Ten Plagues on the House of Pharaoh

In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, written a century after Columbus set sail for what he called “the new world,” the old world of Verona was still being torn apart by family feuds, in this case between the Montagues and the Capulets. A Capulet fashionista fop sought to find Romeo, a Montague, and challenge him for showering his affections on Juliet, a Capulet. In the scuffle that ensued, the witty punster and Romeo’s best friend, Mercurio, was killed. As he lay dying, he cries out, “A plague on both your houses.”

In the Torah story, a plague is visited only on one house, that of the Pharaoh. And there is not only one, but ten plagues. The Hebrew God orders those plagues against the Egyptians; the Hebrews are spared. “Ten poxes on the house of Pharaoh” seems to be the slogan. Unlike Mercurio’s assessment, only one party is said to be in the wrong. The tale has elicited an enormous amount of commentary. Why was God intent in visiting the plagues on Pharaoh, his people, their livestock and the land? What did each plague mean? What did each accomplish? Why that specific plague in that order? What kind of threat did each plague pose?

Last week I referred to Chapter 7 of Exodus and God’s promise to the Israelites that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply my signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” (7:3) “But Pharaoh will not hearken unto you, and I will lay My hand upon Egypt, and bring forth My hosts, My people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt, by great judgment.” (7:4) The Hebrew word for judgment here is גְּדֹלִים, gedolim, which is translated more mildly as chastisement (God will slap Pharaoh on the wrist) or as punishment, an outcome more severe even than judgement as it is often translated. But as we read the tales of the plagues that God inflicts on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, it seems clear that not only do chastising and even judgement seem too weak as descriptors, but so does punishment. For there is no trial. And Pharaoh himself does not suffer from his obstinance. In fact, as the plagues are each let loose in turn, Pharaoh’s heart hardens.

Why ten? One frequent answer is that God had to up the ante each time given Pharaoh’s resistance. God is like a torturer who makes each kind of torture worse than the one before in order to elicit compliance. As Jonathan Sacks wrote in his commentary “Parshat Bo: The True Meaning of the Plague of Darkness, “Thus far there have been eight plagues, and they have become steadily and inexorably more serious.” But a review of the plagues quickly falsifies such a notion. Allowing the Nile River to turn into blood and spread into the wooden and stone idols of Egypt (the first plague) seems far worse than the 7th or 8th plagues which are natural phenomena frequently experienced by Egyptians – hail and locusts. So too with the second – frogs everywhere and dying slimy amphibians piled high and rotting on beds and hearths of Egyptians. Surely this is much worse than hail. Though certainly the tenth plague – slaying of the first-born – seems the worst

The ten plagues are:

No.Plague in EnglishTransliterationHebrew                      Location
עֶשֶׂר Makot Mitzrayim מכות מצרים
1BloodDamדָּדָם                                  7:14-7:23
2FrogsTsfardeahצְפַרְדְּעִים              7:24-8:11
3Sand flies & fleesKinimכִנִּם                                  8:12-8:15
4Swarms of beetlesArovעָרֹב                      8:16-8:28
5Animal blightMeyodכָּבֵד מְאֹד              9:1-9:7
6BoilsShkhinשְׁחִין                     9:8-9:12
7HailBaradבָּרָד                      9:13-9:35
8LocustsArbehאַרְבֶּה                  10:1-10:20
9DarknessChoshechחֹשֶׁךְ                               10:21-10:29
10Slaying first-bornB’chorבְּכוֹר                    11:1-12:36

Let us take a step back. Why does God say he is inflicting the plagues on Pharaoh, on his servants, on his people, on their livestock and on his land?  In the segue from one plague to the next, in the transition from locusts to darkness, the text declares that, “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go.” (10:20) In the transition from hail to locusts, God instructs Moses to, “Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them.” (10:1) In the transition from boils to hail, the text concludes, “the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them.” (9:12) The same is true from blight to boils (9:7), flies to blight (8:28), lice to flies (8:15), frogs to lice (8:11), blood to frogs (7:22-23), and even before the plague of blood after the first request before inflicting a plague. In each case, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh before inflicting a plague.

