Punishing Egypt Measure-for-Measure
Before the plague of hail, Moses explains to Pharaoh the reason YHWH has spared him thus far: so that he will experience the plagues one by one, and through him the whole world will understand YHWH’s power:
שׁמות ט:טז וְאוּלָם בַּעֲבוּר זֹאת הֶעֱמַדְתִּיךָ בַּעֲבוּר הַרְאֹתְךָ אֶת כֹּחִי וּלְמַעַן סַפֵּר שְׁמִי בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ.
Exod 9:16 Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.
The plagues here have a distinct educational aspect for the Egyptians and the world at large. That YHWH is intentionally trying to teach Pharaoh a lesson through the kind of plagues He chooses to inflict is clear in how he depicts the final plague, the death of the first-born:
שׁמות ד:כב וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל. ד:כג וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ שַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי וַתְּמָאֵן לְשַׁלְּחוֹ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג אֶת בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ.
Exod 4:22 “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says YHWH: Israel is My first-born son. 4:23 I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’”
The principle here, known in rabbinic parlance as מידה כנגד מידה “measure for measure,” may be what lies at the core of Jethro’s reaction to the exodus and its miracles, after Moses recounts it to him:
שׁמות יח:יא עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל יְ־הוָה מִכָּל הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי בַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם.
Exod 18:11 Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods, for by the result of their very schemes against [the people].”
The last phrase is enigmatic—it was probably corrupted through ancient scribal error—but is often understood in both modern and traditional interpretation to be a reference to YHWH’s measure for measure punishment. For example, Targum Neofiti translates:
ארום בפתגמא דחשיבו מצריי על ישראל למרמא בניהון לנהרא - בה בפתגמא יתפרע מנהון ייי במימריה אמר וטמע ית ארתכיהון בימא דסוף.
For in the thing that the Egyptians planned regarding Israel, to throw their sons to the river – in the same thing God took retribution from them, he said in his speech, and he drowned their chariots in the Sea of Rushes.
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Onkelos offer similar translations, all understanding God’s actions in Egypt as a paradigmatic instantiation of the principle of measure for measure.
The Wisdom of Solomon
For later interpreters of the Torah, the idea of measure-for-measure in the exodus story was not limited to the death of the Egyptian firstborn or even the drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea, but was applied to many other facets. Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish Hellenistic composition preserved in the Septuagint, and dated to the first century B.C.E. or the first century C.E., applies a systematic measure-for-measure interpretation to the story.
Wisdom of Solomon can be divided into three main sections:
- Chapters 1–5 are an eschatological vision on righteousness and wickedness;
- Chapters 6–10 are a treatise on Wisdom and rulers;
- Chapters 11–19 are a long homily on the exodus.
In this third section, the plagues are interpreted as a measure-for-measure punishment of the Egyptians for their wicked behaviors, and they are further contrasted with positive things God does for Israel, showing the Egyptians would have been (or could be) if they were righteous and turned to God as Israel does.
Measure for Measure in the Plague of Swarms
A good example a plague interpreted in this dual way is Wisdom of Solomon’s treatment of ʿarov (Exod 8:17),  the 4th plague, which the Septuagint understands as swarms of insects (specifically, κυνόμυια, “dog flies”). Why does God choose these base creatures to punish the Egyptians? It is a punishment for their idolatrous worship of lowly creatures:
Wis 11:15 In repayment for (ἀντὶ) their wicked and witless reasoning, by which they were misled into worshiping brute reptiles and worthless beasts, you sent against them a swarm of creatures devoid of reasoning. 11:16 That they might know (γνῶσιν) that by those things through which a man sins, through them he is punished.
The reference to Egypt being punished “by those things through which” may be an intertextual allusion to Jethro’s statement to Moses. In direct contrast to the dog flies plaguing the Egyptians, the Israelites are rewarded with quail:
Wis 16:2 In lieu (ἀντὶ) of such punishment, you exhibited kindness to your people and prepared for the satisfaction of their fierce craving an exotic delicacy of quail food.
Similar contrasting sets of sins, plague, and reward are:
- Hail—Because of Egypt’s sinful belief that they could escape God’s powerful hand, God struck them with fiery hailstones from heaven (16:15–19); in contrast, Israel was rewarded with manna, nourishing food from the heavens (16:20–29);
- Darkness—For keeping Israel in the darkness of slavery and believing that their sins were unobserved as if covered by darkness, Egypt was struck with the plague of darkness (17:1–21); but for Israel, light remained throughout the plague, and when they left Egypt, a flaming pillar of fire went before them to light their way (18:1–4).
