Normally, I celebrate everything, any excuse for a good meal and friendly company and you can count me in. But I have decided that there is one holiday I will no longer participate in and I wish that people would be brave enough to criticize it for what it is, a celebration of violence against innocent people. Add some criticism of YHWH in the observance of this “holiday” for the unjustified murders, and I would be OK with it. But otherwise, it is unequivocally tainted with the crimes of genocide just as the Japanese Yasukuni Shrine, for many people, is tainted by the presence of memorials to war criminals.
Yes, I have been to Jewish seders, the ritual feast marking the start of Pesah, on 5 occasions that I can recall. And I have had this conversation with both practicing and former Jews, including 3 rabbis. It is a highly emotional issue, as are all matters of religion to believers, and I will try to cover some of the positions opposing my interpretation later on.
First, let’s look at what Pesah is for many Jews. The Pesah is one of the oldest of Jewish holidays, and was one of the Shalosh Regalim festivals which, like the Muslim Hajj, required believers to make an annual pilgrimage, in this case to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans1, a remnant pre-Jewish sect of less than 1,000 people living in Israel, still go to Mount Gerizim (their alternative to the Temple) when observing the Pesah.
There are many festivals stipulated in the Hebrew Bible, and that for Pesah is at Leviticus 23:5. It is also mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments, specifically number 3 the “feast of unleavened bread,” at Exodus 34:1-27 - yes, there are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible, and this is probably the correct version2. Although another feast is also mentioned in the Ten Commandments, that of the “feast of weeks” or Shavuot which was also a Shalosh Regalim (number 6), and YHWH’s dislike of yeast is also noted in this version, at number 7 (not to mix the blood of sacrifice with leavened bread). BTW, there is no actual numbering in either version of the Ten Commandments, so the numbers are dependent upon what admonitions you group together to try to come up with ten separate laws.
The most emphasized aspects of Pesah in the Hebrew Bible are the prohibition of eating leavened bread for seven days3, taking some time off for rest, and making a burnt offering to YHWH. I have never figured out why YHWH hates yeast so much, but let’s save that for another time. In the case of Pesah, the unleavened bread is to remind the Hebrews of the fact that they had to take unleavened bread with them when they fled Egypt (Exodus 12:14-15, 17-20, 34 and 39). It’s very hard to square that with the fact that they seem to have had plenty of time to despoil the Egyptians of their gold, silver and clothing before leaving (Exodus 12:35). The Pesah meal also was to be eaten with your shoes on and eaten in haste (Exodus 12:11), not something widely practiced today.
The rest of the traditions surrounding Pesah come from later traditions of various sources and accounts, some of which are in the Midrash (the Jewish equivalent of the Hadith, although composed of Rabbinic musing on the Hebrew Bible’s contents rather than being alleged sayings of a Prophet), and not all of which are consistent.
The Background to the Story – Slavery is Bad for Hebrews but it’s OK for Everyone Else
Now, the story goes like this. The Hebrews somehow all came to be living in Egypt (originally it was only Joseph and his family) and were the slaves of the Egyptians. There is absolutely no historical support for this, but never mind4. The Egyptians are said to actually fear the Hebrews because they had become so numerous so as to outnumber the Egyptians (Exodus 1:8-11). It was this numerical superiority which caused them to be enslaved. It’s probably the only example in history of a majority being enslaved by a minority – and we are not talking political or economic enslavement here, but actual whips and chains5 and “make-me-another-mud brick” slavery.
So YHWH eventually hears the lamentations of his chosen people and sends Moses to sort things out. Why didn’t he stop them from being enslaved in the first place, you might ask? But such logic would ruin the story and fore thinking and compassion are never YHWH’s forte anyway. As an aside, Moses is an Egyptian name meaning “son” or “child,” and is not a Hebrew name in any sense of the word – think of TuthMOSES, AhMOSE, and all the variations on “mes” which is another English transliteration of the same Egyptian word for “son” used in the names RaMESes. BTW, see this blog about Moses for some interesting things you probably didn’t know about him, like his African wife who was disliked by his brothers – I bet you missed that one in your Yeshiva…
So slavery is bad and YHWH destroys everyone who practices it… well not quite. It’s bad for the Egyptians to be masters of the “chosen” people, but otherwise slavery is all good with YHWH, as confirmed numerous times in the Hebrew Bible6. Also, according to the Midrash, YHWH needs to get the chosen people moving on to their Promised Land now, since it was promised to Abraham (father), Isaac (son) and Jacob (grandson). Somehow, YHWH never quite got around to making good on the promise to Abraham, so he needed to bring the chosen people out of Egypt so this could finally be accomplished – better late than never, right? No more lounging around in the comparative paradise of the abundantly fertile Nile Valley making mud bricks.
Just as an aside, the Promised Land was from the Nile to the Euphrates (Exodus 23:31) which was given to them and their descendants once they were out of Egypt. Now oddly enough, the Hebrews and their descendants never once controlled the Promised Land – they only controlled a small rather grubby section of it well removed from both fertile rivers which spawned magnificent civilizations lasting far longer than any Israeli (Northern) or Judean (Southern) Kingdom did. So from all logical perspectives, the Promised Land is still promised and remains to be delivered7.
So after a bit of storyline where Moses, an Egyptian Prince, whose early history is a close copy of that of Sargon the Great8, finds out that he is not Egyptian after all but really Hebrew. He has some adventures and ends up working for YHWH, the Hebrew god. YHWH sends Moses to the Pharaoh of Egypt to demand the release of his chosen people, the Hebrews. It’s odd that for something this important to a people’s cultural identity that they didn’t remember his actual name – Pharaoh is an epithet meaning “great house” as a reference to the King’s palace, which was frequently one of the titles of the Kings of Egypt9. It’s also funny how all that time spent living in a superior culture like the Egyptian never allowed the Hebrews to learn the local language. You would think that writing would be a good skill to pick up after the many generations that they supposedly lived in Egypt. When they first start writing, supposedly hundreds of years later10, they are using a Canaanite language. Which in itself is strange since Abraham supposed came from the Chaldean culture of Ur, but Hebrew is not related to those language groups nor did the Hebrews use the Chaldean form of writing. I suppose the Hebrews read up on Canaanite languages before going there?
But when Moses gets to see the “unnamed King” (makes him sound like something out of H.P. Lovercraft, doesn’t it?), after some neat magic tricks by both Moses and the unnamed King’s magicians, Moses asks for the Hebrew’s freedom but YHWH “hardens” the heart of the unnamed King who then refuses to release the Hebrews from slavery (Exodus 9:12). YHWH then proceeds to visit 10 plagues on the Egyptians. Jewish commentators usually note that this protracted series of tortures were necessary to demonstrate the power of YHWH over the Egyptian gods, although this view seems to be somewhat out of favor today. Back when the Hebrew Bible was written, the Hebrew were at best henotheistic, that is believing in many gods but contending that their god was the best11.
Just to list the plagues, as people seem to love this stuff, just as Dante’s “Inferno” is everyone’s favorite bit of the “Divine Comedy,” they were:
- Water into blood (Exodus 7:14 fish die and the place stinks);
- Frogs (my personal favorite) with suicidal tendencies – as they went everywhere but notably into people’s ovens (Exodus 7:25 – 8:11);
- Lice, although some translation have it as fleas (nasty but not fatal: Exodus 8:16-19);
- Some sort of swarms, could be flies or bugs or could be animals, opinions and translations differ (annoying, but not fatal: Exodus 8:20-32);
- Death of all the Egyptians’ camels, cows, sheep, goats, donkeys and horses (tough on the animals, but ok for the humans who were probably reduced to a vegetarian and chicken/duck and bacon diet by now since all the fish had already died – this shows that the authors of the Hebrew Bible thought that the Egyptians ate the same things as they did, not realizing that fowl made up a large portion of the Egyptians’ meat consumption; also note that pigs were not killed: Exodus 9:1-7);
- Boils, but actually we have no idea what the correct modern translation is, so let’s just say it was a non-fatal but highly unpleasant skin disease – oddly enough it afflicted people and “livestock,” so maybe the pigs and chickens and ducks not killed in #5? (Exodus 9:8-12);
- A storm, with lightning and hail, which may have killed some people and certainly killed “livestock” (those pesky livestock just won’t stay dead – although some apologists have interpreted this as the Egyptians buying new livestock after each plague…: Exodus 9:13-35);
- Locusts, this is to clean up anything living on the ground after the hail storm, so we see that YHWH is aiming to starve the Egyptians, since most of the plagues deal with destroying their food supply – except for the pigs (Exodus 10:1-20);
- Darkness for three days, perhaps interpreted at the time of Exodus’ composition as a way to insult the Egyptian solar god Ra, except for the Hebrews who had light in their houses – obviously an early supply of flashlights? (Exodus 10:21-29).
Now let’s stop for a minute before we get to the last plague.
The Evil Bit
Throughout this protracted narrative, the formula is the same. Moses goes to the unnamed King, asks for the Hebrews’ freedom, is rebuffed and promises a plague. In some cases the unnamed King’s magicians do magic themselves or are the ones attesting to the might of YHWH’s magic. Although you would think that the creator of the billions of galaxies in the universe could come up with a better trick to impress people then just turning a staff into a serpent, especially when the unnamed King’s magicians could do the same thing. Sort of underwhelming, but maybe YHWH needed to warm up a bit first?
After each plague, usually the unnamed King sees the majesty of YHWH or concedes to YHWH’s power, and agrees to let the Hebrews go, except that his heart is then hardened (usually by YHWH) and he reneges on the bargain, and the cycle continues. Now, why is YHWH doing this again and again when supposedly all he wants is his chosen people released so they can worship him? “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (Exodus 10: 3-4) He says this repeatedly, so he is not doing this for the Hebrew’s benefit from what we can see, and there is never an explanation as to why they can’t worship him in Egypt. The reason is probably that YHWH was then conceived as a regional godhead, and that is why he is linked to Mount Gerizim, Mount Sinai and later to the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of Jerusalem. That is how gods were viewed in the Canaanite and other regional religions, as local gods linked to places, temples or idols. YHWH never claims to be the god over the Egyptians, just to be stronger than the Egyptian’s gods.
Explanations for this “heart hardening” sort of “defeat-your-own-purpose” mentality abound, as even a child can see the needless cruelty in someone doing this sort of thing – making someone act explicitly in order to punish them. It is almost the definition of sadism.
Some of the explanations, but by no means all, include the following. YHWH is punishing the Egyptians for all the cruelty they inflicted on the Hebrews during their years of slavery (this seems to be the most popular), so the Egyptians “deserved it.” But although this is in YHWH’s tradition of punishing innocent children and grandchildren for the commissions of the fathers, it’s still pretty heinous. Then there is the “YHWH is proving his power” argument. This argument says that YHWH is proving his power to both the Hebrews and Egyptians. The Hebrews seem to forget it pretty quickly, however, as they are making a golden calf by Exodus 32:6 (which may have represented the Canaanite god Baal or the Egyptian god Apis – which was manifested as a living bull kept in a temple and mummified at death).
Why bother to prove YHWH’s power to the Egyptians, since they are not being asked to convert to worshiping YHWH anyway? What is the point in showing the Egyptians that you are stronger than their gods? Sounds a bit like penis envy to me (later on in their Bible, the Hebrews note that Egyptians have genitals like donkeys and ejaculations like horses (Ezekiel 23:20) so this is not a fatuous comment…).
Now, to be fair, on some occasions the text notes that the unnamed King hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34), as opposed to 8 times when it states that YHWH hardened his heart. Is there some meaning here, or is it just the usual sloppy drafting and lack of attention to detail we find throughout the Hebrew Bible? For believers, it is a way out. A way to claim that YHWH really wasn’t doing anything wrong, and it’s just our misunderstanding of the text that makes us think YHWH was being a sadistic bastard12.
The Final Plague
Now YHWH is ready to really let the Egyptians have it. After the last “heart hardening” by YHWH, YHWH plans his final plague on the Egyptians, the murder of every first born of both human and cattle. I am not sure why the livestock just won’t stay dead… But for some strange reason, YHWY doesn’t know where the Hebrews are living anymore. All the other plagues explicitly exempted the Hebrews. The land where they lived was not affected. No fleas, frogs or hail came to bother them. They even avoided the boils. So why now, when YHWH is going to kill lots of innocent people (and those ever living livestock) does he need to have their houses marked so his Angel knows who not to kill?13
Is the Angel of Death, the Death Angel or the “destroyer” (depending on the translation) sent by YHWH a bit dimwitted? We know that YHWH knows his people because they are circumcised (at least the men), although Moses was not – which leads to a funny story later, when YHWH sees that Moses and his son are not circumcised (I guess he wasn’t looking at Moses’ genitals before?) and YHWH goes to kill Moses, but luckily Moses’ wife saves the day with a piece of flint – read about it at Exodus 4:24-25, and if you want to read the really wild version complete with the hatan (the Satan) and lots of bad Angels, check out the midrash Nedarim 32a. For wild fantasy, you can’t beat the midrash.
So anyway, YHWH can’t trust the Angel of Death14 with not confusing the YHWH loving Hebrews with the degenerate Egyptians who have had an advanced civilization for about 2,000 years already, with the pyramids being over 1,000 years old by the time this story supposedly happened. So YHWH comes up with the wonderful idea of marking the door of each Hebrew with lamb’s blood. This requires some explanation itself. Weren’t all the sheep already killed not once but several times by the other plagues? So I guess the Hebrews were slaves having their own livestock? But the narrative never says that the Hebrew’s livestock was exempt from the other plagues. And while we are on the subject, if they were slaves, how is it that they all had their own houses? Slaves usually lived with their owners. But again, let’s not let a little thing like logic stand in the way of a ripping bloodthirsty tale.
If you want to read more about this sadistic episode, AVOID Wikipedia (“Plagues of Egypt”), which spends an inordinate amount of its time trying to provide natural explanations for the plagues, as though they were real historical events. All the citations are of books and apologists claiming the historicity of the plagues. “Scientists claim the plagues can be attributed to a chain of natural phenomena triggered by changes in the climate and environmental disasters hundreds of miles away.” This is despite the fact that there is no mention of the plagues or of Hebrew slaves in any Egyptian sources. None. Zero. So the only source material for these plagues that supposedly have natural causes (according to Wikipedia) is the Hebrew Bible.
The Pesah is a celebration of the Hebrews’ liberation from the Egyptians and of the love shown by YHWH for his chosen people – despite the fact that he didn’t bother to prevent them from becoming slaves in the first place. Jews and Christians alike will claim that there is no celebration of the death of the Egyptians, it’s all about liberation. This is despite the fact that a traditional part of the Pesah celebration by some Jews is the Ta’anit B’Chorim, or the “fast of the first born” where the first born son in a Jewish family fasts before the seder. Funny how it’s only the sons, even though all first born Egyptians were killed, but there is a LOT of sexism in the Hebrew Bible and traditions.
I have been told that any objection to celebrating the death of the innocent Egyptians is “missing the point” of YHWH’s act of liberation. That the Egyptians were merely being repaid for all the Hebrews they had killed while they were enslaved. That every culture celebrates military victories, and this is just a victory won by YHWH. Yes, a victory over civilians who were not fighting – name me one other country that celebrates a slaughter of civilians, please – it would be like the British having a national day of celebration for the bombing of Dresden, or the US for the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That I don’t understand the Jewish traditions. But what is there to misunderstand about dead innocent Egyptians? That Jews have been persecuted throughout history and that to deny them the right to celebrate their deliverance is racism. Give me a break, this is not an explanation, it’s a personal attack lodged whenever there is no defense to a criticism. That YHWH is by definition incapable of any evil act, so there is nothing to criticize. This is stating a conclusion, so I guess I am more moral than YHWH; not hard to do really.
And my personal favorite, that the slaughter is just a small and unimportant part of the story. Right. The “Passover” is when the Angel of Death avoids the Hebrews on its way to kill the helpless Egyptians - it “passes over” the Hebrews. The claim is that it’s not a celebration of Egyptian death, but of Hebrew life rings hallow. YHWH lets you live every day of the year. The only reason why this day was special was because YHWH’s Angel of Death was busy slaughtering other people – whose only crimes were not being Hebrew and being first born. A genocide is where you kill innocent people because of their ethnicity or religion or some other nonsense inspiring your distain or hatred. The Pesah does not celebrate a miraculous survival as an act of YHWH’s mercy, as some would contend. The Hebrews didn’t survive a natural calamity by the intervention of YHWH (who would have caused the calamity anyway), which you could celebrate. If the only people who survived the Asian Tsunami of 2004, which killed over 200,000 people, were Jews, then by all means celebrate YHWH’s preferential mercy. But in the Exodus story, YHWH never intended to harm the Hebrews, so they were never in the danger zone. So there is nothing special to thank YHWH for except in terms of “passing them over” on the way to kill the Egyptians.
