1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4

August 3, 2017 at 12:37 am | Posted in Bo, Samuel 1 | 1 Comment
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One mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! (1 Samuel 6:4)

mageifah (מַגֵפָה) = plague, epidemic, pestilence. (Plural = mageifot.)

Angry gods cause epidemics. This was the obvious to writers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan several thousand years ago, long before the germ theory of disease. The best way to stop a plague or epidemic was to determine which god was responsible, and then appease that god.

My last three posts on “How to Stop a Plague”1 concern an epidemic caused by the jealous rage of the God of Israel when “His” people are unfaithful to “Him” and worship a god named Baal Peor. The plague kills 24,000 Israelites before Pinchas halts it with an act that shocks the God-character out of “His” uncontrolled anger.2 This plague begins in the Torah portion Balak, but the repercussions continue through this week’s portion, Va-etchannan.

The God-character also kills thousands of Israelites with plagues after they worship the Golden Calf3, after they complain about the food God provided4, after they complain that God killed the 250 rebels led by Korach5, and after God becomes angry with the Israelites for some unreported reason and tells King David to order a census.6  In all of these cases, the plague is a direct result of God’s rage.

However, when the God of Israel afflicts other peoples with epidemics, “He” is offended, but calm. The God-character uses plagues to make the foreigners acknowledge the superior power of God and do the Israelites a favor. Once those objectives have been met, God simply stops the plague.

Pharoah Merneptah

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God creates ten miraculous disasters in Egypt, two of which are infectious plagues.7 Yet the Pharaoh keeps refusing to do what the God of Israel wants. After the second epidemic, God orders Moses to tell the Pharaoh:

…Thus says God, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go so they may serve Me. Because this time I am sending all My mageifot to you and to your courtiers and to your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. (Exodus/Shemot 9:13-14)

Only after the tenth miracle, the overnight death of the firstborn, does the Pharaoh admit God’s superior power and free the Israelite slaves.

*

The Philistines are more rational when the God of Israel afflicts them with a plague.

The problem begins when the Philistines take God’s most sacred object, the ark of the covenant. Israelite soldiers in the first book of Samuel unwisely bring the ark with them from the sanctuary at Shiloh onto the battleground at Even Ha-eizer, hoping that the magic of its presence will give them victory. It does not; God wants “His” ark in a sanctuary, not on a battlefield.

Dagon

And the Philistines took the ark of God, and they brought it from Even Ha-eizer to Ashdod. And the Philistines took the ark of God and they brought it into the House of Dagon, and they placed it beside Dagon. (1 Samuel 5:1-2)

The next morning, the priests of Ashdod discover that the statue of their own chief god, Dagon, has fallen face-down in front of the ark. The second morning, the statue of Dagon has fallen again, and its head and hands are cut off. Naturally, the shocked Philistines move the ark out of the sanctuary and into a field.

Then the hand of God was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He devastated them, and He struck down Ashdod and her territory with ofalim. (1 Samuel 5:6)

ofalim (עֳפָלִים) = probably buboes—lymph nodes swollen to the size of chicken eggs due to the bubonic plague—in the groin area. (According to the Masoretic text, when this chapter is read out loud, the word ofalim is replaced with techorim (טְחֺררִים) = hemorrhoids or anal abscesses. Techorim was considered a more polite word to say in public.)

The people of Ashdod send the ark off to another Philistine city, Geit.

The ark journeys from Shiloh to Beit Shemesh in six stages

…and the hand of God was on the city, a very great panic, and the people of the town from young to old had ofalim in their secret parts. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron… (1 Samuel 5:9-10)

The people of Ekron protest even before they start dying of the bubonic plague, and the princes of all five Philistine city-states meet there to decide what to do. Philistine priests and diviners urge them to send the ark back to Israelite territory, along with a guilt-offering, in the hope that then the God of Israel will stop the plague and heal the survivors.

And they [the princes and the Ekronites] said: “What is the guilt-offering that we should send back to Him?” And they [the priests] said: “The number of princes of Philistine is five. Five golden ofalim and five golden rats—for one mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! So you must make images of your ofalim and images of your rats that are destroying the land, and you must give honor to the God of Israel. Perhaps them He will lighten His hand from upon you and from upon your gods and from upon your land.” (1 Samuel 6:4-5.)

The Philistines probably noticed a plethora of dying rats in same areas where humans were afflicted. Today we know that bubonic plague is carried by fleas that bite both rats and humans.

