Ibn Ezra on the Ten Plagues
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Ibn Ezra directs our attention to the performers of the Ten Plagues (Exod. 8:12):
Know, that by the hand of Aaron were the first three plagues and these signs were in the lower matter as I explained earlier, because two (of them) were in water, and the third was in the dust of the earth. And the plagues performed by Moses with the staff were in the higher elements, just as his (Moses’) status was higher than Aaron’s status. For example, the plague of hail and locusts were brought by the wind, and (so too) the darkness, it was in the air; also the plague of boils was through him (Moses). Only three (plagues) were without the staff; the wild animals, the disease of the animals, and the death of the firstborns. And one (plague) with no staff was through Moses, with a little connection with Aaron, and it was the plague of boils.
Ibn Ezra catches our attention by his first word, “Know,” urging us to think more into this commentary’s ideas over others. There’s much below the surface. But what here is of such significance? Ibn Ezra does not simply list dry statistics, but directs us towards important principles. Beginning with the word “Know,” Ibn Ezra is teaching an important lesson.
Each of the Ten Plagues was used as a tool to teach Egypt and the world the following: 1) Aaron and Moses were each assigned 3 specific plagues each, in the lower and higher realms respectively, 2) the staff was absent in certain miracles, 3) Moses joined with Aaron in a single plague of boils, 4) God distinguished (v’hifla, v’hiflaisi) between Egypt and the Jews through two plagues, in which no staff was used, and which was placed in the center of the series of plagues. These 2 plagues were also not performed by Moses or Aaron, but by God alone, as the verses says, “And God performed” (Exod 8:20, 9:6).
In his Laws of Idolatry, 1:1, Maimonides teaches that early man already began projecting greatness onto the heavenly bodies. Man thought, since the planets, stars and spheres “minister before God,” they too are worthy of man’s honor. Eventually, man’s corrupt thinking—and sins—increased as he replaced simple honor of stars with his worship of them as deities, until God was no longer recognized. Star worship reveals man’s false estimation that the heavens deserve to be worshipped. Man feared not only the spheres, but also the heavens. Jeremiah 10:2-3 reads, “So says God, ‘To the ways of the nations do not learn, and from the signs of the heavens do not fear, because from them the nations fear. Because the statutes of the peoples are false, because a tree from the forest they cut, fashioned by an artisan with an adze.” Jeremiah teaches that man did in fact fear the heavens. But their fear stemmed from a false projection; not reality. Jeremiah’s lesson is insightful: he equates the fear of heavens with the idolatrous practice of prostrating to wooden idols. He wished to teach that the heavens do not hold any greater powers than wooden sculptures. Man’s idolatrous emotions project the same imagined authority onto both: heaven and trees. But the underlying message is that man fears the skies, as Maimonides taught above. It appears that based on man’s first error that God occupies space and “lives in the skies,” man erred again, ascribing greatness to the spheres and stars that are assumed to be “in close proximity” to God and minister to Him.
Egypt accepted the primitive view of the heavens as determining man’s fate. God corrected this error with one aspect of His plagues. Commanding Aaron to perform the plagues limited to the earthly realm, and Moses to perform those of the “higher” heavenly realm, God discounted Egypt’s dangerous esteem of the heavens. God showed that the only difference between the heavens and Earth is the level of understanding required to comprehend their natures, as the wiser man—Moses—addressed the heavenly plagues, and Aaron addressed the earthly plagues. Laws control both realms, and both could be understood. Understanding a phenomenon removes one’s false, mystical estimations. Realizing that all corners of the natural world—including the heavens—are “guided,” means they are subordinate to something greater: God. These realms do not “control,” but are “controlled,” teaching the Egyptians that their views were false.
