At the start of this portion, we have a continuation of the plagues, with the threat — and then the carrying out of the threat — of locusts. This is already the eighth plague. And as my ex-brother-in-law used to remark, it is much like the early scenes in horror movies, where somebody turns on the faucet in the kitchen and, instead of water, blood comes pouring forth. The convention of the movies is that there will be worse to come, but my ex-brother-in-law used to say that blood coming out of the faucet was enough. He was out of there. This makes for a very short movie, but it is, indeed, how most of us would react. We have already had the blood, frogs, gnats and flies, murrain, boils and hail.… And unless the Egyptians were preternaturally stupid and stubborn, this ought to have been persuasive even to the most reluctant and skeptical negotiator.
But nothing of the kind. It is what we saw at the end of World War II. Hiroshima wasn’t enough. Impressive, yes, but there were attempts to surrender to the Soviets from whom they hoped for better terms, and dissensions and disagreements among the Japanese High Command. And then Nagasaki? Oh, well, okay, then. That was clearer. And they surrendered.
It can happen that diplomats miscalculate and find themselves in an accidental war, from underestimating or sometimes from overestimating the strength of the opposition. But seven plagues is a lot for Pharaoh to ignore. It was a matter of belief or, more accurately, disbelief. As the Lord says to Moses, “Go unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him.” It isn’t pleasant, or liberal, or maybe even ethical. But the Lord is using this as a way of showing off. As the Los Alamos physicists and engineers were using Nagasaki to show off that the other kind of bomb worked, too. “And that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord.”
What Pharaoh was thinking, we can guess or, oddly enough, find in the footnotes to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, that gives a “natural” explanation. It wasn’t God, or it wasn’t just God, but a series of unfortunate coincidences. The Nile is often red at its height in the summer, either from suspended particles of earth or from some microorganism. That was the “blood.” Then, the frogs, after the Nile has overflowed, were a perfectly predictable occurrence, perhaps exacerbated by a decrease in the population that year of frog-eating birds. Gnats and flies? Common, especially in the autumn, the RSV tells us. Aaron’s rod — which turns into the gnats and flies — is a little spooky, and the priests of Pharaoh are impressed, and remark that “This is the finger of God,” but then the Egyptian clergy was suspicious of foreign religious practices. The murrain? Probably anthrax, which could have been spread by the gnats and flies. It is only after the eighth plague, the locusts, that Pharaoh admits he is beaten and that “I have sinned this time; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.”
But did he really believe? Was he ready for an unconditional surrender? The Lord “hardens his heart, and the heart of his servants” so that there can be no backsliding, and the RSV shows us that backsliding is still possible. The locusts? They happen in that part of the world. And the darkness? That comes from the hamsin, which blows in so much dust and sand from the desert that it gets dark.
So, therefore, the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn. Which was clearer. It sounds harsh, and was, and still didn’t work, and we mark all these plagues still with the 10 drops of wine that we take from our wineglasses at the Seder, not because we are apologizing to the Egyptians — God did this, after all, not we, and who are we to stand in judgment of the Lord? — but to show that we take no joy in what happened. (We can spare the 10 drops of wine; it is in the stains on the good tablecloth that we experience the inconvenience.)
The horror movie convention is that, at last, the dopey protagonists figure out that there is something real in these frightening manifestations, and they find themselves engaged in a battle with evil. With the 10 plagues — that were not merely 10 unfortunate coincidences — the battle is against unbelief, and the stakes are life and death.
The laundering of the tablecloth is not too great a price to pay, if we remember that.
David R. Slavitt has two books due out in spring 2006: “William Henry Harrison, and Other Poems” (Louisiana State University Press) and “Blue State Blues” (Wesleyan University Press), a campaign journal.