Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Parashat Bo 5759/1999
The Plagues of Darkness
Prof. Ed Greenstein
Department of Bible
Parshat Va-Era tells us about the first seven plagues brought on Egypt, and Parshat Bo, about the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first-born. At first glance, the three plagues described in the present reading appear quite different from one another. The locusts wiped out the grain that had survived the hail and the darkness prevented people from seeing their fellows, whereas the tenth plague killed "every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle" (Ex. 11:5; also cf. 12:29). Further, these three plagues differed significantly in terms of their severity. Not a single Egyptian died in the plague of locusts, nor in the plague of darkness, whereas in the plague of the first-born "there was no house where there was not someone dead" (Ex. 12:30). We must ask, as did Abarbanel and others before us, whether the last three plagues form an incidental group with nothing in particular in common, or whether they should be viewed as a group with some special significance?
Locusts, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn indeed share an element in common: darkness. With the plague of darkness this is self-evident, but it also holds for locusts and the slaying of the first-born. The locusts were to descend in such great numbers that "they shall cover the surface [lit. "eye"] of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land" (Ex. 10:5; also compare 10:15). During the plague of locusts the Egyptians could not even see the ground on which they stood. The plague of darkness further limited what the Egyptians could see, making it impossible for them to see anything around them. Now they were not only isolated from the land, but also became isolated totally from all humanity and even from the animals; thus their isolation was redoubled. As for the plague of the first-born, this awesome blow took place "toward midnight" (Ex. 11:4; cf. 12:29). A cry, the like of which had never been heard before, arose from each and every house (Ex. 11:6; cf. 12:30). Moreover, the central event of the current Torah reading--preparing and eating the paschal sacrifice--took place at night.
What is the significance of darkness in this week's reading? What sort of darkness was it, and what was its purpose?
Regarding the nature of the darkness in the ninth plague, Hoshekh, Ibn Ezra offers a realistic explanation: a very heavy fog befell Egypt, such as one finds on islands at sea. Ibn Ezra, a frequent maritime traveler, attests that he encountered fog so thick that one could see absolutely nothing (cf. his commentary on Ex. 10:22). Thus Ibn Ezra explains how darkness could have naturally occurred even in the daytime. Whether the darkness was natural or supernatural, the question remains as to what it signified. Why was the climax of the blows struck against the Egyptians the threefold group of plagues whose common element is darkness? This darkness apparently has a special significance.
A rather practical explanation for the plague of darkness is offered by one of the midrashim. To assure that the Israelites, who had been enslaved to the Egyptians, not be liberated and leave empty-handed (in accordance with the commandment given in Deut. 15:13), G-d commanded the Israelites to borrow objects of silver and gold, as well as clothing, from their neighbors. But how were the Hebrews to take the Egyptians' possessions out of their homes? Were they to rely on the Egyptians' charity, or should they devise some sort of trick?
According to Exodus Rabbah (Ch. 14.3), the Israelites went into the homes of the Egyptians during the plague of darkness and asked to borrow the said objects from them. The Egyptians, assuming that the darkness was universal and also prevented the Hebrews from seeing, denied owning any such objects, as if to imply that they would gladly lend them if only they had them to lend, whereupon the Hebrews pointed to the items and took them. Thus the midrash explains how the Israelites "borrowed" the items they wished and how the Israelites enjoyed light while the Egyptians were in darkness. Light accompanied the Israelites wherever they went, not only in their dwellings in the land of Goshen (cf. Ex. 10:23).
Another midrash gives a moral-theological explanation of darkness as the retribution visited by G-d on the Egyptians for their wickedness toward the Israelites. According to Isaiah 19:15, the wicked "do their work in dark places," therefore, according to Exodus Rabbah 14.2, "the Holy One, blessed be He, covered them [the Egyptians] with the depths (tehom), being darkness, as it is said: 'with darkness over the surface of the deep' (Gen. 1:2), i.e., Gehenna; the darkness that came on the Egyptians was darkness from Gehenna."
This commentary goes well with others that view the plagues brought on the Egyptians as retribution dealt out measure for measure. Thus, the first plague--blood--struck the Nile because, according to one midrash, the Egyptians "cast the Israelites' children into the sea" (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, 19). As we shall now see, darkness can also be explained in terms of retribution, measure for measure.
The effect of the darkness, as described in this week's reading, was that "people could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was" (Ex. 10:23). The darkness prevented all movement among the Egyptians. The Egyptians, who had enslaved the Israelites, refusing to allow them to go three days' journey into the wilderness (Ex. 5:3), were smitten with a plague that imprisoned them in their homes, preventing them from going anywhere. The Egyptians, who had embittered the lives of their slaves beyond belief, were given a taste of the bitterness of bondage in the plague of darkness, measure for measure.
Thus, in the story of the plagues darkness represents bondage. The same is true in Lamentations (3:1-2): The man "who has known affliction," i.e., subjugation like the bondage in Egypt (cf. Ex. 1:11-12; 3:7), is driven in "unrelieved darkness" (lit. "darkness without light"). If darkness in biblical thought represents bondage, seeing the light signifies freedom and liberation. An ancient Babylonian text makes explicit the connection between seeing light and being liberated: "Whoever has not freed the prisoner, ... whoever has not shown light to the prisoner" (Shurpu, Tablet 2, lines 29-30, ed. E. Reiner, p. 13). The best biblical example for this metaphor is in Isaiah 9:1: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a brilliant light," i.e., will be liberated from the yoke of the gentiles. The darkness that generations of Hebrews suffered in Egypt became brilliant light, and even prior to leaving Egypt, during the plague of darkness, the Israelites experienced the sweet taste of freedom, for "all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings" (Ex. 10:23).