The Three Redactional and Theological Layers of the Plagues
The plague account as it is appears in Exodus 7-10 is frustrating for any reader who is searching for consistency and linearity. In Exodus, the plagues do not seem to build on each other to produce a smooth narrative. Furthermore, alternative versions of the plague accounts exist in psalms, some with 7 or 8 plagues instead of 10.
In this piece, I will begin by listing some of the thorniest problems that “plague” interpreters of this section and then offer a path towards a solution based on the tools of academic biblical scholarship. I will argue, as many scholars do, that the plague account is composite and put together over time, with revisions and redactions that create further narrative difficulties. Finally, the story did not begin with ten plagues, but with a smaller number.
Problems with the Narrative
Sometimes a warning precedes the plague (blood, frogs, swarms, pestilence, hail, locusts, first-born), while other times it is absent (lice, boils, darkness). Rashbam identified a pattern where two plagues with warning are followed by one plague without warning (Exod 7:26), but nothing in the text explains why such a pattern was utilized.
2. Who Performs the Plagues?
The party in charge of performing the plague changes for no discernible reason throughout the plagues. Sometimes it is Aaron at God’s behest (blood, frogs), sometimes it is Aaron and Moses at God’s behest (lice and boils), sometimes it is Moses alone at God’s behest (hail, locusts, darkness), and sometimes it is God alone (swarms, pestilence, first born). Once again no reason given for why this should be the case.
3. Moses vs. God
In the case of hail and locusts, God commands Moses to lift his hand or staff and wave them, but then it is God who actually brings the plague about. What then is the purpose of Moses’ action?
4. Pharaoh’s heart
Following the plague either God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (blood, lice, boils, locusts, darkness) or Pharaoh hardens his own heart (frogs, swarms, pestilence), and once both happen (hail). These are two distinct ideas; one implies free will the other places limits on free-will. There is no discernible reason why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after a particular plague, and why Pharaoh hardens his own heart after another.
The Supplementary Approach
Different academic approaches explain how the Torah was written and put together. The documentary hypothesis is the one most familiar to non-specialists in biblical studies. According to this approach, each document, (such as J, E, and P) tells a similar story, was complete, and was combined by a redactor. This approach disentangles the sources and reads each document on its own.
Instead, I find the Supplementary Hypothesis to be more compelling. This approach suggests that the Pentateuch began with one original text, and was expanded by successive additions, a natural process for a culture in which the written word was respected—especially texts written in God’s name. According to this theory, only the original layer would read well on its own—the later materials were supplements, never meant to be read independently; reading them in isolation would yield incomplete and incoherent texts. In the model I work with, the original text upon which all others were built was E, and the first author to add to the E core text was J.
A Bottom Up Overview of My Supplementary Solution to the Plague Narrative
The plague narrative is long and complicated, and the supplementary solution I propose requires concentration and attention to detail, so let me first start with an overview.
Step 1 – In the original short narrative, an E document, God appoints Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod 3), and Moses is meant to accomplish this on his own. Moses goes to Egypt and delivers the divine message. Once Pharaoh refuses, Moses hits Pharaoh and Egypt with a 1-2-3 punch of plagues (hail, locusts, darkness), which he brings about himself, without warning, without negotiation, and without God’s help.
These three plagues are all very severe. Under the veil of darkness, the Egyptian populace banish the Israelites, without consulting Pharaoh. Moses leads them to the Reed Sea, splits it apart (again without divine help) and leads the Israelites throughout the wilderness to the Mountain of God.
Step 2 – J took this plague narrative and expanded it, both by adding material to the original three plagues and by adding 5 more plagues (blood, frogs, swarms, pestilence, death of first born), bringing the total to 8. (The eighth J plague, death of the firstborn, will not be discussed in this article.) In the J narrative, Yhwh is the power behind all the plagues, including E’s plagues, which he supplemented, and Moses’ actions are purely symbolic or demonstrative; Moses, in J, has no power to perform miracles on his own. J also adds the elements of negotiation with Pharaoh post-Pharaoh’s refusal, physical separation of the Israelites from the Egyptians, among other matters.