Wisdom of Solomon offers similar observations about other plagues as well.
A Lesson for the Egyptians
As noted above, Exodus explains that the punishment of Egypt was partly meant to teach them a lesson. Wisdom of Solomon builds on this idea by arguing that the measure-for-measure pattern in particular is meant to educate the Egyptians, who should understand the connection between deed and reward, repent and turn to God:
Wis 11:13 When they learned (ἤκουσαν) that through their own punishments the others were being benefited, they took note of the Lord.
Wisdom of Solomon even includes a scene in which the Egyptian notice the difference between their fate and Israel’s during the plague of darkness:
Wis 18:1 But for your holy ones there was light supreme. The enemy who could hear their voices though not discover their shapes, deemed them happy because they had not suffered like themselves.
Indeed, the reason for the proliferation of the plagues is to offer the Egyptians an opportunity for repentance:
Wis 12:2 For this reason you correct (ἐλέγχεις) those that err little by little, and jogging their memories by means of the very things in which they go wrong you admonish them, so that they may be released from their vicious ways and put their trust (πιστεύσωσιν) in you, O Lord.
The Wisdom of Solomon thus fashions the story according to its own Jewish-Hellenistic worldview: God operates as an ideal Greek educator who leads all humans gradually to the right conclusion. Thus, after the final plague, the Egyptians break free of being prisoners of their senseless idolatry (or magic, τὰς φαρμακείας), and recognize Israel’s superior position with God:
Wis 18:13 …At the destruction of their firstborn, they acknowledged (ὡμολόγησαν) your people to be God’s son.
In this retelling of the exodus story, not only the Israelites but the Egyptians gain a certain amount of redemption from the exodus. This underscores the tension between the author’s ethnocentrism as a member of the Jewish people and his universalism as a Hellenistic Greek philosopher. On one hand, the whole saga is structured around the inverted fate of the Israelites and the Egyptians, the latter acknowledging not only God but also the special status of Israel, God’s “first born sons” (see Exod 4:22). On the other hand, the Egyptians too are being cared for by God, for God’s goal is that they too will turn to him.
God Also Cares for the Canaanites
Wisdom of Solomon time and again emphasizes God’s mercy on all humans, exemplifying it, for example, in an interlude from the exodus story (ch. 12) that discusses the later conquest of Canaan. The Bible explains the gradual expulsion of the Canaanites as an attempt to avoid the land becoming desolate, but Wisdom of Solomon explains it as an attempt to educate the Canaanites and offer them an opening for repentance:
Wis 12:8 Yet these too you spared as being men, and sent wasps as the advance guard of your army to exterminate them gradually. 12:9 It was not through inability to subject the godless to the righteous in pitched battle, with cruel beasts or relentless word to wipe them out at once, 12:10 but judging them gradually you gave them space for repentance (μετανοίας), not unaware that their seed was evil, and their viciousness innate.
In sum, for the Wisdom of Solomon, the purpose of measure-for-measure punishment is two-fold: It serves Israel’s enemies with the punishment they deserve, and it gives them the opportunity to abandon their false gods, repent, and along with Israel, become followers of the true God.
Measure-for-Measure Punishments of Egypt in the Mekhilta
Rabbinic literature also reads the exodus story through the prism of measure-for-measure punishment. In the aggadic section of the two Mekhiltot to Exodus—Tannaitic midrashim from the 2nd century C.E.—a set of elaborate homilies offer numerous examples of measure for measure punishments of Egypt. These selected examples showcase the flavor of these homilies:
A. Heavy Work / Heavy Chariots
״וינהגהו בכבדות״ – ר' יהודה אומר: במדה שמדדו בה מדדת עליהם, הם אמרו "תכבד העבודה", ואף אתה מדדת להם באותה המידה "וינהגהו בכבדות"
“And made them to drive heavily” (Exod 14:25)—R. Judah says: with what measure they meted out, you meted out to them. They said: “let the work be laid heavily (כ.ב.ד)” (Exod 5:9), and you likewise meted out to them with the same measure: “and made them to drive heavily (כ.ב.ד)” (Beshalach 6, 241–242)
The midrash here builds on the appearance of the root כ.ב.ד, “to be heavy,” in both the verse about the Israelites and that about the Egyptians.
