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Judaism: End of Egypt, End of Pharaoh

The tenth plague is a puzzling anomaly. In ancient Egypt, as in most monarchies, the king was the first-born son. Why was Pharaoh spared?
Published: Thursday, February 02, 2012 9:19 AM


Four hundred and twenty-nine years after G-d had promised Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be foreigners in a land which is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years; but also, I will judge the nation that they will serve, after which they will go out with great wealth” (Genesis 15:13-14); three hundred and ninety-nine years after the birth of Isaac, which was when G-d began the 400-year countdown; 231 years after Joseph had been sold into slavery and taken down to Egypt in chains; 209 years after Jacob and his other sons followed Joseph down to Egypt to escape the famine, -

Moshe burst onto the scene promising the nation imminent redemption.

Ten plagues and one year later, “the Children of Israel were going out with upraised hand” (Exodus 14:8).

The tenth plague, the clincher which finally forced Pharaoh to recognise and capitulate to HaShem, G-d of Israel, was the Slaying of the First-born. In that plague, at midnight of the night between the 14th and 15th of Nisan, “HaShem smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon, and every first-born animal” (12:29).

The slaying of the first-born was so indiscriminate that even first-born foreigners who happened to be in Egypt that night, and Egyptian first-borns who were in other countries that night, were slain (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 7; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 199). Even the first-born sons of foreign kings who had been captured by Pharaoh and were being held prisoners of war in Egyptian dungeons were slain (Targum Yonatan, Exodus 12:29).

All ten plagues had been aimed with pinpoint accuracy at the Egyptians, while leaving the Jews unscathed: the Mishnah tells us that “Ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt” (Pirkei Avot 5:5), and all the commentators (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura, Tosafot Yom Tov, Rambam, Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona) explain that the miracles were not the plagues in and of themselves, but rather that the Jews were not affected by them.

The climax was the slaying of the first-born, and had other non-Jews been spared, then G-d’s unique providence for Israel would have been lost.

But this brings us to a puzzling anomaly. In ancient Egypt, as in most monarchies, the king was the first-born son; indeed, when the Torah records that “the first-born of Pharaoh sitting on his throne”, both the Targum Onkelos and the Targum Yonatan render, “…the first-born son of Pharaoh, who would in the future have sat on the royal throne”. But in this case, why was Pharaoh spared? Surely, if anyone was to be killed in this final climactic plague, then Pharaoh, a first-born himself, should have been the first in line! Had he not fully earned his punishment?

The Midrash gives us a powerful insight: “What does the Torah teach us by saying ‘…from the first-born of Pharaoh…’? – That the evil Pharaoh was himself a first-born son, yet the punishment was not inflicted upon him. Why was this? – In order to tempt the Egyptians into saying, Pharaoh is tough, which is why he overcame the plague…

Similarly, G-d said ‘I will execute judgement against all the gods of Egypt; I am HaShem’ (Exodus 12:12) – yet Baal Zephon was included among the gods of Egypt, so why did this idol remain intact? – This too was to tempt the Egyptians into saying, Baal Zephon is tough, which is why he overcame the judgement” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 12).

Inspired by these two “leaders” (Pharaoh the king and Baal Zephon their chief god) who, in the Egyptians’ imagination, had overcome HaShem the G-d of the Hebrews, the Egyptians pursued their Jewish erstwhile slaves into the desert at Egypt’s eastern edge, to the shores of the Sea of Reeds, and eventually into the Sea of Reeds itself.

This explains the otherwise totally irrational behaviour of the Egyptians: when they saw the Sea of Reeds split, did they not understand that this was a miracle from HaShem, the G-d of the Hebrews? Did they not yet grasp that He was more powerful than they were, and that racing into a suddenly-dry sea was deadly dangerous? After all the miracles which they had seen, starting with Moshe turning his staff into a snake and continuing with the ten plagues – did they really imagine that plunging in after the Hebrews was a sensible risk?

HaShem had allowed these two figures of authority to survive precisely in order to allow the Egyptians the delusion that they could still overcome the Hebrews; and with this delusion intact, they raced forward into the Sea of Reeds.

