Egypt's plagues

         The most difficult and complex part of Moses' plan was convincing the Jews to leave Egypt and embark on an uncertain and risky adventure (Ex.4,1-17).  "Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses.  He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the sons of Israel and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped." (Ex. 4,29-31).

         The moment was favorable.  The building corvées were oppressive and provoked considerable discontent among the population.  Nevertheless, the enterprise Moses and Aaron proposed must have seemed little short of suicide in the eyes of the elders.  It is not credible that they could be fooled by a few conjured tricks.  Moses and Aaron must have employed much more convincing arguments, but about these the Bible is silent (this subject will be discussed again later on).  The final result, in any case, was that the tribal chiefs became  convinced.  Together, they all studied the details and organized the plan to leave Egypt.  Obviously, they swore to keep it secret.

         In the meantime, certain of Moses' agitators worked among the population to create an atmosphere of expectation .  They fueled the peoples’ imagination and planted rumors of prodigious happenings.  They aroused their enthusiasm for the flight.  Excitement increased as preparations for the departure progressed; incredible rumors circulated, miracles were happening everywhere.

         The biblical narrative seeks to give credence to the version that indicates the Egyptians were forced to let the Jews go because of terrible calamities wrought by God through Moses.  This attempt is executed with great naivety and absolute transparency.

         During those days of ferment, in which great things were in store for the Jewish people, popular imagination became over-excited; people sought to see prodigious happenings wherever something a little out of the ordinary occurred.  It is a well-known fact that in popular accounts, a block of wood can become a wolf and a wolf a whole pack!   Especially if there is someone interested in spreading news of miraculous events, ready to magnify the facts, as Moses' friends must have done in that situation.

         The "plagues" were for the most part quite banal happenings that, in any case, recurred often in Egypt.  To call some of these happenings "plagues" is ridiculous.  In any case all were exaggerated beyond measure.  One example can serve for all:  the hail.  At first, it is described as a scourge never before seen, that cut down men, animals and every kind of tree (Ex. 9,24-25).  Then later the truth surfaces:  the wheat was not damaged at all, had not yet come into ear! (Ex. 9,32).  A normal springtime hailstorm.

         Most historians view these accounts of the ten "plagues" with skepticism since they are not reported in the Egyptian chronicles.  It would indeed be    surprising if such a correlation were to be found.  As we have seen in Joseph’s case, when the Bible speaks of the "land of Egypt,” it normally refers to that part of Egypt where the Jews lived.  Therefore, the "plagues" were certainly local happenings that involved villages and the countryside around Goshen, and could not have been referred to the Court for insertion in official chronicles.

         The Egyptians certainly were not even aware they were being subjected at that time to so many extraordinary "calamities;” they were so only in the minds of the Jews.  The latter were not able, on the other hand, to ascertain the true extent of these "plagues,” for they were, of course, regularly exempt from them:  this was all part of the marvel.

         The final "plague,” the most terrible of all--the death of all the Egyptian firstborn children--was probably no more than the chance death of a single firstborn:  that of the Egyptian Governor under whose control the Jews lived, and who was, therefore, given the title of Pharaoh (Ex. 4,23).  The child died the same night that the Jews prepared for the departure.  The following morning, while they were setting out, the entire city echoed with cries and mourning lamentations.  No one turned back to check who had died.

         It appears fairly evident from reading the biblical text, that the ten "plagues" did not have the slightest influence upon the Egyptians' decision to authorize the Jews to go out into the desert to make sacrifices to their God (but never did they authorized the Jews to leave the country).  The supposed plagues did, however, convince the Jews to depart--to leave a situation which was, after all, fairly comfortable and safe and to embark on a risky adventure (Ex.16,3).  Little did they realize what they would encounter and how long they would regret that decision!

         The departure preparations took several months.  They had to relinquish all property that could not be transported, bartering everything for precious objects, if possible, without losing too much on each deal; they had to equip themselves for a long journey, purchase carts, provisions, cereals, weapons and so forth.  All without making it too obvious.  Yet these preparations could not pass unobserved by the Egyptians.  The news that the Jews were preparing to abandon the country must have been public knowledge.  Moses could not have overlooked this fact in his plans and must have made provision for it.

         Since they were semi-nomadic shepherds, the Jews had almost certainly complete liberty of movement; they could come and go and arrange meetings without having to seek anyone’s permission (and in fact Aaron went to and from the Sinai whenever he pleased).  As long as they did not go beyond the bounds of the territory assigned them, invading pastures intended for others, no one troubled them.  So if they wanted to go into the desert...let them!  Almost certainly they went out there to graze their livestock after the rains.  No one imagined they would have wanted to abandon, of their own free will, those pastures assigned them, leaving behind the "best land in all of Egypt."

         However, in the face of all those preparations and in view of the rumors circulating, the Governor ruling over Israel began to worry.  He certainly could not let them go en masse, and thereby deprive the local economy of one of its pillars; the Pharaoh would surely have dismissed him from office.

         Therefore, he summoned the tribal chiefs and demanded an explanation.  They denied, of course, having any desire to leave Egypt; the carts, the food, the gold and jewelry all served for a great gathering in the desert:  "Let us take a three-day journey into the desert, to offer sacrifices to the Lord, our God, or He may strike us with plagues or with the sword" (Ex.5,3).  The Vizier hesitated: "Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land" (Ex.8,25).  Impossible:  "It is not meet so to do; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to the Lord our God:  lo, shall we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us?  We will go three days' journey into the wilderness, as he shall command us." (Ex. 8,26-27).  The Vizier asked for guarantees, asking that the Jews leave their women and children behind (Ex.10,11).  Out of the question:  "We shall go with our youngsters and our aged, with our sons and daughters, with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to the Lord" (Ex. 10,9).  They should leave their livestock behind (Ex.10,24).  No: "Our livestock too must go with us: not a hoof is to be left behind; we have to use some of them in worshipping our Lord and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord." (Ex.10,25-26).

         Finally, after long arduous negotiations they came to an agreement:  the Jews could go where they pleased with whatever they wanted to take with them; only they had to accept the presence of a large contingent of Egyptian troops, ordered to keep an eye on them.  At their own expense, of course.  These were the conditions Moses foresaw and for which he advocated.

         The Egyptians felt secure and at ease.  The Vizier of Pi-Rameses controlled the road to Palestine and had at his disposal the finest and fastest Egyptian troops--the best in the world!  Six hundred war chariots (Ex.14,7) were set on the heels of the Jews:  if they tried any tricks, they would be annihilated.  All this was foreseen in Moses' plan.