Friday, January 4, 2008

Va'era: explaining plagues and miracles

The story of the exodus from Egypt began in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot. This week’s reading, Va’era, comprises the closing verses of the “call of Moses,” and the narration of seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, and hail.

Commentators have chosen different ways to break the ten plagues into groups. One way, based on the nature of each plague, is to see them as five groups of two. The first two arise from the Nile; lice and insects are similar; so are pestilence and boils; hail and locusts damage food crops; the last two directly threaten human life.

Another way breaks them into two groups of four, with the last two standing alone. In this arrangement, the first four are essentially warnings, while the next four cause serious harm.

A structural approach, based on other elements in the narration , treats them as three groups of three. In each group, Moses and Pharaoh meet outdoors before the first plague in the group, whereupon Moses presents a demand for liberation and then announces the coming plague. Before the second, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh in the palace, again warning him of the plague to come. They give no warning before the third plague in each cycle.

Traditional interpreters have been most troubled by the repeated statements that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” apparently delaying the liberation of the Hebrews and causing plague after plague to be inflicted on the people of Egypt. Liberal Jews, in addition, have been troubled by questions about the historicity of the plagues.

It is possible, as liberal readers have often tried, to explain the plagues and miracles of Exodus as natural phenomena. And teachers who attempt to teach strictly according to the Biblical account may find themselves in the position of the parent in a well-known joke. Startled by a child’s account of how Seabees built a pontoon bridge to cross the Sea of Reeds, after which Moses called in an air strike to destroy it before the Egyptians could follow them, the parents asks, “Did your Sunday-school teacher tell you all that?” The child replies, “No, but if I told you what we heard in Sunday school, you’d never believe it.”

There is reason to doubt at least some of the details of the plagues. References to them in the psalms differ in the number and order, suggesting that later editors might have reworked various traditions into the orderly, symmetrical account that we have here.

But whether the plagues and miracles actually occurred, or whether they came about through natural or through supernatural means, is a question that is barely worth pursuing. Would proving that Egypt suffered a series of natural disasters corresponding to these plagues—or, conversely, proving that it did not—change the way that we understand this text?

What matters most to us is that this narrative presents the experience of the liberation from Egypt as our ancestors understood it. In Jewish, Biblical tradition it is the exodus that turns Israel, until then an assemblage of tribes or clans, into a nation; it is the exodus that makes the God of Abraham the God of a nation; it is the exodus that brings Israel to Sinai and the covenant.

Even doubt about the historicity of the exodus itself—and some radical scholars do question it—would not change its meaning for us, or its standing as the formative experience of our people.

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