Pharaoh, the Ten Plagues, and Iran

An antisemitic Jew I know, rather than seeing the Passover ceremony as the celebration of freedom (the world’s first and for a long time only successful slave revolt), and of justice and morality (the Ten Commandments), derides the whole ceremony as the unconscionable and immoral celebration of the genocide of the Egyptian people.  What troubles him so much is the fact that, after each plague, when Pharaoh seems about to soften and let the Jews go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, leading to the necessity of yet another plague, culminating in the death of the first born.

I know that some people have tried to explain away this part of the story by saying that it is simply dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger of the Jew’s escape from Egypt.  After all, if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story.  You know, Moses asks, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh answers “Sure.”  That’s not a narrative with much punch or heroism, and God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, unexciting.  It’s much more exciting to have an escalating series of plagues, with the audience on tenterhooks as to whether those pesky Jewish slaves will actually be able to make a break for it.

This reasoning is silly.  There’s a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.

What Pharaoh discovered with the first nine plagues is that life can go on, at least for the ruler, despite an increase in the burdens placed upon his people.  A blood filled Nile River may, at first, have seemed appalling, but the red receded and life went on.  Pharaoh still held together his government.  The same held true for each subsequent plague, whether lice or boils or wild animals or frogs, or whatever:  As long as Pharaoh could maintain his power base, he was okay with the incremental decimation visited upon those he ruled.

Sheltered in his lavish palace, Pharaoh might worry about a populace starving and frightened, but that was irrelevant as long as that same populace continued to fear and worship him.  The people’s suffering, ultimately, was irrelevant to his goals.  It was only when the price became too high — when Pharaoh’s power base was destroyed because his citizens were destroyed — that Pharaoh was convinced, even temporarily, to alter his evil ways.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 3,000 years.  Think, for example, of both the Nazis and the Japanese at the end of WWII.  For the Nazis, it was apparent by December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) that the war was over.  Hitler, however, was a megalomaniac in the pharaonic mold, and his high command, either from fear or insanity, would not gainsay him.  Rather than surrendering, the Nazi high command was willing to see its country overrun and its citizens killed.  Only when the death toll became too high, and it was apparent that nothing could be salvaged from the ashes, did the war on the continent finally end.

The same held true for the Japanese.  Truman did not decide to drop the bomb just for the hell of it.  Even the fact that it would impress the Soviets was an insufficient reason for doing so.  What swayed Truman was the fact that his advisers told him (credibly as it turned out) that the Japanese Bushido culture would not allow Japan to surrender even when surrender had become the only reasonable option.  Instead, the military warned Truman that, although the Americans would inevitably win the war, if Truman didn’t take drastic action, victory would take another year, and cost up to 100,000 American lives and at least that many Japanese lives (including Japanese civilians).

Truman therefore had two choices:  another year of war, with the lost of 100,000 Americans and many more than 100,000 Japanese; or an immediate stop to the war, with no more American casualties and at least 100,000 Japanese casualties.  Put that way, the choice was a no-brainer.  The outcome would be the same for the Japanese, but Truman would save the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, British, Australians and Dutch.  (One of those Dutch, incidentally, was my Mom, who was on the verge of starving to death in a Japanese concentration camp.)  The Japanese high command was Pharaoh.  No amount of smaller plagues could stop the command from its chosen path.  Only a large plague would swiftly lead to the inevitable conclusion.

But what about the innocent lives lost as a result of Pharaoh’s, the Nazi’s, and the Japanese high command’s intransigence?  As the Japanese tale shows only too well, the innocents were always going to die, with the only question being whether they would die quickly or slowly.  The same holds true for the Germans, whom the Nazis had long ago designated as cannon fodder to support their intensely evil regime.  That’s the problem with an evil regime.  If you’re unlucky enough to live under that regime, whether or not you support it, you’re going to be cannon fodder.  Pharaoh will let you die of plagues, and the Nazi and Japanese leadership will let you be bombed and burned — as long as they can retain their power.

