Pharaoh wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt and serve him as corvée laborers making bricks and building cities. God wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt, take over Canaan, and serve “him”. In an effort to terrorize Pharaoh into letting the Israelites go, God afflicts Egypt with ten “plagues” or miraculous disasters: blood, frogs, lice, mixed vermin, cattle pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, utter darkness, and death of the firtborn.
The God-character reveals another divine agenda in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, just before the plague of hail.
“Shalach my people so they can serve me! Because this time I myself sholeiach all my scourges into your heart and against your courtiers and against your people, so that you will see that there is none like me on all the earth. Indeed, by now shalachti my hand and struck you and your people with the pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. However, for the sake of this I have let you stand: so that I can show you my power and make my name known throughout the earth.” (Exodus 9:14-16)
shalach (שַׁלַּח) = Send! Send forth! Send out! Let go! Release!
sholeiach (שֺׁלֵחַ) = am sending, am sending forth, am sending out, am letting go, am releasing.
shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I sent, I could have sent, I could have stretched out, I could have released.
(Throughout the story of the ten plagues, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when anyone talks about Pharaoh releasing the Israelites.)
Before sending the hail, the God-character reveals that “his” other goal is to prove to the whole world that “he” is the most powerful god. Being recognized as the most powerful seems more important to the God depicted in the book of Exodus than any moral considerations.1
The ethical problem with the God-character’s actions is that the plagues afflict not only Pharaoh, but also the native Egyptians. Why should ordinary Egyptians suffer? Pharaoh is the one who keeps refusing to let the Israelites go; his people have no say in the matter.
Some commentators have claimed that all the Egyptian people are on Pharaoh’s side, so they deserve to be punished. But there is nothing in the text of the Torah to indicate this. Pharaoh issues a general order for “all his people” to throw male Israelite infants into the Nile in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.2 But the Torah never reports an Egyptian actually doing so. The only Egyptians who act against Israelites in the book of Exodus are:
- Pharaoh, who issues commands calling for their oppression and death.
- Egyptian taskmasters supervising the corvée labor, who oppress and beat the Israelites.3
- Pharaoh’s armed regiment of charioteers, who pursue them after they leave Egypt.4
Yet the other native Egyptians also suffer from God’s ten plagues. Is their suffering unavoidable collateral damage in the war between Pharaoh and God? Or does God choose miracles that harm the most people on purpose, in order to make a more dramatic display of power?
The tenth and final plague, described in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, is death of the firstborn.
And it was the middle of the night, and God struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, to all the first-born of the livestock. (Exodus 12:29)
Only the Israelites receive God’s instructions to paint blood on their door frames and stay inside overnight to avoid the death of any of their first-born.5
Is this extreme unethical measure necessary in order to make Pharaoh submit? Or does the God-character kill every first-born in every Egyptian family merely in order to make a more dramatic display of power?
A necessary evil
The mass murder does appear to achieve the liberation of hundreds of thousands of oppressed Israelites.
And Pharaoh got up in the night, he and all his courtiers and all the Egyptians. And there was a great wailing outcry in Egypt, because there was no house without someone dead. And he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and he said: “Arise, go out from among my people, you and also the Israelites, and go serve God, as you spoke! Take even your flocks and your herds, as you spoke, and go! And may you also bless me.” (Exodus 12:30-32)
Only after the death of the first-born does Pharaoh capitulate and tell the Israelites to go with everything Moses asked for. He even lowers himself by asking for a blessing, acknowledging that he cannot prosper again without God’s help.
Pharaoh loses his own first-born son, a blow that would shatter the hardest heart. But the wailing all over his capital city would reinforce his new despair. He may suspect that if he does not let the Israelites go now, the Egyptian people will revolt against him. The authority conferred upon him by the gods of Egypt no longer holds when the God of Israel is obviously more powerful.
A dramatic display
On the other hand, after three of the plagues (boils, locusts, and darkness) the Torah says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.6 What does this mean?
Pharaoh hardens his own heart after the plague of frogs, and continues to harden it four more times.7 He is in the habit of hardening his heart, and once we get into a habit, it can seem as if an outside force makes us keep doing it again and again. But in the text of Exodus, there is an outside force, and it is God. Before the plagues begin, the God-character tells Moses:
“And I myself will harden the heart of Pharaoh, and I will multiply my signs and my omens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)
The God-character follows up on this promise by deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s heart three times when Pharaoh is softening and might give in. The God-character does not want Pharaoh to let the Israelites go before “he” is ready. And the God-character is only ready after “he” has a chance to commit the tenth and most emotionally devastating plague: the death of the firstborn.
Apparently the God-character is so fixated on the goal of demonstrating power that the full ten-step dramatic display, from blood to death, is worth postponing the liberation of the Israelites. Demonstrating power is also far more important to this God-character than minimizing the suffering of innocent Egyptians.
After the final plague, the Israelites march into the wilderness, but Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go. The God-character hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, and Pharaoh commands his charioteers to pursue the Israelites. This gives the God-character a chance to create another memorable miracle: the splitting of the Reed Sea, and the return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptian chariot regiment.8
And Israel saw the great power that God wielded against Egypt, and the people were awed by God, and they had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)
This miracle impresses both the Egyptians and the Israelites with God’s power. The fact that it also avoids killing any innocent bystanders is probably incidental in the book of Exodus.
Although Exodus is based on older oral traditions, modern scholars estimate that it was written down in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. About a thousand years later, the rabbis of the Talmud imagined a different sort of God responding to the death of the Egyptian soldiers.
At that time the ministering angels wanted to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b)
As the ethics of the Israelites advanced, so did the ethics of their God.
- See Jerome M. Segal’s treatment of this theme in his book Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2007.
- Exodus 1:22.
- Exodus 1:13-14 reports unspecified ruthless oppression by the taskmasters; Exodus 2:11 and 5:15-16 report beatings.
- Pharaoh and his charioteers pursue the Israelites after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go in Exodus 14:6-10. The disciplined Egyptian charioteers advance at the Reed Sea in order to kill some Israelites and capture the rest, but God intervenes with a miracle.
- Exodus 12:6-7, 12:21-23.
- Exodus 9:12, 10:20, 10:27.
- Exodus 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, 9:7, 9:34.
- Exodus 14:5-30.