Step 3 – The Priestly author (P) added his own redactions to this complex, including two new plagues (lice and boils.) Not surprisingly, P expands the role of Aaron and his involvement in producing the plagues; he also adds Pharaoh’s magicians and their competition with Moses and Aaron into the account, as well as the element of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
Top Down Analysis
With this overview in mind, I will now start from the full narrative, peeling away the layers of text (P and J) from the canonical version of Exodus 7-12. I will explain why the text I am peeling away should be attributed to its particular source. This will leave me the original E core text.
Isolating and Peeling away P: The Final Layer
Lice and Boils: Two P Plagues
Two plagues in particular—lice and boils—are similar in many respects: in both God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and in both employ the verb חזק as opposed to כבד. The use of חזק for hardening is seen by almost all scholars as a P marker.
Furthermore, both of these plagues read smoothly with no signs of composite authorship (as opposed to some other plagues). It is thus reasonable to assume that both of these plagues are part of the final Priestly redaction to the structure of the plagues.
Several other similarities strengthen the notion that they derive from the same source:
- No warning is given.
- Pharaoh does not interact with the Israelites at all.
- Pharaoh’s magicians appear, adding a competition dynamic between them and Aaron to the account.
- Aaron’s role is prominent. In the plague of lice, he is responsible for bringing about the lice in Egypt, and both Aaron and Moses pick up dust in the plague of boils (though only Moses throws it into the air).
These last two points can also be seen as a sign of Priestly editing. The Priestly text tends to favor Aaron and place him in as good a light as possible, and has a strong aversion to magic users of any kind. Moreover, these features appear in the story of Aaron’s staff becoming a serpent (ch. 7), a section that is part of the Priestly frame to the plague narratives. These features have led scholars to assign the miracle/wonder of the serpent to the P source, perhaps as the first “plague” or, more accurately, מופת, sign/wonder. (This implies that our text actually has 11—not 10—מופתים, though this is not a problem since the Torah never says there were only ten.)
The nature of these plagues suggests that the P source was recasting the narrative from a plague narrative to one about God’s wonders. The story becomes less about punishing the Egyptians or negotiating with Pharaoh, and more about demonstrating God’s greatness through powerful miraculous wonders.
P’s Fingerprints in other Plagues
The P supplementor likely intervened elsewhere in the plague chapters. Some of the P elements found in lice and boils appear in some of the other plague accounts, but often in places where they disrupt the flow of the text.
Hardening Pharaoh’s Already Heavy Heart!
P’s intervention in the plague of Hail (9:34-35) is especially clear because of the double endings.
ט:לד וַיַּ֣רְא פַּרְעֹ֗ה כִּֽי־חָדַ֨ל הַמָּטָ֧ר וְהַבָּרָ֛ד וְהַקֹּלֹ֖ת וַיֹּ֣סֶף לַחֲטֹ֑א וַיַּכְבֵּ֥ד לִבּ֖וֹ ה֥וּא וַעֲבָדָֽיו: ט:לה וַֽיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה:
9:34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, his heart became heavy and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers. 9:35 So Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as Yhwh had foretold through Moses.
Pharaoh hardens his heart twice, first by himself (where the root כבד is used), and then secondly, as promised by God (where the root חזק is used). The second ending with the root חזק seems tacked on, and is a sign of the Priestly layer.
The same term is used in the plague of Blood (7:22), which also has the appearance of a double ending.
ז:כב וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ כֵ֛ן חַרְטֻמֵּ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּלָטֵיהֶ֑םוַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹא שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔םכַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָֽה: ז:כג וַיִּ֣פֶן פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֖א אֶל בֵּית֑וֹ וְלֹא שָׁ֥ת לִבּ֖וֹ גַּם לָזֹֽאת:
7:22 But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he did not heed them—as Yhwh had spoken. 7:23 Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard to this either.
Again, Pharaoh seems to be rejecting the Moses’ request to free the people twice. This time, the first verse appears to be the addition.
The same explanation of Pharaoh’s behavior was added into the plague of Darkness (10:27) as well.
י:כה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה גַּם אַתָּ֛ה תִּתֵּ֥ן בְּיָדֵ֖נוּ זְבָחִ֣ים וְעֹלֹ֑ת וְעָשִׂ֖ינוּ לַי-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ: י:כו וְגַם מִקְנֵ֜נוּ יֵלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֗נוּ לֹ֤א תִשָּׁאֵר֙ פַּרְסָ֔ה כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ נִקַּ֔ח לַעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־ נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֔ה עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה:
10:25 But Moses said, “You yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to Yhwh our God; 10:26 our own livestock, too, shall go along with us—not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of Yhwh our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship Yhwh until we arrive there.”
י:כז וַיְחַזֵּ֥ק יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְלֹ֥א אָבָ֖ה לְשַׁלְּחָֽם:
10:27 But Yhwh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go.
י:כח וַיֹּֽאמֶר ל֥וֹ פַרְעֹ֖ה לֵ֣ךְ מֵעָלָ֑י הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֗ אַל תֹּ֙סֶף֙ רְא֣וֹת פָּנַ֔י כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם רְאֹתְךָ֥ פָנַ֖י תָּמֽוּת:
10:28 Pharaoh said to him, “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.”
י:כט וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה כֵּ֣ן דִּבַּ֑רְתָּ לֹא אֹסִ֥ף ע֖וֹד רְא֥וֹת פָּנֶֽיךָ:
10:29 And Moses replied, “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!”
In this case, the added verse (indented blue) interrupts the dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh—the introductions of speakers in this dialogue are highlighted through underlining, above.
The magicians appear in the Priestly plagues of lice and boils as well as in the Priestly frame to the plague narrative (7:11), where Aaron’s staff swallows their staffs. Thus, it is also likely that P tacked on the contest with magicians to the plagues of Blood and Frogs to create a progression in the narrative: first, the magicians are able to replicate the signs, then they cannot, then they too suffer from the plagues.
ז:כא וְהַדָּגָ֨ה אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹ֥ר מֵ֙תָה֙ וַיִּבְאַ֣שׁ הַיְאֹ֔ר וְלֹא יָכְל֣וּ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִשְׁתּ֥וֹת מַ֖יִם מִן הַיְאֹ֑ר…
7:21 And the fish in the Nile died and the Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile…
ז:כב וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ כֵ֛ן חַרְטֻמֵּ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּלָטֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹא שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָֽה:
7:22 And the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, and Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he did not heed them—as Yhwh had spoken.
ז:כג וַיִּ֣פֶן פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֖א אֶל בֵּית֑וֹ וְלֹא שָׁ֥ת לִבּ֖וֹ גַּם לָזֹֽאת:
7:23 Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard to this either.
The secondary nature of verse 22 is clear: once Pharaoh does not heed Moses and Aaron (v. 22), v. 23, which states that Pharaoh “paid no regard” to the matter is redundant. The addition of v. 22 changes the meaning of Pharaoh’s reaction in verse 23. As it currently stands, Pharaoh is encouraged to dismiss God’s power by the demonstration of his magicians that they can also perform such a feat. Once the Priestly gloss is removed, however, Pharaoh’s action can be understood as a simple case of stubbornness.
In the case of the frogs, the secondary nature of the magicians act is particularly clear since Pharaoh doesn’t even seem to notice that they were there or did anything.
ח:ב …וַתַּ֙עַל֙ הַצְּפַרְדֵּ֔עַ וַתְּכַ֖ס אֶת אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
8:2 …[A]nd the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.
ח:ג וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ כֵ֥ן הַֽחַרְטֻמִּ֖ים בְּלָטֵיהֶ֑ם וַיַּעֲל֥וּ אֶת הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֖ים עַל אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
8:3 But the magicians did the same with their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt.
ח:ד וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לַי-הֹוָֽה:
8:4 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with Yhwh to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to Yhwh.”
