01/08/2013 05:23 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Exodus 6:2-9:35: Pharaoh, the Climate Change Skeptic

How do we maintain a healthy skepticism without straying toward bull-headedness or naiveté?

As an ethicist, I often look to Aristotle's doctrine of the mean as a guide to our actions. Our hope is to travel the middle road between two undesirable extremes. Yet often it is most illustrative to see how one veers to one pole or the other in order to better understand how to stay in the middle of the road.

This week, we read the classic example of a leader who strays from the middle of the road to the edge, and eventually into the ditch: Pharaoh.

Like Pharaoh in Exodus 6:2-9:35, we in the modern world are faced with predictions of natural disasters and costly proposals for avoiding them. Looking at the natural disasters wrought upon Pharaoh's kingdom in the narrative leading up to the Israelite exodus from Egypt provides a surprising parallel to the present debates about global warming. Through a careful study, we may come to more clearly see the difference between healthy skepticism toward new theories and the unhealthy denial of evidence exhibited by many contemporary climate change skeptics.

Moses, seeking freedom for his people, conveys warnings to Pharaoh about what God will do if he does not allow the Israelites to be free. Each time, Pharaoh's heart is "hardened." (In English, "hard-hearted" means unsympathetic, but the Hebrew idiom means unimpressed and unyielding rather than uncaring. At no point in the story is sympathy for the Israelites at issue.) But assigning responsibility for Pharaoh's posture of stubbornness raises a troubling theological problem.

Pharaoh hardens his own heart in response to the earlier plagues, but God hardens Pharaoh's heart in response to the later plagues. The theological problem is that when God hardens Pharaoh's heart, Pharaoh's responses to the plagues do not seem to be free choices. It would seem unjust for God to force stubbornness upon Pharaoh and then punish him for his stubbornness.

In some ancient texts, divine intervention can be read as a metaphor for surprising actions. "Athena guided Achilles' spear" may mean that Achilles made an extraordinary throw.

Similarly, I suggest that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" is a metaphorical way of describing unreasonable skepticism. This interpretive maneuver eliminates the unfairness problem and further provides a lesson on dealing with the prediction of natural disasters.

But first let's do what too few readers have done before: work to empathize with Pharaoh's attitudes to the plagues in order to gain a clearer understanding of his reactions.

Pharaoh is unimpressed when God turns the Nile to blood and brings forth swarms of frogs. Presumably, Pharaoh thinks, "Moses says these plagues are caused by God, but they might be caused by other mechanisms. Why, even my own magicians are able to duplicate them." Next, Moses calls down a plague of lice upon Egypt, but because Pharaoh is not forewarned, he probably does not credit God with producing this plague. After all, natural disasters sometimes happen naturally.

At this point in the narrative, Pharaoh's skepticism is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, to credit Moses' claims would be naïve. Similarly, we in the modern world should not take seriously every prediction of disaster backed with a smattering of evidence. We shouldn't mobilize the National Guard just because someone worried about a zombie apocalypse makes a few lucky predictions.

The fourth plague substantially increases the evidence for Moses' claims. Trying to make clear that God is responsible for the plagues, Moses accurately predicts that insects will afflict all of Egypt except Goshen where the Israelites live. Pharaoh is impressed enough to offer a compromise. He grants the Israelites permission to sacrifice to God, but not to journey anywhere. That is, he tries to ameliorate the plague without relinquishing Egypt's slave population.

Here Pharaoh is grappling with uncertainty. There is now significant, but not decisive evidence for Moses' claim. Pharaoh attempts to address the problem without expending vast economic resources. That is a reasonable approach to uncertainty in the modern world, too.

But after the succeeding plagues of cattle disease and boils turn a hill of evidence into a mountain, Pharaoh's continued skepticism becomes unreasonable, as the text indicates by stating that God hardens Pharaoh's heart.

In conjunction with the next three plagues -- hail, locusts and darkness -- Pharaoh makes increasing concessions, but Moses makes increasing demands. Again God hardens Pharaoh's heart.

This last trio of plagues shows the cost of irrational stubbornness. Failure to act in a timely manner typically raises the costs of averting a disaster. Had Pharaoh let the Israelites go after the hail, he could have kept their flocks rather than giving them his flocks, not to mention avoiding the locusts, darkness and deaths of the first-born.

We in the modern world should take note. Once it becomes clear that a disaster is really impending, we should take measures to forestall it without pinching pennies.

His four broken promises to let the Israelites go disqualify Pharaoh as a moral role model. But, odd though it seems, Pharaoh does model an appropriate approach to disaster predictions for a while. The shift from Pharaoh-hardening-his-own-heart to God-hardening-Pharaoh's-heart signals Pharaoh's fall into irrational stubbornness.

The plagues passage shows how to confront predictions of disasters. One ought to be open-minded, but neither credulous as a naïf nor obstinate as a Pharaoh. The question remains: Will we avert climactic disaster or acknowledge the vast and rapidly growing evidence before us?

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.