The Complete Book of Exodus
Chapter 5 and Chapter 6
Does Moses even intend to free the Israelites? When he first approaches Pharaoh, he doesn't ask for their freedom: He just asks for a respite so they can have a camp meeting in the wilderness. He doesn't say anything about leaving Egypt. Is this a Mosaic negotiating trick—asking for less upfront, then springing the demand for freedom later?
Chapter 7 through Chapter 11
The plagues! God prepares Moses for his Pharaonic faceoff with this strange instruction: "I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet." Judaism is absolutist about its monotheism, in particular about its conviction that God is God and men are men. (This is a key reason why Jews have so much trouble with Jesus Christ.) It's unnerving to see the Lord Himself telling Moses to be God, even if it's just a metaphor, and just for a single encounter with Pharaoh.
The plagues take much, much longer than I remember from childhood, and they're accompanied by a very confusing, double-crossing negotiation, in which Pharaoh repeatedly reneges on promises to Moses.
During the plague chapters, I found myself lingering on the background characters, particularly Pharaoh's increasingly woeful necromancers. These guys are the gangster's dumb sidekicks, they're Hitler's generals, they're the cringing flunkies who do every tyrant's dirty work, and they meet the same bad end as flunkies everywhere. We are introduced to the necromancers when Moses and Aaron first visit Pharaoh. To impress Pharaoh, Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a snake. The cocky necromancers toss down their rods, which turn into snakes, too. But then Aaron's snake gobbles theirs up. God 1, Necromancers 0.
The necromancers, of course, don't learn their lesson. Aaron and Moses turn the Nile and other Egyptian water to blood. The necromancers "did the same with their spells." Aaron and Moses cover Egypt with frogs. The necromancers "did the same with their spells." Moses and Aaron bring lice. But the necromancers, their powers waning, can't conjure up lice. A couple of plagues later, the necromancers' defeat is total. Moses afflicts the Egyptians with boils. The necromancers, summoned to work their counter-magic, don't even show up: They can't because they're covered with boils. The increasing feebleness of their dark arts makes for great black comedy—and a hilariously effective testimony for God's power.
Except for the trouncing of the necromancers, the plagues don't speak well for God. In fact, the episode is the most disturbing in the Bible so far—even more troubling than the Flood. The 10 plagues basically go like this: Moses and Aaron unleash a plague. Pharaoh begs for relief and concedes that the Lord is right. He asks Moses to plead with God to release the plague and vows to let the Israelites go. The plague is lifted, and Pharaoh immediately reneges, because God "stiffened his heart."
The key question: Why does God prolong the Egyptians' suffering? Why would God keep hardening Pharaoh's heart so that He can inflict yet another monstrous plague? God tells us why. Listen carefully:
For I have hardened his heart … in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know I am the Lord.
What an appalling reason! He's causing the plagues so that we can tell stories about the plagues. He's torturing the Egyptians so that we will worship Him. What kind of insecure and cruel God murders—murders first-born children—so that His followers will obey Him, and will tell stories about Him? (Also, how about that euphemism, "displayed My signs"—You call them "signs," I call them "plagues.") Yes, Pharaoh is a monster, and the Egyptians are brutal taskmasters. They deserve to be punished. What's upsetting is that God takes delight in the plagues. He even performs the last and worst plague—the slaying of the first-born—Himself. He wants the plagues to continue and to get worse and worse, so that we will tell stories about them. And lo and behold, 4,000 years later, that's exactly what we do every Passover. Not until this moment did I realize that the seder never pauses to consider the suffering of the Egyptians, or notices that God causes that suffering simply to glorify Himself. Who has an explanation for God's behavior? Am I misunderstanding something?
This chapter, while recounting the 10th plague and the Hebrews' flight from Egypt, also lays out the rules of Passover—the particular dates, the ban on leavened bread, etc. It specifies, as clearly as anything, that only circumcised men can celebrate the Passover offering. Does this exclusion still apply today? Because practically every seder I have ever attended—all Reform or Conservative, never Orthodox—has included non-Jews as guests. Whoops.
To remember that God brought us out of Egypt, the Lord requires us to "redeem" every first-born male son. What does this mean—"redeem" a son? The Bible doesn't explain. I don't remember "redeeming" my son, but maybe it happened at his bris, and I was too addled to notice.
How stupid is that Pharaoh? Egypt has been pummeled by frogs, vermin, lice, cattle disease, hail, and a bunch of other plagues I can't remember; it has lost all its first-born; its gods are manifestly impotent against the wrath of our God (so much so that Pharaoh himself begs Moses to ask the Lord to bless him). But that doesn't deter the idiotic monarch from sending his army after the Israelites. Actually, I suppose it's God's doing again: He takes credit for hardening Pharaoh's heart (more like his brain) so that he makes this doomed pursuit.
(Digression: I just used my Bible to smash a bug on my desk. That's bad, isn't it?)
The crossing of the Red Sea was my bar mitzvah Torah portion way back in 1983, so once upon a time I even knew this story in Hebrew. All I can remember now is that my bar mitzvah speech concerned the geographical debate over the actual location of the Red Sea/Sea of Reeds. That means it's clear I missed the real drama of this chapter: God's ongoing desire to exalt Himself through murder. Before the Egyptians are drowned in the sea, God tells Moses exactly what He is going to do. Moses will part the sea with his rod, and the Israelites will walk through. Then God will "stiffen the hearts" of the Egyptians so they pursue, and then God will drown them. God says, "I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots and his horseman." Or, to put it more straightforwardly: "I will gain glory through killing Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots and his horseman." The moral problem, as I see it, isn't that God is drowning the Egyptians. The Egyptians are wicked, and war is ugly. The problem is that God takes so much satisfaction in it.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.