Perhaps the Philistine rulers hesitated to send the golden ark and ten gold statuettes to their enemies the Israelites, because the Philistine priests add:

Why should you harden your heart as Egypt and Pharaoh hardened their heart? Did He not make a fool of them, so they let [the Israelites] go, and off they went? (1 Samuel 6:6)

The five Philistine princes, unlike the Pharaoh, are willing to do whatever will end the plague. Their priests then give instructions that will prove whether the God of Israel is responsible for it. The Philistines must load a cart with the ark and also a box containing the ten gold images. Then they must take two milk cows that have never pulled a plow and separate them from their nursing calves. They must shut up the calves inside, and harness the cows to the cart.

Then you will see: If it [the ark] goes up on the road to its own territory, toward Beit Shemesh, He made this great evil for us. But if not, then we will know that His hand has not touched us; by happenstance it happened to us. (1 Samuel 6:9)

Normally, the two cows would refuse to pull the cart, since they have never been harnessed before. Furthermore, they would try to get back to their calves as soon as their udders were full. Only a divine miracle would make the cows pull the cart to the nearest town in Israelite territory.

And the cows went straight on the road, on the road to Beit Shemesh. On a single highway they kept walking, lowing as they walked, and they veered neither right nor left. And the Philistine princes were walking behind them as far as the border of Beit Shemesh. (1 Samuel 6:12)

The action then switches to the arrival of the cart in Beit Shemesh, but we can assume that God responds by halting the bubonic plague in Philistine. The Bible does not mention it again.

*

Today the prompt administration of antibiotics can cure people of even the bubonic plague. But humans still experience a psychological kind of plague when panic spreads because our neighbors seem like enemies. In the United States today, people have become deeply divided by their anger and fear over the perceived political and moral differences between the left and the right. On each side, we are afraid that our own compatriots will force us to change our way of life, or even let us die.

And on each side, we want to take away things that are sacred to the other side. Unlike the Philistines appropriating the ark, we may not even realize what our “enemies” on the left or right consider sacred.

The people of Ekron get upset when the people of Geit send the ark to their city, yet they neither pick a fight nor pass the ark on to the next city. They call a meeting, get expert advice, and save all the surviving Philistine people by sending off the cart, even though it means giving up some wealth and honor. The five Philistine city-states not only cooperate with each other, but also honor the sacred object of the Israelites, and make a peace offering to the God of their enemies.

May we all become realistic and flexible like the Philistines, rather than hard-hearted like the Pharaoh. May we determine the causes of our own country’s plague, and may we all find the strength to do what we must in order to bring health and peace to all people.

__

1.  Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1; Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2; and Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.

2.  Numbers 25:6-8.

3.  Exodus 32:35.

4.  Numbers 11:31-35.

5.  Numbers 17:6-15.

6.  This story is included in the second book of Samuel, although its language and themes do not fit the rest of the book. After King David has followed God’s instructions to order a census of all Israelite men of fighting age, God makes him choose between three punishments for doing so. David chooses a plague, which kills 70,000 Israelites before David stops it with an animal offering (2 Samuel chapter 24).

7.  Ten according to Exodus; see my post Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles. The two plagues are livestock pestilence (dever) and an inflammation with boils (shechin).

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Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 2 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”;  ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.

In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:

Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)

yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)

Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:

And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)

(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)

How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God?  Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).

However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of  Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).

Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.

Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.

plagues-table

What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.

The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)

Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:

And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;

            They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)

Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:

           [God] turned their waters into blood

                        And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)

Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.

In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.

This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)

While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.

Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.

           What we have listened to, and we yada,

                      and our ancestors recounted to us,

           should not be concealed from their descendants,

                      to the last generation recounting

           praises of God and Its strength

                      and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)

(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)

Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?

           Then they will place their kesel in God,

                      and they will not forget the deeds of God,

                      and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)

kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.

The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)

—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)

—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)

—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)

These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.

Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.

           Thank God, call out Its name,

                      hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!

           Sing to [God], make music to It,

                      consider all Its wonders!

           Revel in the name of Its holiness!

                      Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation.  Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.

*

Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?

Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.

Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.

What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!

The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.

However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder  every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.

Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.

Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!

Bo: Impenetrable Darkness

January 18, 2015 at 9:43 am | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Blood.  Frogs.  Lice.  Insect swarms (“wild beasts” in earlier translations).  Pestilence.  Boils.  Hail.  Locusts.  Darkness.  Death of the Firstborn.

