The Purpose of the Ten Plagues

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

 

 

PARASHAT VAERA

 

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Dedicated in memory of Florence Lipstein, whose yahrzeit is 25 Tevet
by Sidney and Cheryl Lipstein

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The Purpose of the Ten Plagues

 

By Rav Amnon Bazak

 

 

1. INTRODUCTION

 

            In God's revelation to Moshe in the burning bush, the Torah gives its first description of the Divine plan to deliver Bnei Yisrael from Egypt. Armed with the foreknowledge that "the king of Egypt will not let you go" (3:19), God's reaction to this situation is already predicted:

 

"And I shall set forth My hand and I shall strike Egypt with all My wonders which I shall perform in their midst, and thereafter he will send you out." (3:20)

 

            From these verses it would appear that the sole purpose of the plagues was to force Pharaoh to send out Bnei Yisrael, and that God played no role in Pharaoh's stubbornness. But in God's revelation to Moshe in Midyan, we detect a different tone: "And I shall harden his heart and he will not send out the nation" (4:21). From here we already understand that the very hardening of Pharaoh's heart was part of the Divine plan, and the explanation is presented without delay:

 

"And you shall say to Pharaoh, So says God: Israel is My firstborn son. And I said to you, Send out My son that he may serve Me. And you refused to send him; behold, I will kill your firstborn son." (4:22-23)

 

            In the second account, the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is part of the process of punishment, setting up a "measure for measure" situation: since Pharaoh wished to enslave Am Yisrael - God's "firstborn" - for all eternity, it is fitting that the Holy One punish him by killing his own firstborn son. Here, then, the plague of the firstborn assumes a significance beyond applying pressure to Pharaoh; it becomes an educational tool in punishing him measure for measure.

 

            A third dimension appears in our parasha:

 

"And I shall harden Pharaoh's heart and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not listen to you, that I may set My hand upon Egypt." (7:3-4)

 

            Here, too, we find that it is God who will harden Pharaoh's heart, but here the hardening of the heart leads not only to the plague of the firstborn, but also to a long list of signs and wonders. Here, too, the reason for all the plagues is made explicit: "And Egypt will know that I am God when I stretch out My hand upon Egypt and when I take Bnei Yisrael out from among them" (7:6). The purpose of the plagues is therefore to teach Egypt Who it is that afflicts them, and for this purpose the killing of the firstborn is not sufficient. Only a succession of plagues will truly reveal God's hand to Egypt, teaching the Egyptians something of the way in which He operates.

 

            How, then, do the first nine plagues achieve this aim?

 

2. THE FIRST NINE PLAGUES

 

            We are all familiar with the line from the Pesach Haggada:

 

"Rabbi Yehuda used to abbreviate them: 'Detzakh Adash Be'achav' (a mnemonic made up of the first letters of each of the ten plagues)."

 

It is reasonable to assume that R. Yehuda's original intention was to categorize the plagues in three groups, with the final plague - the killing of the firstborn - representing an independent entity. Indeed, the Torah's description clearly demonstrates that there are three groups of three plagues each. The first plague in each group opens with a description of WHEN Moshe is supposed to APPEAR before Pharaoh, warning him of what is about to happen:

 

Blood (7:15): "Go to Pharaoh IN THE MORNING, WHEN HE GOES OUT TO THE WATER, AND YOU SHALL STAND to meet him on the river bank."

Gnats (8:16): "Get up early IN THE MORNING, and STAND before Pharaoh when he comes out to the water."

Hail (9:13): "Get up early IN THE MORNING and STAND before Pharaoh."

 

            In contrast, the second plague in each group contains no mention of the timing ("in the morning"), which also involves the place ("on the river bank"). Instead, we find here a different common element: the expressions, "Come to Pharaoh" and "For if you refuse...":

 

Frogs (7:26): "AND GOD SAID TO MOSHE, COME TO PHARAOH and you shall say to him... AND IF YOU REFUSE TO SEND THEM, behold I will afflict all of your borders with frogs."

Cattle plague (9:1-3): "AND GOD SAID TO MOSHE, COME TO PHARAOH and tell him... AND IF YOU REFUSE TO SEND THEM and still hold them, behold, the hand of God will be upon your cattle..."

Locusts (10:1-4): "AND GOD SAID TO MOSHE, COME TO PHARAOH... AND IF YOU REFUSE TO SEND OUT My nation, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts in your borders."

 

            The third plague in each group arrives, as we know, without any prior warning. The plague simply overtakes Egypt without Moshe notifying Pharaoh of what is going to happen.

 

            The well-organized literary structure of these nine plagues in their three groups demands some explanation: what is the significance of the categorization into these groups? Is each group of plagues meant to fulfill a different function?

 

3. "BY THIS SHALL YOU KNOW THAT I AM GOD"

 

It seems that each group does indeed bring about a different aspect of the Egyptians' recognition of God. At the beginning of the first plague in each group, we find the definition of the aim of that group, and the nature of the plagues is determined by that definition.

 

            The first group is defined as being meant to prove to Pharaoh - "By this shall you know that I am God" (7:17). Indeed, the central drama in the first group of plagues involves the battle against the sorcerers, and in this respect we see a development from one plague to the next. In the plague of blood we see that the river is stricken, but it appears that the sorcerers, too, are capable of turning water into blood: "And the sorcerers of Egypt did the same with their arts, and Pharaoh's heart was hardened and he did not listen to them" (7:22). We are told nothing of how the plague is removed; despite the severity of the disaster, the Egyptians manage to overcome the problem - "And all of Egypt dug around the river to find water to drink" (7:24), and hence the plague of blood has failed, in effect, to prove anything. All that has been demonstrated is that Moshe's power is equal to that of the sorcerers.

 

            We detect some progress when it comes to the plague of frogs. Here, too, the sorcerers succeed in performing the same wonders as those shown by Moshe and Aharon - "And the sorcerers did the same with their arts, and they brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt" (8:3), but there is now a recognizable degree of distress in Egypt, causing Pharaoh to request of Moshe and Aharon: "Ask of God that He remove the frogs from me and from my nation" (8:4). Here we already see the superiority of Moshe and Aharon, representing God, over the sorcerers. Indeed, Moshe hastens to make the most of this opportunity, suggesting to Pharaoh: "Challenge me - when should I ask for you and for your servants and for your nation, that the frogs be destroyed from you and from your houses...?" (8:5). And when Pharaoh answers, "Tomorrow," Moshe replies, "As you have spoken, that you may know that THERE IS NONE LIKE OUR GOD" (8:6). Here a certain victory has been achieved - God's power has been proven superior to that of the sorcerers.

 

            In the plague of lice, the aim is achieved in its entirety. Here there is no mention of the sorcerers succeeding in producing a similar phenomenon; on the other hand, we are told that they try in vain to remove the plague: "And the sorcerers did the same with their arts to remove the lice, but they could not" (8:14). Immediately thereafter we read of the sorcerers' conclusion: "It is the finger of God!" (8:15). The aim of the first group of plagues - "in order that you will know that I am God" - has been achieved.

 

            It should be added that it was specifically the Egyptians who first needed to be taught about the existence of a transcendental Divine Cause, for - as opposed to other ancient Middle Eastern religions - Egyptian culture regarded the king himself as a god. This is highlighted in the haftara of parashat Vaera - Yechezkel's prophecy of punishment for Egypt, in which we read,

 

"Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh - king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of his river, who said, 'The river is mine; I made it for myself." (29:3)

 

Pharaoh presumes to be the creator of Egypt's source of water; he pretends that he has the creative power of a god. For this reason it is emphasized in this prophecy, too:

 

"The land of Egypt will be desolate and waste, AND THEY SHALL KNOW THAT I AM GOD, for he said 'The river is mine and I made it.'" (29:9)

 

            It is therefore no wonder that the first two plagues are the only ones that involve the river, the source of Pharaoh's pride: the first plague strikes the river itself - the same river over which Pharaoh claims to have complete control - while the second plague emanates from within the river: "the river shall bring forth swarms of frogs, and they will go up and come into your house..." (7:28). The third plague, which spreads "throughout the land of Egypt" (8:12), demonstrates that God's dominion is not limited only to the river, but rather His actions are felt throughout the land.

 

4. "IN ORDER THAT YOU WILL KNOW THAT I AM GOD IN THE MIDST OF THE LAND"

 

Following the demonstration of the actual existence of a transcendental God through the first set of plagues, the second set has as its aim - as emphasized at the outset - "in order that you will know that I am God IN THE MIDST OF THE LAND" (8:18). This group is meant to prove that not only does God exist, but He is involved in "the land" - in worldly, human affairs, and that He watches over those who fear Him. The perception which this second group of plagues is meant to counteract is the philosophical approach presented at the beginning of Sefer Ha-kuzari by the philosopher (first speech, 1): "Thus the Deity does not know you; how much less does He know your thoughts and deeds."

 

            How can God's involvement in "the midst of the land," in worldly affairs, be proven? This set of plagues highlights the distinction - as yet unmentioned - between the Egyptians and Bnei Yisrael. Thus we find in the introduction to the plague of gnats:

 

"And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, in which My nation dwells, that no swarms of gnats will be there, in order that you will know that I am God in the midst of the land."

