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Our sidra describes the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. Traditionally we understand that there were ten plagues in all, but is this number really the number of plagues that ancient Jews believed were visited on Egypt? Indeed, as the Haggadah argument goes, were there only ten, or were there fifty, or even 250? Actually, we never learn from the Bible itself just how many plagues there were!
Pursuing the textual evidence for the number of plagues can be interesting. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah was the result of the combining of a number of stories, all from oral traditions but most likely in some kind of written form, that date to periods as early as 1000 BCE. These documents were combined by unknown editors into their final form sometime during the early post-exilic period. There are four primary documents that comprise the Torah, known as the Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Priestly (P), and Deuteronomistic (D) sources, and the final version includes the comments and insertions of several earlier editors, the Redactors (R). So some stories in the Torah appear in more than one version, and the description of the plagues is no exception. And the Torah’s final Redactor, in merging the various accounts of the plagues, never tallies them for us. The first appearance of any statement that numbers the plagues occurs not in the Hebrew Bible but in the second-century BCE Book of Jubilees (48:7); even here they’re called “terrible judgments,” not plagues.
Without going into extensive descriptions of how specific passages can be assigned to one or another documentary source, I note that commentators claim that the story of the ten plagues is a composite of a number of sources. Also, the identification of which events are “plagues” is itself arbitrary. Shouldn’t we count twelve? We could consider the ten traditional plagues to start and add the staff/serpent demonstration and the drowning of Egypt’s army at the Reed Sea crossing to come up with twelve. Surely the loss of Egypt’s magicians’ staffs, being swallowed by Aaron’s staff, had to be an inconvenience if not an embarrassment, while the drowning of the army was at least as significant as any of the preceding plagues. This interpretation can be justified because the biblical term used to describe the “plagues” is not maggepah or nega, “plague,” or makkah, “blow,” but ‘ot, “sign,” or in places, mopet, “wonder.” The ancient idea seems to be that plagues were considered to be personal afflictions, but extending the term to encompass the exodus events seems to be a post-biblical idea.
Some of the literary traits that are characteristic of the P source include Aaron’s role, the magicians, and use of the phrase “and so they did.” Textual evidence has identified six “signs” in the P source: serpents, blood, frogs, lice, boils, and firstborn. William Propp, an expert on the Book of Exodus at UCSD, argues that the number six is unlikely here, as the Bible in general and the P source in particular shows a penchant for the number seven—as for example in the account of Creation (Gen. 1) and in the punishment of Covenant violators (Lev. 26:14 ff). Also, two Psalms appear to support seven (Ps. 78, 105). So the P source appears to have one missing, but some commentators point to the drowning at the Reed Sea as the seventh, since the description possesses many P attributes.
On the other hand, eight plagues have been found in the E source: blood, frogs, insects, murrain, hail, locusts, darkness, and firstborn, where we might have expected seven. The E source follows a symmetrical descriptive pattern in its relating of each plague up to the sixth, where the pattern fails, but is re-established for the eighth. Is eight a problem? Perhaps not; there are other examples of the use of eight in the Bible as well (eight days of Aaron’s investiture, circumcision on the eighth day, the eighth day of Sukkot). The presence of the Darkness Plague is anomalous. First, consider its description. Unlike the other plagues, this one begins with no forewarning of any kind. Second, comparing the plagues in Exodus with Ps. 105, while the other plagues are listed in the Exodus order, darkness is not only out of order but is listed first.
It’s an accepted hypothesis that the P source used and reworked the traditions described in the J and E sources, and this reworking can be seen in the staff/serpent demonstration to Pharaoh, which was to be a sign, using Moses’ staff, to the Israelites (Ex. 4:2–4). The swallowing of the magicians’ staff/serpents by Aaron’s staff/serpent is an echo of the JE text of the dream of Joseph’s Pharaoh, where ears of grain and, later, cows, swallow one another. A close reading of the plague of blood shows a difference between the announced plague and the inflicted one. The Priestly writer used the description of the earlier JE plague, but intensified it—the difference between the sources is that the P source is more severe and involves all the waters of Egypt, not just the Nile.
Propp explains that the purposes that underlay the plague stories had to do with the goals of their respective authors. For the Elohist, the goal was to reinforce Pharaoh’s “knowledge” of the Deity (Ex. 7:17; 8:6, 8:18; 9:14, 9:29). For the Priestly writer, it is only at the end of the sequence, at the Reed Sea, that Egypt is taught “that I am Yahweh” (Ex. 7:5; 14:4, 14:18). The goal of the Elohist, then, was to use each individual plague to demonstrate Yahweh’s supreme power over anything Pharaoh could muster. On the other hand, it seems that the Priestly Plagues were designed to gradually accustom Pharaoh to increasingly severe punishment so that he would not relent before Yahweh employed his full power.
But I always have favored Rabbi Akivah’s count, since this part of the Haggadah reading is always the source of much humor at the escalation of the calculations: the Egyptians in Egypt were smitten with fifty plagues (the mighty hand has five fingers times ten plagues) and on the Sea they were smitten with 250 (because the hand on the outstretched arm is five times fifty). Serves those Egyptians right.
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