Introduction to the Ten Plagues
By carefully observing the first nine plagues, one discovers the emergence of a distinct and fascinating pattern: The plagues are grouped into three groups of three, with the first two plagues of each group always preceded by a warning from Moshe to Pharaoh, while the third plague comes without any warning at all.
A further aspect of the pattern is that in the first plague of each triad Moshe is told to meet Pharaoh at the river where Pharaoh went each morning, and the expression “nitzavta li’krato – you should stand upright to meet him” is employed. Regarding the warning of the second plague of each group — i.e., the second (frogs), fifth (cattle disease), and eighth (locusts) plague — Moshe is always told to “come to Pharaoh”, to Pharaoh’s place of residence.
Why were the plagues grouped in this way, and why did the warnings come in the manner that they did?
The concept of the Ten Plagues being broken into three groupings can be seen from the teaching of the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Yehudah, whose mnemonic acrostic of the plagues, “d’tz’ch, a’d’sh, b’a’ch’v”, divides the plagues into three groups.
Although Rabbi Yehudah’s acrostic includes the tenth plague, the ‘slaying of the firstborn’, together with the third group of plagues, this plague is not actually part of the pattern of plagues, for it served a different purpose altogether. The purpose of the ‘slaying of the firstborn’ was to get Pharaoh to agree to send the Jewish People out of Mitzrayim. The first nine plagues, on the other hand, were not intended to serve this purpose, as is evident from the fact that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart after these plagues in order that he not release the people! Rather, the purpose of these plagues was to teach the whole world three fundamental truths: A) That G-d exists, B) that He oversees world affairs, and C) that His power is supreme and incomparable to any other power.
The first group of plagues (blood, frogs, and lice)comes to verify the first concept mentioned above, that G-d exists; as the verse states regarding the first plague, “through this you will know that I am G-d. Because they come to clarify this point, the first two plagues of blood and frogs are therefore preceded by a warning. When Pharaoh then hardens his heart not once but twice, the third plague, lice, follows without warning. This plague’s purpose was not to prove G-d’s existence, for this had already been achieved by the first two plagues which, like two trustworthy witnesses, had already given their ‘testimony’. Rather, the plague of lice served as a humiliating punishment to Pharaoh for having hardened his heart, and therefore there was no point in warning him about it.
Similarly, the first two plagues of the second group (wild animals and cattle disease) came to testify to the fact that G-d oversees the events that occur here on earth, as the verse states regarding the plague of wild animals: “[This is] in order that you should know that I am G-d in the midst of the land”. And because the purpose of these plagues was to clarify this, thus a warning preceded them.
These two ‘witnesses’ – i.e., plagues -- having stated their testimony, the third plague of the group, the plague of boils, came without any warning, for its purpose was, as above, to punish Pharaoh in a humiliating way.
The third group (hail, locusts and darkness) follows the same pattern: The first two plagues come with a warning because they have the purpose of clarifying that G-d is the supreme power, as the verse states regarding hail: “In order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth”. This point having been established by two ‘witnesses’, the next plague strikes with no warning, because it comes only in order to punish. This time, the punishment is darkness, a fitting, measure-for-measure retribution for the wicked who live their lives with their eyes closed to the well-lit path of morality which G-d illuminates for the righteous.
Now that the first nine plagues had clarified these three fundamental principles —