Something had changed; the earth had begun to shift under Pharaoh’s feet. Perhaps it was brought about by the crushing force of plague after plague, or perhaps the fear of what was yet to come had begun to take its toll. Either way, the cracks in Pharaoh’s facade had begun to show: Pharaoh’s servants were now telling their master what to do:
Pharaoh's servants said to him, 'How long will this [man] continue to be a snare to us? Let the men go, and let them serve God their Lord. Don't you realize yet that Egypt is lost?' (Shmot 10:7)
It is unclear what the status of these people is: Are they Pharaoh’s close advisors, government officials, or lowly members of the palace staff? Either way, it is highly unusual for anyone, no matter what their standing in the Egyptian hierarchy, to offer unsolicited advice to Pharaoh – and not just advice, but advice based on the understanding that Pharaoh has been vanquished by a superior power. These “advisors” must have been desperate; nothing short of utter despair would have caused them to throw caution and protocol to the wind and to speak out in this way.
On the others hand, it might be argued that their brazen speech indicates a shift that is far deeper than mere desperation. After all, just as people are capable of becoming accustomed to slavery, they are capable of adapting to plagues. We might imagine that the Egyptians had become desensitized, and had managed to adapt to the “new normal,” developing emotional and cognitive callouses that would allow them to withstand the pain. In that case, perhaps this outburst was not the speech of people beaten into submission by the cumulative effects of seven plagues; rather, there was something about the next plague that Moshe had predicted that was more frightening, more menacing, than anything they had already experienced. Something was different this time: As opposed to all of the preceding plagues, this is the only time that Moshe and Aharon were summoned back to the palace for negotiations after the warning was issued. If we pay close attention to Pharaoh’s words, we can pinpoint the source of that fear:
Moshe and Aharon were brought back to Pharaoh. 'Go serve God your Lord,' he said. 'But exactly who will be going?' 'Young and old alike will go,' replied Moshe. 'We will go with our sons and our daughters, with our sheep and cattle. It is a festival to God for [all of] us.' 'May God be with you if I let you leave with your children!' replied Pharaoh. 'See – Evil (ra’ah) will confront you. That is not the way it will be: Let the males go and worship God, if that is really what you want!' With that, he had them expelled from his presence. (Shmot 10:8-11)
At face value, the negotiations seem to center around the question of who should pray. In Pharaoh’s view, only the men should be allowed to worship God; women and children have no part in religious life. Moshe demands that each and every member of the Israelite nation must participate in the religious experience, that the festival of worship can only be observed as a People. Men and women, young and old: every Israelite has an equal part in the worship of God, and no one will be left behind. The Jewish concept of service of God is gender-neutral, age-neutral.
Upon closer inspection, we are able to detect a veiled threat in Pharaoh’s argument: If the entire Jewish People attempt to leave Egypt to worship their God, they will be confronted by evil. What is the nature of this evil? The Hebrew word used to describe it is “ra’ah” – which is often translated quite simply as “something bad.” Rashi (10:10)offers another interpretation, citing a tradition that ra’ah is related to a celestial entity of the same name. In fact, the most powerful deity in the Egyptian pantheon was none other than Raa, the sun god. Pharaoh’s threat was no vague premonition of unpleasantness: He invoked the power of Egypt’s most terrifying deity against Moshe and the Israelites, warning that Raa would confront them and destroy them if they dared leave Egypt en masse.
What set Pharaoh and his servants off? The plague Moshe had predicted, the eighth plague, was locusts. To the eye of the modern reader, this plague promised economic devastation caused by destruction of their food supply. However, it is altogether likely that financial ruin was a secondary problem:
If you refuse to let My people leave, I will bring locusts to your territories tomorrow. They will cover every visible speck of land, so that you will not be able to see the ground, and they will eat all that was spared for you by the hail, devouring every tree growing in the field. (Shmot 10:4-5)
The warning Moshe conveys is equally potent: The Egyptian sun god, Raa, would be eclipsed by the locusts. This threat was far more frightening than mere financial hardship: It was theologically devastating. To the minds of the Egyptians, blotting out the sun with a swarm of insects would indicate the absolute impotence of Pharaoh, on display for one and all to see. This is why Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aharon, engaged them in conversation, offered to compromise for the first time. This is why Pharaoh’s minions felt that all was lost. The disappearance of the sun, the eclipse of their godhead, would turn their world upside down.
And yet, despite all that was at stake, Pharaoh was unwilling to abandon his position. He was unwilling to admit that the power Moshe represented was greater than his own. He preferred to bite the proverbial bullet, to contend with the locusts rather than admit defeat, but neither Pharaoh nor his servants could fathom what would happen next. The next plague would be a direct response to Pharaoh’s veiled threat of the power of Raa: Darkness, complete and utter obliteration of the sun, suffered only by the Egyptians and not by the Israelites. It was no coincidence that the final plague, the death of the firstborn, would also be visited upon the Egyptians in the dead of night, forcing Pharaoh to seek out Moshe and Aharon in the darkness and attempt to save himself. The common denominator among the three final plagues is darkness; the sun god is eclipsed, stripped of power and importance. While this observation may be lost upon modern readers, the Egyptians were shaken to their very core.
How were these messages perceived by the Israelites? They were freed not only of their physical slavery, but of the spiritual and mental shackles that had constrained them as well. Step after step, as each successive plague brought the Egyptians and their belief system lower and lower, the Israelites were raised to new heights of physical and philosophical emancipation, and they began to understand that the God of their fathers, the Creator and Master of the Universe, had set the stage for the fulfillment of their unique national destiny.
As midnight struck and the Egyptian firstborn perished, Pharaoh frantically groped his way through the darkness, searching for Moshe. According to tradition, Pharaoh commanded Moshe – perhaps begged Moshe – to take the Jews and go. In their first act as a free people, the Jews refuse. They do not leave Egypt at Pharaoh’s command; they will not run out under cover of darkness. The Exodus must wait until the morning; the Israelites will leave with dignity, in broad daylight, as all of Egypt looks on, and not like thieves or runaways. More importantly, they will leave when the sun shines, so that no one can ever claim that they slipped out when the sun god was “off duty.” As the Israelites make their triumphant march to freedom, Pharaoh and all the impotent gods of Egypt are left behind, relegated to the dustbin of history.
For a more in-depth analysis see: