Why Did God Punish All the Ancient Egyptians?

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Exodus: Gods and Kings was a terrible movie, but that won’t stop me from finding some redeeming value in its new interpretation of the Exodus story. I waited for the Torah readings about the Exodus story in our Torah reading cycle to tackle the most thought provoking aspect of the recent film.

The familiar version of the Exodus story includes a litany of harsh punishments levied by God against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Their suffering during these plagues is so immense that we have an ancient custom to spill some wine from our of goblets at the Pesach Seder as we recount each plague to demonstrate our sympathy for their pain. Nevertheless, the story is focused on our pain. We eat matzah to recall the bread of affliction that we ate in slavery. We eat maror to relive the bitterness of our servitude. We dip in salt-water to taste the tears of suffering we endured. In our version of the story, we are the good guys, the Egyptians and the Pharaoh are the bad guys, and God is our Secret Weapon.

The movie presents a more objective view. It tells the story with less self-interest than when we tell it, so we are able to see things in the film that we may normally overlook. I believe it’s a huge flaw in its storytelling that viewers of the film empathize more with Ramses II than Moses (see my review linked above), but it also speaks to a greater challenge the movie presents. We get the sense that the Egyptians are also victims of the Pharaoh. They are not innocent parties, but the average citizen can hardly be held accountable to the degree that Joe the Breadmaker must be made to suffer so greatly. In the film, fishermen do not deserve to be eaten by giant crocs. They’ve done nothing wrong. It is excruciating to hear the primal screams of the mothers of the stricken first borns during the final plague. They don’t deserve that either.

The movie is making a decent point. Great suffering and harm must be justified in order to balance the moral scale. How are we to understand Divine collective punishment? It is disconcerting. I thought we were supposed to be the good guys in the Exodus story? Why is our Secret Weapon causing so much unnecessary suffering?! Perhaps more importantly, what are we supposed to think of all this? Is it okay to even ask this question?

There is something that must be done before suggesting answers to this challenge. We need to establish the validity of the question. If you’ve wondered about this, I salute you. This is a question that has to be asked, and the ability to ask this question is a fundamental skill that has infinite value to me. To step back and wonder if the story demands clarification is important and sophisticated. This is not a childish or rebellious question. This is a genuine question that we should all struggle with. Further, the question is sometimes better than the answers available to us.

I can think of four accepted approaches in Orthodox Judaism:

1. All of the Egyptians must have deserved it. God does not punish the innocent and if they were punished they must have been guilty. Here you can be creative about their sins. I call this the Ray Lewis approach. “God does not make mistakes.”

2. Some Egyptians deserved it and others were collateral damage. God was punishing the leaders and the oppressors within the Egyptian nation. Once shots are fired, innocents will be harmed. I call this the Hiroshima approach.

3. Only the guilty Egyptians actually suffered from the plagues. In other words, the descriptions of the plagues are generalizations that seem to include every Egyptian. The truth is that only a small number of leaders and oppressors were punished, and their experience is described in the Torah. The innocent were not harmed; only a few guilty parties felt the terror of the plagues, and the rest of Egypt watched in horror. I call this the Selective Anecdote Becoming History approach.

4. Some argue that collective punishment is moral. Handwringing over death to Egyptians is a corrupt symptom of modernity and we need not think twice about innocent victims. There’s no problem here in the first place. I call this the Old-School Morality approach. “Woe to the wicked person. Woe to his neighbor.”

It’s also possible that an indirectly related novel idea I posted on Facebook before Parshat Va’era might reduce some of our anxiety about innocent Egyptians dying.

Maybe.

Finally, I think there might something else worth exploring. The question we are asking is certainly built on modern sensibilities. I don’t think the ancients were bothered by such concerns. (I could be wrong.) Just a few years earlier, the Pharaoh had decreed that all Israelite males be killed for population control purposes. Clearly, we are dealing with a society that is at odds with our views of morality.

Exodus: Gods and Kings superimposed modern morality on an ancient civilization. It’s not a perfect fit, and the act of forcing them to work together creates collateral damage to the narrative. Judging the way God deals with an ancient civilization with objectionable moral standards using our progressive modern standards of morality is worse than someone who only understands English judging Ugaritic poetry. It’s impossible to do, and if one tries, it demonstrates a lack of maturity.

I don’t think we have to think that God would do the same thing as God did in ancient Egypt. God does not conjure supernatural miracles to punish entire peoples anymore. Meanwhile, the world has changed. The way God interacts with the world could be reflective of the way we act toward each other. Thus, it’s not a problem for me if God’s actions toward an ancient civilization do not square with modern moral standards. I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

This is not to say that we should not even think about this sort of question. On the contrary, we must ask these questions and discuss the various options. The inquiry is more important than the conclusion, and should be encouraged. Exodus: Gods and Kings helped me think about the Exodus in a new way. It invited new questions and new questions invite new discussions and new discussion invite new answers.