Iran is no different.  Although the people bleed and cry under the brutish regime, no plague, including rioting in the streets, has come along that is bad enough to break the back of that tyranny.  The people continue to die by inches, and the regime threatens everyone within bombing distance.

Liberals believe that it is immoral to impose serious consequences against the Iranian regime because there are innocents who will suffer from those consequences.  What these liberals fail to understand is that, when power doesn’t reside in the people, but resides, instead, in a single group that is insulated from all but the most terrible strikes, imposing small plagues against the country (freezing a few bank accounts, public reprimands, vague threats) is utterly useless.  These small plagues, no matter how much they affect the ordinary citizen, do not affect the decision-making process in which a tyrant engages.  The only thing that will move the tyrant is to destroy his power base.  Everything else is theater.

With that, I’d like to wish all of you a Happy Passover.  Whether Jewish or not, I hope that the Pesach celebration serves as an occasion for all of us to remember that, though the price may sometimes be high, both for slave and master, our ultimate goal as just and moral human beings must be freedom. So please join with me in saying, as all Jews do at this time of year, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Jewel

    I think your homily was by far the best I have ever heard, and certainly timely.  I fear Pharoah will be Obama….this year in Jerusalem.

  • Marguerite

    Wow.  Thank-you, BW.  This is one of your finest essays evah! 


    An antisemitic Jew always struck me  schizophrenic. I think the more pc term is now bi-polar.  (assuming that he or she is a proclaimed Christian). Anyway, this person has a reading and comprehension problem along with all the others.
    The story of Passover does not celebrate death but rejoices in freedom. In more religious homes, a portion of the evening is spent discussing how we keep ourselves slaves to our day to day lives and their negative impact. It is a time to share how we freed ourselves from (example only: over eating, smoking, drinking too much) and how we freed ourselves from self imposed bondage.
    Thanks, Book.  You summed it up with perfect commentary (very Talmudic of you).
    A Happy and Sweet Pesach

  • excathedra

    Sadie. If I may.
    When you say “schizophrenic”, I assume you are using the popular, and incorrect, meaning of  “split personality”. Technically, “schizophrenia” is psychotic disorder, dissociation from reality, with hallucinations, delusions and bizarre talk and behavior. And “bi-polar” is another disease entirely, a disease of mood swings, from depression to mania.
    And I have no idea what being “a proclaimed Christian” has to do with any of that.


    Thanks for sorting that out for me.
    My point about a ‘proclaimed Christian’ is that Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died as a Jew.  To be Christian and antisemitic simply says to may that you don’t like half of yourself.

  • Spartacus

    There may be a baseball-sized dent in one of the cars in the parking lot, ’cause this one’s outta here.

  • Mosonny

    I’ll be using that at our Seder tonight (it’s past midnight here). 

    Thank you so much!  I cannot tell you what an incredible insight that is.
    By the same token, I cannot for the life of me fathom making the story out to be about genocide.  An ENEMY was destroyed.  The firstborn, only at the last of the plagues, and then the Egyptian army,  not the entire Egyptian people.  Where is the genocide?
    Have a wonderful Pesach.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Have a wonderful, thoughtful and reflective Passover secure in the warmth of your family and friends, Book. And the same best wishes to all of our fellow Bookworm salon groupies of the Jewish faith.

  • Ymarsakar

    I think this was one of the stories fictionalized by Moses in order to teach the parable that Pharaoh was given many chances to let the Jewish military clan free of their duties, but chose not to do so.
    In such situations it would make logical sense to conduct a raid upon the Pharaoh’s guards and release captives. Id Moses could have left without Pharaoh’s permission, he would have. But they must have needed his permission for the border guards and slave guards to stand down. Without such a permission, only an attack upon their bindings would have freed them.

  • suek

    Whether you’re religious or not, believe that the Bible was divinely inspired or not – the Bible is an amazing history of human nature.  As you say – it may have happened 3K years ago, but human nature hasn’t changed.
    I’m with Mosonny – I don’t see where the genocide comes in.

  • excathedra

    Good job, Book. And Gut Pesach to you and your family.
    A lot of “spiritual” people dislike the Bible because it’s so messy. They think that “spirituality” is neat and tidy and calm. They would much prefer a Buddhist Sutra, which, with all due respect, is a philosophical discourse.
    The Bible is a history of people –homo sapiens, not angels or Marin liberals–trying to carve out a truly human life under the guidance of a very particular God, not “God in general”. And the Exodus story makes it clear…as do many of the very messy and embarassing stories in the Hebrew scriptures…that liberation and salvation always come at a price. On this planet, things are costly and messy and there is now way around it. People like the antiSemitic Jew want a vegan religion, with the illusion that you can have salvation without bloodshed. Nice idea. Wrong planet.
    And for Christians, this Holy Week makes it equally clear that salvation and freedom are not the calm results of a classroom discussion. Crucifixion. And the ancient Christian liturgy of Easter Eve, celebrated by Catholics and Orthodox for almost 2000 years, always includes the story of the Exodus.
    If religion is not about reality, what good is it?

  • Danny Lemieux

    Mosonny and Suek, I suppose it is the same Liberal/Left definition of “genocide” that claims white Americans committed “genocide” against American Indians, although I have yet to hear one of them name a single North American tribe that was wiped out by white Americans.
    Now, if we’re talking about Indian tribes wiped out by other Indian tribes or peoples world-wide selectively destroyed by Liberal/Lefties (Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin….), there’s quite a list.
    I think for Liberal/Lefties, “genocide” is a general epithet tossed around like “Cooties”.

  • Leah

    Thank you, will be quoting from this at my seder.

  • Yankee Bruce

    A good example of the futility of soft sanctions is Cuba.  After all these decades the Castro’s are still in power.  There was never any effort to break their power base, but their subjects have had to deal with the consequences of American sanctions.  The people survived, as sujected people will, but the Castor’s cemented their position with little or no impact to them and their inner circle. 

    North Korea also comes to mind. 

    Thanks for an excellent article. 

  • Pingback: » Links To Visit – 03/29/10 There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword, the other is by debt. John Adams()

  • skell

    Thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking analysis of the Pesach story.  Truly a pleasure to read and ponder over! The history of Russia under both the czars and the Soviets also illustrates your point about the simultaneous cruelty and futility of small plagues (read anything by Solzhenitsyn).  Here’s wishing you and yours a happy Pesach. Next year in Jerusalem!

  • eric-odessit

    Thanks for the wonderful essay.  Hag Sameah to you and your family.
    I’d like to clarify something, just because I don’t like exaggerations.  In the Soviet Union under Stalin not showing up at the polls might indeed lead to GULAG.  But when I was growing up there (1970s), not going to the polls would result for the most part in mild harassment on the election day by “volunteers” – young people, mostly recent college graduates, who were forced to sit at the polling place until everybody in the neighborhood showed up.  Needless to say, they would prefer to be somewhere else.  So, they would have to come to your apartment and ask to please go vote.  Not showing up at the polls was also used as form of protest in order to force the local authorities to fix something, or at least promise to fix something.  My parents, along with some other neighbors, once did not go to the polls in order to get a ditch in our apartment’s courtyard filled and water pressure improved.  Some local official, accompanied by a KGB guy, did show up in our apartment and promised to fix everything, so my parents went to the polls.  Nothing got fixed, but that’s another story.  My point is that neither my parents nor our neighbors got arrested.

  • Ymarsakar

    When the Left talks about genocide, they mean that not enough people died to give them a check in the mail, so they have to come up with ways to instigate another genocide by making people afraid of genocide.
    As much as the Left are full of cowards, moral and physical, they do have some basic cunning concerning human nature..

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » Gaddafi and the Passover story()

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » When Obama finally leads from the front, no one wants to follow him()

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » As a Jew, why am I not more exercised about the use of poison gas in Syria?()

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » Thanksgivukkah — the perfect storm()