Just before Pesach began, a colleague, who is Jewish, commented to me: “God in the Bible is very cruel. Look at how the first-born Egyptian children died.”
It was in a public setting (the main office of a public school, to be exact). Although she knew I’m Jewish, as she is, she didn’t at that point know that I’m a rabbi. So, any response I gave had to be sociable and brief.
I started by saying that it was a valid point to bring up at a seder — where everything is open to discussion, especially during the “Magid” section.
I pointed out that the events leading up to the death of the Egyptian children began (more or less) with the Egyptians killing the Israelite children. I mentioned that this was the work of Pharaoh and the male soldiers; no women were involved. In fact, some Egyptian women protected and saved Israelite newborns. As a result, only Egyptian males died later at the Red (or Reed) Sea.
As for the deaths of the Egyptian children, I indicated that Pharaoh had been given (9) chances to avert the catastrophe, prior to its actual enactment. If he had at any earlier point in the “makkot” — the “plagues” — allowed the Israelites to leave, the deaths of the Egyptian children and soldiers would never have occurred.
It was as if God would accept the Israelites’ departure from Egypt as the Egyptians’ “kapparah” — the price they’d pay to atone for what they had done to the Israelites a generation or so earlier.
Whether we call it “karma” or not, we should know that Torah/Judaism teaches that all of our actions have inevitable, “equal and opposite” consequences. The “univerality” of Torah, like the “universality” of Newtonian physics, is that this principle — “midah k’neged midah;” “measure for measure” — is active and applicable everywhere and at all times. According to an aggadah in the Talmud, Pharaoh wasn’t entirely unaware of this. Rather, he thought he could “outsmart” God and avoid the consequences of killing the Israelite children.
Nevertheless, God offered Pharaoh (9) opportunities to moderate the “karmic” consequences.
[As an interesting digression, De Mille’s film, “The Ten Commandments,” depicts the Pharaoh of the Israelite-children murders as the father of the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the older Pharaoh who is portrayed as rather kindly, having ordered the deaths of the Israelite children only out of “military” concerns. Nothing personal, you understand. This resembles the story as it appears in Torah. We can reasonably assume that the Pharaoh who, as an adult, causes the infant Mosheh to be placed in an “ark of reeds” and floated down the Nile, would likely have been a different person than the Pharaoh of the Exodus 80 years later. As for whether he was as “kind” as Sir Cedric, one can only assume that such a portrayal was a literary device to contrast with the arrogance and cruelty of Yul Brynner’s “Rameses”.]
So — how “cruel” was God here, really? If Pharaoh had relented at any point, the Egyptian children — including his own — would have lived.
Pharaoh knew from the plagues that he was dealing with a Power that was superior not only to him, but to nature itself, as well. His refusal to relent, or his multiple incidents of reneging on his agreement to relent, can only be regarded as irrational. As to why Pharaoh did not and could not relent, I wrote about that in a series of posts regarding Pharaoh as a “bully” and “abuser,” who could never have tolerated being “bested” by God. In fact, it was his own “bully” viewpoint that would have regarded it as being “bested,” rather than as being given an alternative, by a Power greater than himself, to an inescapable consequence.
As I wrote in a recent post, I also believe that even after the death of the Egyptian first-born, if Pharaoh had allowed the Israelites to leave undisturbed, the children could have been revived! This, of course, is my own interpretation, but I base it on the text of Torah/TaNaCh itself:
In the (9) prior “plagues,” when Pharaoh agreed to release the Israelites, each plague ended; “nature” returned back to normal — even before the Israelites exited. This can imply that it could have been the same the 10th time, too.
Can God “renew life?”
God caused Sarah — a “barren” woman — to conceive; at an advanced age, too. God caused Mosheh’s inanimate shepherd’s staff to become a living snake, then returned it to its “inanimate” status. Later, God also causes Aharon’s inanimate staff to blossom. In a later era, both Eliyahu and Elisha revived a child who had died or — more correctly — they become “vessels” through which God revived those children. Thus, Torah/TaNaCh clearly states God’s ability to give life where life isn’t otherwise present.
If only Pharaoh had relented!
God Himself mourned Pharaoh’s intransigence, disallowing the Israelites to rejoice at the Egyptians’ deaths, declaring: “My children are dying…”
We see similar examples in modern court rooms. If a person who has committed a crime shows sincere regret and, where possible, a real desire to provide some kind of compensation, the judge can often moderate the required sentence. If a person is truly guilty but refuses to show remorse, a judge can lean towards the harshest punishment allowed. That is also the great teaching of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur: If we have sinned, let us “repent” and our contrition will be taken into account along with our sin, moderating the consequences.
The original question was raised by taking a narrative in Torah as “valid evidence” of God’s cruelty. If so, then we can’t arbitrarily accept as valid only those parts of Torah or TaNaCh that we choose. If the text is to be used as “evidence,” then we have to validate all of it.
So, while the question of whether God is “cruel” can be worthy of discussion during Torah-learning or at a seder, I’d say that it’s an opinion or interpretation that has to be evaluated; not just stated and maintained regardless of any and all opposing evidence.
And my “oppositional” friend? She was the one bringing macaroons and chocolate-covered matzot to share with the school staff. Her outrage at any harm done to children is, I believe, an outgrowth of the value Torah teaches us to place on any and every life.
She was doing her mitzvot well.