Parashat Bo, 5781

Texts and beliefs By Meira Ben-Gad 20th Jan 2021

During the first lockdown in March and April last year, as Pesach 5780 approached, there was a joke going round. There were variations, but they all featured an unnamed Pharaoh shaking his head in disbelief: “You think one plague is trouble??” It’s a terrible joke. But I warrant few of us thought we’d be seeing it make the rounds again a year later.  

By this week’s reading, Pharaoh’s plagues are coming to an end. In our parashah we get plagues eight, nine, and ten: locusts, darkness, and then the big one—death of the first-born.   

Attentive readers will notice that it’s possible to group the ten plagues in various ways. For instance, they differ by how they’re set in motion (directly by God, or indirectly by Moses and/or Aaron); by whether the Egyptian magicians respond; and by whether God or Pharaoh is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Amidst all this, one notable quality differentiates the tenth plague from all the others. While all ten plagues afflict only the Egyptians, leaving the Israelites unscathed (though this is explicit in some cases and implicit in others), only in the tenth do the Israelites have to actively take steps to ensure the plague doesn’t affect them. What’s that all about? More precisely, what’s the deal with the lamb’s blood on the lintels? 

In the ancient Israelite worldview, the blood is where life resides. We’re told over and over again in the Torah that blood equals life: “Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat” (Gen. 9:4). Or “For the life of the flesh is in the blood …. You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off” (Lev. 17: 10–14). The sacrificial ritual required the priest to dash the blood of the slaughtered animal upon the altar, an act of expiation and atonement: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life” (Lev. 17: 11).  

The classical scholar Walter Burkert (1931–2015) argued that rites of purification and atonement grew up around animal sacrifices because of the guilt and fear surrounding the shedding of blood. Any act of killing serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death, and threatens a death in recompense. Burkert believe that when palaeolithic man began to hunt meat for food, the anxiety associated with killing led hunters to perceive the hunted animal almost as an equal. Sacrificial rites emerged as a way of dispelling that anxiety by ritualizing the shedding of blood. We can see the prohibition on consuming blood seen in the Torah as another reflection of this anxiety. It’s noteworthy that this prohibition appears in the Torah as soon as man starts eating meat—i.e., when God permits the consumption of meat to Noah and his descendants following the flood (this is the context of the line from Genesis 9:4 quoted above). If Burkert is right that primitive hunters dealt with their anxiety over death by elevating the status of the beasts they killed, and if this is reflected in ancient Israelite psychology, then the consumption of blood can be seen almost as equivalent to cannibalism.   

In our parashah, the Israelites are commanded to slaughter lambs, one for each household. Rather than dash the blood on an altar—an unsuitable requirement in any case, as this sacrifice is performed by heads of households and not priests—they are commanded to smear the blood on the lintels and doorposts of their homes. This is from chapter 12: 

3 Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying, On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household. …       

5 You shall have a perfect male lamb in its [first] year; you may take it either from the sheep or from the goats.     

6 And you shall keep it for inspection until the fourteenth day of this month, and the entire congregation of the community of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon.         

7 And they shall take [some] of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it.     

8 And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.  

The text here becomes messy, with the instructions for future observances of the festival interwoven with the instructions given by God to the Israelites on the night of Passover itself, the night when God will strike the first-born of Egypt and Pharaoh will, finally, let the people go. Either way, though, the blood is to be smeared on the lintels and doorposts of the people’s homes. Doorways are liminal, in-between spaces, the space between one state of being and another. Thus they are appropriate repositories for blood on a night of slaughter. 

The explanation given for why the blood must be smeared on the lintels is given in our text: “And the blood will be for you for a sign upon your houses, and I will see the blood and pass over you, and there will be no plague to destroy [you] when I smite the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12: 13). But the idea that God needs an external sign to know which houses belong to Israelites is laughable. The scholar Richard Elliot Friedman points out that the meaning of the verb “pasach” in Hebrew, normally translated as “pass over”, probably means something more like “walk in a halting manner” (pise’ach means lame or crippled). Friedman translates Exodus 12: 13 this way: “And the blood will be as a sign for you on the houses in which you are, and I shall see the blood, and I shall halt at you, and there won’t be a plague among you as a destroyer when I strike in the land of Egypt.” The idea of God “halting” at the doorways of the Israelite houses makes more sense, psychologically, than the idea of God “passing over” the houses. God, bringer of Death, comes right up to the threshold, the liminal space, and there is halted by the magical presence of death-in-life, or life-in-death. 

In this reading, the tenth plague becomes deeper and more mysterious than appears when we read it only as the last and worst in a series of afflictions. Perhaps it will have deeper meaning for us, in this Covid year, than usual.   

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