The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
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?
SOME DISTINGUISHING FEATURES
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.
WAVE THREE - UNPRECEDENTED POWER
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?
THREE WAVES - THREE THEOLOGICAL LESSONS
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.
THEMES OF THE PLAGUES
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.
THE PLAGUE OF THE FIRSTBORN
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!
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