Ki Ani Hashem: A Literary Analysis of the Makkot

English: Water Is Changed into Blood, watercolor by James Tissot
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Joshua Z. Shapiro

I. Introduction
One of the central tenets of the Jewish faith is that God took the Jewish people out of the land of Egypt. Whether through reciting the passages of shema, observing the Sabbath, or saying the benedictions at the end of a meal, Jews constantly remind themselves of this significant event in its history. Most prominently, the Passover Seder each year provides parents with the opportunity to transmit the miraculous story of the exodus to their children through colorful songs and stories: Rivers of water morph into pools of blood, frogs swarm Pharaoh’s palace, and God splits seas. However, while the Jewish tradition undoubtedly emphasizes the importance of these miracles, very seldom do people carefully examine the biblical verses in a way that transcends the nursery rhymes and folk tales of their youth.

This is particularly true regarding the “ten plagues” that God brought against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Although the average learned Jew could probably recount all ten plagues by heart, he may not internalize any significant messages from the biblical narrative. Deeper topics like the purpose of the plagues and their specific details are notably absent from the Passover Seder each year. In fact, many would intuit that the role of the plagues is to compel Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go, but a careful observation of pentateuchal verses, midrashic literature, and biblical commentators reveals that the wonders actually inculcate the Egyptians with awareness of the God of the Jewish people and perhaps even serve as punishments for Pharaoh’s obstinance to reach this understanding.

II. The Challenge of Finding a Unifying Theory of the Plagues
While it is actually quite difficult to construct a coherent theory about the purpose of the makkot, there are certain interpretations that should be rejected at the outset. More specifically, the notions that the plagues were solely brought to either subjugate[1] Pharaoh or impel him to let the Jewish people go free are both unfounded and illogical. As Benno Jacob, presented by Nechama Leibowitz in her Gilyonot Nechama, expresses:

There is no room to speak about “a war between God and Pharaoh” – that would not be a suitable picture of what is being told in these chapters. God had not wanted to subdue Pharaoh, or He would have done it with a single plague. The plagues are not an embodiment of God’s power…The purpose of the plagues was something else, and that is that which is stated by Moses to Pharaoh each time.[2]       

According to Benno Jacob, the plagues were not brought so that the Jewish people would be sent out of Egypt, nor were they designed to display God’s might over Pharaoh. From a logical standpoint, if these were the goals, God certainly could have brought one powerful plague. Moreover, he writes, such a theory is not supported by the biblical verses in Exodus.[3

So, what is the purpose of the ten plagues? Aside from particular symbolism, is there a unified theme behind the variety of wonders: blood, frogs, lice, swarm of animals, pestilence, boils, fiery hail, locusts, darkness, and plague of the firstborn? To answer this question, as Benno Jacob says, one must examine the verses and see what “is stated by Moses to Pharaoh each time.”

The most difficult aspect of Benno Jacob’s challenge is the fact that Moses does not speak to Pharaoh before all the makkot. Some of the plagues – blood, frogs, swarm of animals, pestilence, fiery hail, locusts, and plague of the firstborn – are preceded by warnings given to Pharaoh while others – lice, boils, and darkness – are not.

The makkot differ in many other ways. Although many of the plagues seem quite harmful towards human life and supplies – swarms of animals, pestilence, fiery hail, locusts, and plague of the firstborn – some of them – blood, frogs, lice, boils, and darkness – are not as threatening. Moreover, some of the plagues explicitly discriminate between Egyptians and Jews while others do not. Finally, the Torah does not consistently use one term when referring to the plagues.

Some address the first two inconsistencies – warnings and severity – with the same answer. Ramban, for instance, states that not all the plagues were violent and that out of God’s mercy, only the ones that cause “death to man” were prefaced with a warning to allow the Egyptians to repent.[4] Such an interpretation supports Benno Jacob’s thesis that the makkot are not there to impel Pharaoh to let the people go, for wouldn’t the most efficient way to compel an expulsion of the Jews be through instituting the most harmful plague possible?

However, Ramban’s position is lacking in a few areas. First, the distinction he makes between which plagues were life-threatening is not the strongest. After all, given that the verse explicitly states that the Egyptians could access water so long as they dug for it,[5] what is so life-threatening about the blood makkah?Finally, according to Ramban, it is unclear whether there is a unified pattern found in the biblical verses, or whether each plague operates without any relation to the others?

Rashbam, however, does recognize a pattern in the verses. He notes that two makkot with warnings precede one makkah without a warning. For instance, blood and frogs have a warning while lice does not. This model closely resembles the position found in the Haggadah from R. Yehudah, who categorizes the plagues into three groups titled detzakh, adash, be-ahab – blood/frogs/lice; swarm of animals/pestilence/boils; hail/locust/darkness/firstborn. However, while Rashbam and R. Yehudah view the makkot as some sort of pattern or collective unit, they do not explain what the significance of this unit is. In other words, why do some plagues have warnings and others do not?

III. Ki Ani Hashem
Upon a careful reading of the biblical verses, one will find that the significance of a conversation between Moses and Pharaoh before certain plagues transcends a simple warning for physical harm. In fact, in all of Moses’ warnings to Pharaoh, he explicitly states that the purpose of the makkot is to inculcate an awareness of the God of the Jewish people.

The makkot embodying such a purpose parallels earlier verses in the Book of Exodus. When Moses first asks Pharaoh to let the Jews leave Egypt to serve their God in the desert, Pharaoh says as follows:

“Who is the Lord[6] that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).[7]

Pharaoh clearly states that he does not know the God of the Jewish people. With this in mind, one can understand the subsequent aspects of the plagues.

The makkot contain several elements that allow Pharaoh to become aware of the Hebrew God. First and foremost, the smiting of Egypt with numerous plagues is in and of itself an attempt to educate Pharaoh about the Hebrew God. This is seen from God’s introduction to the makkot:[8]

And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst (Exodus 7:5).

In the metaphor, the plagues are symbolized by God stretching out his hand, which will lead to the Egyptians learning about God. At first glance, as Rabbeinu Bahya points out, the idea of providing a warning before one commits an evil action to someone is counterintuitive.[9] Without a warning, though, as R. Tamir Granot points out, the plagues are not necessarily connected to God. After all, “if a warning was not given, how would Pharaoh and the Egyptians know that this plague was brought by the God of Israel. They would have understood the plagues as bad luck or a natural disaster.”[10

Rabbeinu Bahya also takes this position. Answering his question about the perplexing nature of providing a warning before committing an evil action to someone, he writes that God actually wants to warn people to allow them to repent.

The midrash in Exodus Rabbah (9:9) elaborates even further:

It is customary in the world that when flesh and blood seeks to do bad to his enemy, he does so immediately so that [the other] not become aware. But the Holy One, blessed be He, warns Pharaoh about each and every plague, so that he would repent. This is that which is written (7:17), “In this you will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:27).

Similar to Rabbeinu Bahya, the midrash writes that God warned before the plagues to allow Pharaoh to repent. However, according to Ramban and Rabbeinu Bahya, it is unclear as to what the objective of this repentance is supposed to be. Is Pharaoh simply to let the people go, or is there something else that is expected of him? In contrast, the midrash quotes the verse of “In this you will know that I am the Lord,” explicitly linking the warning before the plagues to a recognition of the Hebrew God.

Even more significant than the foreknowledge of the plague itself is the discrimination that often occurred between Jews and Egyptians. While a plague could be attributed to some sort of environmental phenomenon, nature cannot explain why only the Egyptians were affected by the darkness or why the swarm of animals did not attack the Jews.

The plagues also informed Pharaoh about the God of the Jews through the preciseness of timing in each plague. While bad luck may come about at any instance, the plague of the firstborn struck exactly at midnight. Similarly, after Pharaoh pleaded to Moses for the frog plague to cease the next day, Moses declared that “As you say—that you may know that there is none like our Lord” (Exodus 8:6).

Another way Pharaoh learns about God is through the hardening of his heart. While many read the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as God limiting his free will and preventing him from freeing the Jews, Seforno articulates a novel approach. With apprehension for the incoming plagues, Pharaoh actually wanted to free the Jewish people from bondage. However, such a decision would be out of physical fear and not out of true repentance. Therefore, through hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God uses his plagues to inculcate Pharaoh with an awareness of his presence.

In many ways, Seforno’s approach is perhaps the greatest proof for Benno Jacob’s theory. The Jews could have been sent out with one plague, and if not for Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, this would have been the case. However, the story of the exodus, for both Jews and non-Jews alike, is more than simply escaping the chains of Egypt; it also serves as an educational process where people become more conscious of God’s role in the world.[11]

IV. Makkah or Mofet?
Although as a unit the plagues are brought to instill the Egyptians with an understanding of the Lord, this may not be true for all of the makkot. The greatest support for such a theory is the construction of the biblical verses for the plagues. While in seven of the plagues, one can find warnings to Pharaoh, descriptions of the plague that attribute it to God, and mentions of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, in three of the plagues – lice, boils, and darkness – the structure is noticeably different. The verses pertaining to these plagues do not mention any preface given to Pharaoh or the goal of learning about the Hebrew God.

In fact, upon careful examination, the notion of there being ten plagues is also questionable. At the beginning of Chapter 7, God tells Moses about his plan to use the makkot as an educational tool for the Egyptians to learn about him. Following this preface, God instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and turn his staff into a snake. Moses does this without any warning to Pharaoh and does not mention God’s name either. While this episode is often excluded from the “ten plagues,” from a literary perspective, there seems to be little difference between this wonder and the other three which lack warnings.

Based on the distinct structure found in the verses connected to the wonders without warnings, which is even shared by the snake episode, Shadal goes as far to say that there are actually twelve plagues, also including the eventual splitting of the Red Sea.[12] In contrast to R. Yehudah’s identification of three groups of plagues, Shadal quotes Naphtali Hirz Weisel, who states that there are four groups. Moreover, while Rashbam views the plagues without warnings as the ultimate plagues in their respective groups, Shadal views these as introductory plagues. Because of the unique structure of the plagues without warnings, he identifies them as separate in purpose from the other plagues. For Shadal, the plagues without warnings are called “moftim,”[13] instead of makkot, as he claims that their whole purpose was not to afflict but serve as warnings for the incoming, more severe plagues. In other words, the plagues that do not have warnings actually are warnings themselves. Such a model is parallel to the stance of Ramban that the plagues with warnings are the ones that pose a risk to human life – because those plagues are deadly, they require a whole warning plague first. More broadly, though, Shadal presents a model that differentiates between the different plagues – some which serve as warnings and others that are presumably educational opportunities.

Another figure who differentiates between two types of makkot is Malbim. Commenting on the recount of the makkot found in Psalms Chapter 78, where the verses list only seven out of ten makkot, Malbim notes that the ones listed are only those that had warnings.[14] For Malbim, such a division is obvious, as, like Shadal, he understands the makkot with warnings to be “signs,” or otot, while the ones without a warning are “wonders,” or moftim. However, while Shadal views the plagues without warnings as introductory warnings for the subsequent makkot, Malbim understands them to be punishments that follow the other makkot. Excluding the snake episode, Malbim understands blood and frogs as potential educational opportunities that were rejected by Pharaoh, leading to a punishment of lice. Although in general the makkot are supposed to provide the Egyptians with knowledge of the Hebrew God, they are also surrounded by wonders that punish those who fail to internalize the messages of the makkot.

Regarding the snake episode, Malbim interestingly writes that the snake has dual purposes. When the wonder of the snake was presented to the Jews earlier in the Book of Exodus, the act was internalized by the observers as a proof of the Lord. The Egyptians, however, viewed the act as a mere symbol, and did not internalize any understanding of the Hebrew God.[15] Surprisingly, Malbim asserts that this symbol, despite its literary similarities, is not part of the makkot.

