The Ten Plagues: A Lesson in Faith

  • Rav Alex Israel





Dedicated in memory of Florence Lipstein, whose yahrzeit is 25 Tevet
by Sidney and Cheryl Lipstein





The Ten Plagues: A Lesson in Faith

by Rav Alex Israel



            The devastation that the ten plagues brought to Egypt was of epic proportion: the entire water supply of the country turning to blood, a plague of swarming lice, painful boils breaking out all over the body, total blackout and darkness.  These plagues brought daily life in Egypt to a standstill.  Pestilence destroyed the livestock of the country and locusts destroyed the crops.  By the time we are finished, we can almost visualize this land, broken beaten and worn, in the aftermath of the most severe disaster situation ever experienced.  It is not surprising that Pharaoh's aides say to him:


"How long will this be a trap for us?  Let the men go to worship Hashem their God!  Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?" (10:7)


            Everyone in Egypt can see that "Egypt is lost," the country has been brought to its knees.  Apparently, the plagues have achieved their aim.




            But what of God?  What is the aim of these plagues?  What is their purpose?  Traditionally, we assume that the plagues were utilized by God in order to gain Pharaoh's permit to leave the country.  But does God need to bring such damage, chaos and ruin to achieve this goal?  God should be able to do anything!  If you are already doing miracles, why not put the Egyptians to sleep for a week and let the Jews walk out unnoticed?  Why not make one catastrophic plague that would tip the balance in one fell swoop?  Why plague after plague, an ongoing series of wreckage?


            Indeed, we can strengthen our question by turning to another aspect of the plagues, that of God's psychological control over Pharaoh.  Throughout this story (from the sixth plague and on) we see God "hardening the heart of Pharaoh."  God toughens Pharaoh's will to enable him to withstand the pressures of the plagues, to weather the storm:


"God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them" (9:12).

"For I have hardened his heart..." (10:1).

"And God hardened Pharaoh's heart and he did not set the Israelites free"(10:20).


             If God's true desire is to free the Children of Israel, then why does he harden Pharaoh?  Let Pharaoh break under the pressure!  Let his rule crumble!  The means are not important.  We should be working to get the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery!  Certain commentators suggest that God wants Pharaoh to remain balanced.  He wants Pharaoh to make a decision based on rational argument, rooted in "free will," rather than under duress.  But what is the point?  God wants the Jews out!  Why make things more difficult?




             The text of the Torah gives us a clear answer to our question.  It tells us that included in the strategy of the ten plagues was an educational objective.


"The Lord said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh.  For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I may display my signs amongst them, and that you may recount and tell your children and your children's children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed my signs amongst them - in order that you may know that I am the Lord.'" (10:1-2)


             What is the stated aim of the plagues?  It is so that we can tell future generations of the power of God.  The ultimate purpose is that we should "know" God.  Through the clearly miraculous events in Egypt, the Children of Israel witness a spectacle that will forge into their hearts the imprint of the Almighty.  They witness this when they understand that God can harness both natural and supernatural forces directing and controlling their phenomenal strength and enormous power in the fulfillment of his word.  A moment of realization of this sort is a moment of "knowing God."




             Nachmanides develops this idea further.  He concludes his commentary on the plagues and the exodus saga with an interesting piece discussing the role of miracles in the furtherance of faith.  In this context he talks also about the proliferation of laws in our Jewish tradition, which are explicitly aimed at preserving and perpetuating the exodus: "zekher le-yetziat Mitzrayim."  Why do we need so many laws with this purpose in mind?  The Ramban connects the two ideas (Commentary on Exodus 13:16):


"I will now state a general principle which lies at the foundation of many mitzvot (commandments).


"Since the introduction of idolatry into the world ... the attitudes of people, as regards matters of faith, have become confused and have diverged from the true beliefs.  Some people believe that the world has been in existence eternally with no creation ... others feel that God exists but that he does not know the ways of man ... and that there is no reward or punishment.  They say (Ez. 8:20) 'God has departed from the earth.'


"When God performs a miracle in the sight of a desirable collective or individual - a miracle that will affect a change in the laws of nature - these (false) attitudes of faith will be disproved in the clearest way.  For the miracle demonstrates God's mastery over the world: his creation of it and his knowledge of, and involvement in its affairs.  Additionally, when a particular miracle is preceded by a prophetic announcement, the existence of prophecy - that God speaks with man and tells him his secrets - will be proven and this in turn will prove the truth of the entire Torah."


             According to the Ramban, a miracle manages to transform certain philosophical truths into reality.  The person who experiences the miracle will be convinced, in the most powerful manner, of the existence of God, his involvement in the affairs of men and his ability to reward and punish.  The Ramban feels that this was the purpose of the plagues.


             We might put it in this context.  The Children of Israel are at a fundamental nexus in their development.  They are at the birth of their nationhood.  They have had the foundation period of the forefathers.  They have grown in size, but have been enslaved, in exile.  Now is the moment that they are to emerge as an independent entity, as a nation who can control their own affairs.  God wants this nation to be born in an atmosphere of faith.  It is essential that the Jewish nation enter the stage of nationhood with the existence of God in the forefront of their minds.


The Ramban continues:


"... Seeing that God will not perform a sign or miracle in each and every generation, in the presence of any heretic or evil-doer, he commands us to continually create memorials and signs to that which we saw with our own eyes.  Thus, we reproduce these events to our children, and they to their children, until the last generation.  The Torah was very particular about this matter ... and commanded us to write about this miracles "on our hand and between our eyes" (tefillin see 13:9,16), and that we write about it on our doorposts (mezuza) and that we mention it at morning and at night (the Shema) ... and that we build a sukka each year, and so on, for all the laws that we have "zekher le-yetziat Mitzrayim" (to remember the exodus from Egypt)."


             If a single miracle has the power to engender belief in God, then ten miracles of the magnitude of the plagues have a tenfold likelihood of establishing the basic tenets of faith.  The preservation of this episode in the Jewish consciousness, an event that teaches the most crucial of theological lessons is of vital importance.  We attempt to preserve the feeling and the memory of the exodus because they testify to the existence and providence of our God.  We do this through our numerous religious acts that commemorate and preserve the memory of these events.  Through all the practices in which we remember Egypt - kiddush, Pesach, mezuza, the shema, Sukkot and many others - we recall and try to re-live these thoughts and experiences which lead us so directly to a full belief in God.




             Thus far, we have discussed the educational objective of the plagues as regards the Children of Israel (as found in 9:1-2).  But if we look at the verses that describe the drama of the plagues, we shall soon see that there is a new dimension to the story with a very different educational agenda.


             We read in the Passover Haggada how R. Yehuda would divide the plagues into three groupings, identifying each of the plagues by initials.  The division (DeTZakh ADaSH BeACHaV) puts the plagues in this structure:


1.  Blood                                 Frogs                          Lice

2.  Wild Animals                    Pestilence                 Boils

3.  Hail                         Locusts                      Darkness

                                                                         The plague of the firstborn


             How and why did R. Yehuda divide the plagues in this way?  Why not make two groupings of five or some other division?  What is the unifying character of each group?


             When looking closely into the text of the Torah, we can reveal a most deliberate pattern in the narrative of the plagues.  It is a recursive structure.  This table gives some indication of how the plagues are ordered in the text.








"station yourself ... in the morning"




"Go to Pharaoh"






4.Wild Beasts


"station yourself ... in the morning"




"Go to Pharaoh"








"station yourself ... in the morning"




"Go to Pharaoh"











             What we see here is a recurring pattern, with the plagues grouped in threes.  (We will ignore the plague of the firstborn for now and come back to it later.  As we shall see, this plague is in a class of its own.)  Each of these groups can be viewed as a "wave" of plagues.  In each wave, the first two plagues are preceded by a divine forewarning while the third plague strikes suddenly, without a prior notice.  We can also identify the cyclic rhythm in the language of the commands given to Moses.  But what does it all mean?  Why would three waves of plagues be necessary?  Is there anything that differentiates one group from another?