The Egyptians erred by assuming that the heavens were a governing and mystical realm. God corrected this disproportionately high, heavenly grandeur. God did so in two ways: 1) by showing the heavens’ subordination to a Higher will, God demoted heaven’s status from the divine to the mundane, and, 2) by aligning the plagues with Moses’ and Aaron’s participation, Egypt would understand that not only are the heaven’s not divine, but they share the status as created and subordinate entities. Additionally, Moses and Aaron each performed three miracles independently to equate heaven and earth, dispelling a false supremacy of heaven and meteorological phenomena. Hopefully, the Egyptians would comprehend that both heaven and Earth are equally under God’s control, as Jeremiah taught, and that neither one is divinely greater. Egypt would then realize that Something higher was responsible for all creation. God wanted the good for the Egyptians. The good, means knowledge of what is true. As Torah says with regards to these plagues, “in order that they tell of My name in the whole world” (Exod. 9:16).
Interestingly, the three plagues designed in the heavens were hail, locusts and darkness. Why these three? Perhaps to address three errors of the Egyptians. Egypt assumed meteorological phenomena to be divine, so God responded with a hail/fire plague to display His exclusive control in this area. Wind—believed to be controlled by Egypt’s god “Shu”—was also a heavenly phenomena, but now they experienced an unnatural wind blowing the entire day, the entire night, until the next morning when it delivered the terror of locusts destroying all vegetation remaining of the hail’s previous destruction (Exod 10:13). Finally, with the plague of darkness, God displayed control over the primary focus in heaven, the sun, and thus control over their sun god “Ra.” Weather, the atmosphere and outer space were all shown as false deities and under the exclusive control of Israel’s God. Additionally, the plague of “darkness” had one other facet: it was palpable, perhaps to show that it was not a simple solar eclipse.
Justice is God’s Alone
Ibn Ezra noted 2 plagues—the attacking animal mixture and livestock deaths—where no staff was used, meaning that man was absent. These 2 also included the lesson of national distinction: Exod. 8:18, “And I will distinguish on that day the land of Goshen that My people stand on it, to prevent from being there the wild beasts...” and Exod. 9:4, “And God will distinguish between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt, and nothing will die of the Israelites.” What is the purpose of distinguishing Egypt from Israel? And why did God restrict Moses and Aaron’s involvement in these 2 plagues, performing them Himself? And primarily, we must understand the unique nature of these 2 plagues.
Distinguishing Egypt from the Jews by afflicting Egypt alone with these 2 plagues expressed God system of reward and punishment: “justice.” God performed these 2 plagues Himself as administering justice is exclusively God’s domain. Therefore, Moses and Aaron could not be involved.
Animal mixtures attacking Egypt acted to reject the Egyptian view that their animal deities favored them. With this plague, God administer justice regarding Egypt’s view of God: God does not have intermediaries (animals).
God's next plague was killing Egyptian livestock, also a judgment through reward and punishment, but here addressing God's providence, and not who God is as a deity. Thus, with these two plagues God rejected Egyptian's view of deities, and of providence.
The Egyptians thought that to please their gods was man’s correct obligation; an expression of a child/parent relationship. How would such an infantile idea be corrected in order to teach God’s true system? By Egypt witnessing punitive measures only on their “side of the river,” they were awakened to a new idea: objective morality. They were held accountable. They also realized something even more essential: their relationship to their gods was one where their gods benefited from man’s actions. Egypt felt that their gods need man to serve their needs, which were projections of man’s own needs. But Judaism teaches that relating to God is not for God, but truly only for man. God does not need man. Man cannot affect God, as if God does not previously know our actions. Man must do that which is proper for himself, and if he does not, he will not only be punished, but he will lose the true good for himself. The Egyptian’s exclusive receipt of these two plagues—a system of “reward and punishment”—awoke them to a realization that service of God means not catering to a god’s needs, but rather, an alignment with proper ideals and morality. This is a drastic difference from Egypt’s primitive notion of worship and pleasing their gods.
