Divine Violence and Abolition in Egypt

Va-eira, Exodus 6:2−9:35

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Hilly Haber

"It is in your power so to torment the God-cursed slaveholders, that they will be glad to let you go free. Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!-- No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you."
- Henry Highland Garnet, "Address to the Slaves of the United States" (1843)

In Parshat Va-eira, we watch as God's message of freedom unfolds across Egypt and is ignored, scorned by Israelites and Egyptians alike. We watch as moral suasion, peaceful resistance, and God's word fail to bring about liberation and an end to oppression. In the wake of this failure, God visits 10 plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the first 7 of which appear in this week's portion. What are we to make of Divine violence in the context of Egypt? How do we understand and evaluate the function of God's actions in light of historical and ongoing movements for freedom and liberation?

In an 1843 speech titled, "Address to the Slaves of the United States," Henry Highland Garnet, an abolitionist minister, orator, and writer who was born into slavery, spoke to a national audience gathered in Buffalo, New York. In his address, Garnet called on enslaved people across the country to rise up and rebel against the institution of slavery. Breaking with Black and white abolitionists who relied on tactics of moral suasion to bring about liberation, Garnet evoked historical events like the Revolutionary War and the Haitian Revolution as evidence for the efficacy of armed resistance in the fight for freedom. Though powerful, Garnet's call for armed resistance was only later taken up by a majority of his fellow abolitionists. In the following decade, according to historian Kellie Carter Jackson, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the westward expansion of slavery, and a series of legal rulings like the Dred Scott decision in 1857 pushed many advocates of peaceful resistance into Garnet's camp (Force and Freedom; Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence).

This historical moment raises questions not only about the efficacy of extralegal violence to effect change, but, more specifically, about the ethics and function of violence. When Garnet calls on his brothers and sisters who are still enslaved to unlawfully harm those who have lawfully harmed and oppressed them, he exposes the corroborative relationship between violence and law. In his essay Critique of Violence, philosopher Walter Benjamin labels this connection between violence and law "mythic violence," which he contrasts with "divine violence" (Walter Benjamin; Selected Writings, vol. 1).

"Mythic violence, writes Benjamin, "is bloody power over mere life for its own sake; divine violence is pure power over all life for the sake of the living." Mythic violence has a body count. It relies on deeper forms of violence to keep oppressive systems in place. Divine violence, in contrast, targets systems and relationships of power. Ethicist Ted Smith offers a modern-day example:

The divine violence of the civil rights movement, for instance, broke the system of relations that sustained one pernicious kind of segregation in the United States. The breaking of that system brought a moral revolution that was itself bloodless. But it was accompanied by...the blood that flowed from the bodies of those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the blood that ran in the streets of Newark in 1967, and more. We might offer different moral evaluations of these events, but none of them is identical with divine violence. Divine violence is, however, thickly intertwined with all of these events. For all of them arose in the shattering of systems of relations.

Though divine violence is bloodless, it exposes the bloody human cost of mythic violence. And its function, as Benjamin writes, is expiation: reconciliation and healing brought about by exposing and destroying oppressive and violent systems.

Back to Va-eira: What is the context and function of divine violence in this week's parshah? How does it operate and what does it tell us about the violence of Egypt? When Moses tells the Israelites that God will redeem them from Egypt, the Israelites do not, or cannot, hear Moses' words. They are unable to hear, the text tells us, because of their kotzer ruach (Exodus 6:9), a literal shortness of breath. It is as if the words, "I can't breathe" echo across Egypt.

And it is not only the Israelites who resist God's message of freedom. When God's word fails to bring about liberation, God acts. God turns the water of the Nile River into blood (Exodus 7:17-22). As one commentator notes, God chose to turn the water of the Nile to blood because the Egyptians had thrown the children of the Israelites into those very same waters (Midrash Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 19). This first Divine plague lays bare the blood that is on the hands of the Egyptians.

In next week's parshah, we read about the tenth and final plague: the slaying of all first born Egyptian sons. The death toll of this final plague points to the ways in which divine violence exists somewhat outside of ethical evaluation. Ethicist Ted Smith, clarifies:

What Walter Benjamin called 'divine violence'--was both above and below what ethics as it is usually practiced today can consider. When the old standards are destroyed and new ones are not yet established, it is not clear how any kind of ethical evaluation can be offered ( Weird John Brown; Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics).

Beyond questions of right and wrong, to end the lives of all Egyptian first-born sons (Exodus 11:5) is not only to disrupt Egyptian relations of power and succession but also to lay bare the systems in place which have rendered all Egyptian sons complicit in oppression (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 12:29).

It is impossible to read Parshat Va-eira without considering our present moment. We live in the wake of an ongoing revolution sparked by the words: "I can't breathe." The study of Exodus is not a theoretical exercise; it is a call to action and to resistance. As abolitionist Henry Highland Garnett reminds us, "What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you."