Yom Rishon, 17 Av 5779
Sunday, 18 August 2019
Parashat Vaeira 2013 (2)

Parashat Va'era
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
27 December 2013

Parashat Va’era commences the account of the Ten Plagues sent by God to afflict the Egyptians. As the drama unfolds, we recognise in each plague a terrible unravelling of God’s grand creative plan at the beginning of Genesis, an inversion that becomes even clearer in two poetic renderings of the plagues found in Psalms 78 and 105. Their differences and similarities invite certain observations and questions.

In Psalm 105, seven plagues are listed and the order is slightly different: darkness comes first, instead of blood, frogs, swarms of insects and flies (which are linked as one), hail, locusts and the death of the firstborn. In Psalm 78, there are only six plagues: blood, flies, frogs, locusts, hail and the death of the firstborn – leaving out swarms of insects, pestilence, boils and darkness. And there is yet another version found in the Apocrypha, in the Wisdom of Solomon (11.6-7) which mentions only two – the first and last, blood and the slaying of the firstborn.

What should we make of these variations in the text? One answer might be that the authors of the Hebrew Bible, the redactors, drew from different plague traditions and in the process of canonisation were not concerned with harmonising them. They simply recognised them for what they were, different accounts in different literary forms, prose and poetic, reflecting different traditions. But there is more here than meets the eye.

The narrative of the plagues is underpinned by a very strong theological message which is found at the outset of the Exodus chapters. The plagues are God’s instruments of divine power. They are not natural occurrences, although some contemporary and popular critics have attempted to demonstrate the ‘historicity’ of the plagues by showing how one natural disaster such as the rivers congealing and becoming contaminated, might then lead to a plague of frogs which are forced out of the water because their natural habitat has become polluted. The death of thousands of frogs, piling up in heaps would then cause an outbreak of vermin or mosquitoes. And so the chain would continue. But that is not primarily how the narrators of Exodus see it. It is very clear from the outset that the terror of the plagues are there to demonstrate God’s absolute sovereignty and planned defeat of Pharaoh. Already, before the plagues begin, we are told that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that “I [God] may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” So in spite of the differences between these versions, they all agree on the nature of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty – as Creator and Destroyer, Author of life and death.

And that theological message which emerges so powerfully from each of the literary contexts of the plagues, should give us an indication not about the differences or their independence as texts, but rather their interdependence. For as scholars have shown, each of the accounts are influenced and shaped in a literary, as well as theological way, by the first chapters of Genesis, the Creation narrative. Without going into too much detail, scholars have shown that there are ten ‘creation’ words which are used to bring the world into existence; and each of these creation words finds its correlation in the Exodus story of the plagues, but instead to reverse the process. So for example, the waters changing into blood in the first plague refers to the separation of the water and the land in Genesis 1:10; the second, third and fourth plague form a trio that refer to three fundamental elements – water, earth and sky. The frogs correlate to Genesis 1:20 by means of the Hebrew word sheretz; the lice of the third plague refer to the creeping things in verse 24; while the flies correspond to the flying creatures in verse 22. And the other plagues fit the correlation theory well – hail destroys the vegetation, while the death of the firstborn corresponds to the creation of humanity on the sixth day. The only plague that doesn’t fit is the plague of boils, which some scholars suggest relates to the Torah’s laws of purity in Leviticus 13 that a person with boils is ritually unclean.

Even with this little inconsistency, the canvas of creation in Genesis is dramatically reversed in Exodus and the Psalms. If one moves from chaos to order and harmony, the other perverts the beauty of creation, as Egypt is thrown into chaos, destruction and death. That equation between creation and its reversal is even more closely related in the seven plagues of Psalm 105, one corresponding to the six days of creation, plus one extraordinary plague, the death of the first born relating to the one extraordinary day of the week, the Sabbath.

Now all this is fascinating if you are interested in the literary resonances and inversions in the Torah, in the way texts take on a life of their own once they are complete. But what do these texts and teachings mean to us? How can we relate to the grand dramas of creation and destruction, of life and death, of order and chaos?

There is a grandeur in the beauty of creation. Whether we ascribe that grandeur and beauty to God or evolution or some other process, does not detract from our admiration and awe before the sheer immensity and power of the universe. But at the same time, there is in us the capacity to deplete and destroy, to exploit and tarnish this canvas of unsurpassing beauty.

Humanity lives precariously between its own selfish needs to use the planet and its resources for itself and this equally powerful yearning to see in creation a harmony and beauty that nourishes and is the oxygen for our souls. How we learn to balance and hold those elemental contradictions, between the ‘opposed realities’ of life and death, order and chaos, harmony and conflict, is a great mystery and paradox, as much as it often the painful and protracted task of human existence.