Moses was a national liberation leader, determined to free his people from slavery, oppression and the pervasive threat of genocide. The uprising was fierce, relying on a state-of-the art arsenal of unconventional weapons: if anything like Moses’ magic soot, a handful of which can cause an entire nation to erupt in boils, exists today, it is surely found alongside Anthrax on a list of chemical or biological proscribed by international treaties.
Reading the story of the Exodus, it is easy to conclude that the “strong hand and outstretched-arm” of God were, well, a little heavy-handed. After all, God knew that the first nine plagues would fail to persuade Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel go: he warned Moses at the burning bush that he would have to deploy the Death of the Firstborn to force Pharaoh’s hand. So why didn’t Moses just cut to the chase and use this secret weapon as his spectacular opening move? Surely it would have been more humane for Moses to have gone in all guns ablazing from the get-go, sparing the Egyptians nine rounds of needless suffering?
The answer is that the Ten Plagues, far from constituting an episode of wanton violence, were an exercise in prudence, restraint and morality in the waging of a just war. And this was indeed a just war. Pharaoh was a genocidal dictator, who had tried to use infanticide and labour camps as a means of eliminating the Israelites. Moses had already asked nicely for his people to be let free, and had been rebuffed; the only question was how the awesome arsenal of divine miracles could be used to make Pharaoh let the Children of Israel go.
Under the circumstances, Moses did an exemplary job of abiding by a code of ethics of war, introducing to human civilisation the concept that war must be governed by law, morals and norms – even when the other side is committed to playing dirty. Millennia before the codification of the international law of war, Moses set the trend of developing a customary code of morality in war. Call it the Goshen Convention on the Use of Divine Miracles, if you will:
High Contracting Parties shall refrain from using lethal force in the pursuit of their legitimate objectives, until all other possibilities have been exhausted, including but not limited to:
I. Diplomacy. When Moses first asks Pharaoh to let his people go (Exodus 5:1), he refrains from threatening violence. In fact, he does not even make a demand: he lodges a request in strictly diplomatic language, reporting that God would like the Israelites to be able to worship Him in the desert.
Pharaoh then refuses Moses and Aaron diplomatic recognition, denying the legitimacy or existence of God as the sovereign of the Children of Israel. As far as Pharaoh is concerned, Moses and Aaron speak for no one, so have no right to speak. Rejecting diplomacy, Pharaoh retaliates by increasing the Israelites’ workload. The Israelites blame Moses for this diplomatic disaster, but Moses forgoes the temptation (and resists the popular pressure) to use overwhelming firepower: instead, he practises restraint.
II. Non-violent deterrence. Moses escalates the situation by turning his staff into a snake (7:10). By sending a signal that the Israelites have some force at their disposal, Moses hopes that Pharaoh will get the hint that the Israelites mean business, and he will let them go. Moses refrains from threatening Pharaoh directly: the threat is implied, because explicitly challenging Pharaoh would make it impossible for Pharaoh to back down and save face, and Moses understands the importance of allowing the enemy to retain dignity in defeat.
Pharaoh retaliates with a tit-for-tat measure, having his magicians turn their magic rods into snakes too; Moses’ snakes swallow them: the equivalent of Moses firing warning shots in the air. Pharaoh fails to budge, so only now does Moses begin to contemplate escalating the situation beyond symbolic demonstrations of his resolve to fight.
III. Justifying the necessity of hostile acts. Before the first plague, Moses is commanded to tell Pharaoh that only because he “has not heeded up to now” (7:16) is the Nile turned to blood: Moses justifies his escalation as a proportional and unavoidable measure. In demanding, “Let my people go!” Moses justifies the first plague as an act of self-defence. Moses invokes God as the authority by which he is opening hostilities, grounding his action’s lawfulness and justifiability. Moreover, in invoking Pharaoh’s denial of the Israelites’ religious freedom, Moses articulates that the first plague is a reprisal against continued violation of the Israelites’ basic human rights, and not an act of aggression.
Pharaoh responds by having his magicians turn water red too, and indeed he replicates the second and third plagues too: instead of acknowledging Moses’ reprisal against slavery as an act of self-defence, he treats it as an act of aggression and refuses to engage.