             It is interesting to note some of the features of this structure from within the descriptions of the plagues.  We will give some examples.


             In "Wave 2" it would seem that there is a detail that is stressed repeatedly: that the plague will strike only Israelites and not Egyptians.  In the warning of the plague of wild animals God states:


"On that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no wild animals shall be there ... And I will make a distinction between my people and your people.  Tomorrow this sign will come to be" (8:18-19).


             In the next plague of this wave - pestilence - we see a similar stress in the details:


" ... the Lord will strike your livestock ... with a very severe pestilence.  But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians so that nothing will die that belongs to the Israelites.  The Lord has fixed a time: tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land" (9:3-5).


             Pharaoh even does a spot check to ascertain whether God is keeping to his word:


"When Pharaoh investigated, he found that not one head of the livestock of Israel had died" (9:7).


             The third plague - boils - also affects only Egyptians (see 9:11).  We can see a clear theme here.  In this second wave, the theme of differentiation between Egyptian and Israelite is highlighted.  A clear divide is being drawn, by God, between the two peoples.  We will see why this is so, in a minute.




             In the "Third Wave," a similar thematic makeup is apparent.  This time the stress is on the uniqueness of the plague, or more accurately, its unprecedented power.  All the plagues here will be unparalleled.  The plague of hail begins this "wave."  The warning to Pharaoh is expressed in the following way:


"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 ... This time tomorrow, I will rain down a very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (9:17-19).


             And when the hail arrives, it is true to this forewarning:


"God rained down the hail upon the land of Egypt.  The hail - with fire flashing in the middle of the hailstones - an exceptionally heavy hail such as had not befallen Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (9:24).


             The same is true about the locust plague.  Both in the warning and then when it happens, it is described as a swarm of locusts of such magnitude:


"Something that neither your fathers nor your fathers' fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth to this day ... never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again" (10:6,14).


             And as for the plague of darkness where "for three days no-one could get up from where he was" (10:23), we clearly have a plague of unprecedented proportion.  The linkage between the three plagues of this group is the magnitude of their power; each plague is on a scale inexperienced previously.  Each plague is an unparalleled phenomenon.


             Another point worth mentioning is how the third plague in each group attacks the human body itself whereas the preceding plagues attack property: houses, livestock and crops.  Lice, boils and the darkness that you cannot move in (eating? going to the bathroom?) all represent very unpleasant bodily afflictions.  It is as if in each wave, God gives certain chances, but by the time we reach the third plague of a group, we need no warning and the plagues are designed to really "hit home."


             But where is this all leading?  What are these three cycles of suffering?




             We have seen that the "waves" or groups of plagues have unifying themes.  In truth, we can say that for each of these three groups there is a distinct objective that relates to that theme.  This aim is expressed in the opening warning of each group or "wave" of plagues.  Let us see.


             In the introductory warning to each plague grouping, God gives his motive for that "wave."  The objectives relate to certain theological understandings that Pharaoh has to acquire through the process of the plagues.  The motives read as follows:


For the first wave:


"Thus says the Lord "By this you shall know that I AM THE LORD'" (7:17).


The second wave:


"... that you may know that I am the Lord IN THE MIDST OF THE LAND" (8:18).


The third wave:


"... in order that you may know that there is NONE LIKE ME in all the world" (9:14).


             God is teaching Pharaoh three theological lessons.  It would seem that God wants to bring home to Pharaoh certain facts about God's nature and his power.  There are things that he has to "know."


             The first wave of plagues is aimed to demonstrate to Pharaoh the fact of God's EXISTENCE - "I am the Lord."  The second group will teach of God's involvement in the affairs of man, that God has the ability to effect and control events "in the midst of the land."  This lesson teaches of God's PROVIDENCE.  The third wave is aimed at proving God's OMNIPOTENCE - that God has ultimate power high above any other being.




