Pointing a Finger

It begins: As God had promised Avraham hundreds of years earlier, the Jews will be extricated from Egypt - but the exodus will not be instantaneous. Rather, it will unfold slowly, deliberately: Moshe is sent to “negotiate” the release of the Jewish slaves, but Pharaoh denies any knowledge of the God of the Jews (Shmot 5:2) and digs his heels in; from the outset, Pharaoh chooses to do things the “hard way.”

Moshe and Aharon have been instructed to show the might and power of the God whom Pharaoh claims not to recognize, and their instructions are quite specific: They must use the staff – a symbol with which God had already demonstrated his miracles to Moshe. Significantly, the staff, the symbol of the shepherd, is transformed into a crocodile[1] - one of the major symbols of Egypt.[2] When Pharaoh's in-house sorcerers are able to mimic this same display of power, Pharaoh is momentarily reassured that this "miracle" is nothing more than a parlor trick. But when Aharon's staff[3] swallows up the symbolic representation of Egypt, Pharaoh begins to worry; this, to him, is an ominous portent. The Jews, who had come to Egypt as shepherds, were ostracized and belittled,[4] and eventually enslaved. Now, here they stand, suggesting that the shepherds-turned-slaves will swallow Egypt whole, make it disappear. Nonetheless, despite his fears, Pharaoh puts on a brave face, and carries on.

In short order, The Nile, a central pillar not only of the Egyptian economy but also of Egyptian theology,[5] is turned to blood; to Egyptian eyes, the deity they worship as a powerful life-giving force appears mortally wounded. Again, Pharaoh's sorcerers replicate the miracle, and conjure more blood, supplying Pharaoh with an excuse to continue his defiant behavior.

Had he analyzed things dispassionately, logic would have dictated a completely different course. Even at this early stage, Pharaoh should have realized that he had already lost the war, even though his sorcerers managed to end each battle with a perceived tie. Each of the small, symbolic attacks unleashed by the Jews' representatives focused on a symbol of Egyptian power, a symbol of what made Pharaoh mighty. As the process of Jewish liberation continues, more foundational symbols of Egypt will be attacked, including the darkness which will eclipse the sun god – Pharaoh himself.

Dispassionate analysis on Pharaoh's part is not forthcoming; the next plague, frogs, follows close behind the first. And if the havoc wrought by Moshe and Aharon wasn’t enough, almost comically, Pharaoh's sorcerers conjure up even more frogs, adding to the destructive, noisy party.

Once again, Pharaoh is emboldened when his support staff rise to the challenge. His sorcerers shore up his courage just enough to face the next form of punishment: Lice. While this may not necessarily be the worst of the plagues, it is most certainly annoying. This time, though, the plague descends upon Egypt without warning.  The lice simply appear, and all the dust of the earth is either transformed into or consumed by lice. This time, the sorcerers attempt to replicate the maneuver, but fail.

The magicians did the same with their spells to produce lice, but they could not. (Shmot 8:14)

Having failed, the sorcerers need to be particularly careful: A word out of place could easily lead to a sudden, dramatic end to their careers -  and their lives. Weighing their words, they release a meticulously worded statement to their employer and king:

The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not heed them, as the Almighty had said. (Shmot 8:15)

The Hebrew text of their statement is extremely brief; only three words are spoken, but these words are critically important: If we read them properly, they may be understood as imparting some weighty messages. First, the sorcerers may have intimated to Pharaoh that the God of the Jews exists, and that He is more powerful than the Egyptian Gods. On the other hand, as many commentaries point out, the sorcerers used a very generic term to refer to God; were they, perhaps, referring to an Egyptian deity and not to the God of the Jews? Were they trying to impart their new skepticism about Pharaoh’s continued domination of the Jews, or were they attributing the miracles to a source other than the God of the Jews?

The commentaries debate the underlying meaning of the sorcerers' words. Their statement speaks of the power of a god – but which god?[6] From the very first confrontation with the Jews' new leadership, Pharaoh had denied knowledge of the God of the Jews. The question of the name by which God is to be known is a central issue in the book of Shmot. Moshe raises this issue in his first encounter with God at the burning bush; God's response had been  very precise: The "Ineffable Name," with which Moshe was to present God to the Jews and Egyptians alike.  But the sorcerers did not use this name, nor any other clearly identifiable sobriquet. The term they use, “Elo-him,” is a more generic, nonspecific name for God; it is often used to refer to idolatrous gods, and may even be used to refer to a powerful flesh-and-blood ruler or judge. What did the magicians intend to convey by using the term we translate as 'The Almighty?'? Perhaps equally importantly, what did Pharaoh hear?

