Examine Egyptian iconography and you can’t miss the frightening creatures that populated their imagination. There are snakes and alligators, jackals and hippopotamuses which, though cute in contemporary consciousness, were terrifying to the ancient people who lived along the Nile. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, Ancient Egypt Transformed, I learned about the integration of animal images into the depiction of the pharaohs. An early basalt head of a king shows a snake on his forehead and the pharaonic wig evoking a rearing cobra; King Senwosret III is depicted as a sphinx, and a head of the god Sobek Shedeti blends human features with the unmistakable snout of a crocodile. The curator explains that Egyptians used such depictions to honor and pacify these terrifying creatures, and perhaps even to harness their power for human purposes.
I wanted to experience the Middle Kingdom directly as we explore the of Israel in Egypt in the opening chapters of Exodus. Having stood nose to nose with these intimidating images, I returned to the parashah and noticed that most of the animals involved in the plagues were just the opposite—little things that are far from frightening. Frogs, and lice and locusts—these are little creatures, easily crushed. Even the “mixed horde” (ערב) may have been insects or scorpions rather than giant beasts. The Torah selected the slightest of things to overwhelm Egypt. Pharaoh first feels that he can crush such little creatures—including the Israelite slaves. But like the weakest and smallest of insects, they can possess overwhelming power when united.
A case in point is the locusts, or אַרְבֶּה, the eighth plague and final infestation before the climactic blows of darkness and death of the firstborn. Moses and Aaron introduce the locusts by rhetorically asking Pharaoh, “how long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?” The translation of לֵעָנֹת as “to humble” comes first from the Aramaic לאתכנעא (lit. to bend down). Rashi explains that God is demanding that Pharaoh humble himself before God and Israel. The plagues are not really about the physical liberation of Israel—that could have been more easily accomplished. They are, as v. 10:2 states, designed to humble mighty Egypt and to instruct Israel for all generations to believe in Adonai.
Of all the plagues, it is the locusts that seem to be most devastating. Farmers have always feared these mysterious clouds of insects that without warning appear on the horizon and settle on the fields, instantly wiping out an entire year’s worth of labor. The announcement of the coming horde prompts Pharaoh’s servants to cry, “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?”
Let’s look more closely at these אַרְבֶּה. These little creatures have a name that means “I will increase,” perhaps referring to their rapid multiplication in special circumstances. Or the word could be derived from the root ארב, which means “to lie in wait, ambush” (see Even Shoshan). It has parallels in Akkaddian (aribu) and Ugaritic (irbi), but it is still fair to ask why the Torah used specifically this insect name to announce the plague that would humble Egypt and exalt Israel.
In the book of Genesis God twice announces the intention to “increase” אַרְבֶּה the descendants of Israel (in 17:2 and 22:17; the verb is also used to promise the increase the descendants of Ishmael in 16:10, and the pain of childbirth back in 3:16). Moses cites this promise to God later in Exodus (32:13) as part of his case for why God is bound not to destroy Israel. In our parashah, Moses uses the word אַרְבֶּה to proclaim the increase of Egypt’s enemies—small things that can nevertheless overwhelm the mightiest ruler on earth. Israel, the least of nations, will become great, rising up from the devastated land, just like a vast swarm of locusts.
The Exodus narrative has been a source of inspiration for oppressed peoples throughout history. The weak grow mighty and the mighty are humbled, just as Hannah will sing in her poem and Isaiah will proclaim in his prophecies. No power structure can last forever, and even the most hopeless situation can be reversed with determination. The juxtaposition of Pharaoh, represented by mighty creatures like lions, snakes and crocodiles, with the people Israel, who are compared to lowly bugs, is evocative of the shifting power dynamics. Initially it is the big creatures that seem most powerful, but eventually those that are small but numerous, individually weak but collectively determined, who will win the day.
As we approach Martin Luther King Day, it is time to remind ourselves of the possibility of change, even in the most intimidating situations. We have many concerns before us—greater equality in American society, greater peace and security in Israel, and greater purpose, conviction and joy in our own religious community. If Proverbs teaches us to look to the industry of the ant, then Exodus teaches us to increase like locusts, rising up from the land, but leaving liberty, not destruction, in our wake.
שמות פרק י, א-ו
(א) וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ: (ב) וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה’: (ג) וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פַּרְעֹה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים עַד מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵעָנֹת מִפָּנָי שַׁלַּח עַמִּי וְיַעַבְדֻנִי: (ד) כִּי אִם מָאֵן אַתָּה לְשַׁלֵּחַ אֶת עַמִּי הִנְנִי מֵבִיא מָחָר אַרְבֶּה בִּגְבֻלֶךָ: (ה) וְכִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא יוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְאָכַל אֶת יֶתֶר הַפְּלֵטָה הַנִּשְׁאֶרֶת לָכֶם מִן הַבָּרָד וְאָכַל אֶת כָּל הָעֵץ הַצֹּמֵחַ לָכֶם מִן הַשָּׂדֶה: (ו) וּמָלְאוּ בָתֶּיךָ וּבָתֵּי כָל עֲבָדֶיךָ וּבָתֵּי כָל מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא רָאוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ וַאֲבוֹת אֲבֹתֶיךָ מִיּוֹם הֱיוֹתָם עַל הָאֲדָמָה עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּפֶן וַיֵּצֵא מֵעִם פַּרְעֹה:
תרגום אונקלוס שמות פרק י פסוק ג
(ג) ועל משה ואהרן לות פרעה ואמרו ליה כדנן אמר יי אלהא דיהודאי עד אמתי מסריב את לאתכנעא מן קדמי שלח עמי ויפלחון קדמי:
רש“י שמות פרק י פסוק ג
(ג) לענת – כתרגומו לאתכנעא, והוא מגזרת עני, מאנת להיות עני ושפל מפני:
בראשית פרק כב, יז
(יז) כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו:
שמות פרק לב, יג
(יג) זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ וַתְּדַבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲכֶם כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם וְכָל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי אֶתֵּן לְזַרְעֲכֶם וְנָחֲלוּ לְעֹלָם: