After nine punishing plagues, the Egyptians are dealt the final, decisive blow. The firstborn of Egypt, from Pharaoh's heir-apparent to the lowliest member of Egypt's hierarchical society, are struck:
And it came to pass at midnight that God struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. (Shmot 12:29-30)
The first nine plagues brought everyday life in Egypt to a grinding halt, and inflicted pain on every Egyptian - physical pain, as well as humiliation and spiritual angst. The entire empire had been brought to the brink of collapse, but one more plague was to be suffered, and that final plague accomplished what the first nine did not: Only the tenth plague sets the Jewish People free.
And he called for Moshe and Aaron by night, and said, Rise up, and get out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve God, as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also. And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, 'We are all dead men.' (Shmot 12:31-33)
The final plague differs from all of the preceding nine in several significant ways, only one of which is its particular efficacy in achieving the desired goal. A first important distinguishing feature of the Plague of the Firstborn is stressed by the sages in the Haggada, the re-telling of these events that is the purpose of the Pesach seder:
And God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with great awe and with signs and lessons. And God took us out of Egypt - not through any messenger and not through the service of any seraph and not through a messenger. Rather, the Holy One Blessed be He, Himself and alone, as it says, "And I will go over the Land of Egypt on this night and I will strike every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from man to beast, and I will pass judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Almighty. (Pesach Haggada)
The proof-text for God's "personal", hands-on involvement in the redemption are the verses that describe the unfolding of the tenth plague. By inference, we learn that the sages ascribed the redemption to this plague, and no other.
A second unique feature of the Plague of the Firstborn may be discerned only when looking at the instructions Moshe received prior to the plague.
And God said to Moshe, 'There is one more plague that I will bring upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; after that he will let you leave this place; when he shall lets you go, he shall actually thrust you out of here altogether. Speak now to the people discreetly (literally: in the ears of the people), and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold. And God gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moshe was greatly respected in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's servants, and in the sight of the people. (Shmot 11:1-3)
This, we are told, will be the final plague. However, nowhere in these verses does God say what the plague will be. God tells Moshe to instruct the people that the time has come to take valuable goods from the Egyptians, and the verses may be construed as saying this "cleaning out" of Egypt's silver and gold is, itself, the final blow. It is only when Moshe continues his remarks to the people that he adds - almost as an afterthought - that a devastating plague that will bring Pharaoh and Egypt to their knees, is still on the way.
And Moshe said, 'Thus said God, "About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt; And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there never has been, nor shall there ever be again. (Shmot 11:4-6)
Moshe quotes God: "Thus said God." As we turn the pages back, looking for the speech which Moshe quotes, we are hard-pressed to find it. In this instance, unlike the other plagues, the verses do not seem to record the words that God said to Moshe; this communication seems to have been preserved only as it is reflected in Moshe's words to the people. However, if we widen the parameters of our search, we find that God's instructions regarding the tenth plague were given to Moshe first, before Moshe began his journey back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh:
And God said to Moshe, 'When you go to return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand; but I will harden his heart, so that he shall not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, "Thus said God: 'Israel is my son, my firstborn; And I say to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn.' " (Shmot 4:21-23)
Before Moshe confronted Pharaoh for the first time, before any of the first nine plagues, God told Moshe how the story would end. The tenth plague was, in fact, the first to be foretold, and theoretically Moshe warned Pharaoh, from the outset, that this would be the consequence if he did not cooperate. When we note that the Plague of the Firstborn appears in the text prior to Moshe's return to Egypt, we may posit that this plague represents basic justice and punishment for Pharaoh's decree, approved and enforced by the Egyptian People, to murder all male Jewish infants. This tenth plague was retribution, "earned" by the Egyptians for their unparalleled, unnecessary cruelty toward the Jewish slaves.
When the time comes to prepare them for the last plague, Moshe tells the people that it will begin "cachatzot halyla." While we often imagine and perhaps even translate chatzi halaya as midnight, a very precisely measured and appointed time, it may actually mean "the middle of the night," a far more general description. In fact, the Haggadah itself supports the latter interpretation: the section that enumerates the many miracles that occurred "bachatzi halayla" offers a long list of events that transpired "in the middle of the night"(1); in not one case do we have evidence that it transpired at midnight.(2) If we are precise in our terminology, we begin to see that "midnight", the exact "zero hour" at which the hands of the clock are aligned, is not a significant demarcation of time in Jewish thought. In halachic discussions, midnight is generally seen as an arbitrarily appointed point, a "fence" created within halachic categories to protect people from the sin of allowing the prescribed time for a particular service to pass. Midnight is not a natural demarcation of any intrinsic significance.(3
What can we learn from the unusual language with which Moshe introduces the tenth and final plague? And what difference is there, if any, if the Plague of the Firstborn is to take place 'at night', in the 'middle of the night', or 'at midnight' precisely? As we shall see, the issue may not be striking the Egyptian firstborn at precisely midnight; rather, the crucial point may be night in general.