B. Cast into the Water
The Mekhilta on the narrative description of the drowning of the Egyptians connects to Jethro’s measure-for-measure observation as interpreted in the Targums quoted above, and even uses the term זדון, which appears in the Jethro verse:
"וישובו המים על מצרים על רכבו" וגומר – ויחזור עליהן הגלגל ויחזר עליהן זדונן. שבמחשבה שחישבו מצרים לאבד את ישר' בה אני דנן. הן חישבו לאבד את בניי במים, אף אני לא אפרע מהן אלא במים....
“That the Waters May Come Back upon the Egyptians, upon Their Chariots, and upon Their Horsemen” (Exod 14:26). Let the wheel turn against them and bring back upon them their own violence. For with the same device with which they planned to destroy Israel I am going to punish them. They planned to destroy My children by water, so I will likewise punish them by water. (Beshalach 6, 161–2).
A similar comment is made on the Song of the Sea, this time referencing the principle explicitly:
״מרכבות פרעה״ – במידה שמדדו בה מדדת להם, הן אמרו, "כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו", אף אתה באותה מידה מדדת להם, לכך נאמר, "מרכבות פרעה [וחילו ירה בים]״
“Pharaoh’s Chariots” (Exod 15:4) – By the measure with which they meted out you have meted out to them. They said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river” (Exod 1:22), and you too meted out to them by the same measure. In this sense it is said: “Pharaoh’s chariots [and his hosts he has cast into the sea]” (Shirata 4, 36)
Here, however, the midrash builds on a thematic rather than a linguistic connection.
C. Like a Stone
The principle of measure for measure is again evoked, comparing the sinking of the Egyptian chariots in the sea like a stone to Pharaoh’s command to the midwives to kill the baby boys on the birthing stone:
"כמו אבן" – במידה שמדדו בה מדדת להם. הן אמרו "וראיתן על האבנים". ואף אתה עשית להם מים כאבנים. והיו המים מכין על מקום האבנים. לכך נאמר "כמו אבן".
“Like a Stone” (Exod 15:5) – The measure with which they meted did You measure out to them. They said: “You shall look upon the birthing stone” (Exod 1:16). And You too made the waters be to them like stones; furthermore, the waters struck them upon their stones. In this sense it is said: “Like a stone” (Shirta 2, 193).
Another homily on this same verse also uses the measure-for-measure principle based on a different type of connection:
״כמו אבן״ – על שהקשו לבם כאבן
“Like a stone” (Exod 15:5) – because they made their heart hard like a stone. (Shirata 5, 39)
The verses that refer to Pharaoh’s hard heart don’t actually use the word stone, but the homilist grasps at this connection to show another way that the measure-for-measure principle was used in the punishment of the Egyptians.
Egyptians and Oppressors
The Mekhilta, using a pun on the Hebrew name for Egyptians, makes the measure-for-measure principle into a transhistorical principle applying not only to the Egyptians but to all people:
כך היא מידה מהלכת על פני כל הדורות. "זאת העצה היעוצה על כל הארץ" וג'. מפני מה. "ייי צבאות יעץ ומי יפר" וג'. הא לא במצרים בלבד אלא בכל המצירין להם על פני כל הדורות. לכך נאמר "כי ייי נלחם להם במצרים".
Such is the rule that obtains throughout all the generations, as it is said: “This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth,” etc. (ibid., 14:26). Why? “For the Lord of Hosts has purposed, and who shall annul it?” (ibid., v. 27). Thus it is not only against the Egyptians (mitzrayim), but against all those who oppress (matzirin) them in every generation. Therefore it is said: “For the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians/oppressors” (Beshalach 6, 161).
Apart from displaying the homilist’s virtuosity in wordplay and in connecting different parts of the scripture, the homily establishes measure-for-measure punishment as a basic theological principle that reveals the power of divine justice.
Uncovering the Meaning of What Transpires in the World
The German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) explains the search for hidden meaning in the world as a kind of mystical thinking:
In mythical thinking, any similarity of sensuous manifestation suffices to group the entities in which it appears into a single mythical ‘genus’. Any characteristic, however external, is as good as another.
