Reading Exodus with Leon Kass: Knowledge of the Divine

This week, Kass looks at what the ten plagues of Egypt reveal about the God who metes them out.

Charles Sprague Pearce’s Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Charles Sprague Pearce’s Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Jan. 21 2021
About the author

Leon R. Kass is dean of the faculty at Shalem College, professor emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served from 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Once a week for the next few months, Mosaic will be publishing brief excerpts of Leon R. Kass’s new book on Exodus, Founding God’s Nation. Curious about one of the foundational texts of the Jewish tradition? Read along with us. To see earlier excerpts, go here.

This week, Jewish communities all over the world begin their study of Exodus 10:1-13:16, a portion of the text known by its first significant Hebrew word, “Bo.” Pharaoh and the Egyptians suffer God’s final three plagues, and after various preparations, the Israelites leave Egypt. Those preparations, their significance, and the Israelites’ departure from Egypt are explored in detail in an essay-length excerpt from Founding God’s Nation that Kass has previously published in Mosaic. In this week’s selection, we focus on what the plagues reveal about God, and His justice.

Knowledge of the Divine


Before proceeding to the tenth plague and the exodus, we take stock of what we have learned so far (the story is not finished) about the theological question. As we have noted several times, the plagues, whatever else they are, constitute a political and theological argument, undertaken so “that the Egyptians may know that I am Y-H-V-H.” They are a direct attack on the Egyptian pantheon and the preeminent Egyptian “god,” Pharaoh. They have shown the limits of his accumulated powers and reaffirmed the principles of order in the cosmos, an order that he did not create and cannot command. The plagues reveal not only the weakness but also the lack of goodness of Egypt’s “gods” (including Pharaoh), and especially the maleficent character of Pharaonic rule. To revere only nature or the ruler, and to regard them as the source of right, is to recognize only morally neutral force and power. Denying the special dignity of human beings and knowing no authority higher than nature, Egypt’s metaphysics and Egypt’s politics both crumble.

And what have we (and the “Egyptian Moses”) learned so far about the Lord God of Israel? What “effective knowledge” have we obtained about “I-Will-Be-What-I-Will-Be” by watching what He has done in the world? First, the Lord is more powerful—over nature and over everything revered in Egypt, from the Nile to the sun—than Pharaoh and his magicians. Second, His power is guided by a discriminating intelligence and deliberate intention. His deeds are preceded by articulate speech; He can re-create order, by acts of separation, out of the chaos that He can produce; He distinguishes between Israel (protected from the plagues) and Egypt. (Later, we will see how He distinguishes, within each Egyptian household, between the firstborn and the others.) His power is totally unlike the naked power of the “nature gods,” which neither speak nor make distinctions. Unlike the biggest natural powers—the causes of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and everything else that the Greeks called Poseidon—His power can selectively avoid harming His favorites. Third, He is truthful. He does what He says He will do, and unlike Pharaoh, He keeps His word. You can trust what He says—both when He promises good and when He promises bad. Fourth, He cares for His chosen “son,” the Children of Israel, and He protects them from harm—all of them, not just the elite. (We wonder whether He cares for all human beings or only for the Israelites; can Moses yet tell that the Lord is more than just the God of the Hebrews?) Finally, He judges and punishes. He is a moral deity, a God of judgment Who dispenses justice.


The Lord’s Justice


About this last claim, many readers disagree. Yes, He punishes the Egyptians for their mistreatment of the Israelites, but He does so severely, even cruelly, and seemingly without measure, striking the innocent as well as the guilty. The Egyptian masses, my students protest, do not all deserve the evils God brings down on them via the plagues. Although mindful of the easy answer that the Lord’s justice is different from human justice, we feel obliged to consider whether His punishments are just, in human terms. In looking at the plagues, including the tenth, as punishments or judgments (sh’fatim), we expect (or at least hope) that they are not just the expression of arbitrary or angry power but that they fit the “crimes” (abasing and brutal slavery, infanticide, and the like) and the “criminals” (Pharaoh, but who else?—all of Egypt?). About the fitness of punishment itself, we have Pharaoh’s own testimony. In two places (after hail and after locusts), as we have noted, Pharaoh himself is moved to confess that he has sinned and (in one place) that the Lord (whom he recently said he did not know!) is in the right and that he and his people are in the wrong (9:27). The question is not whether they should be punished but how.

There are two ways of providing fitting punishment. The obvious one is measure for measure—lex talionis, “an eye for an eye,” getting even—applied by an outside agent forcing the retributive measure. But there is another, subtler way: force someone to experience fully, as a result of his own deeds, the meaning of his own evil beliefs and actions. It is possible to read at least some of the plagues as forcing Pharaoh to bear witness against himself by making him responsible for the logical consequences of his opinions and actions. Like Midas and the golden touch, Pharaoh will get exactly what he wished for, only to discover that it was not what he wanted. . .

Excerpted and adapted from Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon R. Kass. Published by Yale University Press in January 2021. Reproduced by permission.

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