Simultaneously, these two plagues attacked the very core of Egyptian gods: animals. Their own animals died, and then, wild animals attacked them. It was a devastating blow to their esteemed deities. Their deification of animal gods was destroyed. Pharaoh’s response (Exod. 8:21), “sacrifice to your God” confirms his lowered estimation of animals, to the point that he encourages Moses to slaughter them, and to do so to his God. In other cases, Pharaoh does gesture to free the Jews, but only here in connection with the animal plagues does Pharaoh say, “sacrifice to your God.” Torah includes these words of Pharaoh to inform us that the plague had the desired effect on Pharaoh. God understands what will affect man, and so it does. The Egyptians were all the more confused when they saw that Israel was not affected, even though they did not serve animals. In Exod. 9:7, Pharaoh himself sends messengers to see if Israel was harmed. This plague of the animal’s death concerned him greatly.
God displayed His control of the complete universe: the first three plagues showed His control of the Earth, the last three over the heavens, and the middle three displayed His control over man, meaning an expression of justice: only Egypt’s population was attacked by animals, only their herds were killed, and their astrologers were exposed as charlatans when they could not remove boils from their own bodies, just like average Egyptians.
Moses, Aaron and the staff are not employed in the 2 plagues, since these were more clearly God’s measures of justice, distinguishing Egypt from Israel as the verses state. As such, human participation through directing these plagues (the staff) would suggest God does not exact justice alone. Therefore, God did not instruct Moses or Aaron to employ the staff. God must be viewed as the only one who determines man’s justice.
An additional reason suggests itself why these two animal plagues were bereft of the staff. Perhaps the staff carried with it some element of cause and effect; man would hit something, and only then would the plague commence. Perhaps, God wished to teach that He is in no way bound by the physical. A plague may occur with no prior cause. Removing the staff might effectively teach this lesson, as nothing was smitten to bring on these plagues.
I heard another explanation for the use of the staff. Its presence was to remove any divinity projected by Egypt onto Moses and Aaron, lest onlookers falsely believe these two mortals possessed some powers. The staff might have been employed as a redirecting agent, a pointer. By seeing the staff incorporated into the miracles, Moses’ and Aaron’s significance was diluted in Egypt’s eyes. But wouldn’t people then believe the staff to have those powers? I believe for fear of this erroneous notion, God created a miracle where the staff itself turned into a snake. This was to show that it too was under the control of God. Had there been no use of a staff, focus would have remained on the announcers of the plagues (Moses and Aaron) thereby deifying man, not God. But I feel the first possibility is most correct, i.e., that God must be viewed as the sole cause of human justice.
Why did the plague of boils require Moses and Aaron to work together? Jessie Fischbein taught that just as Moses and Aaron addressed the higher and lower forms of nature in their respective plagues, the plague of boils executed by both Moses and Aaron included the higher and lower matter: ashes from Earth, and they were commanded to be thrown towards the heavens (Exod. 9:8). Her parallel revealed another facet of the boils, as God’s plagues contain many strata of insights. I believe the boils’ combination of realms was to teach that heaven and Earth do not operate in two unrelated systems. The very act of throwing ashes towards the heavens teaches that both Earth (ash) and heaven (air) work together. This was a necessary lesson in the reduction of the heaven’s exaggerated status. By showing this further idea that the heavens participate in earthly phenomena, the heavens’ false, divine status was stripped that much further. Just as his subjects will view a king who spends time with commoners in a less regal light, so too the heavens now lost their reputation by participating in Earthly matters. Moses could have collected the ashes himself, but by working with Aaron, together, they underlined this point.
Why are the two animal-related plagues placed in the middle of the series of the Ten Plagues? Perhaps, as these plagues specifically intended to distinguish Egypt from Israel, the evildoers from the victims, this theme of “justice” is placed smack in the middle of the set of 10 Plagues. Thereby, justice emerges as a highlighted message of all the plagues. A story or an awards dinner does not commence with the primary plot or the guest of honor…in both, they are placed at the midway point. Here too, perhaps God placed His plagues of justice in the midway point of all the plagues, to underline the theme that all the plagues were in fact an expression of justice, not viciousness.
We now appreciate Ibn Ezra’s identification of the 10 Plagues’ clues, and his message that we “know” their precise design. He means that God is sharing much wisdom with His 10 warnings to Egypt, and that much analysis is essential to unveil God’s many lessons, if we are to “know” their meaning.