The Torah (Bible) records the Ten Plagues in Egypt. The text describes numerous diplomatic exchanges between Pharaoh and two elderly representatives of the Hebrew slaves, Moses, then eighty years old, and his older brother, Aaron, then eighty-three. At the time, egy was the leading world power. Pharaoh ruled over his nation with an iron fist, claiming that he was a deity and thus achieving total control of his subjects. Why, then, did this master-monarch deign even to listen to the words of two old men advocating on behalf of a nation of slaves? Surely he could just have had them hung for their insolence, or at least, thrown into some convenient dungeon.
Our question is valid regarding the first encounter between the Jewish leaders and the tyrant of all egy. The scenario is even more baffling when we recall the suffering and the economic losses entailed in the plagues. With regular clockwork, each time Pharaoh refused to comply with the Jewish leaders' requests, another plague struck egy. Why, then, should the ruler of all egy even allow the two Jewish statesmen into the palace, to repeat their requests and bring yet another plague upon his kingdom?
With the ninth plague, darkness, Pharaoh had just about reached the breaking point. In a rage, he thunders against Moses: "Get you away from me! Take heed to yourself, see my face no more; for in the day you behold my face, you shall die." (Exodus 10 28)
Moses answered him: "You have spoken well; I will see your face no more." The leader of the Jews then left in great wrath. Why was Moses so angry?
The answers to these questions are interrelated. As human beings, our first reaction is to judge the figures we meet in the Torah with the same yardstick we apply to ourselves. We view them as we see our contemporaries, and measure them by the same units of feet and inches, so to speak. This is a basic misunderstanding. Our concepts are out of place when we try to apply them to figures such as Moses and Aaron, whose entire personalties were far more spiritual than that of anyone living today.
The words the Torah records express a conflict of world views which took place between the self-deified Pharaoh and his followers, on the one hand, and the monotheistic Hebrews at the other end of the spectrum. By definition, Pharaoh had need to deny the very existence of the G-d of the Hebrews. If the Jews were right in their claims about a single, universal Creator of the universe, Pharaoh was no longer a deity. Obviously, he had been lying to his subjects from Day One of his ascension to the throne. No wonder he refused to acknowledge any power greater than himself; to do so would be tantamount to a confession that he had deceived his nation, and had no more right to the throne than the next man.
Again and again, Moses proclaimed to the ruler of all egy that the G-d of the Hebrews created the entire world. Pharaoh must accept three basic tenets, he declared: first, the existence of the Creator; secondly, His constant supervision of the events of the world He created, and, third, His power to intervene in the events of this world whenever and however He might choose.
Pharaoh denied all three points. In order to convince him that Moses was speaking the undeniable truth, G-d sent a series of ten proofs, in the form of plagues which demonstrated His total sovereignty over Pharaoh, his kingdom, and, indeed, the entire universe. The plagues came upon Pharaoh and his nation not as punishment or a threat of vengeance; rather they constituted an introductory course in Belief in G-d, the Supreme Power Who rules the universe. There were ten basic "lectures", each accompanied by a real-time, hands-on experience, designed to bring home the basic content: The world does not belong to Pharaoh, nor to any other creature of mere flesh and blood, but to Him who created it and continues to supervise all that happens therein.
This is expressed in Moses' messages to Pharaoh by the continued repetition of the phrase "And you shall know...
With regard to the plague of frogs, Moses told Pharaoh: "...that you may know that there is none like unto the L-rd, our G-d." Concerning the plague of boils, G-d warned Pharaoh: "For I will this time send all My plagues upon your person, and upon your servants, and upon your people; that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth."
When warning of the imminent plague of locusts, we find: "Thus says the L-rd the G-d of the Hebrews: 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?'"
The Creator was a patient teacher. Again and again, He provided Pharaoh with incontrovertible evidence that His power was superior to that of the “mighty” ruler of egy. There was no denying His control over all realms of nature, and His ability to do whatever He wished with Egy, and, for that matter, the entire world.
