Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

Did darkness go rogue and produce a more intense plague than God asked for?

The Midrash inquires about the unusual description of the plague of darkness in Tehillim. It implied that the darkness created a far more intense plague than God commissioned:

שָׁ֣לַֽח חֹ֭שֶׁךְ וַיַּחְשִׁ֑ךְ  “{God} sent darkness and the darkness created and even deeper darkness yet“ (Tehillim, 105:59). Midrash Tanchuma concludes that, although the darkness did act on its own, it was actually following the will of God. However the question remains – what did the darkness want to accomplish that would not have been accomplished in the regular plague of darkness that God originally ordered? A commentator to Midrash Tanchuma, Beer Ha-amarim, explains that the one of the objectives of the first 8 plagues was (as we mentioned in Vaera) to punish the Egyptians in an instructive manner (מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה) so the Egyptians would experience the exact nature of the degradation and humiliation that they inflicted on the Jews. This could lead them to repent for their actions. However, the plague of darkness had two entirely different goals. The Israelites needed the cover of darkness to identify valuables that they would “borrow” from the Egyptians before they left. Secondly,  the Israelites had to secretly bury the 80% of Israelites who died during the plague. It seems the darkness wasn’t satisfied with these goals and wanted the plague to take on the additional instructive role as the first eight plagues. In some sense you can’t blame the darkness for seeking a bigger role for the plague of darkness. Especially when the more intense form of the plague meant that Egyptians were immobilized by the darkness. What better way to remind  the Egyptians of the nature of slavery more than robbing people of their freedom of movement? 

The Midrash asks a question which can further clarify what the plague of darkness wanted to accomplish.

Were the Egyptians punished for denying God’s sovereignty or tormenting the Israelites

The Midrash brings a difference of opinion regarding the origin of the darkness in the plague of darkness. Did it originate in the heavenly sphere חֹשֶׁךְ שֶׁל מַעְלָה or from below גֵּיהִנָּם, (hell)? (Ibid, 2:1). The commentator Eitz Yoseph explains that darkness from above would imply that the primary purpose of the plague was to teach the Egyptians to realize that God runs the world. Darkness from below implies that the Egyptians were given a taste of גֵּיהִנָּם, (hell) because it reflects the degree of degradation that they inflicted upon the Jews. Either way, it seems that the darkness wanted these messages to be included in the plague as well.

Was greed the prime motive of the Egyptians? 

The Midrash says that the darkness was as thick as a dinar – a popular coin currency (Ibid, 2:3). This may imply that, at the end of the day, the Egyptians justified their brutality because they did not want to suffer the economic fallout from losing their slave labor. Ironically, God too was concerned with money. Avraham was promised that his ancestors would leave with great wealth (Bereishis, 15:14) and the plan depended on the ability of the Jews to “borrow”  silver, gold, and fine clothes from the Egyptians. Perhaps the “borrowing” of the Egyptian material wealth was the perfect punishment for the greed of the Egyptians in enslaving the Jews. But how exactly was the plan going to work? It seems difficult to understand why the Egyptians would believe that the Jews were going on a spiritual retreat for three days – and coming back. The God of the Israelites just wreaked havoc on the most powerful nation in the world. Why would their God feel compelled to come back?

The answer to this question might imply yet another reason why darkness sought a more debilitating kind of darkness. Instead of not being able to see, the more severe form of the plague meant that the Egyptians could not move (Ibid, 3:1). That means that the Jews can look for valuables while the Egyptians were completely blind and immobile. They were not even aware that Jews were surveying their homes. Midrash Rabbah makes an astounding statement about the consequence this had on God’s plan for the Jews to leave with great wealth.The reason why the Egyptians were willing to give up their valuables is precisely because the Israelites could have stolen everything with impunity. 

בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה הָיוּ הַמִּצְרִיִּים אוֹמְרִים אִם הָיוּ אֵלּוּ רוֹצִים לְשַׁקֵּר בָּנוּ הָיוּ נוֹטְלִין אוֹתָן בִּימֵי הַחשֶׁךְ וְלֹא הָיִינוּ מַרְגִּישִׁין, שֶׁהֲרֵי רָאוּ אוֹתָן כְּבָר אַחַר שֶׁלֹא נָגְעוּ חוּץ מִדַּעְתֵּנוּ כְּמוֹ כֵן לֹא יַחֲזִיקוּ, וְהָיוּ מַשְׁאִילִין לָהֶן,  {When the Isrealites asked to borrow their valuables} the Egyptians reasoned that the Israelites could have stolen all the possessions and the Egyptians would never know it, so surely they are not lying when they are now asking to borrow those possessions. So they gladly lent the Israelites whatever they requested” (Midrash Rabbah Parshat Bo – 14).

It seems that the extra debilitating nature of the plague of darkness gave credibility to the Israelite’s request for the Egyptians’ valuables and ensured that the whole plan would work. This, in turn, assured that the Egyptian army would then chase after the Jews and perish in קריעת ים סוף the parting of the seas. That is why darkness wanted to make the plague more debilitating. 

Wasn’t there a bit of deceptiveness in this plan to borrow the Egyptian valuables? 

The classic answer to this question is that the Israelites were enslaved through Egyptian deceit הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ; “Let’s outsmart {the Jews} (Shemot 1:10) by asking them to pitch in on a work project—and then enslaving them. Therefore entrapping the Egyptians with this false narrative of a three day journey is simply God’s way of paying the Egyptians back in an instructive manner (מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה). However there is an interesting variation between the Midrash Tanchuma and Midrash Rabbah that could shed more light on this topic. Our original question was whether the rogue darkness made the plague more intense. Midrash Rabbah provides another answer to the question. God actually asked the angels if they would agree to intensify the plague of darkness and they agreed (Midrash Rabbah Parshat Bo 14:1). The commentator, Eshed Nechalim, provides a very esoteric explanation about why the angels would have to even be consulted. It seems that the angels had to endure some extra darkness in heaven in order  to bring the darkness down to earth. Perhaps this is related to what we said previously – that by agreeing to this more intense plague it allowed for the Egyptians to be duped into giving up their valuables. Perhaps the angels signed off on this little bit of deceit (darkness) because they understood that sometimes you need deception to defeat deception. After all, soon after the exodus God made it look like the Israelites had lost their way which emboldened the Egyptians to attack them. The Torah describes this as a defining characteristic of God: ה’ אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה ה’ שְׁמֽו  “God is a warrior, God is his name” (Shemot, 15, 3). Perhaps this is yet another reason why the darkness made the plague more intense. It wasn’t a rogue action, rather it simply followed God’s will in running the world.

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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