Following this model, the German-born, Israeli Rabbinics scholar Isaac Heinemann (1876–1957) argues that the mythic mode of thinking, which characterizes the creators of rabbinic literature, forms the epistemological underpinnings of the principle of measure-to-measure punishment, which is why it was so fundamental to rabbinic midrash. According to Heinemann, the main goal of the homilist consists of revealing the hidden connections between various elements in the world, which demonstrate that divine providence exists under the surface of reality.
I would argue, however, that for the homilist, the discovery of links is not primarily about explaining historical events in the world, but about finding hidden connections in the world of the biblical text, in the verses narrating events. This may be the case for both Wisdom of Solomon and the Mekhilta, but with different emphases: The Wisdom of Solomon is based on thematic imagination: manna is the inverse of hail, quail is the inverse of dog flies. The midrash, however, focuses on linguistic connections and word play.
This difference is not surprising considering the different linguistic contexts of the two compositions. Wisdom of Solomon was written in Greek and is using the LXX Greek translation, while the rabbis are reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and thus have access to the Hebrew roots, which they can compare and repurpose.
A Message for All People or for the Jews?
The Wisdom of Solomon and the Mekhilta both make use of the biblical idea of measure-for-measure, each in its own way and for its specific ideological purposes. Both Wisdom of Solomon and the Mekhilta are speaking to Jews, claiming that God punishes their foes. At the same time, these texts have a different goal or “message” when it comes to non-Jews.
The Mekhilta: An Internal Message for Jews
For the Mekhilta, the divine punishment of Israel’s enemies, such as the Egyptians and the Amalekites, shows that, in the end, Israel’s enemies cannot prevail (Amalek 2, 148):
ילמד כל אדם דרך מעמלק שבא להזיק את ישראל ואיבדו המקום מחיי העולם הזה והעולם הבא, שנ' "כי מחה אמחה וגו'".
Let all men learn proper conduct from Amalek, who came to harm Israel and God removed them from this world and the next world, as it says (Exod 17:14): “For I shall erase, yes erase them…”
וכן פרעה שבא להזיק את ישראל טבעו המקום בים סוף שנ' "ונער פרעה וחילו בים סוף וג'".
So too Pharaoh came to harm Israel but God drowned him in the Sea of Reeds, as it says (Ps 136:16) “He hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds…”
וכן כל אומה ומלכות שבאת להזיק את ישראל בו בדין דינם. לעולם אמרו כמידה שאדם מודד בה מודדים לו, "כי בדבר אשר זדו עליהם".
Likewise, every nation or kingdom that comes to harm Israel, God always judges according to this rule. They stated a principle: According to the measure that the person measures with the person is measured (Exod 18:11), “Yes, for with the very thing with which they acted presumptuously against them.”
The midrash ends with a reading of Jethro’s comment that agrees with the targumim and Wisdom of Solomon. The reader is expected to join wholeheartedly with Jethro’s pious conclusion: Israel’s enemies get what is coming to them.
For the rabbis, the message for non-Jews is to back off and not try to harm Jews, or else they will be punished. However, the rabbis are not really delivering this message to the non-Jews at all. They expounded Midrash in Hebrew, unknown to non-Jews, and use internal technical language based on readings of the biblical verses, that would be unintelligible to outsiders.
Thus, the message is directed to Jews, telling them not to worry too much about the evil the gentiles perpetrate on them, since, in the end, the gentiles will receive their just deserts. The rabbis are not interested in converting or convincing anybody. Amalekites, Egyptians, and really all gentiles are all outsiders who should leave the Jews alone.
Wisdom of Solomon: A Universal Message of Repentance
The Wisdom of Solomon, however, was composed in Greek in the metropolitan Alexandria Egypt. His audience were also Jews, but they should learn how to live in peace and cooperation with the surrounding peoples. The Egyptians in this work serve for the book’s addressees as an exemplar for the Egyptian inhabitants of his own time. If they could come to acknowledge Israel’s God, as the Egyptians do after the death of the firstborn in the Wisdom of Solomon, they can also share Israel’s fortune as followers of this same God.
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Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is Professor of Rabbinic Literature in the department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel-Aviv University, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from Tel-Aviv University and was elected to the Israel Young Academy of Sciences in 2013. Among his many publications are Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (2011); Body and Soul in Ancient Judaism (2012); and Goy: Israel’s Others and the Birth of the Gentile (2018, with Adi Ophir).
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