The nature of each subsequent plague also served to demonstrate an additional aspect of G-d's sovereignty. The Plague of Blood testified to His control of bodies of water, while the plague of frogs attested to His dominion over the creatures living in the water. The Plague of Lice proved control of the soil and dust of the earth. The hoards of beasts showed mastery over the wild creatures living on the earth's surface. The pestilence which struck down the beasts of the field extended the proof of G-d's power to domestic animals cultivated by Main. The Plague of Hail provided evidence of G-d's domination over clouds, rain, hail, sleet, and the clouds above from which precipitation arises. The locusts were brought upon Egy, and eventually removed, by controlling the winds of the four corners of the earth. The ninth plague, darkness, demonstrated the power to control the sun, moon, and celestial bodies.
The final and most devastating of the plagues, the death of the firstborn, demonstrated G-d's dominion over life itself.
And yet, through blow after blow, Pharaoh's reaction continues to astound us. Before the Plague of the Firstborn, Moses declares: "So does G-d say: 'At about midnight, I shall go forth among Egypt, and every firstborn shall die'" (Exodus 11:4).
We would expect any sane leader who had already witnessed – nine times – that Moses' words were not in vain to accept this threat as valid enough to deserve his full consideration. Not once had a single word of Moses's warnings failed to materialize. Should not Pharaoh – himself a firstborn – at least suspect that Moses' words might be fulfilled this time as well?
Yet the Torah tells us that the sovereign of what remained of Egy went to sleep that night as usual. At midnight, when the plague struck, and Egyptians throughout the country found their firstborn sons suddenly lifeless, Pharaoh was awakened from his sleep by the outcry that convulsed the country. His reaction was one of total denial that there might be even a slight chance that Moses' prediction would prove to be true and the calamity would indeed overtake his subjects, if not on himself. "It was only coincidence," he calmed his advisors. "A stroke of good luck. Moses' good fortune was shining on him, but it won't hold out forever."
We again meet Pharaoh, the master of denial, on the shores of the Red Sea. Before his eyes, he sees an undeniable miracle. The waters of the sea divide and form two towering walls of frozen waves. The Children of Israel proceed along the new path on the miraculously dry bed of the sea and make their way to safety.
Was this a natural event? Obviously, the G-d of the Hebrews was intervening on their behalf, to rescue them from the hand of Pharaoh. But no, Pharaoh was convinced that every phenomenon in this world is the result of the laws of nature. Unlike a G-d of righteousness, Nature knows not "right" and "wrong", "justice" and "oppression." If Nature dried the sea for the Jews, there was no reason – to Pharaoh's way of thinking – that the sea would not remain dry and passable for his troops as well. Only the individual who acknowledges a G-d Who protects the wronged and punishes the sinner would stop to ask himself whether the sea would split for him, as well.
Pharaoh assumed that it was a non-personal, non-judgmental force of "Nature" which had rendered the seabed an escape route for the fleeing slaves. Why not take advantage of the phenomenon for his own benefit? Who was there to stop him?
He had to experience the answer in order to finally learn to acknowledge the truth.
Throughout the ten months of negotiations between the two elderly brothers and Pharaoh, we are witness to an ongoing clash between faith in a universal Creator, who instituted the laws of Nature, and remains their Master, as opposed to Pharaoh's stubborn insistence that there exists no power in the universe which greater than Nature; no force on earth is able to suspend Nature's laws at will.
Pharaoh is not impressed by the plagues of Moses and Aaron; he explains them away as "natural phenomena", and summons his sorcerers to duplicate them. He makes no attempt to eliminate Moses and Aaron or imprison them, because then he would not have the opportunity to refute their proofs by having his own men also perform them.
This insight also explains why Moses was angered by Pharaoh's order "You shall not see my face again." All ten plagues were intended to instruct Pharaoh and instill faith in the Creator in his heart. His pride and his stubbornness prevented his absorbing the powerful lessons his Creator had prepared for him. Moses was disappointed and angered at Pharaoh's obstinately clinging to his theories of all-powerful Nature. Pharaoh, however, was not to be swayed. He persevered in his theories to the bitter end, even to the point of leading his nation to its destruction under the waves of the Red Sea, which obeyed their Creator's command to drown Israel's enemies and destroy them forever.