Aaron’s active participation in bringing the plagues about is a core piece of the two self-standing Priestly plagues, and it seems likely that P tacked on Aaron’s role to the plagues of blood and frogs. The language of these two additions is quite similar, as the bold font indicates:
ז:יז כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה בְּזֹ֣את תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֖י אֲנִ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י מַכֶּ֣ה׀ בַּמַּטֶּ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־בְּיָדִ֗י עַל־הַמַּ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּיְאֹ֖ר וְנֶהֶפְכ֥וּ לְדָֽם: ז:יח וְהַדָּגָ֧ה אֲשֶׁר־בַּיְאֹ֛ר תָּמ֖וּת וּבָאַ֣שׁ הַיְאֹ֑ר וְנִלְא֣וּ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִשְׁתּ֥וֹת מַ֖יִם מִן־הַיְאֹֽר:
7:17 Thus says Yhwh, “By this you shall know that I am Yhwh.” See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood; 7:18 and the fish in the Nile will die. The Nile will stink so that the Egyptians will find it impossible to drink the water of the Nile.’”
ז:יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֜ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֗האֱמֹ֣ר אֶֽל אַהֲרֹ֡ן קַ֣ח מַטְּךָ֣ וּנְטֵֽה יָדְךָ֩ עַל מֵימֵ֨י מִצְרַ֜יִם עַֽל נַהֲרֹתָ֣ם׀ עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶ֣ם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶ֗ם וְעַ֛ל כָּל מִקְוֵ֥ה מֵימֵיהֶ֖ם וְיִֽהְיוּ דָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה דָם֙ בְּכָל אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וּבָעֵצִ֖ים וּבָאֲבָנִֽים: ז:כ וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ כֵן֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאַהֲרֹ֜ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר׀ צִוָּ֣ה יְ-הֹוָ֗ה.
7:19 And Yhwh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” 7:20 Moses and Aaron did just as Yhwh commanded.
וַיָּ֤רֶם בַּמַּטֶּה֙ וַיַּ֤ךְ אֶת הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּיְאֹ֔ר לְעֵינֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה וּלְעֵינֵ֖י עֲבָדָ֑יו וַיֵּהָֽפְכ֛וּ כָּל הַמַּ֥יִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹ֖ר לְדָֽם:
He lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood.
ז:כז …הִנֵּ֣ה אָנֹכִ֗י נֹגֵ֛ף אֶת כָּל גְּבוּלְךָ֖ בַּֽצְפַרְדְּעִֽים: ז:כח וְשָׁרַ֣ץ הַיְאֹר֘ צְפַרְדְּעִים֒ וְעָלוּ֙ וּבָ֣אוּ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבַחֲדַ֥ר מִשְׁכָּבְךָ֖ וְעַל מִטָּתֶ֑ךָ וּבְבֵ֤ית עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ וּבְעַמֶּ֔ךָ וּבְתַנּוּרֶ֖יךָ וּבְמִשְׁאֲרוֹתֶֽיךָ: ז:כט וּבְכָ֥ה וּֽבְעַמְּךָ֖ וּבְכָל עֲבָדֶ֑יךָ יַעֲל֖וּ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִֽים:
7:27 I will plague your whole country with frogs. 7:28 The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. 7:29 The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.’”
ח:א וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֘ אֶל מֹשֶׁה֒ אֱמֹ֣ר אֶֽל אַהֲרֹ֗ן נְטֵ֤ה אֶת יָדְךָ֙ בְּמַטֶּ֔ךָ עַל הַ֨נְּהָרֹ֔ת עַל הַיְאֹרִ֖ים וְעַל הָאֲגַמִּ֑ים וְהַ֥עַל אֶת הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֖ים עַל אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: ח:ב וַיֵּ֤ט אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶת יָד֔וֹ עַ֖ל מֵימֵ֣י מִצְרָ֑יִם
8:1 And Yhwh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron:Hold out your arm with the rod over the rivers, the canals, and the ponds, and bring up the frogs on the land of Egypt.” 8:2 Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt.
וַתַּ֙עַל֙ הַצְּפַרְדֵּ֔עַ וַתְּכַ֖ס אֶת אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
And the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.
The secondary nature of Aaron’s role in these plagues is especially apparent in the plague of blood, where Aaron’s role creates a discontinuity in the text. 7:14-18 states explicitly that Moses should use his staff (במטה אשר בידי) to bring about the plague, but then in v. 19 Aaron is commanded to use his staff and perform the plague; no reason is given for God’s change of the plan.
