The Mediocrity of the Tenth Plague

Yet another way to get out of plague 10.

This opinion piece appeared in the Washington Jewish Week last week.

Stephen Richer is the President of Gather the Jews. 


No Biblical story can compete with The Ten Plagues of Passover.  God pulls out virtually every trump card: water-into-blood, hail, locusts, etc.  But like all good performers, God knew that he needed to close his performance with his biggest bang:  The Death of the First Born.

There’s just one problem: the Tenth Plague is highly underwhelming.  Close examination shows that though the Tenth Plague is impressive in terms of glitz and glamor (there’s a reason why Indiana Jones incorporated the Angel of Death), it falls short on actual death and destruction.

Here’s the text of the Tenth Plague:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt.  Every firstborn in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.” (Exodus 11:1–12:36)

Let’s dig deeper.  Namely, let’s consider:  1) Infant mortality, 2) Childhood mortality, 3) The number of children per family, and 4) The coverage of the plague.  Finally, let’s compare the Tenth Plague with a different, all-encompassing, plague.

Historical statistics before the year 600 BCE are scant and somewhat unreliable, but estimations do exist.  One such estimation is the rate of infant mortality.  According to the academic article “Pregnancy and Childbirth,” “Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in [Ancient Egypt].”  Other studies put infant mortality in the ancient world between 33 and 50 percent.  Things in Egypt were even worse because of the absence of midwives (the Ancient Egyptian language lacked a term for “midwife”).  All told, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that 45 percent of all Ancient Egyptians died at infancy.

Even beyond infancy, the life of the average first born Ancient Egyptian was precarious.  Malnutrition plagued most ancient societies, and the uncleanliness of the Nile River – Ancient Egypt’s main water source – bred swarms of diseases.  Finally, it wasn’t only the Israelites who did hard labor – most Ancient Egyptians also worked slave-like jobs that were not conducive to longevity.

Together, points one and two lead to the estimation that the average Ancient Egyptian firstborn had a less than 40 percent chance of living past age six.  Accordingly, he or she likely wouldn’t have been around for the tragedy of the Tenth Plague.

The third point addresses the comparative value of the average first born child.  Seen in today’s terms, the loss is much more tragic – the average American family has just over two children, and almost none die at childbirth.  That’s 50 percent of children lost.  But most historical estimates show us that Ancient Egyptian families were large.  Very large.  Even bigger than today’s Mormon and Orthodox Jewish families – seven or eight children on average.  The prolific nature of Ancient Egyptians resulted both form circumstance: effective birth control did not exist, and by design: parents recognized children as the day’s Social Security.  But regardless of cause, the large number of children serves to dilute the importance of the first born child.

Finally, the extent of the Tenth Plague is not as broad as initially imagined.  Pharaoh is a first born child, and yet he is not struck down by the Angel of Death.  This has led some Torah students to conclude that firstborns are exempt from the Tenth Plague upon starting their own families.  Considering most Ancient Egyptians started their own families in their early teen years, this limits the window of the Angel’s opportunity for death and destruction.

To summarize the argument at this point, we have established that 1) Firstborn children were likely already dead at the time of the Tenth Plague, 2) Firstborn children, if still alive, accounted for only a small fraction of a total family, and 3) Firstborn children were exempt from the Tenth Plague upon starting their own family, something that happened fairly quickly.

See in this light, the potency of the Tenth Plague is severely limited.  In fact, it now pales in comparison to a plague that affected all Egyptians equally.  Take, for instance, locusts (plague eight):

“The locusts ascended over the entire land of Egypt, 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)

Not only did these locusts destroy all crops; they also likely carried fatal diseases that couldn’t be countered by Ancient Egypt’s primitive medicines.  Any disease that was born from the locusts would know of no artificial limitations pertaining to birth order.

So what happened?  Did God play his Ace of Spades too soon and only have a Jack left for his tenth play?  Or did he simply know that we Hollywood suckers would really love a swift spirit with a formidable name and good visual effects?



4 replies
  1. Michael Hasson
    Michael Hasson says:

    The point of the plagues was to demonstrate that Hashem has mastery over all aspects of the creation, because the Egyptians were the epitome of materialistic idol worshipers. Thus, since creation took place via 10 utterances or processes, the 10 plagues were a sort of undoing to exemplify Hashem’s total control of the material world. Since the life of the human being was the final stage of the creation, the final plague was to demonstrate that Hashem decides human life. It wasn’t some sort of card trick meant to awe the Egyptians.

  2. Scott
    Scott says:

    This entire “opinion” is premised on the assumption that G-d “needed to close his performance with his biggest bang.” Who ever said that? Why make that assumption? An English translation will only get you so far.

  3. Pacy
    Pacy says:

    To answer all your questions I quote your words to make it clearer for the reader. “To summarize the argument at this point, we have established that 1) Firstborn children were likely already dead at the time of the Tenth Plague, 2) Firstborn children, if still alive, accounted for only a small fraction of a total family, and 3) Firstborn children were exempt from the Tenth Plague upon starting their own family, something that happened fairly quickly.”

    However, this verse contradicts your overall point. The following verse states: And Pharaoh arose at night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no house in which no one was dead. Ch12 verse 30.

    To answer your first question, that the firstborn were already dead. Rashi offers two answers:
    If there was no firstborn, the oldest household member was called the firstborn, as it is said: “I, too, shall make him [David] a firstborn” (Ps. 89:28) (Tanchuma Buber 19).

    Another explanation: Some Egyptian women were unfaithful to their husbands and bore children from bachelors. Thus they would have many firstborn; sometimes one woman would have five, each one the firstborn of his father (Mechilta 13:33).

    Your second question that the loss of a family member to large family is less significant in comparison to a small family. I think you are wrong to assume and quantify the pain of parent. Every single child is precious and a world onto its own.

    Your third question that once a firstborn marries he loses his status Therefore, pharoh survived. I don’t find supported for this in the commentary. Where is your source?

    Mechilta answers why pharoh survives, it explains that Pharaoh, too, was a firstborn, but he remained [alive] of the firstborn. Concerning him, He [God] says: “But, for this [reason] I have allowed you to stand, in order to show you My strength” (Exod. 9:16) at the Red Sea. — [from Mechilta]

  4. Will/Ze'ev
    Will/Ze'ev says:

    *yawn* We already had this roe last year. Rashi explains that in homes that did not have a bechor (a firstborn), the head of the household was taken. Don’t try to say Rashi was making up some ‘post-facto bs’ as you so elequently put it last year. Rashi did not have access to any of the statistics we have today such as infant mortality rates in the ancient world and could have been content to understand the role of this on its simplest, textual level as many did.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *