Of all the plague narratives, it is the chilling finale that creates the most anxiety: “Thus says the Lord: At midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the first-born throughout Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh…to the first-born of the maid-servant.” (Exodus 11:4-5)
The killing of the first-born is at once an echo and an amplification of the initial decree of Pharaoh that all Israelite male infants be executed (Exodus 1:16/22). But in the scope of terror, the 10th plague goes far beyond the decree: “There was not a home where there was not one dead.” (Exodus 12:30) The Israelites escape the plague only through the institution of the Pesach sacrifice and the application of the lamb’s blood on the doorframe.
The plagues narrative embodies the complexity of the liberation story. Even on the folk level, how many Jewish parents can avoid squirming through the “Had Gadya” verse that has the “angel of death” meeting death at the hand of the “Holy One Blessed Be He”?
Through refocusing, Jewish tradition has drawn our attention away from the narratives’ darker implications by reliving our liberation rather than the execution of the Egyptians. Yet underneath our celebrations, we find disturbing survivals of a more primitive set of emotions and experiences of God.
Why, we wonder, is the liberation of the Israelites bought at such a price? Would not nine plagues have sufficed? (Or why plagues at all? Surely a God of infinite power can repress the Egyptians long enough for the Israelites to escape!)
The Exodus story makes it abundantly clear that the ways of God in history are not the ways of human beings. For whatever reasons, the writers of the Torah believed it was essential to the story for the Egyptians to be humiliated and humbled, not merely coerced and compelled.
Perhaps the point of the 10th plague is precisely that it is carried out by God. The most powerful experiences humans can experience are exactly those at the boundaries of existence: to create, or to end, life itself. How easy it is to fall into the fallacy that these tasks are somehow subject to our choice.
If the narrative of the 10th plague tells us anything, it is that the power over life and death ultimately belongs only to God. The stories warn us that the drive toward vengeance, even garbed as vindication, tempts us to assume a power and an authority that is not ours to take.
In a time when dividing the world into “us and them” substitutes for serious attempts at understanding, and primitive forms of punishment replace the demands of reasoned justice, we would do well to recall the insight of the Torah that the power over life and death remains, ultimately, in the hands of a Power greater than our own.