Explaining P’s Additions
A number of considerations likely motivated P to expand on his version of the plague account:
- He wanted to create the elegant 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 pattern identified by the Rashbam.
- He increased the number of plagues to ten, a typological number representing completion.
- Through his addition of the magicians, he created a progression, with the plagues becoming more and more severe.
- He wanted to insert his distinct notion of sin and expiation, and accomplished this by having God harden Pharaoh’s heart.
- Aaron’s role is crucial in P, and he thus expanded on a number of P plagues to elevate Aaron, who is the High Priest in P texts, but is “only” Moses’ brother in J and E texts.
Some of these points are interconnected. For example, P added the Egyptian magicians to the story because they are Aaron’s competitors. Beginning with the sign of the serpent, Aaron’s staff swallows theirs, and afterwards in the third plague, Aaron is able to perform and they cannot. In contrast with the Egyptian magicians, Aaron is a powerful executor of the divine will, and thus worthy of the priesthood.
After P is Removed: The J Narrative
Once we peel away the Priestly plagues of lice and boils (and the story of Aaron’s staff becoming a serpent), we are left with eight plagues, seven of which are preceded by warnings. All of these plagues include:
- God’s active involvement in bringing about the plague (with or without Moses’ assistance).
- Prophetic warnings quoting “the God of the Hebrews.”
- Pharaoh’s making his heart heavy (with the root כבד).
- Yhwh’s greatness emphasized/demonstrated by the plagues.
Exactly how these features fit in J’s overall narrative plan will only become clear once we expose the core text that J revised, i.e., E’s original version of the exodus account. And this can only be accomplished by looking that the non-P text carefully, searching for redundancies and especially contradictions.
Who Takes the Israelites out of Egypt: The Theology behind J’s Redaction of E
The starkest problem with the non-P text is the tension between Moses’ role and God’s role. This is first apparent here:
ג:ז וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָֽיו: ג:ח וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ׀ מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרַ֗יִם וּֽלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ֘ מִן הָאָ֣רֶץ הַהִוא֒ אֶל אֶ֤רֶץ טוֹבָה֙ וּרְחָבָ֔ה אֶל אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ אֶל מְק֤וֹם הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ וְהַ֣חִתִּ֔י וְהָֽאֱמֹרִי֙ וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י וְהַחִוִּ֖י וְהַיְבוּסִֽי: ג:ט וְעַתָּ֕ה הִנֵּ֛ה צַעֲקַ֥ת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בָּ֣אָה אֵלָ֑י וְגַם רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת הַלַּ֔חַץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם לֹחֲצִ֥ים אֹתָֽם: ג:י וְעַתָּ֣ה לְכָ֔ה וְאֶֽשְׁלָחֲךָ֖ אֶל פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהוֹצֵ֛א אֶת עַמִּ֥י בְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
3:7 Yhwh said, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, and I know their sorrows. 3:8 I will come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up and out of that land to a good and broad land, to a land flowing with milk and honey; to the dwelling place of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3:9 Now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to me. Moreover, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 3:10 Come now, and I will send you to the king of Egypt, so that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
As the color-coding indicates, the text contains a doublet, often a sign of multiple sources or redaction. In verses 7-8, Yhwh states that he has seen the affliction of his people and that he will go down to save them. Then in verse 9-10 he says again that he has seen how the Egyptians oppress them and that Moses should go save them. Many scholars attribute the first part to J (red) and the second to E (green). According to J text (3:7-8), Yhwh will personally deliver the Israelites from Egypt. According to E text (3:9-10), Yhwh appoints Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt.
How Active Is Moses in the Plague Story?
This is only one example of the tension between two outlooks in the story, one in which God is the active redeemer of Israel, and the other in which Moses does all the work. In the final form of the Torah text, Yhwh is the hero of the exodus. That Moses once had a more active role in getting the Israelites out of Egypt is not readily apparent, but after engaging in a little textual archaeology, we can uncover a version of the text in which Moses was more active, written by E. J was responding to this version. This tension between God’s role and Moses’ role plays out most obviously in the plagues of hail and locusts, and in a less obvious way in the plague of darkness (in Exodus 9-10).
