I’ve been putting this off partly because I’ve been sick. I thought at first it was a cold, but as it fades along with the lump on my arm, I wonder if it wasn’t all an allergic reaction to my flu shot. I should have had it at the start of the season, but I didn’t exactly have a lot of free time in the run up to the fall recital.
But I also put it off partly because, well, this is where we introduce the tenth plague: the death of the firstborn.
It’s only ten verses along – astonishingly brief – and it’s not even the plague itself, just the warning. It’s set immediately after pharaoh tells Moses to leave and never come back at the end of chapter 10. Moses delivers the message the God will kill the firstborn of every person and animal in Egypt, but spare the Israelites.
And then, it notes, “in hot anger he left Pharaoh.” (v 8) But it doesn’t say why Moses is angry, or who he is angry with.
Both The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt have the pharaoh be responsible for God’s choice of final plague, referencing the slaughter of the male infants in chapter 2. Given that both had it, I assumed they had to have some reference in Exodus that I’d simply forgotten, but no, there’s no mention of pharaoh threatening another genocide on Israelites.
I think it’s likely Prince of Egypt was inspired in that regard by The Ten Commandments, but that both chose to go with it for similar reasons.
First, it removes some of the responsibility for the deaths of children from God. That final line from God in this chapter is chilling as written: “Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” (v 9) This is where you get back to the foreknew/orchestrated distinction I mentioned in my last entry. If you allow foreknowledge, then God sadly knows that this is the final straw it will take to get his people free. But verse 9 is an orchestration verse, and God seems to be more gleeful, like “Wow, I have this awesome child-killing power I’ve so been wanting to show for a while, man I can’t wait for the chance!”
So both of the films obviously ditch that sociopathic image of God, because like I said, aside from some diehard Calvinists who would just shrug that the infants had original sin and we should just be glad every day that God doesn’t kill us for our sins, nobody in the modern age likes that image of God. Smiting down adult Egyptians? We’re okay with that. They’re part of a system that was supporting slavery, you could argue that it’s justice. (More on that in a bit) But children?
The other reason I think both the films like the pharaoh-chooses-the-plague scenario is because it allows them to re-emphasize that this already happened in the story. That Moses is one of the few survivors of a mass-killing of infants intended to wipe out a people. That, seriously, stop feeling sorry for the Egyptians, don’t you remember what they did?
I might have been willing to let it stay there if I hadn’t been reading this straight through from Genesis. Don’t you remember what Joseph did? He enslaved the entire country by holding hostage the food that was rightfully theirs. Does that culpability fall on the Israelites, the same way that the commands carried out by the pharaoh’s men implicate all Egyptians? Does the fact that the Egyptians were more tenant farmers than true slaves make any difference?
I also can’t escape, when talking about slavery, the things my own country did to end it. Sherman’s total war in Georgia probably violated quite a few Geneva conventions. But whenever southerners expect me to feel really upset about it, my general response is that I’ll cry once I’m done shedding tears for the millions of people enslaves for over two centuries. Sure, some of the Union’s tactics were wrong. Does that mean that somehow the Confederate side was good or noble? Of course not. And if I knew that this would happen, would I still think we should have gone to war? Obviously. We ended slavery. That’s worth shedding a lot of blood over.
And if the exodus from Egypt had led to the Israelites never practicing slavery (they did) or if I didn’t know that killing the firstborn was going to look pleasant compared to herem (I do), I could much more unambiguously say “It was worth it.”
Which brings me back to: why was Moses angry? And who was he angry at? I can think of two possibilities:
(1) He was angry at pharaoh, because pharaoh had kept them there that long, that it took something this extreme to get them to go. This is pretty much how both the movies present it.
(2) He was angry at God, for choosing this as the final plague, for making him an instrument of this level of destruction. I wouldn’t entirely rule this out as a reading for the text. You’re allowed to be angry with God in the Bible.
Either way, the next chapter is much longer, covering the institution of Passover and the plague itself. I hope to return to my normal pattern now that my health has returned.
The Japanese: ishiusu “millstone” (v 5), katsutenai “never before” (v 6), unari “howl” (v 7), funzen “indignation, anger” (v 8).