Malbim also views the plague of the firstborn in a different light from other commentators. While most view this makkah as part of the general unit of ten plagues, Malbim views it as separate, since its purpose is not to punish or prove God but to free the Jews from Egypt.[16]

Interestingly, Malbim disagrees with the view of Benno Jacob. According to Malbim, some of the plagues can be viewed as punishments or as part of the effort to remove the Jews from Egypt, not just educational lessons. In general, though, Benno Jacob’s implicit assertion that the plagues serve a more elevated purpose – inculcating the Egyptian people with an understanding of the Hebrew God – remains accurate.

In light of Malbim’s interpretation of the final plague, it is difficult to understand his exclusion of the snake from the makkot. After acknowledging the variety of functions of the plagues – education, punishment, and an impetus for sending the Jews out – why couldn’t the snake episode also be included? Perhaps Malbim is somewhat dogmatic in his understanding of there being only ten plagues, since this is what the Sages identified. However, the average reader is left with a few questions, namely how many plagues there are, the meaning of the snake episode, and how it contributes to a broader understanding of the makkot. To truly internalize the messages of the plagues, these questions must be honestly examined.

V. Conclusion
There are still many questions about the makkot that should be examined in great depth. Is there individual symbolism for each plague, or are the specific makkot arbitrary? Do the subunits of the plagues emphasize different educational messages about the nature of God? Finally, as the plagues proceed, do they increase in severity and miraculousness? Such analysis is beyond the scope of this piece but is crucial for a profound understanding of the plagues.

As a unit with subcategories, the plagues provide Pharaoh and his people with a greater understanding for the Hebrew God. Seen through this prism, the plagues are no longer a method to simply subjugate Pharaoh or coerce him to let the people go; they serve as a profound educational experience. While at the beginning of the story, the Egyptians were unfamiliar with the Lord, through the marvelous and powerful plagues, they slowly attained a consciousness for the Master of all masters.

[1] By “subjugate,” I do not mean a recognition that one is serving God per se; rather, I mean a general surrender and a desire to do what is demanded of oneself.

[2] Benno Jacob Commentary on Exodus, Introduction to the Plagues. Cited in Nechama Leibowitz’s Gilyonot Nechama.

[3]An interpretation that Benno Jacob would object to is that of Ralbag (8:11). Ralbag not only writes that the entire purpose of the makkot is for Pharaoh to send the Jews out of Egypt but even claims that the plagues without recorded warnings still had warnings.

[4] Ramban on Exodus 8:15.

[5] Exodus 7:24

[6] Lord is a substitute for the Hebrew tetragrammaton.

[7] All translations of Tanakh are from

[8] For other instances of the plagues where Pharaoh learns about God, see 7:17; 8:5-6, 18-19, 25, 27; 9:4-5, 14, 16, 20-21, 24, 26-29; 10:2, 16-19; 11:4-8.

[9] Rabbeinu Bahya on Exodus, 8:17.


Rav Soloveitchik argues a similar position in The Emergence of Ethical Man, pages 187-188, where he states that it is not the dynamics of the plagues themselves that reveal the divine involvement but the historical context of them, for the plagues could have been explained as natural phenomenona.

[11] For an interpretation of Parshat Beshalah that views the elongated journey of the Jews in the desert as an educational effort, see Nachum Krasnopolsky, “Of Split Wood and Waters,” The Lehrhaus (February 2, 2023).

[12] Shadal on Exodus 7:17.

[13] The word mofet was actually used when describing the snake.

[14] Malbim on Tehillim 78:43.

[15] Malbim on Exodus 7:9.

[16] Malbim on Exodus 7:14.

Joshua Z. Shapiro is currently pursuing a B.A. in Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University where he is a Straus Scholar. He previously studied for two years at Yeshivat Orayta and can be reached at