The Politics of Resentment Part I: The Frame Parashat Bo – Exodus 10:1−13:16

When the Eternal One said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them.”  (10:1) As I have written previously, we are reading a tale of a battle of Titans, a war between YHWH and the Egyptian sub-gods, and especially Ra, represented by the Pharaoh, himself conceived as a god. In Hebrew, the word רָעָה raʿa means “evil”. Moses, the representative of YHWH, by contrast, is human-all-too-human, rash, an inadequate speaker who stutters, one who fears leadership rather that seeks it, a murderer even if motivated by justice, but also a fugitive from justice. Yet he will emerge as the voice of good in the battle against the sun-god, Ra, the battle against evil, and the battle against Pharaoh.

The usual question is why God took ten plagues to finish the job. Why not do it in one sweeping action? The usual answer is that the plagues were primarily a teaching tool to demonstrate that: a) YHWH was the greatest power in the world and to have everyone accept that proposition; b) the Israelites should restore their belief in God, but not just in a God of power, but a God for all time who would reveal Himself more fully as history unfolds. Hence, the importance of the tenth plague, as we shall see.

However, in this blog explicating the divine purpose of the plagues is not my goal. Rather, I want to zero in on why Pharaoh resisted for so long and resisted in the way that he did. God may say that he dragged out the whole process instead of just wiping the Egyptians from the face of the earth to show His power for the whole world and for all time. God may take credit for hardening Pharaoh’s heart. But if God was now YHWH, the God that will reveal Himself over the course of history, how can God claim omniscience, claim that He knew in advance how Pharaoh would respond and was responsible for that response? The problem is not only omniscience but human freedom. In any case, those are not my questions. My question is why did Pharaoh “cooperate” even if God deliberately dragged out the fight?

One answer, using biblical critical theory, is to argue that the passages extolling God’s total control as well as God’s omniscience come from the priestly material while the non-priestly material tells a different story. (See, for example, Dr. Rabbi David Frankel’s commentary on this issue.) Though this argument seems very plausible, it is not mine. For it is what is in Pharaoh’s head and heart that interests me. And that is best understood, not by a simplistic answer that God hardened his heart, but by examining the precise process of that hardening, ignoring who was ultimately responsible, examining the stages Pharaoh went through and why and how he went through them to explain the process.

To answer the question, I will pay attention to the type of plague, its possible divine targets, the shifting techniques used, the shifting purposes and, most of all, the shifting responses.

Let’s return to the beginning of the clash of civilizations. The odds are ALL against Moses. He personally lacks any warrior skills, has no earthly power. So how does he come to defeat Pharaoh? By using an old judo trick and letting Pharaoh pull the pillars supporting his kingdom down on his own head. Pharaoh defeated himself as much as he was defeated by God.

Why does a pseudo-Sampson pull the house of cards down upon himself and his people to destroy everything he has achieved as well as that of his own civilization? That is the question. That is my question. It does not matter whether the event ever occurred in history to an Egyptian monarch who had enslaved the Jews. Jews tell this story of the first step in the path which their ancestors took to move from slavery to freedom. But the other side of the mirror, the black side, is at least as interesting – why an authoritarian ruler bet his whole regime to perpetuate his rule based on the economics of slavery. He was told that this self-destruction would be the outcome of the battle. In that sense, he had to know that the house that Jack built could come tumbling down around him even if he was in denial and constantly insisted that this could not happen.

What matters in the end is whether the story is true in another sense, that, as a tale, it is a recurring phenomenon in the history of humanity. Why does someone who has gained the pinnacle of power keep shooting himself in the foot so that the whole political order collapses? It is a horror to watch. The death and destruction that result are enormous.

It does not matter whether the ruler who acquired the throne in a coup draws a red line in the sand and insists that he will not let an enslaved people go or whether he is an elected monarch of the same disposition who believes he knows everything better than anyone else and is willing to hold his own people hostage in a classic titanic struggle of the gods to prove that he himself is a god when he really is the most flawed of human beings and he knows, perhaps only deep in his heart, that he is a fraud, that he lacks even the most minimal requirements of political leadership.