The slaughter is the pivotal event, it’s the one that gets the Hebrews free and starts them on their way to their own accomplished genocides in their tiny bit of the Promised Land as under their new leader Joshua they exterminate the local inhabitants whose only crime was being alive where YHWH wanted the Hebrews to live. The creator of the universe, and of all humanity, never uses an eviction notice, but then in those days he wasn’t the Canaanites’ god any more than he was the god over the Egyptians. He was a petty tribal god, exuding antipathy for the parts of humanity that wasn’t Hebrew – in short, a celestial racist. We should be pleased that YHWH exhibits no knowledge of any cultures or peoples beyond about a thousand or so kilometers of Jerusalem, as there is no telling what YHWH would have tried to do to them.
In conclusion, I am not persuaded by any of the mainstream or apologist excuses or explanations of the criminality of the 10th plague. Maybe you are. But I am not comfortable with a celebration which has as its central defining element the murder by a god of innocent people, without even an excuse of some committed “sin.” The only comfort is that it’s all fiction. There was no mass Hebrew slavery in Egypt. The Hebrews never outnumbered the Egyptians. There were no plagues visited upon an innocent Egyptian population. There was no delivery out of Egypt. It’s all a myth15, a morally deficient fairy tale to make a small group of people in an underdeveloped country feel like they were better than their awe-inspiring neighbor, which was mightier and more developed than they could ever hope to be. So maybe I will just keep my mouth shut, and enjoy the company and the boiled egg and matzah (unleavened bread) if I get invited to a seder again. There are worse things in life then celebrating an imaginary event, and I can look forward to an engaging, if at times controversial, dinner conversation.
1The Samaritans claim to be the descendants of the true line of Dravidic belief, as they consider mainline Jewish doctrine to have been compromised by the injection of beliefs and interpretations which the Hebrew exiles in Babylon picked up from other religions during their stay. They claim to be the descendants of the state of Israel, which comprised the so-called “Northern tribes,” which were routinely vilified by the Judeans, the “Southern tribes” in the Hebrew Bible which was written by the Judeans. The ongoing prejudice of the Judeans against the Samaritans, even more than 500 years after the fall of Israel and Judea, is reflected in the story of the “Good Samaritan” in the Christian New Testament.
2This is a highly enjoyable cartoon examination of the two versions, if you’re not up for reading about it.
3The prohibition for eating leavened bread during this period was ostracism from the congregation of Israel, and this element may have been intended to be applied to all people ruled over by the Judeans as it covered persons “whether [they are] an alien or a native of the land” (Exodus 12:20).
4See an interesting discussion of this from a Jewish perspective.
5Well, actually no chains as this was either a Bronze Age event (and bronze chains would have been too expensive) or an early Iron Age event, and iron was too scarce at the time to use on slaves. Also, there is no historical evidence that whips were used on slaves in Egypt as an ongoing part of servitude – all that comes from Hollywood. But hopefully you get the idea.
6Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21 and Leviticus 25:44-46 are particularly odious examples.
7The current state of Israel is significantly larger than was the historical Judea and Israel combined.
8An Akkadian ruler who conquered the Sumerian city states in the 23rd century and ruled the world’s first empire.
9The title came into use sometime in the 14th century BCE. It came to prominence around the 7th century BCE, and provides thereby some support for the contention of the date of the Hebrew Bible’s composition in the same or later period.
10Depending on what imaginary date you are using for the events of the Exodus. Even Jewish apologists can’t agree on which Egyptian King the Exodus is referencing as there is no evidence of any Egyptian King matching the profile of the one described in the Hebrew Bible, which of course should not surprise us since it’s a fictional story.
11Jan Assmann’s “Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel and the Rise of Monotheism” is an interesting discussion of this position.
12If you are interested in this sort of linguistic contortionism, you can check out this link. It’s a Christian apologetic site, but it was better sourced than most of the Jewish ones (at least the ones in English, as I don’t read Hebrew).
13For something about the role of Angels as assassins, see my earlier blog.
14I like the name, when I see “destroyer” I think of the KISS album of 1976.
15The best source documenting this for me is Israel Finkelstein and “The Bible Unearthed”, which is also available on DVD.
Photo Credits: The Death of the Firstborn, Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us