New Light on the Text – Va’era 5779

D'var Torah | Exodus

Traditional Jews have often dismissed biblical criticism as a veiled attempt by anti-Semites to discredit the Bible and invalidate Judaism. While this may have been the intent of early Bible critics like Graf and Welhaussen whose early research resulted in what is now called the “Documentary Hypothesis” (the theory that the Bible is made up of discrete and identifiable human-authored sources), by the beginning of the twentieth century many aspects of Biblical criticism have been accepted as valid and even helpful in understanding the scriptural text. Even as devout and traditional an authority as Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (d. 1921), director of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, had no compunction in using philology and archaeology to enlighten obscure Biblical passages.


It is through the evolving understanding of ancient Egyptian culture that new light is cast, for example, on the elements of the ten plagues. While each plague is indeed formidable and attention-getting, the choice of what plague God would employ to afflict the Egyptians is subject to extensive speculation. When however, the knowledge gained through deciphering ancient Egyptian art and writing is applied to the plagues, a new appreciation of what otherwise would be accepted as random emerges.


The first two plagues of blood and frogs were direct challenges to Egyptian religion, that is, to the power ascribed to Egyptian deities. The Egyptians personified and deified the Nile River as the god Hapi to whom offerings were made at the annual time of inundation. The flooding itself was regarded as a manifestation of the god Osiris. Hence, Professor Nahum Sarna concludes in the Jewish Publication Society’s commentary on Exodus (p. 39), that “it is quite possible, then, that the contamination of the river served to discredit Egyptian polytheism.”


Similarly, the god Khnum, credited by ancient Egyptians with fashioning man out of clay, had a consort named Heqt who is depicted with a frog head. She was associated with fertility and was thought to assists women at childbirth. Hence, like the first plague, the second plague was a direct attack against the Egyptian pantheon. In addition, it may have been taken as a form of retribution against Egypt for Pharaoh’s decree ordering the midwives to kill newborn Israelite males.


That these two plagues come first indicate that God’s intent was to first demonstrate the powerlessness of Egypt’s gods against the omnipotent God of Israel. But gaining this insight comes only through the application of knowledge based on scientific research.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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