We read two puzzling statements as God prepares to exact the plagues in this week’s parasha. “And I will pass through Egypt ... and I will smite every first-born ... and I will exact judgments against all the gods of Egypt. I am God” (Exodus 12:12). Moreover, on that night, “[T]here will be a great cry throughout all Egypt, the like of which never before has been and never again will be. [But] against the Children of Israel no dog shall sharpen its tongue, [not at] a man and [not at] an animal” (Exodus 11:6-7).
Two questions arise: First, if there are no other gods besides Him, how can Hashem say he will “exact judgments” against gods that do not exist? Second, what’s with the dogs?
We often speak of the Torah as bearing a universal message to all generations, conveying that a Torah message uttered thousands of years ago remains relevant. But here, with these two baffling references that God will exact judgments against gods that do not exist, and the particular emphasis that all dogs will be silent during the tenth plague, perhaps we should reorient the usual approach. Instead of understanding that an ancient image speaks to us today, consider that a Torah image meaningful now was also relevant millennia ago.
The god of all life in Egypt was the Nile River, and God Almighty began the plagues by smiting the Nile. The goddess of childbirth in the Egyptian pantheon, the frog goddess Heqet, stood as matron saint of fertility and protector of newborns. So Hashem directed the second plague at frogs. Other Egyptian gods were assigned to protect the fertility of the land, the animals, the environment. Consequently, one by one, each such god was “smitten,” rendered “powerless” as all natural order fell before Egyptian eyes. Lice from the ground. Wild animals from out of nowhere.
There were Egyptian gods conceived as multianimal amalgams. Setekh, for example, had a long snout, pointy ears, a greyhound’s body and an upright tail. But God Almighty rendered judgment over such gods during the fourth plague (arov: mixed animals). Likewise, there was a goddess depicted with a cow’s head, Hathor. The fifth plague nullified cattle. And so it went. Osiris, the vegetation goddess, could not protect vegetables and fruit from the hail and locust plagues. One by one, every Egyptian god and goddess was eviscerated. Thus, Hashem “exacted judgments” against the “gods of Egypt.”
Finally, the darkness. Anubis was a dog- or jackel-god associated with the cult of the dead. “Together with the other canine deities ... he presided over the desert of the west, the necropolis land where wolves and jackals lurked, and all were regarded as tombs,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Meanwhile, the Egyptian pantheon’s central characters included the sun god, Ra, who “was thought to sail the sky in his boat, and at night to traverse the underworld, battling as he went with the forces of darkness.”
As each supposed god in the Egyptian pantheon was overcome, might a believing Egyptian yet place hope in the sun god Ra? Maybe. Each morning, his success in battling the forces of darkness was confirmed with the rising sun.
And then came the ninth plague. Through those three days of darkness, Ra ostensibly had been vanquished, leaving Egyptians to rationalize, consistent with their theology, that the dog-gods of death and darkness perhaps now held sway.
Moses had warned Pharaoh this all would come to pass by the hand of the God of Israel. But stubborn Egyptian pantheists, typified by pitiful sorcerers who tried competing until skin-boils sent them packing (Exodus 9:11), continued seeking an Egyptian-centric explanation. Perhaps it might have been tempting to attribute sun god Ra’s defeat in this catastrophic war of the gods to the powers of darkness, the gods of the necropolis, who finally had defeated him. Indeed, with the next plague — mass death, delivered with stunning accuracy only to first-born males — it may have seemed certain that the dog-gods of death had conquered, vanquishing all others. It was their night of death to demonstrate their awesome power, their control of everything and their victory over the other gods.
Only one thing: Not a dog whetted its tongue at a Jew. No barking. No growling. The dogs were eerily silent throughout the night, as Moses had prophesied.
The Egyptians were left with no further explanation. The Ten Plagues had been the hand of God, who had “exacted judgments” against their gods and had silenced their dogs. Now His people, the Children of Israel, had to be freed.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.
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