The Biblical narrative of the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt may, at first glance, seem repetitive – Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness, they threaten a plague if Pharaoh says no, Pharaoh says no, the plague strikes, Pharaoh begs for relief and makes promises of freedom on which he quickly reneges.
However, not each plague has the same dialogue, and a closer read provides interesting insight into the weakening of Pharaoh’s resolve.
The first sign of weakness displayed by the Egyptians happens just before the hail strikes, when those Egyptians who feared God brought their servants and cattle into the house (Exodus 9:20). This verse adds context to the Midrash that explains the significance of Exodus 10:6. After describing the threat of the next plague, locusts, the Torah states “And he [Moses] turned and went out from Pharaoh.” Exodus Rabbah 13:4 notes: “Why did he do so? Because he saw them turning to one another, as if inclined to believe his [Moses] words; he therefore went out to allow them to take counsel how to repent.” In the next verse in Exodus (10:7), Pharaoh’s servants actually confronted Pharaoh and encouraged him to let the Israelite men go before the country is destroyed. Pharaoh seemed ready to agree, until Moses declared that all the Israelite men, women and children must be allowed to go.
Following the plague of darkness, Pharaoh declared himself ready to let all of the Israelites go, but refused to allow their flocks or their cattle to depart with them. Holding the flocks “hostage” would guarantee that the Israelites would return, since without cattle or sheep, they would face starvation in the wilderness. (No one could then conceive of the miraculous manna.)
By partially agreeing to let the Israelites go – first just the men, then the people without their flocks, terms to which Moses could not agree – Pharaoh made it seem as if it was Moses’ unreasonableness that was keeping the Israelites in Egypt.
It took one final plague, the death of the firstborn, for Pharaoh to realize that his “negotiation tactics” were doomed. Finally, he let the people go.
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