Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Rabbi Gary Pokras
This week, the dramatic, awesome Plagues against Pharoah reach their terrible climax. In our Torah study group, several students inevitably share their discomfort with this these passages. They ask: Were all of these plagues really necessary? Why couldn’t God have found a gentler solution to free our people? How can God be so cruel? How can I worship such a God?
To be sure, the text is complex – and as such defies any simple or single analysis or interpretation. That said, Rabbi Shai Held offers a powerful response1 by asking us to look at the larger context. Let’s look at the questions from our Torah study group. Were all of the plagues really necessary? If the only goal was to free the Israelites from slavery, then probably not. Why else would God harden Pharoah’s heart partway through the sequence? God could have found a gentler solution to free our people — so that could not have been the sole purpose of the plagues. What, other purpose, then, could they have had? There are two possibilities, either or both of which could be true. First, the Ten Plagues may have been a demonstration of God’s power – to the world in general and to the Israelites and Egyptians in particular. Second, the Plagues may have been a form of Divine justice – punishments against Pharoah for the harm he caused. This second possibility is the thread upon which Rabbi Held pulls. He wonders what the Plagues tell us about the nature of the world? What if there is a moral order built into creation, where the sins we commit are reflected back to us from nature?
Many biblical scholars agree that Torah describes just such a world, and that, in this case the sins are so severe that God chooses to directly intervene. What was Pharoah’s crime? What could possibly merit such an extreme punishment?
Let’s look to the first chapter of Exodus, which describes the Israelites in Egypt before their enslavement: they “were fruitful (peru) and greatly multiplied (vayirbu) … and the land was filled with them.” (Ex. 1:7) There is a direct connection between this verse and God’s first commandment to human beings in the Creation story: “Be fruitful (peru) and multiply (veru) and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:28).
Pharoah observes their growth in Egypt, becomes fearful, and tries to control them through slavery. Yet, the more oppressive he became, the more rapidly the Israelites grew. Eventually he attempted the first ever Holocaust and commanded that every Israelite baby boy be drowned in the Nile the moment after birth. (Ex. 1:8-22). In other words, where God commands life to grow, Pharoah attempts to destroy life – his is a cult of death, and exists in extreme opposition to God’s purpose for Creation.
These are the crimes for which the Plagues must serve justice. As one biblical scholar puts it, “the consequences are cosmic because the sins are Creational.”2 With each plague, God dismantles what Pharoah has created in Egypt. The final and most horrible of the plagues not only kills Pharoah’s first-born son, but also takes away his legacy and thereby his future. There is nothing left for Pharoah.
While this interpretation raises questions of its own (for example, how do we understand natural disasters today?) it does provide a fascinating frame of understanding. God only brought destruction and death upon Egypt because Pharoah brought destruction and death upon Creation (vis a vis the Israelites). The means of oppression determined the end of oppression, and the creation of new life – and of a new spiritual path towards a Land of Promise. This is not some form of revenge then, not an expression of Divine cruelty, but an expression of poetic justice writ large.
Today, we do not see such a direct connection between our own individual misdeeds and punishment from God through nature. God seems more elusive than ever. We see ourselves as the arbiters of human accountability. However, just because God seems elusive – does not mean God is not present. Our collective influence on climate change is commonly understood. Is this how God engineered our world? Is this Divine justice at work?
It is hard to say for sure, but as Rabbi Held wrote: “one thing, it seems to me, does remain clear: To worship the God of the Torah is to serve a God who lines up on the side of life.”