The Ten Plagues, those afflictions that strike the oppressor before the oppressed go free, are familiar to us from the Passover seder. But a closer look at the text in Exodus reveals an unusual pattern. For every two plagues where Moses and Aaron warn Pharoah, a third plague comes unannounced. This opens up the possibility some modern rationalists have suggested – that these plagues were not supernatural at all, but rather extreme natural events that were later interpreted as reflecting the will of God.
Rashbam similarly sees the potential for a natural reading of at least those plagues that were unannounced. The first two plagues involve bloodying water and producing plenty of frogs. Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh this will happen, but Pharaoh’s magicians manage the same feats themselves, and so Pharaoh is not particularly impressed. The third plague, lice, is different. He gets no warning, and his magicians are unable to replicate the affliction:
“The magicians did the like with their spells to produce lice, but they could not. The vermin remained upon man and beast; and the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!'” (Exodus 8:14-15)
What does “the finger of God” mean here? Scholar Martin Lockshin notes that most interpreters understand it to mean that the magicians acknowledge God’s power behind the plague, a power that they cannot hope to match. The problem, then, is very serious indeed for Pharaoh.
However, Rashbam understands the phrase differently. He comments, “[The magicians said] ‘this is a natural disaster and was not caused by [Moses and Aaron]; for if these lice came through sorcery [of Moses and Aaron], then we would be able to replicate that sorcery.'” (Martin Lockshin’s translation)
In other words, much like we use the phrase “an act of God” to refer to natural disasters beyond human conjuring, the magicians suggest that their inability to create lice combined with the lack of warning means that this third “plague” was actually just coincidental. Moses and Aaron must be taking advantage of a natural disaster to claim power for their God and try to shake up the status quo.
I have chatted with b’nai mitzvah students and adults who are drawn to the idea that natural events underlie the plagues. From my understanding, this solves two problems: (1) supernatural events seem unlikely to the scientific mind, and natural events make the event seem more relatable; and (2) God using nature to destroy people’s lives sits uncomfortably with our awareness of the pain and loss that natural disaster brings to those who do not deserve it. Imagining God behind such havoc injects a level of intention and judgment that I find completely inappropriate.
However, interpreting the plagues as natural undermines the story the Torah wants to tell. Pharaoh hardens his heart when he thinks the third plague is not from God. That’s why there are seven more – to make it clear both to Pharaoh and to us as readers that God will muster every resource to demonstrate liberating power in the face of evil.
When we as moderns follow in the footsteps of the magicians, seeking to understand the supernatural plagues as simply natural disasters, we too are hardening our hearts, by which I mean not sensing the lesson contained in experience. I don’t believe in supernatural plagues or miracles, but I do believe in mythic story as a valuable reflection of human truth.
The more interesting question underneath “did it happen” is “where is the wisdom in this story?” For me, the wisdom that resonates in the story this year comes from recognizing that we rarely calibrate our sense of possibility well. We overestimate our power, or the power of those who oppress, and underestimate the potential for transformative positive change.
What wisdom have you found in the story of the ten plagues in years past?
What most frustrates you about stories of supernatural happenings? What do you most appreciate about them?