Ask someone why G-d brought Ten Plagues upon the Egyptians, and chances are that you will get one of two answers. Some will tell you that Heaven wanted to coerce Pharaoh into freeing his Jewish slaves; others will state that the series of supernatural afflictions served as a punishment for the cruel treatment the Egyptians meted out to their Hebrew slaves one generation after the other.
Which answer is correct? With a bit of reasoning, we'll see that neither one is right. Had the plagues been intended as a punishment, or to obtain the release of the Israelite slaves, one convincing blow, such as the death of the firstborn, would have sufficed. There was no need for ten separate plagues, when one would have done the job much faster.
What, then, was the reason for the plagues? The Torah (Bible) itself provides the answer. G-d commands Moses to appear before Pharaoh, telling him:
"Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, for the sake of My placing these, My signs, in his midst. And so that you will recount in the ears of your son and your son's son what I wrought against Egypt, and My signs which I put upon them. And you shall know that I am G-d"
The text clearly tells us that the end purpose of the plagues was "And you shall know that I am G-d."
The display of power and supernatural power inherent in the plagues had one goal: to implant in the heart of man the firm belief that the Creator is omnipotent. Not Pharaoh, nor "Nature" holds the reins in hand, but the Creator Himself.
Let's follow the "course" which G-d prepared, Faith 101, lesson after lesson, through all ten steps.
When Moses first came to the Jewish people to inform them that G-d would soon rescue them, the Torah tells us:
And the people believed; and when they heard that the L-rd had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped.
During the process of the Ten Plagues, one plague a month, a change took place in the faith of the Israelites. Each plague graphically demonstrated a new aspect of G-d's dominion over the universe. Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, popularly known as the Malbim, notes that the Haggadah divides the plagues into three separate groups. Blood, Frogs, and Lice, form the first group. The second series includes Wild Beasts, Pestilence, and Boils. The final group consists of four plagues: Hail, Locusts, Darkness, and the Slaying of the Firstborn. Each group, states the Malbim, is categorized by the warning which preceded the entire series.
Before the initial plague which turned the waters of the Nile into blood, Moses warned Pharaoh in G-d's name: "...so that you will know that I am G-d." The first group of plagues established the existence of a Supreme Power over which even Pharaoh and his sorcerers had no control.
The second set of plagues was introduced with the warning "so that you will know that I am the L-rd in the midst of the land." These three plagues demonstrated G-d's complete control of events.
Before the onset of the hail, the seventh plague, Moses warned Pharaoh: "...so that you will know that on all the earth there is none like Me." G-d's power over the elements and ability to control them had already been established, but Pharaoh might claim that other powers could compete with the G-d of the Hebrews. Therefore G-d demonstrated His uniqueness through the last four plagues.
Not only Pharaoh witnessed the Ten Plagues; so, too, did all Israel, and their faith was strengthened each time a new catastrophe befell their former masters. This also explains why each plague lasted a full week, and was then followed by three weeks of relative peace and quiet. G-d wanted to give both the Jews and the Egyptians ample time to internalize the message of each plague in turn. When the people saw G-d's strength and His power to intervene in human affairs – even those of Pharaoh, who claimed to be a deity himself – they truly absorbed the message that there is only One Power in control of the Universe, the G-d who created them.
This was what G-d intended to accomplish though the miracles of the Exodus, to elevate the Children of Israel from an intellectual belief in Him – in theory – to a profound faith in His powers based on actual experience of His might and power. Had G-d taken them out of Egypt after bringing only one major plague, the experience would not have sufficed to uproot the experiences accumulated in their collective memory during two hundred years of servitude to a pagan nation. From infancy this generation had felt the lash of the Egyptians' whip on their backs. Pharaoh and his taskmasters had ruled over them totally; it would take time to adjust to a new reality of being servants of G-d rather than slaves of Pharaoh. Great miracles were needed, and a time framework in which to absorb the lessons of each plague, as the Israelites rose from one level of faith to the next, step by step.
With the approach of the time of the Exodus, the Jews were asked to demonstrate that they had indeed achieved tangible faith in G-d. They were given a commandment which could be fulfilled only with a degree of self-sacrifice. For hundreds of years they had lived among a pagan people for whom the sheep was a deity. Now G-d asked them to slay a sheep as an offering to Him, to roast it whole, so that it might be identified for just what it was, the creature held as sacred by the Egyptian masses.
Then they were to eat the meat of the lamb, before the eyes of the Egyptians.
Moses transmitted G-d's instructions to the elders, saying: "Draw out, and take your lambs according to your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb."
Commenting on the unusual expression "Draw out", the Sages explain that Moses intimated that the people should "withdraw their hands from pagan forms of worship."
The commandment to slaughter the paschal lamb included a warning about pagan worship because of the local Egyptian belief that the lamb was a deity which they had seen being worshiped all their lives. A positive action was needed in order to negate the influence of so many years under Egyptian rule. By slaughtering the lamb they demonstrated to themselves that the sheep was not a deity which could defend itself, but merely another domestic beast, given over to the control of man.
Once they had eradicated the false beliefs from their heart, there was ample room for the belief in G-d to take its place. This transformation required not one, but a series of miracles, ten in all, in order to imbue their hearts with firm faith in their Creator.
It was no easy task for the generation of the Exodus to fulfill the commandments of the paschal lamb in all their details. As a first step was to select a lamb and tie it to the bedposts on the tenth of Nissan. This act alone was enough to arouse the fury of their Egyptian neighbors, for whom the animal was a venerated beast, perhaps akin to the "holy cows" of India today. It took courage to demean the deity of the Egyptians, especially after so many years of living in their midst and absorbing their values.
Furthermore, the Jews were compelled to explain their strange actions and to reveal that this lamb was to be slaughtered as a sacrifice to the G-d of the Hebrews in four days' time. There was no doubt in their minds as to the reaction they could expect from their former masters.
Nonetheless, the Jews did not refrain from carrying out G-d's commandments concerning the paschal lamb. After the slaughter, they sprinkled the blood on their door posts and lintels of the entrances to their homes, even though this again made it obvious to the gentiles that the Jews had sacrificed their god. Then they roasted the cadaver over an open fire. The aroma of roasting lamb made the ceremony evident to one and all. Should any gentile remain in doubt, the lamb was roasted whole, so that it could easily be identified as it hung over the coals to be cooked.
At each stage of the preparation of the paschal lamb, the Jewish people demonstrated – to themselves, and to their gentile neighbors, that they no longer feared the Egyptian god. They had cast off the bonds of paganism and assumed the yoke of the true G-d, Creator of heaven and earth.
Why did G-d require this of them before the Exodus? It was His will that they uproot every last trace of any connection with Egypt and its culture, and take nothing of its mores and pagan religion along with them on their new path in life.
The heightened level of faith the Jewish people attained at this point was revealed at the time they actually left Egypt. An entire nation set forth to the wilderness with hardly any provisions for the way. They went without hesitation, without asking questions, without putting up any objections. No one asked "What shall we eat? What shall we drink?"
Once again, they proved that their faith was tangible. Centuries later, their sterling devotion would yet be called to mind, as the Prophet Jeremiah cites:
And the word of the LORD came to me, saying: Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus says the L-rd: I remember for you the loving-kindness of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel is the L-rd's hallowed portion...
Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the LORD: I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; how thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.