The myth and function of the Passover plagues
Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.
The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt. Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)
Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.
The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.
First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt. (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE. If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.
Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”
There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.
The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3,500-year-old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.
Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.
Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.
Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?
The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.
The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)
Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.
In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.
But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.
Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.
As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.) The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.
The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.
The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.
In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.
The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.
As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah? What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?
Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.
Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.
In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.
The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god. This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized. And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.
Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.
Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.
But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.
Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither the Exodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story. Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story. When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.
If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.
A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.