 

            Once again there is a recognizable progression in the internalization of the message when we reach the next plague, which afflicts the cattle. Here, too, Moshe emphasizes in his warning, "And God will separate the cattle of Israel from the cattle of Egypt, and nothing will die of anything belonging to Bnei Yisrael" (9:4). But now the emphasis is carried through to the action: "And all the cattle of Egypt died, while of the cattle of Bnei Yisrael not one died." And Pharaoh is indeed curious to know the outcome: "And Pharaoh sent (sought out) and, behold, not one of the cattle of Bnei Yisrael had died" (9:7).

 

            The plague of boils, representing the third plague of this group, comes without warning, and therefore there is no mention of a division between Bnei Yisrael and the Egyptians. We might still have expected Pharaoh to conduct an investigation, as he did in the case of the previous plague, to find out whether once again Bnei Yisrael had survived the plague unscathed. No such investigation is explicitly mentioned, but it would seem that this is precisely the intention of the text in its description of how "the sorcerers could not stand before Moshe because of the boils, for the boils were upon the sorcerers AND UPON ALL OF EGYPT" (9:11). This is the first plague where Pharaoh and the sorcerers are completely passive, and for this reason they are physically prevented from assessing the situation among Bnei Yisrael.

 

5. "IN ORDER THAT YOU MAY KNOW THAT THERE IS NONE LIKE ME IN ALL THE LAND"

 

Two messages have been conveyed so far to the Egyptians - the existence of God, and His guidance over the world. Now the time has come to express another message: the uniqueness of God. The third group of plagues gives special expression to the idea that God is the only God, for His actions are without precedent in anything that has ever happened in the world.

 

            Once again, we see a progression from one plague to the next. In the first plague of this group, hail, we read:

 

"For this time I shall send all My plagues upon your heart... in order that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land... Behold, at this time tomorrow I will rain down a very heavy hail, SUCH AS HAS NEVER OCCURRED IN EGYPT SINCE ITS FOUNDATION UNTIL NOW." (9:14-18)

 

            Again in the description of how this threat is realized, we read:

 

"And there was hail, and fire flaring within the hail, very heavy - SUCH AS HAD NEVER OCCURRED IN ALL THE LAND OF EGYPT SINCE IT BECAME A NATION." (9:24)

 

            In the second plague - that of locusts - it is once again emphasized in the warning that the punishment will be unprecedented:

 

"Behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts in your borders... and they will fill your houses and the houses of all your servants and the houses of all of Egypt, SUCH AS YOUR FATHERS AND YOUR FATHERS' FATHERS NEVER SAW, FROM WHEN THEY WERE FIRST UPON THE EARTH UNTIL THIS DAY." (10:6)

 

But in the description of the plague itself we see an escalation:

 

"And the locusts went up over the whole land of Egypt, and they rested in all the borders of Egypt, VERY HEAVY, THERE HAD NEVER BEEN SUCH LOCUSTS BEFORE NOR WOULD THERE BE SUCH THEREAFTER." (10:14)

 

We sense here that not only was this an unprecedented phenomenon, but that it was a unique, one-time event - like the great flood - that would never be repeated.

 

            From this perspective, the third plague is an exception to its predecessors. It describes not a natural phenomenon, whose principal message turns on its timing and scope, but rather a completely unnatural phenomenon - "a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days." This plague demonstrated God's absolute and exclusive control over the entire world.

 

6. CONCLUSION

 

As noted at the outset, the plagues that befell the Egyptians had a dual purpose: they were meant both to persuade the stubborn Pharaoh to send out Bnei Yisrael, as well as to teach him something of the nature of the God whom he presumed to challenge. The final plague - the killing of the firstborn - had a special purpose, illustrating the nature of the conflict between God and Pharaoh - "Israel is My firstborn... Behold, I shall kill your firstborn." The other plagues conveyed three messages, expressed in the three groups of plagues: the existence of God, His providence and His uniqueness.

 

            The plague of the firstborn contained in itself all of these elements, since it demonstrated both the separation between Bnei Yisrael and the Egyptians ("But against Bnei Yisrael not a dog shall move its tongue, against either man or animal, in order that you will know that God separates between Egypt and Israel" - 11:7), as well as a one-time exception to the regular laws of nature ("such as had never been, and such as would never be again" - 11:6). Clearly, all of this also gave further proof of God's existence.

 

            Hence we find that before God struck Egypt with the final, decisive blow and took Bnei Yisrael from slavery to freedom, he taught Pharaoh and the Egyptians a fundamental lesson in religious thought, concerning the three fundamental elements of belief in God. Ultimately, Bnei Yisrael themselves would hear the same messages, in concise form: "Hear O Israel, (1) THE LORD (2) OUR GOD - the Lord (3) IS ONE."

 

 

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)