Was the Tenth Plague the Best Closing Act?

Stephen Richer is a co-founder of Gather the Jews.  The opinions in this piece belong solely to Stephen.

This week’s Torah portion (Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16) is one of the best and most famous.[1] It chronicles the final three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born.

Like any good performer, God knew that to really win an audience—in this case, the doubting Jewish people and, more importantly, Pharoah and the Egyptians—you have to end a show with a bang.  To all outward appearances, the death of the first born was just what the doctor ordered.  After all, the tenth plague won the name of the Jewish holiday (“Passover”), and it earned a cameo in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark (when the ark is opened at the end, the angel of Passover comes out and kills all the Nazis).

But is this reasonable?  Was the tenth plague really the mother of all plagues?

Let’s take a look at what God promised: “So said the Lord, At the dividing point of the night, I will go out into the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharoah who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn animal.”  (Exodus 11:4 – 11:5)

Prima facie, this looks like a good contender for worst plague.  And as the first born male who is the son of a first born male, it really hits home. [2] But whereas the plague would have cut short my family tree, it wouldn’t have had nearly as devastating an effect on Ancient Egyptian families for a number of reasons:

1) A very high percentage of first born infants died anyway.  According to an article called “Women In The Ancient World,”  “Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in [Ancient Egypt].”[3] Infant mortality rates were high across civilizations at this time (due to unsanitary conditions and malnutrition), and things in Egypt were even worse because they didn’t have midwives (historically determined by the fact that their language lacked a word for the term).  All told, it’s estimated that between 33 and 50 percent of children in Ancient Egypt died in the first weeks of their lives.

2) Even beyond infancy, the life of the average first born Egyptian was pretty precarious.  Malnutrition didn’t go away after escaping the cradle, and the Nile River bred diseases that were insalubrious to say the least.  Finally, it wasn’t only the Israelites who did hard labor—most Egyptians worked at hard labor, an activity not conducive to longevity.

3) Another, and last for this essay, mitigating factor is the fact that Ancient Egyptian families were very very large.  Parents wanted to have as many kids as possible (the average was between 7 and 8 ) because they were seen as the first method of Social Security—a crutch for the elderly.

All told, first born children had about a 60 percent chance of dying before Passover was even heard of, and even if they did survive to die during Passover, their deaths most likely did not represent the end of their family lines.

Call me callous if you will, but I’m simply making the case that God should have played another plague as his trump card.  Which?  Nearly any. But I’ll leave you with this description of the locusts from this week’s portion just to hit home the point:

“The locusts ascended over the entire land of Egpyt, and they alighted within all the border[s] of Egypt, very severe; before them, there was never such a locust [plague], and after it, there will never be one like it.  They obscured the view of all the earth, and the earth became darkened, and they ate all the vegetation of the earth and all the fruits of the trees, which the hail had left over, and no greenery was left in the trees or in the vegetation of the field[s] throughout the entire land of Egypt.” (Exodus 14:14 – 14:15)

The translation from Chabad.org was used for this article.


[1] I wonder if the Obama’s know they named their dog after the portion containing the last three plagues… Or maybe the portion was named after the dog?
[2] The plague has come to be understood as the first born male.  I don’t know where this comes from.  It’s not in the portion.  Maybe the oral law?
[3] See this link for instance: http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/pregnancy%20and%20childbirth.htm

9 replies
  1. Noa Levanon
    Noa Levanon says:

    Two points:

    1) As regards your second footnote: The idea of a male-only plague comes from the text of the Torah portion itself, due to the fact that the Hebrew language distinguishes between genders. The words for the plague itself – ‘machat bechorot’ – can be translated as ‘plague of the firstborn children.’ If this terminology appeared alone, then the use of the plural version of firstborn could suggest gender neutrality. However, the Torah portion also specifies that ‘kol bechor’ (each eldest) will die. Since the word bechor is masculine (as opposed to the feminine bechora), the plague can be understood to be targeting males only.

    2) As regards your entire post: The tenth plague was the first plague in which God truly distinguished between His own people and the Egyptians. Plagues such as blood, hail, locusts, etc, damaged the food supply for the entire land of Egypt. As slaves, the sons of Israel surely suffered equally if not more from such food shortages. The tenth plague – by containing an overt mechanism to spare the Israelites – is the first plague in which God ensures that they will not be collateral damage. For the first time in this story, He represents himself as a selective, protective force, rather than merely a force of chaos and destruction. Thus, while the earlier nine plagues had been intended primarily to send a frightening message to Pharaoh, the tenth plague has the added value of sending a clear and encouraging message to the Israelites. That being the case, I think your analysis sells the tenth plague a little short.

    Reply
  2. Will Gotkin
    Will Gotkin says:

    To Stephen: The tenth plague was quite devestating. First many of the first-borns murdered were not infants. Many were heads of households. Also, our commentaries tell us that Egyptian priesthood was entirely made up of first born males. Plus, the Torah even informs us that “there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was no corpse.” (Exodus 12:30). I don’t know about you, but a death in the family – be it an adult, an infant, a grandparent or whatever – is pretty painful and as evidenced by the text the Egyptians did not take it very well.

    To Noah: This plague is not the first one to distinguish between Jews and Egyptians. There is a wealth of information written in Midrash and by Rashi and other commentators stating that the plagues only affected the Egyptians. For example, the water only turned to blood for the Egyptians. In fact, the Egpytians travelled to Goshen (the Jewish neighborhood in Egypt) en masse to drink of the Jewish water supply, but when an Egyptian tried to drink water it turned to blood. Even if a Egyptian and a Hebrew drank from the same cup the Egyptian would taste blood and the Jew, water.

    During the plague of darkness, the evil people among the Jews were slain. The Jews could see, but G-d made the Egyptians unable to see this so that they wouldn’t erroneously conclude that b/c the Jews were also suffering, the G-d of the Hebrews was not behind the plague.

    Kol tov

    Reply
  3. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    To Noa:

    Thanks for the first point. I didn’t know.

    As for the second point, that doesn’t accord with what my translation says. The first few plagues hit Israelite and Egyptian alike, but not the later ones. Take, as Will said, the darkness episode in this week’s portion. “So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. They did not see each other, and one rose from his place for three days, but FOR ALL THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL THERE WAS LIGHT IN THEIR DWELLINGS.” (Exodus 9:22 – 9:23)

    My argument is definitely assailable on other grounds, but the tenth plague does not stand out because of its discriminating effect.

    Reply
  4. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    To Will:

    Yes. In my translation, that bit reads: “… and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no house in which no one was dead.”

    This is a potential stumbling block for my argument. And given the amount of time I had to write this (I started it only a bit before the Sabbath and posted it 10 minutes before candle lighting), and the length I allowed myself (I didn’t want this to be a 2,000 word piece), I chose to just ignore it. ?

    But it merits addressing now.

    I honestly find the passage a little unbelievable if read literally. Considering that only one out of every seven Egyptians was a first born, the chances of a non-first born male marrying any female (because the first born thing didn’t matter for them) are (6/7) multiplied by (7/7) which is about 85 percent. Yes, if this family had children at all, they had to have a first born (although not necessarily a male first born), but the chances of that child surviving (or any child for that matter) were less than 50 percent. All said, I’m guessing that a very good percentage of Egyptian nuclear households had no first born human presence.

    The plague extends to animals. But livestock had already been wiped out entirely by the plagued of pestilence, and the average Egyptian household did not keep pets at this time, so I don’t really see how this animal corollary affected that many households.

    Rather, I imagine the passage is meant to be read more along the lines of “for there was no house in Egypt that was not affected.” When somebody dies in our neighborhood, or school, or community, everyone is affected with sadness. But this is a lot different than saying that everyone has a death in their nuclear families.

    Added to this mitigating factor is simply the nature of the other plagues. The plagues of wild beasts, hail, and locusts sure seem like they would have caused more direct death, and death through starvation or property loss, than the tenth plague. But the Torah is selective (unfairly so?) in its reporting of the plagues. We’re not given any death count on the first nine plagues, but we are for the tenth. This is like saying that the last battle of the war was the worst because 25,000 died, while describing all of the preceding battles as “hard fought.”

    Thanks Will.

    Reply
  5. Will
    Will says:

    Good points.

    Only thing I can think of is either

    A) The statistics about Egypt are incorrect. Honestly, how much can we really know about infant mortality rates etc. in a civilization as ancient as Egpyt? Not too long ago archaeologists concluded that all Egyptians cared about was religion, b/c religious structures were all that had been found at the time. Plus, the ‘fact’ that there were no midwives in Egypt “as evidenced by the fact that there was no word for them” is a bit sketchy. They may have had midwives and we don’t know what they were called. After all, the Torah makes mention of the Hebrew midwives living in Egypt. Perhaps the Egyptians also had midwives.

    or

    B) The plagues could have seemed like natural disasters while this was very clearly something beyond nature. Also, it could be that in Egyptian society firstborns were valued more highly (not unusual in most cultures) and their deaths more devestating to Egyptian families.

    I’m just speculating.

    Reply
  6. Will
    Will says:

    Or………

    It could be that a house doesn’t mean an actual house but a family, an extended one as in “house of David” etc. It could be that every family had a relative or slave or something who died.

    Sorry, just more speculation.

    Reply
  7. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Ha! Thanks for playing this out with me Will. But can I take a jab at you (I only do so because we’re friends and I know you won’t take this the wrong way)? I find it a bit ironic that you — and others — readily (and with good reason) question the veracity of our knowledge of ancient history, such as the stats on childbirth and midwifery that I listed above. Yet you are without doubt that the story of the Torah, the oral law, and other ancient things central to fundamentalist Judaism are without flaw, 100% true. Basically, if a history book told me that it knew the history of Ancient Egypt with 100% accuracy, I would call bullshit. When the Torah tells me the same thing, major alarm bells go off in my head.

    Reply
  8. Will Gotkin
    Will Gotkin says:

    Fair point and it’s not like I haven’t heard that before.

    There are numerous arguments one can bring to prove the authenticity of Torah taken from science, history, morality etc., but none of these stands on its own. At the end of the day there are many facts and proofs, but a person can still deny whatever they wish to deny. That being said if there is enough reason to believe the Torah is true – and I do – I am skeptical of anything that seems to contradict its account. For example, if you witnessed a murder with your own eyes and then two investegators came to the crime scene after the fact and draw conclusions about what happened that are different from what you saw, you will know that their must have been an error. By the same token, if something in the Torah seems truly unbelievable or inconsistent, it is usually because we are looking at it from a superficial vantage point. We have a tremendous wealth of commmentary written by people who studied every letter of the Torah. We also have an oral tradition that resolves many inconsistencies as well. I can say with confidence that all inconsistencies have been addressed, but don’t take my word for it. Whether one believes the Torah’s origins divine or not, all one needs to do is a little research to see that there was obviously an oral tradition. If you’re really interested I can send you some interesting stuff on this and you can decide for yourself.

    In any case, your argument about there not being a first born male in every house is pretty obvious. The odds that every single, individual household had a first-born male living in it, regardless of what the infant mortality rate may have been, is pretty low. I agreed with you on that and submitted it to Ask the Rabbi on Chabad.org. His reply:

    Commentaries on exodus 12:30 explain based on the Midrash, and citing a verse in psalms (see for example Rashi- Rabbi Sholomo Yitzchaki) that any household that did not have a first born, the greatest in the household took the place of the firstborn, and was killed during this plague.

    Reply
  9. David Israel
    David Israel says:

    If primogeniture ruled in the Egyptian royal house, why then did Pharaoh not die from the 10th plague? Does the fact that he survived the plague mean that he was not the first born, or that he was exempt? It is well known that the entire priesthood of Egypt was populated by firstborn sons. Are we to assume that the priesthood was wiped out by the plague? First born sons have difficulty in the Torah – Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Reuven, Egyptians….not the best of fortunes.

    Reply

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