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