This is beauty. This is Torah. This is where we experience the beauty of Torah.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

  • Dov Kramer
  • I like your take on the plagues – that Israel couldn’t imagine itself as free. Isn’t this how several Rabbis also interpret the wilderness – as a period of wooing for Israel by God?

    I think we also have to take into account the fact that the plagues are direct attacks on Egyptian deities. What’s at stake in the text is the battle of gods, So we might wonder the degree to which any of the Egyptians are truly innocent given their privileged status as people who build their culture on the backs of slaves. They all benefit from oppression.

    Now, that certainly cuts against our American sensibilities. And frankly as a nation built on the backs of slaves, we may be worried about the implications for us as well.

  • RAM500

    Even the Egyptian slaves relished having a higher status than the Jewish slaves in Egypt.

  • Holy Hyrax

    I just noticed this Shabbat that God only spares Israel at the fourth plague. Till then the Israelites also were suffering until the plague of animals.

    Also, I would love to lay out where exactly God hardens his heart and where Pharaoh hardens his own hart. It’s an issue of grammar. Sometimes in one verse it says Pharaoh made his heart “heavy” and then in the next it says God “hardened” it.

  • Jon Taub

    a] I thought “mistakes” was Deion Sanders, not Ray Lewis. You’re mixing up your Ravens. [And Sanders by most accounts has been a model citizen. Lewis–not so much.]

    b] Def a good Q. Def worth looking into. But: Rashi–kinda did? The other slaves and prisoners who were victims of Pharaonic tyranny rejoiced at Israel’s suffering and participated in their debasement, no? [11:5 or 12:29; I forget.] http://yeush.blogspot.com/2009/01/bo-schadenfreude.html

  • Jon Taub

    a] I stand half-corrected. Sanders was talking about a different–ahem–“inyan”, but I guess elu v’elu applies to the Ravens: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/nfl-great-deion-sanders-michael-sam-gay-could-be-choice-god-i-know

    b] 1 and 4 might be mutually exclusive: if collective punishment is moral, you don’t have to get creative with what the sins “might have” been; 1 and 3 might be mutually exclusive: if everyone sinned, you don’t have to get creative with what the sins “might have” been; 3 and 4 might be mutually exclusive: if everyone sinned, collective punishment is beside the point. [Now you can see why you went to law school and I never broke the mid-150’s on LSAT practices. [Ir>]-regardless [oops]…]

    c] There is a plethora of other Biblical evidence about Egyptian enmity toward the Jews, specifically: their segregationist attitude in Miketz 43:32, and the Gemara [you’ll find it faster than me] where the “yarei lidvar Hash-m” hung around long enough to actually join Pharaoh’s rechev at the Yam Suf [and subsequently drowned]. So the not-so-latent eliminationist attitude towards Bnei Yisrael is evident in many places in the narrative. Now, that may precisely be your point about “getting creative”–but is it really? I mean–maybe Egypt’s Culture Ministry actually is afraid of what pshat really is?: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/26/egypt-bans-hollywood-exodus-christian-bale

  • yeshivaguy

    I like your bit about the slave mentality, but I find it difficult to accept that the plagues were not supposed to be a punishment for the Egyptians. There are some explicit פסוקים that call it a punishment. I am more inclined to believe what you say at the end – and in fact it does not bother me in the slightest that God dealt with the Egyptians based on their own ideas of morality, as opposed to the modern concept of morality. Perhaps this is another dimension of מדה כנגד מדה.

  • Yochanan

    4. Some argue that collective punishment is moral. Handwringing over death to Egyptians is a corrupt symptom of modernity and we need not think twice about innocent victims. There’s no problem here in the first place. I call this the Old-School Morality approach.“Woe to the wicked person. Woe to his neighbor.”

    Is saying only part of Hallel because of the drowning Egyptians a “corrupt symptom of modernity”?

    Did some reform congregation make up the custom of taking wine out your cup when mentioning the plagues during the Seder?

    • Kenneth Perkins

      Are Hallel bedillug and pouring out wine based on discomfort with *collective* punishment?

  • Emile Zola

    You do realize that this question is one that has already been dealt with by the rishonim (Rambam, Ramban). To anyone familiar with the literature it shouldn’t take a movie to raise this question.

    • The movie only made the question much more visceral. In the text of the Bible story we have no sympathy for the Egyptians but in the movie we do.

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  • Truth

    Well live in a world which innocent people like us will always be Punished to the very end. Go figure.

  • Jimmy

    The bible tells us why G-d punished the Egyptians in Exodus 11:9
    The Lord had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.”
    Evil as these punishments were, there is far worse in the same story. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. For me, the jig is up with this sentence, the entire Bible negated.