Were the Ten Plagues in Egypt Miracles?
Most people read, or more precisely “skim,” the Bible in Hebrew or another language without understanding what they are reading. They are satisfied that they have read the Bible, as they read prayers, and feel that they have done something pious, good and necessary; however, they feel no need to delve into the reading and assess it, determining if they agree with what is stated. They fail to ask: What exactly is the Bible saying happened here? Was what I learned in school about this passage an explanation fit for a child but not for an adult? Do all commentators agree on a single interpretation? How does my understanding of this particular event affect my understanding of the Bible generally?
One of the many cases that readers fail to ask questions about is the ten plagues, though the text leaves many questions open: Were the ten plagues inflicted upon all Egyptians? Were they miraculous events? Should I accept the notion that miracles occurred in the Bible?
There are two fundamentally different approaches as to whether the ten plagues in Egypt were miracles or natural events. The more conservative view is that that the plagues were miraculous.
The second approach to the plagues is reflected in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J.H. Hertz, late chief rabbi of the British Empire. The book’s commentary tends toward the natural, historical, and rational. On the plagues, the Hertz volume states: “The first nine plagues, though often spoken of as wonders, are not fantastic miracles without any basis in natural phenomena…. Between June and August, the Nile usually turns a dull red, owing to the presence of vegetable matter. Generally after this time, the slime of the river breeds a vast number of frogs; and the air is filled with swarms of tormenting insects. We can, therefore, understand that an exceptional defilement of the Nile would vastly increase the frogs which swarm in its waters; that the huge heaps of decaying frogs would inevitably breed great swarms of flies, which, in turn, would spread the disease-germs that attacked the animals and flocks in the pest ridden region of the Nile.”
Chief Rabbi Hertz is saying that the events of the first nine plagues were normal events, but this time they came upon Egypt with great intensity. However, while he offers a natural explanation for the first nine plagues, Hertz abstains from doing so for the tenth plague.
Both the conservative and Hertz views are acceptably. Neither should be dismissed as alien to religious thinking. In fact, as we will see, the Jewish sage Nachmanides is a proponent of the first view and the Jewish sage Maimonides of the second.
Nachmanides writes: “And now I will tell you a basic principle underlying many biblical commands.” There are two kinds of miracles. The first, like the Passover plagues, are events that are openly and obviously miraculous. Others are hidden and do not show God’s involvement, like the falling leaf, winter snow or rain, even the shining sun.
This belief in miracles was so significant and fundamental to Nachmanides that he insisted in his discussion, “From [belief in] large perceptible miracles one [comes to believe] in hidden miracles, which are the very foundation of the entire Torah. A person has no share in the Torah of Moses our teacher until he believes that all that occurs is the result of miracles, not the laws of nature…. Everything happens by divine decree.”
Many scholars are convinced that Maimonides denies the existence of miracles. All agree that he at least minimizes their existence. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, he writes: “The nature of man is never changed by way of miracles…. This principle as regards miracles has been frequently explained by us in our works; I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for God to change the nature of every individual person; on the contrary, it is possible, and it is in His power, according to the principles taught in Scripture; but it has never been His will to do it, and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change [at His desire] the nature of any person, [there would be no free will and] the mission of prophets and the giving of the Law would have been altogether superfluous.”
The Fundamental Principle for Understanding Maimonides
Maimonides clearly denies that God alters people through miracles. However he is unclear on whether God changes nature itself. Why is his writing on the subject vague?
Maimonides explains his writing style in his introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed. He tells his readers that he purposely writes contradictory statements so that his uneducated readers, the general public which is insufficiently knowledgeable of secular subjects and philosophy, will think that he is confirming their incorrect opinions about Judaism, while his educated readers will understand that these statements are not his true views and read his writings as Maimonides intends, and will find the truth. “It is sometimes necessary to introduce such metaphysical matters as may partly be disclosed, but must partly be concealed…. [This is done by stating an opinion on a subject in one chapter in one way and] on another occasion to treat it as solved in the opposite way. The author must endeavor, by concealing the fact as much as possible, to prevent the uneducated reader from perceiving the contradiction.”
In other words, Maimonides is alerting his readers that he has a problem. In his day, as today, the vast majority of Jews held different views on Jewish and philosophical subjects than the ones he was teaching. It was impossible to tell these Jews the truth because the mistaken ideas that they held were so entrenched in their minds and so fundamental to their erroneous thinking that revealing the truth would have threatened them. He therefore had to tell them what satisfied them even though he knew that what he said was false. But he chose to write his philosophical treatises in such a way that the educated reader would understand his true views.
Maimonides was not the first person to realize the importance of teaching “necessary (but untrue) beliefs.” The Greek philosopher Plato writes in his Republic and other works that the masses need to be taught untruthful myths in order to survive.
Maimonides gives many examples of “necessary truths” that exist even in the Torah. He states, for example, that the Torah teaches that God becomes angry with those who disobey Him, even though this is only a “necessary truth”; God does not really become angry. The Torah transmits the idea that God becomes angry because it is “necessary” for the masses to believe that God is angry if they disobey the divine decrees so that they can control and improve their behavior. Similarly, the belief that God responds immediately to prayer is not a real “truth” but rather a “necessary” one, expressed so that the masses feel better and are less fearful.
How Can Maimonides’ Thoughts on Miracles Be Uncovered?
One “necessary truth” of the general population is the belief in miracles. Like “God’s anger” and “God responding to prayer,” the vast majority of people see the Bible as the source of the teaching that miracles exist. Thus many scholars are convinced that Maimonides led the masses to believe that he shared their notion of the existence of miracles when he in fact was convinced that God ruled the world through the laws of nature.
