The Bible Says What? ‘God punished innocent Egyptians’

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The Bible Says What? ‘God punished innocent Egyptians’

 Rabbi Danny Rich takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a Liberal Jewish perspective

Jews escape from slavery in Egypt
Jews escape from slavery in Egypt

The 10 plagues brought upon Egypt by God following Pharaoh’s continued refusal to free the Israelites is perhaps the most well-known story in our Jewish tradition.

The ‘rules’ are repetitive: Aaron and Moses go to see Pharaoh; they threaten a plague that occurs; Pharaoh promises release if the plague recedes; the plague abates, but Pharaoh changes his mind.

This story challenges our concept of a God operating according to the laws of nature, has universal concern for humanity and makes ethical choices. There have been numerous fascinating attempts to explain the plagues not as miraculous, but as natural phenomena. Nevertheless, it is the suffering of innocent Egyptians that is most difficult for the liberal palate. 

Our discomfort is best captured by the well-known anonymous midrash, which appears twice in the Babylonian Talmud, commenting on the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Red Sea: “At that time the ministering angels wanted to sing a song of praise before the Holy One, but God rebuked them saying: ‘My creatures are drowning in the sea and you would sing before Me!’”

It is likely for this reason that both the first (1918) Haggadah of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, and the original Liberal Judaism Haggadah of my youth had no reference to the plagues except in the notes. The current Liberal Judaism Haggadah gives prominence to the plagues, mentions the custom of spilling wine and repeats the midrash as it tells the story of the Exodus. 

The Torah reading remains for me a source of inspiration and reaffirms my commitment to the Jewish people’s early literature, which is just one of Judaism’s contributions to humanity.

  •  Rabbi Danny Rich is a vice president of Liberal Judaism

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