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.