Genesis 1:31 states, “And God saw everything that He made, and, behold, it was very good.” This verse can mean that the all-knowing and all powerful God created a world that was “very good” and no further interference or adjustments by the deity were necessary since God could foresee the future and took care of every potential need through the laws of nature that God created.
This appears to be what Maimonides is saying in Guide 2:29. He writes that the truth is that miracles exist but “these changes were not permanent, they have not become a [new] physical property. On the contrary, the universe continues its regular course.” This statement would satisfy the general public. However he continues by saying that the sages thought differently, holding an opinion that seems to reflect the scholarly understanding of Maimonides.
“Our sages, however, said very strange things in regard to miracles in Midrash Genesis Rabbah and in Midrash Kohelet, namely that miracles are to some extent also natural; for they say, when God created the universe with its physical properties, He made it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times…. [This] shows that he [the sage] held it to be impossible that there should be a change in the laws of nature, or a change in the will of God [as regards the physical properties of things] after they have once been created. (emphasis added)
Why did Maimonides mention the teaching of the sages? It is possible to argue that he was encouraging his more enlightened readers to ignore the statement he made for popular consumption, and pointing them to the teaching of the sages as his true opinion. The sages seem to say that miracles are natural phenomena, an engrained natural part of the properties of the ostensible miracles, and that the sages “held it to be impossible that there would be a change in the laws of nature, or change in the will of God after they had been created.” This, then, is the stance of the sages and Maimonides: miracles do not exist because God does not alter nature or the divine will.
This dual reading – for the general population and for the educated readers – of Maimonides recurs in 2:25, where he writes: “If we were to accept…that everything in the universe is the result of fixed laws, that nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we would necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.
The general Jewish population may understand that Maimonides wanted the people to know that miracles exist. However, the educated reader, who recognizes the Maimonidean style, can interpret the introductory words as an explanation as to why the majority of Jews cannot accept the truth, and the final words – “unless the miracles are also explained figuratively” – as the truth as Maimonides saw it – for why else did he add these words?
The Hertz Methodology: Consistent with Biblical Style
We have seen that Chief Rabbi Hertz and Maimonides seem to oppose the existence of unnatural miracles, while Nachmanides states the opposite. We also saw that the chief rabbi only states that the first nine plagues had a basis in natural phenomena. Is it possible that the tenth plague of the death of the first-born was also natural?
Reading the statement of the chief rabbi, we see that he is taking the biblical description of the plagues as exaggerations that should not be accepted literally. There is nothing wrong in doing so. The Bible contains many exaggerated statements made for emphasis or to highlight a point.
Thus, for example, when the people say in Genesis 11:4, “Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven,” they do not expect the tower to reach heaven; they exaggerated to suggest that they intended to erect a very tall structure.
Similarly, when the spies report in Numbers 13:32–33 that the land of Canaan “is a land that eats its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature…. And we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight,” they do not mean what they say. They exaggerated to frighten the people. The land, they felt, could not sustain them. Some of the inhabitants, but not all, were tall and strong and probably unconquerable; the spies seemed weak in comparison.
Also, when the Gibeonites tell King David in ii Samuel 21:5 that King Saul “completely destroyed” all of them, they do not mean that every Gibeonite was killed; for if they were all killed, how could some be alive to complain?
Still again, Exodus 14:31’s all-inclusive “and the people [of Israel] feared the Lord, and they believed in [or, more precisely, were steadfast with] the Lord, and His servant Moses,” could not possibly include every Israelite.
We read in the very next chapter, in 15:24, that “the people murmured against Moses.” It is reasonable to assume that not every Israelite murmured. Examples of this type of exaggeration abound.
Applying Hertz’s reasoning to the Egyptian Plagues
Similarly, Chief Rabbi Hertz does not take the description of the plagues literally. Exodus 7:19 describes the first plague: “there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” The rabbi understands that the “blood” did not appear everywhere, and certainly not in vessels, but only in the contaminated Nile.
Exodus 8:2 states that the second plague of frogs “covered the land of Egypt.” Again the chief rabbi states that the frogs were located only at the Nile where the “vegetable matter” intensified the existence of the frogs.
Exodus 8:13 states, “there were gnats upon man, and upon beast; the dust of the earth became gnats throughout all the land of Egypt.” Chief Rabbi Hertz understands this description, as the others, to be an overstatement to emphasize the impact and damage of the plague that was in fact localized to the fouled Nile area.
Applying the Methodology to the Tenth Plague
The difficulty of seeing the tenth plague as a natural event is that the scriptural details – the spread of the plague throughout all Egypt, the fact that the plague struck only firstborn, exactly at midnight, and that no firstborn was left alive, the fact that even captives and cattle died – are not natural.
However, applying the methodology used by Hertz for the other plagues, the tenth plague can also be seen as an artful exaggeration. After the Nile was infected, frogs left the polluted river and died, germs and insects spread, animals became diseased and died, and finally the disease (plague) struck humans, rich and poor alike. No group of humans was exempt, even the firstborn males, who were held sacred by the Egyptians and Israelites. Thus, although Scripture may be exaggerating the event by saying that it smote the firstborn, it may mean that it also struck them. Additionally, while the Torah states that no Israelite firstborn died from the plague, this hyperbolic statement is saying that very few Israelites died in the plague, probably because they did not live in the affected areas.
Chief Rabbi Hertz does not give this explanation of the tenth plague, but it is a reasonable one. It is consistent with the account that he gives for the other plagues, and with the way Maimonides understands the concept of miracles – as unusual and unexpected events but nevertheless events that comply with the laws of nature.