Almost half a millennium afterwards, King David, “the sweet Singer of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1) lyrically described the Exodus: “He saved them for His Name’s sake, to make His might known. He roared at the Sea of Reeds and it dried out, and He led them through the depths as through a desert. He saved them from the hand of the hater and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy; then the waters covered their tormentors, not a single one of them remained” (Psalms 106:8-11).

Midrash Tehillim (often called Midrash Shocher Tov for its opening words) analyses this, based on the unusual wording of the Hebrew, which could be rendered “not a single one of them remained” or “of them all, a single one remained”: “Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nehemiah disagreed as to the interpretation. According to Rabbi Yehudah, none remained, not even Pharaoh…; Rabbi Nehemiah said, Pharaoh remained alone, as it says ‘Surely for this I have kept you standing – in order to show you My might, and in order that you will tell of My Name throughout the land’ (Exodus 9:16).

And there are those who say that Pharaoh drowned last of all, as it says ‘He cast Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds’ (Psalms 136:15)”.

That is to say, according to all these opinions, G-d kept Pharaoh alive until the very last moment in order to ensure that he would witness the full suffering that he had brought on his own people and experience the full measure of the humiliation of defeat.

But there is also another highly intriguing Midrash: “Pharaoh had said ‘Who is HaShem that I should listen to His voice?’ (Exodus 5:2); and with the self-same words that he sinned he also repented, as it says ‘who is like You among the powers, O HaShem?’ (Exodus 15:11)” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 43). We pause briefly to clarify this: the previous chapter of Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer records that when the Jews sang “Who is like You among the powers, O HaShem?” (Exodus 15:11) in the Song at the Sea, “Pharaoh responded with song and praises in the Egyptian language after them, saying: ‘Who is like You, glorious in holiness, too awesome for praise, working wonders’” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 42).

We return to Chapter 43 and pick up the narrative there again: “Then G-d saved him [Pharaoh] from among the dead…and G-d raised him up from among the dead in order to tell of His might and power…, and he went and became king over Nineveh. The men of Nineveh were writing deceitful documents, robbing each other, committing sodomy, and other wicked deeds. And when G-d sent Jonah to prophecy its destruction, Pharaoh heard and arose from his throne, rent his garments, donned sackcloth and ashes, and proclaimed that his entire nation must fast for three days, and that anyone who would not do all this would be burnt in fire” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 43).

This is intriguing, because Jonah lived and prophesied during the second half of the reign of King Amaziah of Judah (2 Kings 14:23-25), some 670 years or more after the Exodus; so this Midrash imputes to Pharaoh an exceptionally long life-span.

Whether or not we take this Midrash literally, the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) makes an interesting observation: immediately before the Song at the Sea, the Torah says that “the nation feared HaShem, and they believed in HaShem and in Moshe his servant” (Exodus 14:31). The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the word “va-ya’aminu” (“and they believed”) occurs twice in the Tanakh: here, and in the verse, “And the people of Nineveh believed in G-d” (Jonah 3:5). He explains: “‘Of them all, only a single one remained’ (Exodus 14:28) – the only one of them who remained was Pharaoh, and he went to Nineveh and became king there. This is the implication of ‘And the people of Nineveh believed in G-d’: he was reminded of what he had seen in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds”.

Whichever Midrash is historically accurate – whether Pharaoh remained alone, was the last of the Egyptians to drown, or survived to become king of Nineveh – the outcome was the same: this mightiest king in the world, who had begun by arrogantly proclaiming “Who is HaShem that I should listen to His voice to send Israel away? I do not know HaShem, and neither will I send Israel away” (Exodus 5:2) was forced to acknowledge HaShem, G-d of the Hebrews, as supreme; the mighty Egyptian nation, the superpower of the ancient world, was devastated by Israel, the nation of G-d.

And thus His Name became renowned throughout the world, and thus the entire slavery in Egypt and the Exodus achieved their purpose.

And as with the end of Egypt and the end of Pharaoh, so too will happen as the final exile ends. G-d’s Name will become renowned throughout the world when Israel defeats mighty enemies, and when the greatest of human rulers either fall before HaShem and are defeated by His nation, or when they witness their defeat and thereby acknowledge Him.