The last three plagues have an interesting characteristic in common: darkness.
'For if you refuse to let my people go, behold, tomorrow will I bring locusts into your border. And they shall cover the eye of the earth, so that it will be impossible to see the earth; and they shall eat the remnants that were spared from the plague of hail, and they shall eat every tree which grows for you in the field.' And they covered the eye of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they ate every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left; and no greenery remained on the trees or the shrubs of the field in all of the land of Egypt. (Shmot 10:4-5,15)
When the locusts struck (the eighth plague), they covered the "eye" of the earth,(4) and caused darkness. The ninth plague seems to continue this darkness, to deepen it and take it to a new level:
And God said to Moshe, 'Stretch out your hand toward heaven, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that will be palpable. (Shmot 10:21)
The final plague, the Plague of the Firstborn, took place 'in the middle of the night'; again, when darkness reigns. The preceding seven plagues all apparently began in daylight and were not were bound by the cycle of day and night, darkness and light. What is the significance of this common element shared by the last three plagues?
A rather peculiar exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh may give us new insight into this question. In the middle of these three last plagues, which may be regarded as three degrees of darkness, Moshe demands that Pharaoh release the entire nation, young and old. Pharaoh's response deserves closer examination:
And Moshe said, 'We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; it is a festival to God for [all of] us.' And he said to them, 'May God only be with you if I will let you leave with your little ones. You must realize that evil (ra'a) will confront you (literally: is before your face). It will not be so; let the men go and serve God if that is what you really desire.' With that, Pharaoh had them expelled from his presence. (Shmot 10:9-11)
Pharaoh seems to be warning them that the participation of the entire nation in this festival is a very bad idea. The word he uses to describe the dire consequences is ra'a, which is usually translated as "bad" or "evil." This warning seems extremely strange; Pharaoh has not, up to this point, been particularly caring or benevolent, nor has he displayed any concern for the welfare and preservation of the Jewish slaves. Is this actually a warning, or is Pharaoh gloating, anticipating some terrible calamity which will befall his erstwhile slaves?
Rashi(5) cites an interpretation of these verses that associates ra with the Egyptian sun god, Ra,(6) represented by an ominous star that portended bloodshed and death. According to this reading of the verses, Paroah's reading of the astrological signs indicated that blood would be spilled in the desert, and the Egyptian deity Ra would be victorious.
This interpretation seems to be borne out by Moshe himself: When the Israelites sinned with the Golden Calf and God threatened to wipe them out, Moshe's arguments on behalf of the nation refer to this same ra'a, this same evil - or, this same Egyptian deity:
Why should the Egyptians be able to say that You took them out with evil intentions (bera'ah) to kill them in the hills, and to wipe them off the face of the earth? Turn away from your fierce anger, and refrain from doing this evil (ra'ah) to Your people. (Shmot 32:12)
If God wipes out the nation, people would say that "ra/Ra" killed them; Pharaoh's vision of their doom would be brought to fruition, his faith in the sun god vindicated. God's Name would be desecrated, for the Egyptians would claim that their god was more powerful. This is the argument Moshe uses to dissuade God from carrying out the sentence; God acquiesces and the people are spared.(7)
It is in this context that we should re-read the verses that introduce the Plague of the Firstborn. God tells Moshe that the final plague is coming, but he adds another piece of information, explains an additional objective of this final plague:
For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment; I am God. (Shmot 12:12)
Not only will the firstborn be struck, but the gods of Egypt will be decimated. This aspect is not unique to the tenth plague; in fact, we may say that the plagues attacked Egypt's religious hierarchy as much as they dismantled the Egyptian social and economic hierarchies. The deities of Egypt had been humbled by the very first plagues: The Nile was seen as a deity in Egypt, the source of life, of sustenance and prosperity. The fact that three of the first four plagues come from the Nile,(8) surely was of tremendous theological significance for the Egyptians. They must have felt that their world as well as their worldview was unraveling before their eyes. When the mighty Nile was turned to blood, they perceived their deity as wounded and perhaps dying. In a larger sense, Pharaoh saw himself as the life-force of the Nile, a deity in his own right; this is stressed by the Prophet Yechezkel:
Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him, and against all Egypt; Speak, and say, 'Thus says Almighty God: Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lies in the midst of his streams, who has said, "My river is my own, and I have made it for myself." (Yehezkel 29:2-3)
Moshe addressed Pharaoh in his capacity as god of the Nile. It is for this aspect of Pharaoh's power that Moshe is sent to speak to Pharaoh on the banks of the Nile. It is in his capacity as a member of the Egyptian pantheon that Pharaoh was threatened by the plagues, and it was on those terms that Pharaoh responded to Moshe and invoked the power of Ra.
