Friday, April 22, 2011

Jonathan Sacks has an essay in his exodus book that seems to argue that all of the midrashic amplifications of the plague of darkness are unnecessary. (He doesn't say this outright, but it follows logically from his argument.)

As it appears on the page, darkness seems like the wimpiest of plagues. No one dies or is even harmed. It's just dark, too dark, in fact, to leave the house or engage in ordinary social intercourse. Following the violence of many of the other plagues, this may have seemed strangely gentle to the interpreters, so embellishments were proposed, such as the idea that the Egyptians were paralyzed, or that the darkness was brought to give cover to the Israelites as they snuck into Egyptians homes to take inventory of the valuables.

In his essay, Rabbi Saks presents an approach to understanding the purpose and power of the darkness plague that requires none of these interpretations. Drawing (without mentioning him) on a theory I first saw in the writings of the lubovitcher rebbe, R. Saks proposes that among their many other purposes, the plagues were designed to embarrass and humiliate the Egyptians Gods (in that comic book I mentioned yesterday, with the green deity, the Egyptian gods are shown receiving bare bottom spankings.) Blood, according to this theory, was how God embarrassed the deity who controlled the Nile and showed him to be powerless, while Frogs was an attack on the egyptian fertility goddess often depicted as a woman with a frog's head.

According to the Rebbe, this view is supported by the Ibn Ezra who taught that blood and frogs affected both Egyptians and Israelites. This was necessary, the rebbe said, because had the Israelites been left unaffected by plagues designed to demonstrate the impotency of egyptian gods, pharaoh and his men would have reasoned that the Egyptian god had scored at least a partial victory. No blood on the Nile on Israelite areas would have been understood to mean that the egyptian Nile god had carried the day in that particular location, and God had been defeated.

All of this is a tempting interpretation, but it breaks down when R. Saks extends it to darkness. As he understands it, this plague was meant to demonstrate the weakness of Ra, the sun god and imagined progenitor of Ramses (son of Ra) the pharaoh who bore his name. Thus, no midrashic explanations and additions are needed to give the plague its teeth. Unfortunately for this theory, we're told specifically that the Israelites all had light in their neighborhoods. Following the reasoning of the rebbe regarding the first two plagues, how can we say that darkness served to embarrass Ra if he was allowed the appearance of a partial victory in Jewish quarters?

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