Is it ethical to harm or even kill innocent people? The liberal answer is no. Someone with more traditional morality might answer: no … unless you need to do it for the sake of your own people, whose welfare comes first.
In terms of either answer, the God of Israel and the pharaoh of Egypt are unethical in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35).
The God character wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt and serve God as the new rulers of the land of Canaan. The pharaoh character wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt as forced labor making bricks and building cities for him. The God character also wants to be acknowledged as the most powerful force in the world, while the pharaoh wants to keep every iota of power he already has.1
Following God’s instructions, Moses repeatedly offers Pharaoh what sounds like a compromise: that Pharaoh give the Israelites a three-day vacation to hold a festival for their God in the wilderness.2 (Meanwhile Moses informs the Israelites that the real goal is a new life in a different country.) Pharaoh refuses, and the God character responds by devastating Egypt with a series of “plagues”: miraculous disasters. The plagues devastate the country and harm or kill human beings, including both the Israelite immigrants God has adopted, and Pharaoh’s native Egyptians.
Before the seventh plague, hail, God tells Moses to pass on this information to Pharaoh:
“For by now shalachti my hand, and you, you and your people, would be wiped off the earth by bubonic plague. However, on account of this I have let you stand: to show you my power, so that my name will be made known over all the earth.” (Exodus 9:15-16)
shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I could have sent forth, I could have released. (A kal form of the verb shalach, שָׁלַח = sent, let go. Throughout this week’s Torah portion, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when Moses and Pharaoh talk about releasing, or not releasing, the Israelites.)
In other words, God is refraining from simply killing every native Egyptian. The purpose of sending one plague after another is to spread the word about God’s awesome power, and to eventually make Pharaoh so terrified that he gives in and lets the Israelites go out into the wilderness.
Pharaoh’s strategy is to keep refusing to give the Israelites permission to go. He assumes they would never leave Egypt without his permission, probably because then his army would kill them.3
So much is at stake that neither of the God character nor the pharaoh is willing to stop them. Only after the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, does Pharaoh concede defeat.
Yet these entrenched enemies soften their positions briefly in this week’s Torah portion, in the story of the seventh plague: hail.
Ethics of a god
The first three plagues in the book of Exodus/Shemot afflict everyone in Egypt indiscriminately. When God turns the Nile into blood, the Israelites as well as the native Egyptians are affected by the shortage of both drinking water and fish.4 The second plague, frogs, and the third, lice, also affect everyone in Egypt without exception.
Then the God-character seems to notice that his demonstrations of power are causing suffering to the people he plans to rescue. Before the fourth plague, swarms of mixed vermin, God declares that all the Egyptians will be affected, but the region occupied by Israelites, Goshen, will be vermin-free.5
The Israelites also get a divine exemption from the fifth plague, cattle disease; the ninth plague, darkness; and the tenth, death of the firstborn. (Through the oversight of either the narrator or the God character, no exception is mentioned for the sixth plague, boils, nor for the eighth plague, locusts.)
The seventh plague, hail, is a unique case. No hail falls on Goshen, where the Israelites live. But this time God gives some of the Egyptians a chance to reduce their losses ahead of time. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh and his court:
“Here I will be, about this time tomorrow, raining down a very heavy hail, the like of which has never been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. So now, shelach your livestock and everything in the field that is yours! Every human and beast that is found in the field and has not been gathered into [its] house, the hail will descend upon them and they will die.” (Exodus 9:18-19)
shelach (שְׁלַח) = Send! Send in! (Another kal form of shalach.)
Perhaps God is testing Pharaoh to see whether he rejects everything God says, not just the demand to give the Israelites a three-day leave of absence. Pharaoh is stubborn and does not issue any orders about his own livestock or field slaves.
But everyone in the audience hall hears God’s advice regarding the coming hailstorm, and some of Pharaoh’s courtiers act on it.
Whoever feared the word of God among the servants of Pharaoh had his slaves and his beasts flee into the houses. But whoever did not pay attention to the word of God left his slaves and his beasts in the field. (Exodus 9:20-21)
The hail still destroys the barley and flax crops and shatters trees throughout all of Egypt—except Goshen, where the Israelites live.6 This means a loss for even the God-fearing landowners, since all Egyptians now face a future shortage of food (barley and fruit) and clothing (linen from flax). The hail also kills or injures the slaves of the Egyptian landowners who ignored God’s warning and left them out in their fields along with the livestock.
The God character must notice that some of Pharaoh’s courtiers now believe in the power of the God of Israel. This is progress on God’s agenda of becoming known as the supreme deity. An ethical and intelligent deity would now devise a way to exempt every Egyptian who fears the God of Israel from the suffering and death that will be caused by the last three plagues.
