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Moses in Egypt: A Morality Play? by Philip Yaffe

Moses in Egypt: A Morality Play? by
Article Posted: 10/28/2012
Article Views: 506
Articles Written: 92
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Moses in Egypt: A Morality Play?

by Philip Yaffe

I am a devout agnostic. I consider claims of religion per se, this means all religions (Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, etc.), to be doubtful, often to the point of absurdity. I do not actively campaign to convince religious people to share my doubts; however, when discussions of faith and doubt arise (almost always at the initiation of the religious person), I do not shy away.

I recently engaged in such a discussion, whose denouement was truly appalling.

The topic was the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. As the story is generally recounted, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go." Pharaoh refuses. However, instead of punishing Pharaoh directly, God unleashes a series of plagues on the entire Egyptian nation, bringing about unimaginable hardship and misery, culminating in the killing of first-borns.

My question was: What was gained by going the route of misery and suffering, even to the point of slaughtering infants, when apparently less cruel and more effective options could have been chosen? In other words, what lesson is to be learned from this horrific story?

Of all the biblical tales, this is certainly among the most frequently told, and one with which a true believer should be most familiar. Yet my interlocutor had no answer to the question. He said he would consult with the priest in the church he regularly attended, which he did. However, the priest seemed too busy to provide an answer and suggested a number of books to be read.

Instead, I searched the Web. There are countless sites that deal with the subject, so I certainly came nowhere near to exploring all of them. The one’s I did look at all seemed to say pretty much the same thing.

Surprisingly, only a handful of them cited two seemingly relevant biblical passages of which I had not previously been aware; the rest simply ignored them. They are:

Exodus 4:21: "And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return unto Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go."

Exodus 7:3-5: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.

These passages make it appear as if the whole thing was a put-up job, as if God’s intended to wreak havoc on Egypt from the outset and was simply looking for a “justification” (does God need justification?). The sites that mentioned the passages tried to recast them to exonerate God for His apparent deception (does God need exoneration?). However, the explanations didn’t stand up very well because for the most part they seemed to go around in circles.

But let’s leave this controversy aside; it certainly isn’t going to be settled here. Rather, let’s assume that Pharaoh actually did reject God’s command of his own free will. The question still remains: What was gained by going the route of misery and suffering, even to the point of slaughtering infants, when apparently less cruel and more effective options could have been chosen? In other words, what lesson is to be learned from this story?

Several sites argued that all Egyptians were punished because they had been complicit with Pharaoh by carrying out his edicts (including infants?), so they deserved their punishment. To me, this makes about as much sense as punishing the survivors of the World War II slave labor camps because they had worked for the Nazis. Ancient Egypt was not a democracy and Pharaoh was not an elected leader. He was a despot.

Moreover, did the Egyptian people even know about Moses' warnings and the cause of the plagues? Certainly Pharaoh didn't broadcast the news and I find nothing in the Bible to suggest that the Egyptians were made aware of the warnings in any other way.

Some sites engaged in a numbers game, trying to demonstrate that the horror of killing infants was not as bad the biblical text might make it seem. The argument goes something like this.

1. The plague was confined only to male first-borns. Half of first-borns were female, so 50 percent of Egyptian children would not have been affected. 2. The plague was confined only to first-born males who were still living. Households where the first-born male child was already dead (Egypt had a high rate of infant mortality) would not have been affected. 3. The plague was limited only to first-born males who were still children, so households where the first-born male was already an adult would not have been affected.

Folding in other arcane obfuscations, these paleo-mathematicians concluded that only about 3 percent (three out of a hundred) of children would have been killed. How comforting! Anything over 3 percent would clearly have been reprehensible!

We may also be comforted by the fact that the infanticide carried out by God on the Egyptians was “just retribution” for the infanticide Pharaoh had carried on the first-borns of the Israelites some years earlier. Let justice be done!

As stated at the outset, I am a devout agnostic. I accept that belief in God as some kind of intelligence behind the universe can be justified. However religion, any religion, is a wholly unjustified perversion of that belief. The story of Moses in Egypt is only one of countless spine-chilling examples.


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.

He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.

Books by this Author

• The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

• The Gettysburg Collection: A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

• Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it

• Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it

• What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous? Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French

• The Little Book of BIG Mistakes

• The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life

Books in “Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists” Series

(at November 2012)

• Astronomy & Cosmology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists

• Human Biology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists

Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series

(at November 2012)

• College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent

• Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent

• Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent

• The Human Body: The Essential Ten Percent

• Wise Humor: The Essential Ten Percent

• Word for Windows: The Essential Ten Percent

Related Articles - Moses, Israelites, Egypt, Bible, Pharaoh, agnostic, Exodus, plague, infanticide, first-born, free will, punishment of God, true believer, Nazis,

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