Biblical style often feels oriented toward performance, with its language attuned to reading aloud. A fine example occurs in this week’s reading, focusing on the Second Plague, that of frogs. The Pharaoh has turned down Moshe’s initial request to let the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness, yet he and his kingdom have somehow survived the subsequent turning of the Nile into blood. Now he is confronted a second time, and warned (Ex. 7:26-29) that another refusal will result in the country being overrun by frogs. In the New Jewish Publication Society translation, this is all clear enough:
“The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your
palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and
your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall
come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.”
English has no need of repeated prepositions after “enter,” and so JPS smoothly lists the places where the frogs will appear. The Hebrew, however, demonstrates a more compelling rhythm. As so often happens in the Bible, repetition plays a key role. Here it is not so much the multiple use of a verb or verbal root, as elsewhere, as it is the constant repetition of a preposition, the Hebrew b-, which can mean “into,” “in,” and the like. I have translated it to reflect the sound repetition, and have tweaked the layout to accentuate the feeling of swarming reflected in the text’s language as read aloud:
The Nile will swarm with frogs;
they will ascend, they will come
into your house,
into your bedroom,
upon your couch, [no b- here]
into your servants’ houses,
in among your people,
into your ovens,
into your dough-pans—
onto your people,
onto all your servants will the frogs ascend!
A similar rhythm occurs when Moshe and Aharon follow through with what they have warned about (8:1):
YHWH said to Moshe:
Say to Aharon:
Stretch out your hand with your staff
over the tributaries,
over the Nile-canals,
over the ponds,
and make the frogs ascend over the land of Egypt!
Once the unbearable plague occurs, and Pharaoh hastily requests its removal, Moshe’s assent in v. 7 repeats the familiar rhythmic pattern, as does v. 9’s description of the plague’s end. The goal seems to be to portray the process of the frogs’ dying away similar to that of water drying up, just as their appearance was reminiscent of water gushing and getting into everything:
The frogs shall remove from you,
from your houses,
from your servants,
from your people…
And YHWH did according to Moshe’s words:
the frogs died away,
from the houses,
from the courtyards,
from the fields.
All this could have been said in simpler, less wordy fashion—but then the action, as laid out in the Hebrew, would not have been as vivid. Biblical language, which is poor in adjectives and adverbs, is thus able to make use of other means, repetition of the prepositions, to convey its messages economically and powerfully.
A final amphibian note. Ex. 8:2, in describing the frogs’ ascent over the land, uses a singular collective, which I choose to translate as “frog-horde.” There is nothing unusual about this Hebrew term, just as we understand that some words in English, like “sheep,” can be singular or plural. But the fact that it can be read as “the frog ascended over the land of Egypt” gave rise to one of the truly memorable readings by the ancient Rabbis:
Rabbi Akiva said: “It was only one frog, but it multiplied so rapidly that
it filled the land of Egypt.” Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah said to him: “Akiva!
What business do you have with Aggadah [interpretation intended to teach
a lesson]?…True, there was one frog, but he croaked for all the others to
come.” (Exodus Rabbah X:4)
If it has to be a single frog, I myself prefer to envision a gigantic one, à la Godzilla, stomping on the pyramids. But of course our text will have none of that. Even twenty-first century occurrences demonstrate how truly disruptive frog infestations can be. The story in this week’s reading, with its unique rhythms, will have to suffice.