The Role of Moses in the Plagues of Hail, Locusts, and Darkness
In hail and locusts, the text explicitly states that Yhwh causes the plague to take place, yet Yhwh also commands Moses to perform an act with his arm or staff.
Moses Stretches His Arm
ט:כגa וַיֵּ֨ט מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶת מַטֵּהוּ֘ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם֒
9:23a Then Moses stretched out his staff towards heaven.
God Brings the Plague
ט:כגb וַֽי-הֹוָ֗ה נָתַ֤ן קֹלֹת֙ וּבָרָ֔ד וַתִּ֥הֲלַךְ אֵ֖שׁ אָ֑רְצָה וַיַּמְטֵ֧ר יְ-הֹוָ֛ה בָּרָ֖ד עַל אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
9:23b and Yhwh sent thunder and hail, and fire came down on the earth. And Yhwh rained hail on the land of Egypt;
Moses Stretches His Arm
י:יגa וַיֵּ֨ט מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶת מַטֵּהוּ֘ עַל אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒
10:13a So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt,
God Brings the Plague
י:יגb וַֽי-הֹוָ֗ה נִהַ֤ג רֽוּחַ קָדִים֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ כָּל הַיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא וְכָל הַלָּ֑יְלָה הַבֹּ֣קֶר הָיָ֔ה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַקָּדִ֔ים נָשָׂ֖א אֶת הָאַרְבֶּֽה:
10:13b and Yhwh brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night; when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts.
If Yhwh is so central in these plagues, what need is there for Moses to act in any way? It cannot be to show Moses’ power to the Egyptians, since in none of these three plagues is there any implication that Moses performed the plagues in front of an audience (as opposed to some other plagues, such as blood, which is performed before Pharaoh and his servants).
Source Critical Solution
The solution that suggests itself is that Yhwh’s role here was added by J to the original Elohistic plagues, which are performed solely by Moses without God’s command. Although more difficult to see, the same tension seems to exist in the plague of darkness as well.
E — Moses' Action
י:כב וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת יָד֖וֹ עַל הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכָל אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים:
10:22 So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days.
J — God's Command
י:כא וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֜ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֗ה נְטֵ֤ה יָֽדְךָ֙ עַל הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וִ֥יהִי חֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ:
10:21 Then Yhwh said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.’
On its own, v. 22 implies that Moses brings the plague on his own. Like the plagues of hail and locusts, it begins with the phrase ויט משה “and Moses stretched out.” In this case, the independent activity/power of Moses is masked by the addition of God’s command in v. 21, whose existence strongly implies that God is responsible for the darkness, and that Moses is merely his tool.
Using this tension as an indication of two sources we can search for plagues in which Moses—not God—is the immediate cause. This allows us to uncover the three Elohistic plagues: hail, locusts, and darkness,. To each, the J author/redactor added introductory remarks by God commanding Moses to perform the plague, and in two of them (hail and locusts), J even added the explicit statement that God brought about the plague; in the original E version, Moses took the initiative and brought the plagues on his own.
Below is my suggested reconstruction of the original E plague narrative.
