In the first of two plagues, water is turned to blood. In a naturalistic explanation, this may signify a red tide or “burgundy blood” (the change in buoyancy explained by autumnal water blooms – Planktothrix rubescens) associated with different natural causes for turning water red. This naturalistic equivalence is insufficient as an explanation since even water in barrels had turned red. In any case, naturalistic explanations do not concern me.
What is described lasts 7 days. Fish die. The river stinks. Hapi, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile, the very rhythm of eternal return, of the notion that what goes round comes round, that time is circular, is one target. But life in that water is also the target. Nun or Nu, the oldest of Egyptian gods, the goddess of tradition, the primeval waters out of which all life emerges, is also attacked.
These are two of the lesser gods. Aaron is sent out to show them up on behalf of YHWH. Moses warns Pharaoh. Aaron applies his magic. And the water indeed turns blood red. How does Pharaoh react? By showing that even these lesser gods of the past and of the cycle of history are not defeated by such magic because his sorcerers can perform the same magic. Defeat is turned into a victory. Pharaoh does not even bother to reject Moses’ warning and demands. He simply ignores them. His heart has been hardened in the sense that it remains unmoved by the suffering of the Israelites.
In the case of the second plague, the focus is on frogs, life that comes out of the water to live on the land. Frogs are not the target but rather the instruments to overrun the land. The male target is the god, Atum, the creator god who, like the frogs who came out of the water, rose from Nun as a mound of earth. In the Torah, when God hovers over the face of the water, God created earth by separating the waters. In the Egyptian divine realm, earth itself is the creator God, that which comes into being and that which allows everything else to come to be. The other target of attack is Heqet, the goddess of fertility. Life in this version is not a product of the divine bringing earth out of the sea, and bringing life forms on earth. Instead, what emerges from the sea are frogs and the croaking Hebrews who rise up out of their deep slumber and cry out against their enslavement to swarm over every corner of the land.
How does the royal court respond? Again, the sorcerers show that they can perform the same feats of magic. But instead of just ignoring Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh takes an opposite tack and summons the two before him to do what his magicians could not do – remove the frogs even though frogs were sacred to Egyptians. Pharaoh begins to deal with Moses and Aaron. This is the first step he takes in dismantling his own pharaonic power. Pharaoh offers to let Moses’ people worship their God in order for God to get rid of the frogs and their rotting carcasses. Moses calls off the plague. However, Pharaoh reneges on the deal once the frogs have been killed, even if it costs a crack in the first of many concrete (as distinct from abstract – the first plague) sacred pillars of his kingdom.
The next two plagues are symbolized by Earth, vermin created from the dust of the earth (plague 3), and swarms of flies. Geb, the god of earth itself is the target of the vermin for he/she was the third divine pharaoh, likely a bisexual divinity who is male but also female. He/she lays eggs and is responsible for rebirth. Four wild geese are released in the name of Geb to celebrate a royal succession and Geb, known as “The Great Cackler” because he/she sounds like a whole flock of Canadian geese.
When lice emerge from the earth rather than life, the clear signal that the continuing life of the monarchy is at risk becomes apparent. However, Pharaoh received no warning. Further, this time the Pharaoh’s courtiers and magicians cannot match the magic of the Hebrew leaders. The magicians cave. But not Pharaoh. He has a powerful will. But the writing is on the wall. He would not be able to name his successor. The end has been adumbrated.
The fourth plague is that of the flies, really more like dung beetles or scarabs that, just as the sun rolls across the sky, roll balls of dung across the desert. One target is Khepri, the god with the head of a fly who represents the rising of the sun and the renewal of the day. Another is Horus, depicted as a falcon or man with the head of a falcon. The first Pharaoh had been the manifestation of Horus through whom Pharaohs were given dominion over the world, including the responsibility for capturing the sun when it fell from the heavens. The current Pharaoh is also targeted. Thus, the attacks are not just aimed at destroying Pharaoh, but at destroying the whole idea of a pharaonic polity. That is what is now really being put at risk.
The stakes become even higher as more powerful gods are attacked and as Pharaoh’s responses become more and more compromising in undermining the regime. It is with the threat of this plague that Moses both ups the ante while engaging in a feint. For he clarifies his request to Pharaoh to let his people go into the wilderness, just for three days so they might worship their own God and offer their own God sacrifices which the Egyptians cannot offer since they are not His people.
What chutzphah! With Kehpri and Horus, everything under the heavens, even the sun, is under the sovereign authority of Egypt. This time, Pharaoh initially accedes to the request, but qualifies his permission; the Hebrews are not to go very far. In return, Moses promises to ask God to wipe out the plague of the dung beetles and flies. God agrees, removes the swarms, only to have Pharaoh renege on the deal.
Pharaoh had moved from first ignoring Moses’ plea, to allowing the sacred frogs to be removed, indeed begging for it to happen, then getting his back up again, but losing the support of his sycophants. With the fourth plague, Pharaoh begins to bargain, but no sooner makes an agreement than he again reneges.
