhancing the position of the story teller – their wisdom, their understanding of the history and thus also the present context. It will be told in such a way as to affirm the position, power and legitimacy of the story teller. If the oral tradition is written, as it is by the scribe of David’s first edition to the Bible, it is even more likely to be written into a narrative that will affirm the person writing the scribes paycheck. There is nothing inherently bad about this process. It is essentially what we all do all the time when we tell stories. This process of shaping a story over time with meaning is myth. But to say something is myth is not to say that it does not reveal some of the truth of history. A myth may be profoundly true.

Now some scholars like Bob Coote suggest there may not have been a mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt, and that the exodus story was largely fabrication to make King David appear to be a Moses like liberator against Egypt worthy enough to rally around and support. But it is unlikely that David’s scribes created the story from scratch. And I believe there were a significant portion of the population in Palestine David was attempting to unite who traced their ancestry back to a group of slaves who had been liberated from Egypt with the help of a hero named Moses. It is also entirely believable that the Prophet Moses was raised and educated by the oppressors. It is a very common story: the well educated hero gets in touch with the common oppressed and is transformed into liberator: Nat Turner, Gandhi, Archbishop Romero, Bob Marley, Subcomandante Galano of the Zapatistas in Mexico are a few examples. And, I don’t think there is any reason not to believe that this liberation happened after a volatile series of climate events, and that the climate events helped drive home the point Moses and his God were trying to make. Coote thinks the eight plagues, seven plus the death of the firstborn, are a depiction of the slow rise of peasant revolt or labor negotiation. (The priestly authors added 2 more plagues: lice and boils) The ruling elite are too stubborn hearted to know God and therefore release justice so it takes disaster to shake them awake.  (Robert Coote, The Bible’s First History)

But we can also surmise that a series of climate events which devastate the water, fish, livestock, crops, and lives of the people lead to an increasing frustration and urgency among the oppressed.  That is, as the conditions deteriorate, so does the passivity of the slave population and the ability to contain and sustain them. If there is not enough food, the poor get angry. Also, if people are starving, finally, it might be better if there are fewer mouths to feed. Let the people go.

Acidic soil floods the river, kills fish and livestock, spoils the water for drinking, a storm destroys crops and livestock. This followed by bugs and rodents and outbreaks of waterborne disease. Mix in a sandstorm that blocks out the sun and carries contaminated soil. The slaves live further from the water and have their own wells so they don’t suffer as much from the cholera, giardia and pneumonia outbreak. Pharaoh’s son does and dies.

All these horrible things couldn’t have happened all at the same time. Then the last several weeks this story of the plagues in Egypt has been coming to my mind in a new way. 1998 was one of the hottest ten years on record. The other nine have all been since 2007. I was talking with Ron Amundson who had recently visited his home in South Dakota, and they are experiencing unprecedented drought. Farmers are suffering. Then there were fires across the North West.

Then there was a devastating hurricane Harvey in Houston, the most extreme rain event in U.S history, dumping 33 trillion gallons on land. Then Hurricane Katia hit eastern Mexico. Some suggested it might be a good time to talk about climate change. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

I don’t want to make too much of the claim because research on earthquakes is so young and complex, but studies have found massive rain events on the lowlands of the Himalayas cause the Indian plate to bend under pressure, causing the edge of the plate to move slightly – in other words the weight of the rain on one part of the plate causes an earthquake on the edge of the mountains. Similar studies have found similar results in Taiwan. Right after those two hurricanes dumped more than 33 trillion gallons of water on land, Mexico experienced an 8.2 and a 7.1 earthquake. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

Then hurricane Irma became the most extreme storm ever measured in the Atlantic, generating as much cyclone energy as an entire average hurricane season, flattening Barbuda and severely damaging Cuba, the Keys and Florida. Irma then spun off tornados in Alabama and hail in Georgia. Some thought, maybe now we can talk about climate change? But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

Maria, another category five hurricane made a direct hit on Puerto Rico with Irma level winds and Harvey type flooding. There they are experiencing water born disease, and no doubt vector born disease is next – that from a plague of flies and mosquitoes. But pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

Here in California the drought made trees vulnerable to plagues of bugs and disease, and millions of trees died. Then we got a bunch of rain last year creating new undergrowth, which dried out in the unprecedented extreme heat of summer. Now the most devastating fires in California history have taken 31 lives and 5,000 structures and counting. And still Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.

We were talking about the smoke in the Bay Area and Kevin mentioned how everyone wearing masks is like Beijing is every day. “What a difference the clean air act makes, he said.”  Still pharaoh is talking reducing emission standards, getting out of the Paris climate accords, increase burning of coal, increasing mining and production of oil, and of eliminating the EPA.

It would not be hard to make a similar analogy on our stubbornness on the value of war, the drug war, racism, mass incarceration, gun control and gun violence.  Despite what seems like overwhelming evidence, stubbornness increases.   And if Pharaoh is any indication, those who benefit from extractive economic policy and divisive and oppressive cultural viewpoints won’t give up easily. I’m sure Moses was feeling a bit frustrated at his lack of progress, but God kept him going back until eventually the pain of doing things the same way was greater than the fear of change.

As a Christian minister it is not often my job to insist that a particular policy is God’s will. But we ought to have something to say about attitude and goals, and we ought to know how God would have us act. The notion that another race or nationality deserves less, deserves to be exploited and oppressed is fundamentally unbiblical. Any Christian who would make such an argument has the hard heart of Pharaoh. Also, it is logical, scientific and faithful to know that if we disrespect and disregard the balance of God’s Creation, people and life will suffer. God will come back and bite us. It is simply and clearly un-Christian to insist our desire to consume and our economic policy should not concern itself with the health and well-being of God’s Creation.

On a positive note, can’t we see it?  Do we have eyes to see the beauty of the possible, to promote the incentive and drive to create wonderful attitudes and methods and technologies to work within the balance and limits of the earth God has placed us on?  Pharaoh’s problem was that his heart was so hard and heavy he couldn’t come to know God. But if our hearts are open, then God doesn’t have to beat us into submission, but can lure us toward the beauty and peace She would have us be.

Can we let go of those attitudes and behaviors we hold so tight? We grab them and won’t let them go, our heart remains hard, even when they bring us plagues. But if we hear God’s call, and let go of our grip of our ways that are not working, God will lead us toward joy and peace.

Listen to Paul in Philippians:  “The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”