Studying the traditional commentators is sometimes compared to listening in on a dialogue that spans generations and continents. Such is the case of the conflicting interpretations of the first three of the Ten Plagues by Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (d. 1167, England) and Rabbi David ibn Zimra (d. 1573, Safed, Israel). Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that the first three plagues (blood, frogs, gnats) affected everyone: Israelites and Egyptians alike while ibn Zimra argues that all the plagues – including the first three, affected only the Egyptians.
Ibn Ezra (Commentary on Exodus 7:24) notes that with regard to the first plague, the Torah states that: “there shall be blood throughout all the land” (Exodus 7:19) and with regard to the third plague, it was set to affect “the entire land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:12. 13). In addition, the plague of frogs is projected to afflict all of pharaoh’s “slaves” (Exodus 7:29) which surely must mean the Israelites. With the fourth plague, the separation between the Israelites and the Egyptians is first mentioned (Exodus 8:18) which implies that there was no such difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians for the first three plagues.
Ibn Zimra (Responsa RaDBaZ, No. 813), however, will have none of this. The Rabbis maintain that the Israelites were shielded from all the plagues and the Rabbi’s opinion ought to be followed. Moreover, the word “avadim” that ibn Ezra takes to mean “slaves” ibn Zimra takes to mean “servants.” Thus the plague of frogs is limited to Pharaoh and his household. Besides, it would make no sense to say that the first three plagues included the Israelites since the very purpose of the plagues was to convince Pharaoh to release the slaves. There would be no impetus to release the slaves if they, too, were victims of the plagues. Only when the Israelites were shielded and the Egyptians affected could the plagues be interpreted as a punishment of Israel’s oppressors. Ibn Zimra adds a final barb, stating that ibn Ezra “should not have taken the trouble to pen his words.”
Readers would be hard pressed to side with one commentator against another. Ibn Ezra, ever loyal to the text, makes a strong case. Ibn Zimra, more reliant on the context makes a powerful rebuttal. But rather than choose between the two, a more thoughtful consideration lies in observing that for ibn Ezra loyalty to standard Rabbinic thinking is not a requirement when it comes to understanding the text. Textual analysis requires independent thinking, or at least thinking that is methodologically sound, not just traditionally correct.