Did the Plagues and Other Passover Miracles Really Happen?
Here is what I consider as the Passover seder unfolds every year.
First, it is absolutely reasonable to believe that the general outline of the story presented by the Torah corresponds with events that did take place. Although the writers of the Torah didn’t supply us with specific dates and didn’t specify the Pharaoh who enslaved our ancestors, most modern historians accept the overall historicity of the exodus account.
There are several reasons why historians (and I) accept the notion that the ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt and then became free. For example, the Torah’s description of the way in which bricks were made for the pyramids corresponds with contemporaneous Egyptian records. Unless our ancestors had firsthand experience of these bricks, it would seem surprising for them to know as much as they did. In addition, Egyptian names such as Moses and the midwives Shifra and Puah appear in the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that whomever wrote the text was familiar with Egypt.
Most importantly, I believe our ancestors were slaves because it would not be to their advantage to have invented such a background. If they were going to create some story of their origins, it would have been much more attractive to have claimed to originate as a grand or wealthy people. The fact that the Torah presents the opposite (“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”) suggests that the tradition of slavery was a true and unavoidable part of our ancestors’ heritage.
But did the plagues actually take place as described in the Book of Exodus? Did our ancestors actually cross the Red Sea (more accurately called the Sea of Reeds)? When it comes to these two questions, I suggest that the framing of such questions forces an answer that is far too simple.
Of course, I’m aware of the fact that the plagues and the sea narrative are fantastic. It is difficult to believe that events unfolded literally as described in the Torah. On the other hand, I don’t ever want to be forced into the simplistic notion that the Torah is either true or false. I don’t want to have to accept the stories precisely as they appear or altogether reject them.
Instead, I would rather enter into the drama of the narrative. Rather than worrying about the details of Plague #4 or Plague #7, I would rather touch base with the energy that pulses through the overall story.
I don’t know if our ancestors witnessed the sea split neatly in two. (I suspect they didn’t; I suspect whatever happened was a lot less clear cut than the Book of Exodus tells us.) But that doesn’t matter as much to me as trying to capture the feelings of surprise and wonder that the events of the exodus elicited from our ancestors. They were awestruck. They felt that God had transformed their lives, and their belief that God cared about freedom and justice went on to become the cornerstone of future Judaism.
Of course, you and I could debate the “truth” of the narrative, as Biblical scholars have been doing for years – but what matters at the seder is getting caught up in the spirit of 4,000 years. The “truth” of the matter is that the Haggadah is grand theater, and on Passover evening, we become the players in the drama that teaches truths of historic proportions. Enjoy the show and let yourself become part of it!