The text next moves from symbols of water and earth to symbols of fire, a disease that will burn up the innards of cattle and livestock (the fifth plague) and then one that, from the ashes of fires, presumably from burning the dead carcasses of cows, land on the body and result in sores and boils. The targets of the fifth plague are Hathor with the head of a cow and Apis, the bull god. Hathor was reborn from a goddess of destruction to become a benevolent goddess of joy, inspiration, celebration, love, health and childbirth, but also of drunkenness. The bull of the cow, Apis, another very ancient god in the Egyptian pantheon, is stubborn and fearsome in contrast to the warmth and upbeat quality of Hathor. Hathor inspires. Apis intimidates. Hathor loves to celebrate, Apis is always furious. Hathor provides health and protection at childbirth, Apis threatens death.
God brought disease and pestilence against both Hathor and Apis, but only against the Egyptian livestock. You would think that such a deed would make Pharaoh fold at last. But Pharaoh becomes even more stubborn and refuses even to bargain with Moses. God attacks Isis, the goddess of medicine and Thoth, the god of intelligence, with sores and boils and what was probably leprosy, then viewed as incurable. By then, Pharaoh had lost any iota of empathy he had for his own people and any intelligent response. His heart has been made harder than ever. It has become frozen in its fury.
Then come the two air plagues, hail and hurricane-force winds on all of Egypt, except Goshen where the Hebrews live. Egyptians could hide and duck for cover if they heeded the warnings. Those who suffer did not listen. This is followed by the plague of locusts. People cannot hide; locusts devour everything in their path. Locusts cover עֵ֣ין כָּל־הָאָרֶץ֮ ʿen kol ha-ʾareṣ, that is, “the eye of the whole land.”
The targets of the hail and hurricane force winds are Nut, the goddess of the sky, and Shu, the wind god. Nut was born alongside Geb (earth) so, as in the Torah, the earth and the heavens came into being on the same day. But they are attacked at different times by YHWH, Geb with the third plague and Nut at the time of the seventh plague. Now, the very fundamentals of the created world viewed through Egyptian eyes are under attack. God declares that He could have erased the Egyptians from the face of the earth but spared them “in order to show you My power and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.” (9:16) God’s intent has now been made crystal clear. The war is a zero-sum game. Only one could emerge from the fight as the God of all the heavens.
Pharaoh’s response to the hail that struck every man, woman, child and beast in the open – except for those in Goshen – after his courtiers begged him to give in, is to give in, but not enough of too little. He says that only the Hebrew men could go to worship their God in the wilderness, not their families. The response, without warning, is the plague of the locusts. The targets now are Seth, the god of storms and disorder, and Nepri, the grain god, for the locusts devour every green thing in the fields. God alone could bring disorder. Vegetation only grows because God allows it to happen.
Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and, on his hands and knees, begs for forgiveness. Pharaoh agrees to let their families go with them. Moses beseeches God. God removes the plague of the locusts. Pharaoh reneges again and becomes more stubborn than ever; no one is allowed to go. One step forward, two steps backward. That is the pattern.
Readers are then carried back to the beginning of the Earth when darkness was over the face of the water, a night in which all cows are black. Pharaoh reverses himself and once again accedes to the terms of the last deal. But Moses ups the ante and insists that the livestock accompany them to the wilderness. That’s not all. Pharaoh must provide the animals to be sacrificed. Pharaoh becomes really furious and threatens death should he ever see Moses again. Moses agrees and replies, “You will never see my face again.”
Then the ultimate plague – the killing of the first born. You would think by now Pharaoh would have recognized God’s power. But Pharaoh digs in his heels even deeper, at least until God carries out His threat. Then Pharaoh agrees to let all the Israelite men and their families leave and not only take their animals with them, but Egyptian gold and silver candlesticks and other valued objects to enhance the worship of the Hebrew God in an appropriate manner. The target now has become Ra, the sun-god himself, and Pharaoh, the representative of the sun-god on earth. Ra on is the most powerful ancient Egyptian god associated with the Pharaoh – so much so, that, by the Fifth Dynasty, almost every ruler has been symbolically hailed as the son of Ra. This Ra, this Pharaoh, still believes that the Hebrews are simply going off into the wilderness for three days to worship their God. After all of this, he only concedes because he thought that the exit would be temporary.
All the key gods had been discredited. On the way, Pharaoh grew more and more stubborn rather than more compliant, though he bargained harder and harder to make a deal, just to renege on each one. He had been totally defeated. His magicians had been cowed. His gods had been forced into submission. As Pharaoh became more and more isolated, his tactics of deceit became wilder and harder. But even when defeated, when he discovers he had been tricked and the Hebrews would not be returning and would be carrying away with them the precious metal objects never to return, even then he risks all and suffers accordingly.
All the key gods of Egypt had been discredited by the God of Israel. When Pharaoh’s first-born, Pharaoh Junior, faces charges both of corruption by a district prosecutor and collusion with the devil before a High Court, we will have the clearest sign, the final clear and unequivocal sign, that the regime is about to implode and collapse around their heads.
To be continued: A Concrete Historical Example