The Literature of Plagues, I:  The Plagues of Egypt

This is a story that requires no retelling. Anyone who is not very familiar with the account in Exodus (basically chapters 5-12) will at least have seen the Cecil B. De Mille movie.  

I should confess that as a young atheist, I rooted for the Egyptians, since they were cleaner, better looking, and much better actors than Charlton Heston and his accomplices, though my opinion shifted when my sister, stashed away in a Catholic boarding school, started giving me books of Bible stories.  Then I wished I had been born Jewish and thus heir to to the Promise I did not believe in for one minute.  It was only as a Christian, that I realized that we are truly heirs.

Moses and Aaron have been instructed to tell Pharaoh that the Lord demands that he let the children of Israel return to the land promised to them.  Pharaoh is unimpressed: “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” and he increases the misery of the Israelites.  

Moses should have expected this reaction, since the Lord has revealed to him that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart.  The Egyptians are then treated to a series of warnings:  Aaron’s rod is turned into a serpent, the waters are turned to blood, a horde of frogs covers the land, followed by lice, flies, murrain, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of every firstborn.

Commentators and theologians, depending upon their own proclivities, either see everything, including Pharaoh’s heart, mind, and will, as determined by the Lord, who is making an example of the Egyptians to demonstrate His own power and effect the liberation of the Israelites, or they interpret Pharaoh’s actions as compatible with his own character and assign him responsibility for the disasters that befall him.  

My own view, for what it is worth, is that no one at the time or for many centuries would be able to distinguish between these two positions.  The Greeks were the first to develop a logic that made such distinctions possible, and even today only a small fraction of the world’s population can do it.  I do not believe Americans are in any way exceptional in their capacity for making rational distinctions.  

A child, if told about the plagues of Egypt, would want to know why they are called plagues.  After all, only one of them can be regarded as a disease fatal to humans.  The simple answer is that plague comes from Greek πληγή, a blow and thus metaphorically a disaster, by way of Latin plaga.  The plagues, then, are beatings administered to Pharaoh and his people to teach them a lesson and compel them to obey his commands.  In good old American, the Egyptians are supposed to “wise up.”

I am not going to enter into any debate about double predestination or free will.  As I indicated above, ancient Jews, as their mind is shown to us in the Old Testament, did not ordinarily make a clear distinction, and it is only in the prophets that individual human beings are held accountable for their own sins and are not punished for the sins of others.  

The principle of collective responsibility is virtually universal in the human race, and no matter how we moderns—Cartesians all—pretend to ourselves we don’t think this way, we do.  If the son of a Mafia don suffers misfortune, we smile knowingly: He’s only getting what he deserves, though the poor fellow might be another Saint Francis.  When AIDS ripped through the New York and San Francisco, we knew it was that mean old man of the old covenant who was punishing not only homosexuals but all the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah.  

Like Job’s comforters we know that people who suffer must have done something to deserve it.  If we are Hindus, we might explain it by the sins committed in a previous incarnation; if we are Calvinists, we might say they were marked out for damnation before they were born.  If we are typical representatives of any number of sects, Christian and non-Christian, we might say that some deity is punishing them for their failure to worship him.

One of the great strengths of the Old Testament, is that it does not engage much in idle speculations or show any interest in fine distinctions.  Pharaoh has been wicked in persecuting the Israelites, and both he and the people are his extended family suffer for it—as usually happens in everyday life.  It wasn’t fair that the Bushes dragged us into wars where young Americans died in endless conflicts that are bankrupting our people.  It’s not fair that people who could not stand Barack Obama had to bear the burden of his disastrous policies.

“Not fair” is the cry of every boy in the schoolyard, but, fair or not, we have to accept our tribulations and go on.  Whether we know it or not, Job is Everyman, and every man is Job. We cannot help thinking of great pestilences as a punishment for our sins.  Christians will think of abortion, homosexuality, and fornication, and Leftists will blame capitalism and offenses against the great goddess Gaia.  Perhaps we are all right:  We reap what we sow, and even when, after searching our conscience, we conclude we have done nothing to deserve either the loss of friends and kinsmen to a painful disease or the inconvenience of being locked up with the family members whose loss we should mourn.  

Reading Exodus with an open mind—instead of looking for quick confirmation of all the smug little assumptions we use to belittle both the Creator and his created universe—we are forced to ask ourselves who we are and which side we are on. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Brent says:

    One of my Old Testament professors explained the Hebrew word behind plague (nega) as a “blow” or a “punch,” as in what a boxer throws. The corresponding verb is used to describe what the Lord did to Jacob in their wrestling match by the Jabbok (Gen 32:25).

  2. Laura Brickman says:

    Hi Tom, wow, uncovered alot! I wonder what a rabbi would reply,
    one who studies Tulmud, and goes on and on… I donot believe or
    thnk that we are responsible for the sins of others or of our
    relatives. God help us if we are! But as my husband, who is
    JEWISH, would say, “these are nice stories”… This is an interesting
    thought provoking article.

  3. Laura Brickman says:

    Hi again, I should have been clearer about uncovering alot, and
    added in the way people think, which is unfortunate, but TRUE.
    Still thinking about your article. Laura

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I learned a great deal from my late friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner, both from his books and from discussion. His book on the reinvention of Judaism in the time of Theodosius is very valuable, I should say, for those unfamiliar with Judaic studies, that Jack was one of the outstanding figures in the 20th century. One of the things I took from him was the understanding that Judaism was constantly evolvng in response to challenges. I sometimes made the mistake of thinking of Jack as an academic polemicist. He WAS that, of course, but he was also a pious rabbi. When we were in Prague for a conference, I went off to see the grave of Karl Capek, but Jack had meetings with local rabbi and their flocks.

    As for collective guilt, I am not at all arguing for the truth of the proposition here–though I could do that–but indicating it as part of the universal human code.

  5. Brent says:

    One of the interesting details in the account of the plagues is the fact that not until the fourth plague, flies, does God discriminate between the Egyptians and the Hebrew children (between the rest of Egypt and the land of Goshen). Presumably the Nile-turned-blood affected Egyptian and Hebrew alike, likewise the frogs and gnats. The Lord causes it to rain on the just and unjust. The wheat and the weeds grow up together. Only in the eschaton will there be a final sorting out.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Interesting observation, and worth making a sermon on. Speculations on such texts can, however, be risky, if the deduction drawn does not conform to Christian teaching–as yours does. I make it a point to avoid using the word “presumably” and the like, even in thought, in reference to Scriptures.

    Now, I hope everyone is looking at Thucydides Book II and at least thinking about the beginning of the Oedipus.