THE POINT OF THE FIRST NINE PLAGUES

In our annual cycle of Torah readings, we have arrived at the heart of the master story of Jewish identity. This is the story of the oppression of our ancestors in Egypt, their liberation, their journey to Mt. Sinai, there to receive the Covenant, and then onwards towards the Promised Land. We retell this story, and we celebrate it in ritual.

Because the story is so well rehearsed, it has achieved a sense of inevitability. Of course, there were ten plagues, and of course, the first nine failed to sway Pharaoh.

But why should this be the case?

As recounted in the Torah narrative, already prior to the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh, God instructs Moses to warn Pharaoh of the death of the first-born.

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is My
first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let my son go, that he may worship
Me.’ Yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.

Exodus 4:22-23

It is intriguing that the Bible employs the narrative strategy of foreshadowing. This early clue as to what will only come to pass later in the story invites the listener to wonder, throughout the course of the story, about how the end point will be reached.

So, at the very beginning of the narrative of the Ten Plagues, we already know what God and Moses know, that the first nine will fail to achieve Israel’s liberation. What, then, is their point?

The goal of extending the process of liberation is public relations. God seeks to be acknowledged by two audiences, both recalcitrant: in lesser part, the Egyptians, and above all, the Israelites themselves.

…the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out
My hand over Egypt
(Exodus 7:5)

It is not surprising that it would take time, and an entire series of calamities striking at many of the objects of worship among Egyptians, such as the Nile, the sun, and ultimately the Pharaoh himself, to discredit polytheism in the Egyptian mind. But in fact, that did not happen, except fleetingly. Egypt remained a bastion of polytheism after the Exodus. The true goal of having a series of plagues is to convince the Israelites that the invisible God preached by Moses and Aaron is their God. This could not happen without a protracted process. In fact, the message failed at first:

But when Moses told this [message of deliverance] to the Israelites,
They would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

(Exodus 6:9)

Only at the end of the story, when the Israelites have successfully made it through the divided waters of the Sea, and when they see their former captors drowned, does the Bible tell us that they achieve faith in God and in Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Considering all this from a 21st century vantage point: what persistent idols challenge the peace and health of humanity in our day?

Alas, there are so many, that 10 plagues might not be enough. But let us focus on two idols, in whom our misplaced faith threatens so much destruction:

  • The idol of hatred. In an era of weapons of mass destruction, we still nourish the destructive attitude of hate against our fellow humans. Racism is on the rise; platforms of xenophobia win elections across the world. The lesson of World War II, with its 60 millions of victims, is in danger of being totally lost.
  • The idol of greed. The desire to have more, ever more, has passed the point of sustainability. Our earth is suffering.At this rate, the damage we are causing will dramatically worsen life, not in a far off future, but in our own generations.

If we are to avoid a modern rerun of the Plagues, now is the time to act.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Michael Panitz