By ARTHUR WASKOWPublished: JANUARY 18, 2009 16:00AdvertisementExtract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
The Torah portions Va'era and Bo, Exodus 6:2-13:16, are read on Shabbat, January 24 and January 31, respectively
Heard through 21st-century ears, the plagues that beset ancient Egypt in the Torah's story of liberation from Pharaoh are ecological disasters (Exod. 7:13 to 11:10). The rivers become undrinkable, locusts consume the crops, a climate disaster of unprecedented hailstorms assails the country, mad cow disease descends upon the herds, a sandstorm of impenetrable darkness - a darkness you could actually feel, not only see - holds prisoner the land and its inhabitants.
All brought on by Pharaoh's stubbornness, his arrogance, his dependence and insistence on horse-chariot armies to subdue other peoples abroad and slave-driving overseers to subdue workers and ethnic minorities at home.
So go the major outlines of the story. But within these stark, boldly inscribed black-letter texts is hidden a more subtle chiaroscuro of the psychology of power. Why did Pharaoh act in such self-destructive ways? (Remember, "Pharaoh's army got drowned, deep in the Red Red Sea.")
When Moses first invokes Divine power, showing Pharaoh that he can turn a stick into a snake, Pharaoh is dismayed, but after his court experts perform the same trick, he "strengthens" his own heart and moves forward on his imperial course. When Moses raises the ante and has his stick swallow the sticks of the Egyptians, again Pharaoh is taken aback, but strengthens his own heart and refuses to let the Israelites make a festival for themselves.
This stuff may be magic, but what follows is stark reality. What we call the "plagues" begin. Moses strikes the Nile, the life-blood of Egypt, with his stick - and now no mere magic trick follows but a major eco-catastrophe: A "red tide" ironically drowns the Nile into what tastes and smells like blood. The source of Egypt's life becomes undrinkable, and all its fish die. This time Pharaoh is frightened, but when his own magicians show they too can pollute the streams, he strengthens his heart against the poor - and God.
Then come the frogs, and Pharaoh surrenders for a moment, but when the frogs vanish, he toughens his heart. Again, when swarms of mosquitoes infest the land, he wavers but toughens his heart again. Mad cow disease strikes the herds, but Pharaoh toughens his heart.
Boils erupt on the bodies of Egyptians, and now for the first time in response to any of the plagues, YHWH - the Breath of Life Itself - strengthens Pharaoh's heart.
When hailstorms far worse than had ever afflicted Egypt shatter crops, Pharaoh strengthened his own heart.
Then Moses warns Pharaoh of a plague of locusts that will eat away not only the present crops but their seed for the future, and the will of Pharaoh's courtiers finally breaks. "Do you not see that you are destroying Egypt?" they cry out to Pharaoh. But once again the Breath of Life toughens Pharaoh's heart, and he overrules even his own advisers, so bent is he on reasserting his own power.
There comes a darkness so thick it could be felt - perhaps a three-day sandstorm - but once again, though Pharaoh trembles, God hardens Pharaoh's heart.
Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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