             This approach is borne out through the contents of each wave.  In the first wave God begins to demonstrate his very existence.  In the first two plagues, Pharaoh remains unimpressed as he watches his own magicians or holy men reproduce the plagues of blood and frogs.  It is only when we get to the third plague that the magicians themselves acknowledge the existence of God.  When they are confronted by dust turning into lice, a phenomenon that they cannot replicate, they exclaim:


"This is the finger of God" (8:15).


             If the religious authorities recognize God, then Pharaoh's refusal to accept God must result from his stubbornness and nothing else. God has been given recognition.


             The other "waves" express their themes rather elegantly.  The second "wave," as we have noted, is animated by the notion of the distinction between Israel and Egypt.  This is aimed at expressing God's INVOLVEMENT or PROVIDENCE.  In these plagues God demonstrates that he has precise control over His actions in the world.  He can differentiate between groups and individuals.  He can time his actions with precision - each of these plagues is to be performed "tomorrow" - he can work within a worldly timeframe.  In this group of plagues God shows his ability to be involved in the worldly arena.


             The third group is designed to prove God's EXCLUSIVE POWER.  To this end, God brings plagues which "never before had there been ... nor will there ever be" any like them.  These plagues are unprecedented, unique in their style - ice and fire together in the hail - and in their force.  God clearly shows that He is all-powerful.




             Why do we need all three lessons?  Why are these three points so important that God wishes to drive them home to Pharaoh?  In fact, why are we bothering to "educate" Pharaoh at all?


             When Moses makes his first approach to Pharaoh, he receives a sharp rebuff.  Pharaoh rejects his request with a rejection of the Jewish God.


"Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'  But Pharaoh said, 'Who is the Lord that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go'" (5:1-2).


             Pharaoh's rejection of the Israelite plea for freedom is an outgrowth of his non-recognition of God.  He does not accept the existence of God and certainly does not accept His ability to control him.  As far as Pharaoh is concerned, the gods of Egypt are far more powerful than the God of Israel.  The Israelite slavery testifies to that fact.  If Egypt can enslave Israel then the Egyptian god must overpower the Israelite God.


             There are three stages to Pharaoh's education.  First, he has to admit the existence of this God.  But he can still claim that this God is a transcendent God who has no involvement in human affairs and therefore can be effectively ignored.  God comes to teach him of his ability to intervene in the most minor of details in this world.  But still, Pharaoh might suggest that this God exists and is involved in human worldly events, but that the Egyptian gods are stronger, more influential and powerful.  To this God answers with the third wave of plagues expressing God's exclusive and supreme power.




             At the beginning of this "shiur" we discussed the possibility of God bringing a single plague, a decisive blow, which would activate the freedom of the Israelites.  We realize now that God had a very different plan in mind.  But it would seem that the plague of the firstborn fits NOT into the educational model that we have just described but rather, to this category.  The killing of the firstborn is designed to be the final blow, the last step to freedom.


             This plague has been sitting on the sidelines exactly for this purpose from the very beginning.  Even before Moses enters Egypt, God has told him:


"... 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 firstborn son.'" (4:22-23)


             The plague of the firstborn was always ready for this purpose.  It was this blow which was designed to activate the latch of freedom, to make a breech in the prison walls.  But the other nine plagues have a very different motif.  The nine plagues come to teach Pharaoh about God.




             Through a very deliberate and systematic look at the literary structure of the plague narrative, we have come up with a new understanding of the role of the ten plagues.  We have spoken of theological lessons for both the Jewish people and for the Egyptians.


             Other details of the story reflect this too.  Moses was supposed to introduce each plague as he met Pharaoh by the river in the early morning.  Here again, he was attacking the notion that was popular in Egypt.  For Egyptians, both Pharaoh and the Nile were gods.  God deliberately chooses to confront Pharaoh at this place.  This is a showdown of the Gods.  And we know who wins!