The Ten Plagues and Statistical Science as a Way of Knowing

By Benjamin, Tammi; Mangel, Marc | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Ten Plagues and Statistical Science as a Way of Knowing


Benjamin, Tammi, Mangel, Marc, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The Plagues

AS THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF THE ISRAELITES' EXODUS from Egypt unfolds, the meanings of the "strong hand and outstretched arm" of God become manifest through the vehicle of the ten plagues: Blood fills the River Nile (Exodus 7:14-25); swarms of frogs invade every public and private place (Exodus 7:26-8:11); lice [1] infest man and beast (Exodus 8:12-15); insects [2] swarm upon the earth (Exodus 8:16-28); pestilence kills all of the Egyptian cattle (Exodus 9:1-7); boils cover man and beast (Exodus 9:8-12); a grievous hailstorm ravages the land (Exodus 9:17-35); dense hordes of locusts complete the destruction begun by the hail (Exodus 10:1-20); a darkness descends upon the land, so thick and foreboding it is palpable (10:21-23) ; and death strikes every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 11; Exodus 12:29-33). However, as biblical commentators have pointed out, the plagues are more than just a divine strong-arm tactic for securing the release of the Hebrew people from their Egyptian bondage. Rashi cites the midrash in in terpreting the plagues as having, first and foremost, a didactic purpose: coming to instill a knowledge of God in those who had been unwilling to acknowledge Him. [3] Abravanel echoes this understanding, explaining that the plagues are a direct response to Pharaoh's initial rejection of Moses' plea to release the Hebrew people: "Who is Y-H-V-H that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Y-H-V-H..." (Exodus 5:2). [4]

The text itself provides considerable support for the idea that the plagues are to convey a knowledge of God to all who witness them or hear about them. A transmission of God's existence and identity is one purpose of the plagues which God reveals to Moses before their onset:

And Egypt shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, when I stretch out my hand over Egypt.... (Exodus 7:5)

You shall say to [Pharaoh], "Y-H-V-H, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Send out My people that they may serve Me in the wilderness--but behold, you have not heeded up to now." So says Y-H-V-H, "Through this shall you know that I am Y-H-V-H...." (Exodus 7:16-17)

Following the chronology of the narrative, the next four textual references to the purpose of the plagues allude to another kind of knowledge which the plagues are to convey, namely, an understanding of God's nature. Specifically, and in turn, the plagues will reveal God's uniqueness, immanence, might, and dominion:

For tomorrow ... as you say--so that you will know that there is none like Y-H-V-H, our God....(Exodus 8:6)

And on that day I shall set apart the land of Goshen upon which my people stands, that there shall be no swarm there; so that you will know that I am Y-H-V-H in the midst of the land. (Exodus 8:18)

For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart, and upon your servants, and your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. For now I could have sent My hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, for this have I let you endure, in order to show you My strength and so that My Name may be declared throughout the world. (Exodus 9:14)

When I leave the city I shall spread out my hands to Y-H-V-H; the thunder will cease and the hail will no longer be, so that you shall know that the earth is Y-H-V-H's. (Exodus 9:29)

The final two textual allusions to the plagues' didactic function emphasize a third kind of knowledge that the plagues are to provide: knowledge of the special relationship between God and the Hebrew people and of its motivation of the course of events. In the first instance, this information is to be directed toward the Israelites themselves, and in the second toward Pharaoh:

Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst; and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt and My signs that I placed among them--that you may know that I am Y-H-V-H. …

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