Ra was no minor figure in the Egyptian pantheon: Ra was the sun god, the most powerful of all the Egyptian deities.(9) Thus, the last three plagues should be seen as an attack on the Egyptians' most central beliefs. Just as the first three of the first four plagues attacked the Nile and shook the Egyptians' belief in the powers of the god who ruled the Nile, so the final three plagues were direct attacks on the Egyptian sun god: The plague of locusts turned day into night and the sun god was defeated. The plague of darkness went one step further, exploding the myth of the sun god completely: three days of darkness, days completely devoid of sunlight, destroyed the reputation of the erstwhile god.
Now, the ultimate plague would strike in the middle of the night, a time the Egyptians had come to fear and loathe. Their beloved firstborn, demi-gods in the socio-political hierarchy of Egypt, were taken from them in one terrible, incomprehensible moment.
At that very same moment in the middle of the night, the Jews were free. With the very same strike of the clock, in the middle of the night, the Egyptians became vulnerable - and the Jews became confident. At that very same moment, in the middle of the night, the Jews were liberated: With the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh capitulates. In the poignant description of the Midrash,(10) Pharaoh searches for Moshe and Aharon, running in the night from door to door in the Jewish quarter. He pleads with them to leave, implores them to take the entire nation and go immediately. Pharaoh capitulates completely: "You are free, you are free!" he shouts at them, but Moshe and Aharon retort: "Are we thieves that skulk about in the night? We will leave in the morning."
The first act of freedom was choosing not to leave Egypt when Pharaoh told them to do so. God had commanded that no one was to leave their homes that night, and the nation exercised their right, as a free people, to obey the word of God, and not the word of Pharaoh. They marched out of Egypt at the hour when the sun god was perceived to have been at the height of power. There would be no mistake about it: day or night, midnight or sunlight - Egyptian deities were powerless, meaningless. The Jews were set free when the firstborn were struck - at night, but they left Egypt the following morning, in broad daylight, with their heads held high, and the vanquished Egyptian gods no more than a memory.(11)
1. One episode that did transpire at midnight is recounted in the book of Judges chapter 16 regarding Shimshon. Significantly, his downfall is caused by a woman named Delilah, a name which seems to categorize her as "of the night."
2. Pesach Haggda. See Michilta Bo, section 13.
3. See Talmud Bavli Brachot 2a chapter one Mishna 1: ...but wherever the sages say until midnight, the precept may be performed until the dawn comes up. The precept of burning the fat and the [sacrificial] pieces, too, may be performed till the dawn comes up. Similarly, all [the offerings] that are to be eaten within one day may lawfully be consumed till the coming up of the dawn. Why then did the sages say until midnight? In order to keep a man far from transgression.
4. See comments of the Netziv, Haemek Davar Shmot 10:5.
5. Rashi Shmot 10:10, the same idea is found in the Yalkut Shimoni Shmot 32 remez 392.
6. Rabbenu Bachya Shmot 10:10, identifies this star with Mars.
7. Rav Yitzchak Karo connects Ra with dualism.
8. See Shmot Chapter 7 verses 17-20, (blood) 7:28 8:1-2 (frogs) 8:16,17 (swarms of lice).
9. See http://www.touregypt.net/godsofegypt/ra.htm It may also be of significance that Ra is described as follows: "Ra was the almost universally-worshipped king of the gods and all-father of creation. A sun god, he was said to command the chariot that rode across the sky during the day. A king, he was the patron of the pharaoh. Ra is the most central god of the Egyptian pantheon. Ra's position in the pantheon is unusual. He is the only god, apart from Osiris, who is definitely said to be not on the earth. Ra, it is said, is an aging god, still powerful, but too old to deal with his children any longer, so he has gone exclusively to the sky to watch over the world." This indifference to children stands in stark contrast to Moshe's insistence that the children would accompany the adults in worship.
10. Yalkut Shimoni Tehilim chapter 113 remez 872.
11. There would be one more confrontation with the deities of Egypt, see my article "The Eleventh Plague" http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2009_01_01_archive.html.