As we have noted, the plague of lice was not preceded by a warning, which left the door open for attributing it to natural causes. Apparently, the magicians were unwilling to give Pharaoh the advice he needed to hear: “This is the hand of the Ineffable God of the Hebrews who has come to punish you for your sins against His People.” Instead, they downplay the attack as the “finger of God” – a vague term that Pharaoh may have chosen to understand as "a force of nature" – or even, "the act of an Egyptian god.[7]

The lack of warning, which makes the plague of lice appear to be nothing more than a fluke of nature, coupled with the downplaying of God's responsibility for the plague, enable Pharaoh to continue his folly. His “advisors” turn out to be “yes men,” too afraid to say what they know - what they know their boss doesn't want to hear: Egypt is lost, and the power they face is incomprehensible and incomparable. Instead, they encourage Pharaoh to stick it out, to stand his ground, and to take more abuse.

Be that as it may, the blame for Pharaoh's poor choices does not lie exclusively with the sorcerers; it must be shared. A better boss would have nurtured better advisors. Had Pharaoh created an atmosphere of frank discussion, had he allowed dissenting opinions to be heard, his staff wouldn't have been so reticent. Had Pharaoh fostered honest discourse and discussion, his advisors might have had the gumption to voice their reservations or raise out-of-the-box suggestions for addressing the threat they faced.

On the other hand, from what we know of Pharaoh, the ruthless, murderous, paranoid and xenophobic tyrant who enslaved an entire nation and legislated the murder of innocents, we are not surprised that he did not win over the hearts and minds of those around him.  A better man would have better friends, but a better man would not have enslaved another nation and gotten his empire into this impossible situation.

Pharaoh seems to have had this abuse coming to him. His own tyranny helped create the atmosphere that eventually led to his downfall. While it was pre-ordained that the Jews would suffer exile and enslavement before their eventual redemption, Pharaoh's cruelty and obstinacy were his own choices; had he taken a different path, he would not necessarily have suffered the horrors of the plagues.  The Jews would be free, one way or the other; Pharaoh, and only Pharaoh, was responsible for choosing how that would happen. He should have chosen the easy way, by admitting that he had erred, and choosing the path of conciliation – but he chose the hard way instead.

[1] Shmot 7:9-10.

[2] See Yechezkel 29:3.

[3] A careful reading of the text suggests that it was Aharon's staff that swallowed the other staffs - and not his staff in the form of a crocodile.

[4] Bereishit 46:34, and referenced by Moshe in Shmot 8:22.

[5] See Yechezkel 29:3.

[6] See Ibn Ezra, Shmot 8:15.

אבן עזרא שמות (הפירוש הארוך) פרשת וארא פרק ח פסוק טו

ויאמרו בעבור שראו, שעשו כמעשה אהרן בדבר התנין, גם במכת הדם והצפרדע, ולא יכלו עתה לעשות כאשר עשה אהרן, אמרו לפרעה לא באה זאת המכה בעבור ישראל לשלחם, רק מכת אלהים היא כפי מערכת הכוכבים על מזל ארץ מצרים, כי כבר פירשתי, כי פרעה לא כחש הבורא, רק השם שהזכיר לו משה. וזה בדרך כי לא ידו נגעה בנו, מקרה הוא היה לנו (ש"א ו, ט) מן השמים, על כן חזק לב פרעה. ואשר יחזק זה הפי', שאמרו אצבע אלהים היא, ולא אמרו אצבע ד' שהוא אלהי ישראל. כאשר אמר פרעה במכת הצפרדעים העתירו אל ד' (שמות ח ד), וזה השם הזכיר במכות האחרונות. ועוד, כי משה אמר לפרעה דבר מכת היאור לפני היותה, וככה מכת הצפרדעים, ולא הזכיר לו בתחלה מכת הכנים:

[7] See Malbim, Shmot 8:15.

מלבי"ם שמות פרשת וארא פרק ח פסוק טו

ויאמרו החרטמם אל פרעה אצבע אלהים הוא. כשתראה בכל הפרשיות האלה לא תמצא שפרעה והמצרים יקראו את ה' בשם אלהים רק בשם הויה, כי שם אלהים היה מיוחד אצלם למערכת השמים או לאלהיהם, לא לאלהי ישראל שקראוהו הויה, אם לא כשאמרו בכנוי לכו זבחו לאלהיכם בארץ, ר"ל אלהי ישראל, לא סתם אלהים, ומבואר שמ"ש אצבע אלהים הוא, לא כוונו על אלהי ישראל שהיה להם לומר אצבע ה' הוא, או אצבע אלהי ישראל, כי מכה זו באה בלא התראה חשבו שלא בא מאת אלהי ישראל בשביל ישראל, שא"כ היה צריך להודיע זאת למשה ושמשה יתרה בו תחלה, ואמרו שזה מכה שחלה עליהם מאת אלהי מצרים שנקראו אצלם סתם בשם אלהים, וכן פי' הראב"ע אצבע אלהים הוא לא באה זאת המכה בעבור ישראל רק מכת אלהים היא כפי מערכת הכוכבים, ועי"כ ויחזק לב פרעה, שלא היה ירא עוד כלל כי סר ממנו הפחד: