Was the Tenth Plague the Best Closing Act?

Stephen Richer is a co-founder of Gather the Jews.  The opinions in this piece belong solely to Stephen.

This week’s Torah portion (Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16) is one of the best and most famous.[1] It chronicles the final three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born.

Like any good performer, God knew that to really win an audience—in this case, the doubting Jewish people and, more importantly, Pharoah and the Egyptians—you have to end a show with a bang.  To all outward appearances, the death of the first born was just what the doctor ordered.  After all, the tenth plague won the name of the Jewish holiday (“Passover”), and it earned a cameo in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark (when the ark is opened at the end, the angel of Passover comes out and kills all the Nazis).

But is this reasonable?  Was the tenth plague really the mother of all plagues?

Let’s take a look at what God promised: “So said the Lord, At the dividing point of the night, I will go out into the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharoah who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn animal.”  (Exodus 11:4 – 11:5)

Prima facie, this looks like a good contender for worst plague.  And as the first born male who is the son of a first born male, it really hits home. [2] But whereas the plague would have cut short my family tree, it wouldn’t have had nearly as devastating an effect on Ancient Egyptian families for a number of reasons:

1) A very high percentage of first born infants died anyway.  According to an article called “Women In The Ancient World,”  “Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in [Ancient Egypt].”[3] Infant mortality rates were high across civilizations at this time (due to unsanitary conditions and malnutrition), and things in Egypt were even worse because they didn’t have midwives (historically determined by the fact that their language lacked a word for the term).  All told, it’s estimated that between 33 and 50 percent of children in Ancient Egypt died in the first weeks of their lives.

2) Even beyond infancy, the life of the average first born Egyptian was pretty precarious.  Malnutrition didn’t go away after escaping the cradle, and the Nile River bred diseases that were insalubrious to say the least.  Finally, it wasn’t only the Israelites who did hard labor—most Egyptians worked at hard labor, an activity not conducive to longevity.

3) Another, and last for this essay, mitigating factor is the fact that Ancient Egyptian families were very very large.  Parents wanted to have as many kids as possible (the average was between 7 and 8 ) because they were seen as the first method of Social Security—a crutch for the elderly.

All told, first born children had about a 60 percent chance of dying before Passover was even heard of, and even if they did survive to die during Passover, their deaths most likely did not represent the end of their family lines.

Call me callous if you will, but I’m simply making the case that God should have played another plague as his trump card.  Which?  Nearly any. But I’ll leave you with this description of the locusts from this week’s portion just to hit home the point:

“The locusts ascended over the entire land of Egpyt, and they alighted within all the border[s] of Egypt, very severe; before them, there was never such a locust [plague], and after it, there will never be one like it.  They obscured the view of all the earth, and the earth became darkened, and they ate all the vegetation of the earth and all the fruits of the trees, which the hail had left over, and no greenery was left in the trees or in the vegetation of the field[s] throughout the entire land of Egypt.” (Exodus 14:14 – 14:15)

The translation from Chabad.org was used for this article.


[1] I wonder if the Obama’s know they named their dog after the portion containing the last three plagues… Or maybe the portion was named after the dog?
[2] The plague has come to be understood as the first born male.  I don’t know where this comes from.  It’s not in the portion.  Maybe the oral law?
[3] See this link for instance: http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/pregnancy%20and%20childbirth.htm