These are the ten “plagues”—miraculous calamities—that God inflicts on Egypt before the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go.  Jews recite the ten plagues every spring during Passover/Pesach, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. We also read about the last three plagues in this week’s portion, Bo (“Come”).

Most of the plagues inflict pain on humans, kill livestock, and destroy crops. The last plague kills humans. But the ninth plague, darkness, seems harmless at first glance.

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

God said to Moses:  Stretch out your hand against the skies, and it will become choshekh over the land of Egypt, and the choshekh will be felt.  And Moses stretched out his hand against the skies, and it became choshekh of afeilah throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days.  No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.  But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus/Shemot 10:21-23)

choshekh (חֹשֶׁךְ) = dark, darkness.

afeilah (אֲפֵלָה) = cut off from any light, complete darkness, impenetrable darkness.

The three days of total darkness terrorize the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh makes his best offer yet to Moses: the Israelites could go with their women and children, leaving merely their livestock behind. (Moses rejects this offer, so that God can produce the final plague and Pharaoh’s complete capitulation.)

What is so terrible about this darkness?  If it were merely three days of blindness, the Egyptians might be able to wait it out.  They would have to feel their way around, but they could still talk with each other. They could cooperate to make sure everyone got food and water.  They could comfort each other.

But the plague of darkness is not physical blindness; it is psychological darkness.

This darkness can be felt.  The Midrash Rabbah (a collection of commentary from Talmudic times) explains that the darkness has “substance”.  Maybe when the Egyptians grope around to find things they cannot see, all they feel is “darkness”. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that groping means uncertainty, and in the impenetrable darkness of afeilah, everything seems uncertain and doubtful.

In this condition, stray thoughts that a person would normally dismiss in an instant become obsessions.  What if there are no gods?  Does my spouse wish I were dead?  What if I don’t really care about my own children? Is my whole life meaningless? What if I am insane? A person living in spiritual darkness keeps groping for true answers, but feels only darkness.

The Torah adds: No one could see his brother.  This is the darkness of extreme egotism, exemplified by the Pharaoh.  As the plagues roll through Egypt, Pharaoh’s advisors and the Egyptian people protest that it would be better to give Moses and his god what they want than to put the land through more plagues.  Pharaoh ignores them because he cares only about himself and his own pride; he does not recognize anyone as a “brother” human being.

Thus he is cut off not only from affection, but also from any possibility of enlightenment; he is incapable of learning from others.  Similarly, the afeilah cuts off the Egyptians from any possibility of light.

At first, Pharaoh hardens his own heart.  Over time, it becomes a habit from which only a divine intervention could shake him loose. But God keeps his heart hardened, so Pharaoh does not change. In the plague of darkness, all the Egyptians experience Pharaoh’s immobility.  The Torah says “and no one could get up from under” the darkness.  The Midrash Rabbah explains that anyone who was sitting could not stand, anyone standing could not sit, and anyone lying down could not rise up.  Like the Pharaoh, the Egyptians cannot change their positions—or their beliefs.

Imagine experiencing a “dark night of the soul” so impenetrable that you cannot distract yourself by looking at anything; you cannot trust anything you feel; you cannot care about anyone else, or believe anyone cares about you; and you cannot get a new idea, or see life from a different perspective.

The plague of darkness terrifies the Egyptians because for three days, they experience what it is like to be the Pharaoh.  Maybe it terrifies the Pharaoh himself because at the end of the three days, when the darkness lifts, he sees a glimmer of what his own soul is like.  But it is only a glimmer; his habit of hardening his heart is too strong for actual enlightenment.

As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears for some people I know who appear to be living in a psychological darkness, unconsciously isolating themselves from others because they can neither trust nor respect them, and immobilizing themselves because they cannot change their perspective.

stars in blackAnd I know that any of us can fall into a temporary state of darkness.  I pray that whenever healthy uncertainty turns into doubting everything, we find the power to stop our obsessive groping.  I pray that whenever we fall into the trap of justifying our own behavior instead of noticing and appreciating what others are doing, we realize that we are isolating ourselves, and make an effort to see our brothers and sisters.  And I pray that whenever we are so depressed that change seems impossible, we follow any glimmer of light that gives us a view from a different perspective.

May every human being escape from the plague of darkness.

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