Rabbi Daniel Zucker has argued that as Pharaoh’s heart grew heavier, it was a sign of increased guilt since in ancient Egyptian belief, a person’s heart was weighed after death to determine whether the individual was righteous or wicked. As interesting as the exposition is of prayers and post-death proceedings in Egyptian religious practices, Zucker does not explain the weight threshold or the heart to body mass over which degrees of guilt were ascribed. Instead, it is a matter of absolute mass rather than relative weight. “If the heart was found to be lighter than maʾat, the judged was shown to be righteous and would be allowed into the afterlife, and would be referred to as ‘vindicated.’” But exploring why such a system would discriminate against large men and favour small women is beside the point. For one reason: the issue of weight for Rabbis Zucker and Sacks was not physical, but a matter of guilt over the degree to which a lie was told when the person was interrogated at death.

However, calculating brain weight ratios to body weight is not necessary for a more fundamental reason. There is no indication at all that Pharaoh felt guiltier as each plague passed. Further, in English, having a heavy heart suggests sadness rather than guilt, ranging to overwhelming melancholy. That sadness is related to increasing skepticism that there is a way out of a quandary the person believes himself to be in. Each event stiffens his heart. The person grows another layer of armour around his heart and is more resistant to any external influence. The person’s resistance grows and his woe deepens.

There is no indication that God would buy into an Egyptian cosmology and ontology by saying that God made Pharaoh’s heart heavy “akin to saying that he (Pharaoh) was not ‘worthy’ of an afterlife, a terrible curse for an Egyptian.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) Rather, the evidence suggests the phrase is used to invert its meaning from any suggestion that a weightier heart is a guiltier heart to a weightier heart as one with increasing defences against outside influences, the same pattern as Donald Trump revealed as his term in office progressed. Stubborn. Resistant, Defensive. And in increasing amounts. Not guilt.

To understand what is happening, the character of each plague has to be revealed. As I indicated in my last blog, the plague of blood was a direct assault on the wood and stone statues of Egyptology, on the idols of the kingdom, and a demonstration that only the God of the Hebrews could bring things to life by controlling blood, the core to the life force. After that ontological assault, the plague of frogs was an existential one on Egyptian everyday life, contaminating the hearth, the beds and the stoves of the Egyptians who practically worshipped hygiene. The God of the Hebrews was demonstrating the enormous extent of His power. This is said explicitly when Pharaoh, his courtiers and the Egyptians were to be struck with the plague of hail. “I could have stretched forth My Hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. Nevertheless, I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that my fame may resound throughout the world.” (9:15-16)

But why? If the only effect was to make Pharaoh even more resistant to letting the Hebrews go? After all, in the first stages, when Pharaoh’s heart grew heavy in response to the plagues of the blood and the frogs, Pharaoh is still capable of bending even if resistant. He bargains with Moses. You and your people can go into the wilderness to worship your God, but you must return to slavery, so you cannot go very far. But Pharaoh still resists caving in and goes back on his word. He reveals himself as lacking any integrity. No sooner does Moses get God to cancel the plagues of the lice and the flies than Pharaoh reneges on his promise to just let the people go a little way for the sake of freedom of religion while still denying freedom altogether.  

I suggest something else is happening rather than Pharaoh being weighed down with greater guilt after each pair of plagues. It does have to do with the journey towards death. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross enunciated five stages of resistance as death approaches:

  • Denial and trying to ignore death.
  • Anger when faced with what is obvious
  • Bargaining in an attempt to forestall what you begin to see is inevitable
  • Depression when faced with the reality of imminent death
  • Acceptance of death, which may be half-hearted and, therefore, a reversion to personal resistance.

Before confronting the plagues, Pharaoh resists any consideration of letting the Hebrews go. After God demonstrates His enormous power with an all-out assault on the ontological and existential foundations of Egyptian existence, Pharaoh is enraged. After the assault of the plagues of lice and flies, Pharaoh resorts to bargaining. After the plagues of blight on the livestock and boils on his Egyptian subjects, Pharaoh goes into a total funk. He is stirred out of his depression by the plagues of hail and locusts, but instead of moving on to acceptance of the final result, his mood becomes totally bleak and black. He goes into total rejection. It is all a fraud. He insists that he will emerge victorious. He flails about and God must resort to a final extreme measure – killing of the first-born to get Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, even though once again Pharaoh will change his mind immediately after the Hebrews leave.

I suggest that what is taking place is a metaphysical war between God and the Egyptian belief system. The goal is not Pharaoh’s conversion, but his destruction – the collapse of the whole basis of his faith beginning with the revelation of the impotence of the Egyptian gods, the idols, and the extreme vulnerability of the everyday dedication to hygiene. But that is not enough to destroy the system. Such acts only undermine the foundation. The structure and, finally, the superstructure must be brought down. God does not want Pharaoh to give in. God increasingly hardens his heart, gets him to resist to the very last, a resistance which will lead to total, not only absolute humiliation, but actual destruction.

Why lice and flies to propel the movement from anger to bargaining? God is conducting cosmic warfare. He had shown up Osiris, the top dog in Egyptology, the god of the Nile and the life force of that river. But blood was the life force within humans and God turned the waters of Egypt into blood to swamp the wood and stone idols of the kingdom.  Hekyt, the wife of the creator of the world and the sacred saint of midwives in the Egyptian pantheon, was portrayed as having the head and body of a frog. When all those frogs multiplied endlessly and then all died and became rotting corpses, and then had to be cleaned up, both Osiris and Hekyt had been reduced to impotent figures in fairy tales. It is not hard to imagine how enraged Pharaoh must have become.

Then the Egyptians were plagued with lice – really likely sand flies that burrowed under the skin like lice and planted eggs. In effect, the god of the earth (geb – to dig), instead of being worshipped for producing the annual bounty of grain was resented for producing insects that get under one’s skin. This was followed by swarms (which is normally translated as swarms of flies), masses of dung beetles in motion that suddenly emerged from under the earth to turn dead matter into balls; Amon-Ra, the king of the gods, had the head of a beetle. Then God destroyed the beetles. In other words, the disaster for the Egyptians was not the plague itself, but the aftermath, the piles of dead dung beetles, the red skin with rashes, the contamination of the homes and the deconsecration of the wooden and stone idols.

Then murrain, the contagious disease that infected the Egyptian cattle and their subsequent slaughter. (Obviously, the lesson for the Hebrews was insufficient because they easily reverted and sought to imitate the Egyptian worship in creating a golden calf in the wilderness – Apis, the bull god, and Hathor, the cow-headed goddess of the desert.) Then the boils on humans, or was it something much more serious like leprosy? Again, the gods protecting Egyptians against the infection of cattle and humans with fatal diseases proved flawed; Pharaoh and his gods were once again proven not to be up to the task. Starting with the major divine figures, God was working His way down through the rest of the world of the gods, knocking them over like pins in a bowling alley.

Then the air filled with hail, frozen ice balls falling from the sky, and and locusts so that one could no longer breathe. The whole process had become suffocating. Pharaoh’s mood totally blackened; he went into a deep depression and increased his resistance. Then the killing of the first-born. But who did the killing? Abraham was sent to sacrifice his first-born but was saved from doing so at the last minute. The Egyptians were not. They were desperate. They retreated to their last resort, sacrificing their first-born child to the gods. It was still not enough to save the Egyptians and they were forced to let the Israelites go. No sooner did they do so, than they were full of regret. The Egyptian military forces went after the Hebrews only to be drowned in the Sea of Reeds when a tsunami wave washed over them.

This is a tale of a cosmic battle. This is a tale of absolute resistance and the heavy heart that grows in such a battle as one sinks into depression and then, at the last minute, rises from one’s lair to launch a final, and futile, attack on The Capitol and the Constitution of a nation trying to fulfill the promise of a united free people.

“The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it”  – Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

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