Again, it is not as if Pharaoh has not been forewarned. The story makes clear that Pharaoh is well aware of what is possibly forthcoming – worse and worse and from all directions. He knows it. His courtiers know it. They have all been forewarned and concrete unmistakeable messages have been sent. Yet Pharaoh persists in his mad quest to prove that what he says will be, that he too is a god who can translate his words into reality, that if he said that the people cannot move and be free, they will be unable to do so. For a wall is built, not only to keep ostensible dangers out and only ostensibly to protect loved ones within, he claims, but to keep one’s own people in thrall to a slave mentality even though the cost may be, will be, their own civilization.

The courtiers, the attendants, the flatterers, the liegemen, the pursuivants, the sycophants who have sold their souls to the devil, will not be able to desert the usurper of power because they had finally and ultimately cast their lot with this pseudo-strongman’s fate. They knew he was deeply flawed. They knew he lacked any of the qualities of a god. And gradually, slowly, in steps, they desert him to let him fall on his own pétard, an IED (improvised explosive device) of his own making.

In volume 21 of the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, the record of the transactions of the Quatuor of the Freemasons (1908; 2013) describing their efforts in alchemy to change stone into gold, a process believed to be “natural,” the promise is that a high wall of concrete reinforced by steel rods will be emblazoned with a gold sign of triumph, of the deliverer who promised that he could convert concrete into gold and bring about everlasting security. That is why Pharaohs built pyramids – to ensure their security forever.

But there has never been such a wall that can succeed in that task – whether built of stone, of concrete or of steel slats. There never will be one. Those who attempt to build one do so by transforming portrait of the blighted and suffering masses into ravaging hordes. Security walls may be temporarily very helpful. However, in the end, a security wall is needed only to prevent downtrodden people from gasping for a slight breath of freedom.

The Past Assistant Pursuivant, James Pelham (Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, p. 172), an officer of the Masonic Lodge, prophesied at the beginning of the twentieth century that a modern house of cards, conceived of as built of concrete (and later reinforced by steel), was about to collapse. A modern Sampson tied to the pillars upholding modernity would bring the whole edifice crumbling down around him. The end of the world as they knew it was nigh. That was true at the ostensible period of the Israelite-Egyptian conflict. It was true at the end of the nineteenth century and the very beginning of the twentieth. It is true of the first one-fifth of the twenty-first century.

What is the process that Pharaoh goes through as he is beset by each plague in turn? If we are looking at the plagues from the point of view of the deliverer, then it might be appropriate to show them in three waves or cycles, with a separate conclusion or finale. The first wave, plagues 1-3 for example, may be intended to prove that God exists, that He is the Lord. The second wave (plagues 4-6) may seek to show God’s involvement in the affairs of humans. The third cycle (plagues 7-9) may be intended to prove God’s omnipotence with a finale (10) to cap it all off. There are other variations on the three cycles.

However, looking at the process from the perspective of Pharaoh rather than any divine intent or claim, I suggest a different division of the plagues into duos, the first eight divided into four pairs representing the ancient division of the world into four basic elements, and the final pair representing the downfall of the Egyptian divine rule over that material world, as follows:

  1. Blood 7:14-24                                       }  Water 
  2. Frogs 7:25-8:15                                    }
  3. Lice 8:16-19                                          }   Earth
  4. Swarms of flies or scarabs 8:20-32  }
  5. Death of cattle & livestock 9:1-7       }   Fire
  6. Boils & sores 9:8-12                             }
  7. Hail and thunder 9:13-35                   }   Air
  8. Locusts 10:1-20                                     }

Finale: Destruction of one Divine Control over the Material World

  1. Darkness 10:21-29
  2. Death of the firstborn 11:1-12:36

There is another approach to grouping which clusters the ten, again into trios in accordance with whether there was or was not a warning first delivered to Pharaoh. In every third one, it is claimed, there was no warning. The last plague offers the ultimate truth. My explication of the list, with its focus on Pharaoh’s response, will take into consideration whether or not he was warned, but the focus will be on the symbolism of each plague and the pair of gods challenged by each plague in turn. Many scholars have questioned the alignment of each plague with one god, let alone two as I will do, since the gods varied in locale, the time of year in which their power was acknowledged, and their attributes, not to mention the enormously long list of gods from which to choose. In my analysis, the literal name of the plague as well as its symbolism will be used to select the gods. This, in turn, will be used to elucidate how Pharaoh responded to each plague.

With this frame, the analysis of the stages of Pharaoh’s self destruction will be analyzed in the next blog.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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