But God’s lenience preceding the seventh plague does not last. The three plagues in next week’s Torah portion, Bo, affect all Egyptians without exception. The tenth and final plague kills the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt who does not paint blood on the doorframe of their house—and God does not tell anyone but the Israelites about this sign.
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)
For the plague of hail, God experimented with mitigating the damage to Egyptians who feared God. But the final and most horrible plague punishes all Egyptians, even those who are eager to let the Israelites leave.
Ethics of a king
During the first six plagues, Pharaoh makes two false promises to let the Israelites go, but breaks them as soon as the plagues are removed.7 He does not express any guilt over the devastation to his country and its people.
But he appears to have a change of heart during the seventh plague, hail.
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them: “I am guilty this time. God is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones. Plead to God that there will be no more of God’s thunder and hail, va-ashalchah you, and you will not continue to stay.” (Exodus 9:27-28)
va-ashalchah (וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה) = and I will send away, let go, set free. (A piel form of the verb shalach.)
Only here and during the eighth plague, locusts, does Pharaoh say he is guilty. When the hail is pummeling the land, he qualifies his confession in two telling ways. He classifies his people as well as himself as “wicked” even though so far, only Pharaoh and his taskmasters have harmed the Israelites. And he says he is guilty “this time”, ignoring the previous six times he refused to release the Israelites.
Does Pharaoh really believe he acted unethically? Or is he just saying so in the hope that a little groveling will help to get the plague of hail removed?
After all, Moses has not been frank with Pharaoh. So far he has kept repeating God’s request that the pharaoh give the Israelites three days off to worship their God in the wilderness. Pharaoh, by adding “and you will not continue to stay”, hints for the first time that he suspects the truth: if the Israelites got a three-day head start, they would not return to Egypt. Both Moses and Pharaoh hide their true agendas.
This week’s Torah portion ends:
And Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ended. Then he added to his guilt, and his heart was unmoved,8 his and his courtiers’. And Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not shilach the Israelites, as Hashem had spoken through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)
shilach (שִׁלַּח) = let loose, let go, sent away. (Another piel form of the verb shalach.)
It is the narrator who says Pharaoh “added to his guilt” by being hard-hearted and refusing to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh himself is no longer talking about guilt. He has returned to his stubborn refusal to recognize that he cannot win against God. And Pharaoh’s courtiers stand with him this time.
By now Pharaoh knows that every time he refuses to release the Israelites another plague strikes Egypt. Perhaps during the hail he realizes that he, too, bears some responsibility and guilt for the damage the plagues have done. But then he returns to making his own status as Egypt’s absolute ruler his top priority. He does not free the Israelites until the plague of the firstborn kills his own son and heir.
Both God and Pharaoh soften briefly during the story of the plague of hail. The God character enables the Egyptian landowners who take God seriously to protect some of their property. Pharaoh entertains the idea that he is wrong to prioritize his pride and his free labor over the health and safety of his own Egyptian citizens. Yet this softening quickly vanishes without leading to a moral improvement in either character.
It is easy to keep on angling to get what you want, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. I have acted that way myself, until I realized the damage I was doing and repented.
But some individuals are too narcissistic to feel compassion and repent. Occasionally a narcissist says or does something that appears to be kind and compassionate but, as I know from personal experience, this temporary kindness may be only a ploy to win favor. When push comes to shove, narcissists will harden again, because nothing is more important than their own agendas.
The book of Exodus paints the characters of both God and Pharaoh as narcissistic. Nevertheless, people still enjoy a story about a battle between two superpowers, regardless of the collateral damage in human lives.
But in our own lives, may we remember to look and see whether we are harming others as we pursue our own agendas. And may we protect ourselves, and others, from narcissists who cannot see the harm they do.
And may we not confuse God with the narcissistic God character in the book of Exodus.
- See my post Bo: Pride and Ethics.
- Exodus 5:1-3, 7:16, 8:21-24, 10:9-11, 10:24-26.
- Pharaoh and his charioteers do pursue the Israelites in Exodus 14:6-10 after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go.
- Exodus 7:20-24.
- Exodus 8:17-8:18.
- Exodus 9:16, 9:25, 9:31.
- Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go during the plague of frogs in Exodus 8:4 and backs out in Exodus 8:11. He promises during the plague of vermin in Exodus 8:21 and 8:24 and backs out in Exodus 8:28.
- The Hebrew reads: vayakhebeid libo (וַיַּכְבֵּד לִבּוֹ) = and his heart was heavy. In English, the idiom “heavy heart” means sadness. But in Biblical Hebrew, a “heavy heart” is unmoved or immovable.