The E Text – The Original Three Plagues
// ט:כגαa וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת מַטֵּהוּ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם // ט:כד וַיְהִי בָרָד וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד כָּבֵד מְאֹד אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָיָה כָמֹהוּ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָז הָיְתָה לְגוֹי: ט:כה וַיַּךְ הַבָּרָד בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה וְאֵת כָּל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה הִכָּה הַבָּרָד וְאֶת־כָּל עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה שִׁבֵּר: //
// 9:23aα Moses stretched out his rod toward the heavens, // 9:24 And there was very heavy hail, and fire within the hail, such as had not been in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. 9:25 The hail rained down throughout all the land of Egypt upon all that was in the field, both man and animal; and the hail struck every green thing in the field, and shattered every tree. //
י:יגαa וַיֵּ֨ט מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶת מַטֵּהוּ֘ עַל אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ // י:יד וַיַּ֣עַל הָֽאַרְבֶּ֗ה עַ֚ל כָּל אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיָּ֕נַח בְּכֹ֖ל גְּב֣וּל מִצְרָ֑יִם כָּבֵ֣ד מְאֹ֔ד לְ֠פָנָיו לֹא הָ֨יָה כֵ֤ן אַרְבֶּה֙ כָּמֹ֔הוּ וְאַחֲרָ֖יו לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה כֵּֽן: י:טו וַיְכַ֞ס אֶת עֵ֣ין כָּל הָאָרֶץ֘ וַתֶּחְשַׁ֣ךְ הָאָרֶץ֒ וַיֹּ֜אכַל אֶת כָּל עֵ֣שֶׂב הָאָ֗רֶץ וְאֵת֙ כָּל פְּרִ֣י הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹתִ֖יר הַבָּרָ֑ד וְלֹא נוֹתַ֨ר כָּל יֶ֧רֶק בָּעֵ֛ץ וּבְעֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה בְּכָל אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: //
10:13aα Moses held out his rod over the land of Egypt, // 10:14 Locusts invaded all the land of Egypt and settled within all the territory of Egypt in a thick mass; never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again. 10:15 They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened; and they ate up all the grasses of the field and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left, so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt. //
י:כב וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת יָד֖וֹ עַל הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכָל אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים: י:כגa לֹֽא רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים //
10:22 Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. 10:23a People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was. //
This reconstructed E text is consistent and reads well; it depicts Moses performing magic or miracles without any specific divine command, nor does it explain that YHWH gave Moses the power to perform these actions.
The Theology Driving J’s Plague Narrative
The idea of Moses as an independently powerful sorcerer “hired” by Yhwh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt was theologically anathema to the J redactor, who reshaped these plagues into miracles from God and supplemented them with many others to expand God’s role and power. J also incorporated the plagues into a negotiation with Pharaoh; E described the three plagues coming one after the other, with Moses waiting for Pharaoh or the Egyptians to come to him.
The idea that Yhwh delivered the Israelites from Egypt is the prime motivator for much of J’s plague account. It explains why J added more plagues—this magnified YHWH’s ability. When Yhwh smites the Egyptians repeatedly, it emphasizes his absolute superiority over Egypt. When a prophetic warning is attached to each plague, it emphasizes God’s absolute control over the time, the place, and the target of the plague. When Pharaoh makes his heart heavy, God has another opportunity to smite Pharaoh and demonstrate his dominance. In the story’s introduction, Moses’ protest that God should not send him because he is weak and unable to speak, emphasizes God’s superiority over the greatest Israelite leader. It suggests, contrary to E, that Moses was not up to the task on his own.
Moses as a Powerful Magician in E
In the oldest version of the plague story (E), it is always Moses (and not God) who acts, ostensibly God sanctions these magical acts, since he sent Moses to do this job; how else could he have accomplished it? Divinely sanctioned magic is found in other biblical narratives, including those from the Elohist. In Exodus 17, an E text, Moses climbs a hill during the war with Amalek and raises his arms; only when his hands are fully in the air does Israel defeat Amalek. Joshua holds up his staff until all of Ai is defeated (Joshua 8), and Elijah and Elisha cure the sick, create food, and even resurrect the dead. In fact, the idea of “hiring a sorcerer” to accomplish a task is reminiscent of the Balaam story – also at its core an E text Thus, the image of Moses that I am suggesting is found elsewhere in the Bible.
E’s version of events places a human magician, Moses, at the center of the exodus. J was not enamored by the idea of a human being so powerful, or of a God who takes such a backseat, so he reworked E to situate Moses’ wonders in a context in which God is fully in charge. Building on J’s revised version of the story, the Priestly authors—who pushed for the central position of the priestly class and warn multiple times against going to magicians and necromancers in other parts of the Torah—strengthen Aaron’s part in the narrative, and add the humiliation of Pharaoh’s magicians, thus creating the Torah’s plague story as we have it today.
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Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.
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