Torah Portion of the Week: Of Plagues and Politics

Parashat Bo.

'The Fifth Plague of Egypt' by J.M.W. Turner (1800).

In the Hebrew Bible, there is no separation of religion and state – neither practical nor conceptual – and not only because politics always involves religion in the ancient world, but also because religion is often understood in political terms. The Exodus from Egypt exemplifies these interwoven categories, describing a struggle between two leaders, one of whom is God, that occurs simultaneously in the political and religious spheres. God wants to defeat Pharaoh and force him to release Israel from bondage – a practical goal that characterizes many earthly political struggles. However, God has another religious, or if you will, theological, goal: to have his power recognized by Egypt, and in its wake by Israel. Does he succeed?

Initially, God fails in Egypt’s political world: His emissaries, Moses and Aaron, do not manage to weaken the rigid hierarchical structure of the regime that is imposing bondage on their people, and Pharaoh does not recognize the god who dispatched them: “Who is the Lord that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord [lit.: YHWH], nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). They respond: “The God of the Hebrews has manifested himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he strike us with pestilence or sword” (Exod. 5:3). Pharaoh shows disdain for their demands, going on to toughen Israel’s already harsh working conditions and suppress the spirit of the revolt.

The dispute escalates, with God apparently adopting Pharaoh’s modus operandi: God understands that the key to defeating the Egyptian monarch is not to force him to surrender, but to spread despair and fear among his subjects and undermine his country’s hierarchy. Thus, God inflicts the plagues not on Pharaoh’s court but on the entire kingdom, gradually weakening the citizens’ loyalty to Pharaoh and leading them to understand that the “God of the Hebrews” is just as powerful as their ruler. At the same time, Moses and Aaron negotiate Israel’s request for a short interim break in which to worship their God – a demand that Pharaoh initially rejects.

In last week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh agreed to the request by Moses and Aaron for a three-day holiday: “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me” (Exod. 8:24). Pharaoh is beginning to capitulate and even requests that the rites [of worshipping] Israel’s God include a prayer for him. This apparently fulfills dual goals: the freeing of Israel from bondage and the enslavers’ recognition of God’s might and their dependence on him. Each time Pharaoh requests that a prayer be said on his behalf, Moses accedes and God grants some respite from the plagues to demonstrate that he controls Pharaoh’s fate.

The recognition in Egypt of God’s power mounts in this week’s portion, Parashat Bo (Exod. 10:1–13:16). For the first time, Moses’ warning – in this case regarding the plague of hail – is heeded by some members of royal court: “Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord‘s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety; but those who paid no regard to the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the open” (Exod. 9:20-21). God’s words are heeded now not just by Pharaoh but also by his courtiers, who express their fear of the Almighty.

The negotiations continue and Pharaoh wants to know what the conditions would be by which the Israelites can still worship their God without being released from bondage altogether. Moses claims that everyone must participate in the ritual: “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters” (Exod. 10:9). He later explains why they must take all their animals with them: “Our own livestock, too, shall go along with us – not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of the Lord our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there” (Exod. 10:26). This sounds like a ruse to enable Israel to flee Egypt, and Pharaoh remains adamant in his refusal. Since the Israelites’ escape is intended to serve a religious goal, they must depend not on Pharaoh’s generosity and understanding to achieve liberation, but rather on making him and his people surrender completely.

Surrender will be achieved with the plague of the first-born. When their struggle began, God informs Pharaoh of his intention: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first-born son. I have said to you, “Let my son go, that he may worship me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son’” (Exod. 4:22-23). This threat presents God and Pharaoh in a completely parallel way. God’s first-born son is the “collective” Israel, and accordingly, Pharaoh’s first-born is not just his own son, but rather all of Egypt’s first-born sons. To implement the threat, God himself passes through Egypt, killing the first-born: “the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 12:29).

The plague achieves its goal: Pharaoh and his people banish Israel from Egypt, precisely as planned. However, as we shall see in next week’s reading, Beshalach, the Egyptians change their minds and pursue Israel. They do not surrender to God and are instead drowned by him: God defeats them without obtaining the allegiance he had expected. This raises questions about the political and religious loyalties that power can create and alter, and on the limits of such changes. These questions become more acute when God departs from Egypt and must deal with his own nation. The next few readings and a major portion of the Bible focus on how God handles his own stubborn “first-born son” and on whether the Almighty can obtain the Israelites’ trust and loyalty without destroying them through the use of his powers.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.