I remember, with near perfect clarity. It is one of those sweet spring evenings that, in childhood, seem to last forever. My family has come to celebrate Passover at the home of my great-aunt and uncle, in Brooklyn. Everything about it thrills me. The warmth of the brightly-lit dining room, the long table set with the best dishes and a Seder plate, the exuberance and raucousness of the relatives, so much livelier and louder than my own well-behaved, scrupulously middle-class parents.
But what I love most—what is, for me, the highlight of the evening, more exciting than giddy conspiracies with my brother and cousins about how we will hide the ceremonial matzoh and ransom it back for money—are the plagues. Their recitation is by far my favorite part of the Passover Seder. As each plague is named aloud, we dip our fingers into our cups and transfer one drop of the delicious, sugary wine to our plates.
The killing of the firstborn.
It is the only time in my life when playing with my food is not only sanctioned but encouraged, and not just food but wine, which I and my cousins drink until we are fairly hammered. After the dipping is finished, I have to fight the impulse to lick my finger, resisting the temptation out of some cuckoo primitive fear that if I do so, I might catch one of the plagues that we have just so lovingly listed.
And what a glorious list it was! How mysterious and stirring! Some of the plagues—frogs, locusts, boils—were irresistibly easy to visualize. I was frightened of insects, and so instantly comprehended the horror of an infestation of vermin. Others presented more of a challenge. What was with the blood, exactly? Was it just in the rivers and the water supply? Or did it creep over the banks and run red in the streets of Cairo? “Murrain” made no sense at all. What could a livestock disease have meant to a city kid with basically no idea about the operation of the food chain?
Such mysteries were at once illuminated and further deepened by the woodcut illustrations in the Passover Haggadah. Each the size of a postage stamp, all ten were crowded onto one page. It was impossible to make out was going on in the crowded images, though by looking really hard I could discern a few tantalizing clues. Frogs falling from the sky. Bony, moribund cows. Tiny figures covered with hideous splotches that could only have been boils. The indistinctness, the fact that the images seem to be communicating in an indecipherable code—along with the foreign, exotic, and ancient quality of the woodcuts themselves—only added to their creepy mystique. I could have stared at them forever. It was like watching certain horror films: forbidden and disturbing, therefore sexy and alluring.
Like sex, and like a horror film, the plagues built towards a climax, an orgasm of mayhem and blood. The slaying of the first born. In the final woodcut, a figure—was it an avenging angel?—held a scythe (or was it a sword?) poised and ready to do the maximum damage to the hapless, sleeping, Egyptian households. The last-ditch special effect, the pulling out all the stops. The technique that worked, when nothing else had.
Never once, during all those years, during all those Seders, did I think—or was it pointed out to me—that those plagues had human victims, that the sufferers from boils and blood, the ones whose houses filled with frogs and locusts were human beings like myself. Around the Seder table, my parents and my relatives—deeply kind and compassionate people who would have been appalled to hear that a child was in pain or danger—never seemed to notice that the Egyptian firstborn had once been living human children. And it simply never crossed my mind that the firstborn whom the angel slaughtered could (except for a few particulars of place and time) just as easily have been me.
There are many reasons, I suppose, to enjoy and admire and be inspired by Exodus. Its themes could hardly be more stirring—or more beautiful, really. Oppression and liberation, courage, self-determination. Nothing less than the human spirit yearning to break free, then breaking free, screwing up, suffering, wandering, and painfully, slowly starting to learn how to live as a new, hopeful nation. It’s the Founding Fathers, the Emancipation Proclamation, with highly cinematic hoodoo: The way that Moses and his brother Aaron make people listen to them is by magically changing their walking sticks into snakes. Exodus is also, as many—including, most notably, Cecil B. DeMille—have realized, action-packed. There’s little in the Bible to equal, chapter for chapter, its rollercoaster of incident, suspense, magic, hesitations, missteps, punishments and sufferings, renewals and redemptions.
And brutality. From the start, Exodus involves a series of bloodbaths—outbreaks of state-sponsored and divinely-ordained carnage directed principally at children. It is a story of liberation in which whole populations are oppressed, enslaved, tormented, nearly wiped out. The victims, with the exception of the soldiers drowned in the Red Sea, are almost entirely civilians.
But what a fabulous spectacle! The burning bush! The parting of the Red Sea! Who would want to spoil the excitement and fun by sitting there and thinking that those Egyptian soldiers, flailing around in the churning waters, may have left behind in Cairo wives and children who would mourn them—minus, of course, the firstborn who the soldiers themselves must have been mourning even as Pharaoh ordered them after the Hebrews, into the desert and into the sea.
Even children understand that Exodus is only a movie, that those are actors, not real people, movie deaths, not real ones. And as children, we learn from the movies that the deaths of our enemies are good deaths, to be celebrated and cheered.
Exodus begins by striking an ominous note of political anxiety that will echo until its last chapters: The Jews are prospering and multiplying, and their presence is a liability that makes the new Pharaoh nervous. He enslaves them, makes them carry impossible weights on their shoulders and break their backs sowing the fields, but still they continue to multiply and grow.
There is always trouble when one population begins to worry about the birth rate of another.
And so the book’s first slaughter of children gets under way. Pharaoh directs the midwives to kill every Jewish male baby. But the women resist. Not only do they spare the babies, but when Pharaoh demands an explanation, they play with his head a little, claiming that the Hebrew women are so fertile that the midwives always arrive too late to assist at the births and murder the babies. So Baby Moses survives, is found in the bulrushes, and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter—who hands him back to his mother to nurse and raise him.
The rest—the burning bush, the staff into the serpent—is pure fairy tale, the sorts of signs and wonders that would separate a Greek hero from the crowd, or reveal a new Dalai Lama, or inspire a prophet. The twist, of course, is God, not just another character, but an absolute. The voice that speaks to Moses from the burning bush is powerful and succinct. It’s the voice of God introducing himself: I am that I am.
Moses speaks, Pharaoh listens. God hardens the Egyptian ruler’s heart. And now comes the long painful back-and-forth of let-my-people-go, a battle that God warns Moses He himself will make Moses lose. And it happens just as God says. Pharaoh orders the Jews to slave harder.
Warnings and threats. Promises and failures to keep them. Warnings, promises, threats, and lies. In other words, end-stage diplomacy.
And before you know it, blood.
The pools and rivers turn red. The fish die. There is nothing to drink. Recall your horror at drawing a bath and finding the water is dark. And that is only rust. Imagine if it were blood. Then it gets worse. Frogs in the beds and ovens, swarms of flies, locusts stripping the trees and blackening the earth, unprecedented and murderous hail. Darkness.
And all this is merely prelude to the grand finale, to the plague that succeeds where the others have not, the one that does the trick, that will cause Pharaoh, after all his stubbornness, not merely to let the Hebrews go but to expel them from Egypt. And that, of course, is the killing of the firstborn.
Unlike the massacre of the Hebrew baby boys, which Pharaoh arranges rather casually, almost capriciously, the massacre orchestrated by God is carefully prepared. “And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.”
It is genocide without apology. And at the end of this dire prophecy come the most important sentence of all, the real beginning of what the rest of Exodus will so ferociously and zealously continue: the demarcation of difference, the establishment of a separation between Israel and the other peoples and tribes, the forging of an identity, the birth of a nation and all the exclusiveness that it will require: “But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast; that ye may know how the Lord doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.”
The killing of the firstborn is preceded by the first of the numerous series of almost obsessive, almost compulsively meticulous instructions that appear throughout Exodus—detailed protocols that, again, will form the identity, the tradition, and history that will forever distinguish the Hebrews from their neighbors. The time and the manner of the animal sacrifice is ordained. It must be not just any beast but a lamb “without blemish,” a year-old male. Present and future feasts—the celebration we now know as Passover—will be observed by eating unleavened bread, though, it should be noted, uncircumcised foreigners should not be permitted to partake of the ritual meal. And the blood of the lambs is to be used to mark the doors of the homes that the angel of death will spare in the otherwise merciless search for the children who die in order that God’s chosen people can win their freedom.
And it came to pass exactly as the Lord predicted, or warned: “At midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon: and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.”
For there was not a house where there was not one dead.
Search “Ten Plagues” on the internet. One of the first sites that comes up contains a series of suggestions for “fun activities” connected with the plagues. For example, the plague of blood might be represented by putting red food coloring in the water glasses, the bathroom sinks, even the dog’s water bowl. Cut out frogs from green construction paper (“bend the legs to make the frogs look as if they were jumping”), and put them everywhere—in the drawers, the cereal boxes, the shower. White dots punched from paper and scotch-taped to the skin will eventually approximate the itching and irritation of lice. Do the same with red dots, and you’ve got your boils. Putting ice cubes around the house will remind you of hail. Cover the windows and turn out the lights and presto! The plague of darkness.
I’m hardly breathing as I scroll down to find out how we will reenact the killing of the first born. The answer, it seems, is obvious. Red ribbon tacked to the front door will warn the avenging angel to move past with stopping. “When the neighbors”—who doubtless will be curious by now—”ask what the ribbon is for, you can witness to them!”
One assumes that those most likely to engage in this fun activity are religious folk, people of faith. Yet nowhere is it suggested that they pray for the souls of the murdered Egyptian children. That would seem excessive, I suppose, and besides, it’s not what religion does. In theory, perhaps, we’re advised to love our enemies, but in practice faith has provided a host of reasons to hate those who don’t believe in the same God we do.
To read Exodus is to watch the dawning of those rancors and divisions. God promises the Hebrews liberation and protection, but ultimately it’s a set-up. The actual consequences could hardly involve more strife, more danger and risk: thousands of years of warfare, of attack and defense, of suffering and bloodshed brought about by the way that belief so readily translates into the desire for the wealth and territory of those who practice another religion, into prayers that God will kill their children.
This was what I celebrated as I dipped my finger into my cup and watched the little puddle of wine in my saucer grow. How ironic that I, a child, should have rejoiced in this evidence that the lives and deaths of children meant nothing, that they were merely tools and pawns to be used or eliminated because of political exigencies. First the Hebrew children, then the Egyptian children. And thousands of years later, an American child dipped her finger in her wine and learned—without being told—that the suffering of the innocent, the murder of children, was not merely pardonable but a holy thing when the freedom of our group was at stake.
It all puts a peculiar slant on the Ten Commandments, which Moses receives a little later in the book. Is it just coincidence, just literary parallelism, that the number of commandments is the same as the number of the plagues? Somehow, I think not. The rules of conduct, the rules of life, are meant to remind us of the tidy progression that brought death to the Egyptians. First we learn about the punishment, about God’s ability to wreak havoc and mayhem on the transgressor; then we learn the ways by which that punishment can be avoided. And what exactly does “Thou Shalt Not Kill” mean in the context of all those slain children, those drowned Egyptian soldiers? The image of Charlton Heston coming down from the mountain proudly bearing the holy commandments has become, for me, impossible to distinguish from that of the NRA spokesman brandishing a rifle in the air above his head and warning us that we will have to pry it from his cold, dead fingers.
What bothers me most about Exodus is what should make me admire it most—that is, it tells us a truth about how people behave, something I would rather not hear or know. Humans clump together in arbitrary, tightly-knit groups that want to kill other groups and occupy their territory. Other people’s children are merely bodies. Hebrew, Egyptian, Palestinian, Afghan, Tutsi, Kurd. It hardly matters who they are, as long as they are not our own.
This is as true now as it was when Moses was in Egypt. Though I am willing to admit it, I don’t have to celebrate it, I don’t have to dip my finger in my wine glass and extract sweet drops for the time when my group, my nation, triumphed at a terrible cost, when it was our turn to show another group who was boss. Nor do I have to thank God for making this point by killing the Egyptian children, just as God first presumably inspires the Egyptians to attempt to do to the Jews.
I no longer go to Passover Seders. I plead a prior engagement. Nor is my desire to attend rekindled when I hear, from time to time, about well-intentioned attempts to execute end-runs around the problem of celebrating the killing of the firstborn. Years ago, someone told me about attending a Seder in which the names of Nazi concentration camps were substituted for the list of plagues. Dachau. Drop. Buchenwald. Drop. Auschwitz. A drop of wine for each camp. And somehow that seemed worse than the original, a betrayal of the text and of the true meaning of the Exodus, of even the hope of liberation.
I miss the warmth, the food, the ceremony, the comfort and fellowship of family. But I just can’t do it. I can’t sit at the table and dip my finger in the wine and celebrate—deify, in fact—this early, terrible instance of genocide without apology.