By Elliot Fein
A perplexing thought enters the mind when reading about the
ten plagues in the Book of Exodus in the Bible.
On ten different occasions, Moses (with the aid of Aaron)
goes before Pharoah and demands from him that he let the Hebrews go free.
On each occasion, Pharoah refuses. After each refusal, God inflicts a
plague on all of Egypt.
During the first five plagues, it says ten times, “Pharoah
hardened his own heart.” During the other five plagues, it says
ten times, “God hardened Pharoah’s heart.”
There is a clear moral reason why it says, “Pharoah
hardened his own heart.” The heart in the ancient world was similar
to the mind today. It was considered the center of a person’s cognitive
thought. By saying that Pharoah hardened his own heart ten times, the
Torah emphasizes the culpability of Pharoah for the evil he perpetrated.
When it says, “God hardened Pharoah’s heart,”
ten different times during the other five plagues, the moral reasoning
behind these acts becomes problematic. When Pharoah hardens his own heart,
repentance (teshuvah) is possible. Why does God make this human act impossible?
If it weren’t possible for Pharoah to correct the evil
that he perpetrated, is the Egyptian king the only one responsible for
the ramifications of the five latter plagues, since God preordained that
these plagues would happen? And if God preordained that these five plagues
would happen, is God now ultimately responsible for the consequences of
the tenth plague, the killing of firstborn Egyptian male children?
The Exodus narrative is a great literary story. It makes
sense for Pharoah to suffer. He ordered, in the beginning of the Book
of Exodus, the evil decree for Egypt to kill the first-born Israelite
baby boys. It makes sense in terms of stylistic form for Pharoah to suffer
the ultimate evil he attempted to inflict on others.
One could morally argue that it is not only just for Pharoah
to suffer the consequences of the tenth plague. It is also just for the
Egyptian taskmasters who inflicted physical brutality on the Hebrews to
suffer the consequences of this plague.
One could even take this argument further by stating that
all adult Egyptians who were bystanders, who benefited materially from
slavery but turned away from the brutality and evil of this institution,
received just consequences for their acquiescence.
But the Egyptian children who were killed, why were they
punished? Why did they lose their lives? Why is the Torah written in a
way that seems to indicate that God caused this unjust consequence?
rabbis have tried to rationalize God’s conduct in the tenth plague.
They have come up with various excuses in their commentaries explaining
how a God who is the source of justice and righteousness, a God who is
the source of compassion and goodness, and all of the other positive attributes
we use to describe the divine, could inflict on Egypt the tenth plague.
By any standard, none of their rationalizations seem morally acceptable.
Perhaps it is more worthwhile in interpreting this Biblical
incident to avoid apologetics. Perhaps it is more worthwhile to follow
the example of Abraham, when he argued with God in the Book of Genesis
about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and question God about this incident
and not let the divine off the hook.
Whether divine or human hands wrote it, the Bible is a collection
of books intended for human beings to read and study. In order for human
readers to understand, God in the Bible has to be presented in anthropomorphic
terms. As an anthropomorphic character, God is divine but not infallible.
God, as a Biblical literary character, is less than perfect. A worthwhile
moral lesson can be learned from acknowledging this fact.
When God inflicts the tenth plague on Egypt, violence is
unleashed. Once violence is unleashed, it spins out of control. God, the
one and only divine being, can’t even control it. That is why God
tells the Israelites to go into their homes and smear the blood of a paschal
lamb on their doorposts. It is God’s way of warning the Israelites
to stay out of harm’s way.
In the spring of 1992, riots erupted in Los Angeles in response
to the initial Rodney King verdict. As a resident of Los Angeles at that
time, I remember the mayor ordering a curfew. In ordering this curfew,
he was sending the same message to us that God sent to the Israelites
when God ordered them to smear the blood of a paschal lamb on the doorposts.
In each case, a leader was saying that violence has been
unleashed. Violence is random. It does not only harm its intended targets.
It can easily spin out of control. Take this precaution, and hopefully
the terror will “pass over” your life, and you will not become
This perhaps is an important lesson that can be learned from
looking at God’s role in the tenth plague. If God can’t fully
control the outcome of God’s divine actions, how much the more so
are we mere mortals less able to control the ramifications of our actions,
particularly when they involve the unleashing of violence?
In an age when weapons become more and more sophisticated
and lethal, in an age of nuclear capability, in a world like the one we
live in today, it is a message that we need to ponder. Its importance
can’t be underestimated.
Elliot Fein teaches Jewish Religious Studies at the Tarbut
v’Torah Community School in Irvine.
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