IV. Warning the enemy in advance of the use of force, and giving it a chance to prevent the violent escalation by making concessions. Moses warns Pharaoh in advance of the second, fourth, fifth and seventh plagues, giving him every opportunity to avoid them: they are only deployed when Pharaoh rejects the Israelites’ ultimatum. Moses does not mince his words: he warns explicitly that the plague of hail will be “such as there has never been in Egypt”. Moses hopes that Pharaoh will realise that the Israelites’ threats are credible, and will learn through an iterative game that it is rational to concede when threatened with punishment, instead of conceding only once punished.
Pharaoh fails to respond. He tells the Israelites that they can go and then changes his mind. He remains convinced that he can weather the storm and that it is worthwhile continuing to enslave the Israelites. By giving Pharaoh every means of avoiding the humanitarian crisis that is inflicted on Egypt, Moses ensures that Pharaoh will bear moral responsibility for the impending tragedy, for it has been rendered necessary by his intransigence alone.
V. Economic sabotage. Moses causes the death of all Egyptian livestock and the devastation of Egyptian agriculture through a plague of locusts. Egyptian infrastructure is destroyed by a plague of flaming balls of hail, but Moses takes all reasonable precautions to avoid any unnecessary human cost: he warns Egyptians to “gather in your livestock and everything to have in the field” because anything or anyone left outside “shall die” (9:17). Moses understands that the Egyptian leadership does not care for its people, so he appeals to the people directly to save themselves, because he wishes them no harm.
So far, every plague has been proportional to the military objective. At no point does Moses use more force than required to secure the liberation of the Children of Israel. Pharaoh still refuses to concede.
The Death of the Firstborn is the first use of lethal force by Moses against humans. Moses unleashes the tenth plague only after Pharaoh breaks off negotiations, ending all possibility of a peaceful resolution when he makes a credible death threat: “Do not see my face any more, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” This terrible event is soberly remembered on Seder night, when Jews cover their eyes as they spill drops of wine into a bowl to mourn the loss of innocent life.
Moses exhausts all other non-violent means of securing his people’s freedom. The only alternatives at this stage would be to surrender, return the Israelites to slavery and, well, pray for a miracle.
So what was the point of Moses’ restraint in the first place? Nobody was left better off, it seems, by the gradual ratcheting up of pressure: disturbingly, it appears the use of overwhelming firepower at the opening of hostilities would have caused less suffering, because Pharaoh could have been brought to his knees in one fell swoop.
For Moses to have launched the tenth plague after Pharaoh’s first refusal, however, would have been a crime against humanity.
Moses understood that to treat his enemy with dignity, as being made “in God’s image”, he had to treat it as fully responsible for its own deeds: to use force only when strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve his legitimate ends, and to give the enemy every chance to make peace, such that the necessity of the resort to force was a product of the enemy’s choices alone.
Moses had good reason to think that Pharaoh would not back down, but by exercising restraint, he created a situation in which the suffering of the Egyptian people was a product of its leader’s stubbornness, not the Israelites’ cruelty. Moreover, by appealing to the people to take precautions against earlier plagues, Moses took every reasonable step to shield civilians from their leadership’s callousness and indifference to their plight: he remained his brother’s keeper, even in war.
Ethical conduct in warfare requires that one’s enemy be given every opportunity to prevent its own suffering. By attempting diplomacy and then symbolic demonstrations of force, before slowly escalating hostilities, preceding each attack with warnings and ultimata that allow for the other side to back down and still save face, one makes every effort to avoid the spilling of blood, while making it obvious whose hands would ultimately be covered in that blood.
Consider a very modern analogue: if the United States possessed nuclear weapons in 1941, and President Roosevelt were convinced that Japan would not surrender unless two cities were flattened, would it have been justified in responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor with the flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
For Moses, the Death of the Firstborn was the nuclear option: and it would have been totally unacceptable to use a last resort as a first resort, as this would have deprived the Egyptians of an opportunity to determine their own fate, whilst giving them grounds to argue that Israelite violence was unnecessary and disproportionate.
Moses does not just win an operational victory: he wins a moral one too.
And that’s no easy task.