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08.01.2019 18:11    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  shemot  bo  

Why Did the Dog Disappear?

The plagues in Egypt are noted for their precise implementation of prior warnings, insofar as natural disasters of various types were common everywhere in the ancient world, and had the Egyptians not received prior warning they would have ascribed the plagues that came upon them to chance occurrence.

The precise execution of a prior warning is especially notable in the plague of the first-borns, as is evident from this comparison of warning and implementation:

Warning: Exodus 11:4-7

Implementation: Exodus 12:29-32

  1. Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians,
  2. and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die,
  3. from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne
  4. to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones;
  5. and all the first-born of the cattle.
  6. and there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again;
  7. But not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast—in order that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.
  8. Then all these courtiers of yours shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, "Depart, you and all the people who follow you!"
  1. In the middle of the night
  2. the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt,
  3. from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne
  4. to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon,[1]
  5. and all the first-born of the cattle.
  6. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—[2]
  7. Because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.
  8. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!... And may you bring a blessing upon me also!"

When we compare warning to implementation we see that the dogs are notably absent; there is no indication whether or not they snarled[3] at the Israelites or their beasts. One of the reasons for their absence is that Moses' remarks about the dogs were intended for Pharaoh's ears at the last stage of the theological contest between them, a contest to establish which G‑d had it in His power to determine the fate of the Israelites.

In response to Moses' first request that the Israelites be permitted to go to the wilderness to worship the Lord, Pharaoh had answered, "Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go" (Ex. 5:2), and therefore in several of the plagues Moses declared the objective of the plague beforehand or summarized its import after the fact, so that Pharaoh would know who the Lord was.[4]

The plague of first-borns would be the final proof that the Lord G‑d of Israel had it in His power to put the Egyptians to death and to protect His servants from death, and of course had the ability to liberate them from bondage. At the same time, the utter impotence of Pharaoh's gods would become evident, for it was neither in his power to protect those who worshipped him, nor to do harm to the Israelites, and certainly not to prevent them from leaving. Therefore, the reference to a dog is a swipe at the Egyptian god Anubis,[5] a deity represented in Egyptian culture as a jackal or a man with a jackal's head.

The Egyptian deity Anubis, tending a mummy. From a fresco from the tomb of Sennedjem.

In ancient Egypt Anubis was perceived as a god associated with death. Earlier the Egyptians believed he brought death, but in a later period he was thought to be in charge of embalming the dead and transporting them along the Nile on their way to heaven, and was Osiris' assistant in weighing the deceased's heart in order to determine his fate.

The jackal, zoologically a canine, came to symbolize death because of the danger it posed to the body of the dead, especially someone buried beyond a settled area. Hence this deity was honored in order to lessen his threat to those who worshipped him. In densely settled urban areas the dog took the place of the jackal, as is seen even in several passages in the Bible.[6] Little wonder, therefore, that at a site dedicated to Anubis, in the vicinity of Saqqara, over eight million mummified dogs were found.[7] We may conclude from this that Pharaoh would have understood Moses' taunting allusion.

Even though the Egyptians ostensibly respected the jackal-god and his kindred dogs, one could offend Pharaoh's belief by calling his deity a dog, for in Egypt, as in the Bible,[8] dogs in themselves were not considered creatures commanding respect. This is clearly evident in letters addressed to the kings of Egypt and in texts written by the Egyptian kings themselves. Several times, in the Amarna Letters, when a complaint was lodged about an Egyptian vassal, the target of the complaint was referred to pejoratively as a dog. Ramses II, when he was displeased by the delegate sent him by Hattushili III King of Hatti, asked, "Who is this dog?" Merneptah, on his campaign to Libya, presented himself as a lion, and his opponent, as a timid dog.

In his encounter with Pharaoh, Moses was openly scoffing at the gods of Egypt because he was irate at the flagrant violation of the promises Pharaoh had sent to the people, as it says: "And he left Pharaoh's presence in hot anger" (Ex. 11:8). In addition, the scorn for the Egyptian god that had been voiced in Pharaoh's ear now became central to the story, because this outright contempt was another stage in the spiritual liberation from Egypt which had begun with slaughtering a lamb to the G-d of Israel on Egyptian soil. Not a single Egyptian dared protest against this, even though slaughtering a lamb and eating it was designed to evoke the Egyptians' wrath, as is implied by the reason Moses had given Pharaoh for asking that the people be permitted to go out to the wilderness to make their sacrifices: "If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us!" (Ex. 8:22).

Mentioning dogs to Pharaoh at this stage was essential for yet another reason. The dogs had to bark that night in the Egyptian part of the land alone, because their barking was essential to verifying the truth of the Lord's words. A precise time for implementation of the plague was only stipulated in the case of the plague of the first-born, and the most common way of ascertaining the time at night was the behavior of animals, as the Sages have described: "Rabbi Eliezer says: The night is divided into three watches…and the indications are: in the first watch, the ass brays; in the second, the dogs bark; in the third, the child sucks from the breast of his mother" (Berakhot 3a).

Understandably, the dogs' barking did not subside on the night of the plague of the first-born as on a regular night, rather became intensified, because the cries of the living and their unusual activity made the dogs troubled, and the many corpses stimulated their well-developed sense of smell.[9] The quiet that reigned among the dwellings of the Israelites after onset of the plague of the first-born was thus surprising in all respects, since dogs everywhere always respond to the warning barks and deterrent growls of their kind, even from far away and especially at night.

The dogs' barking was not mentioned when the plague of the first-born was carried out because Pharaoh's mind was not set on checking the veracity of Moses' words on this subject. It quite sufficed him to have the first-borns in the palace begin dying off for him to immediately head out to search for Moses. Also, the rest of the Egyptians were in a hurry to send off the Israelites before their worst fears came to pass, as it is written, "The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, 'We shall all be dead'" (Ex. 12:33), and had no time for attention to trivial details such as the barking of dogs.

Pharaoh's terrified behavior in the plague of first-borns was quite different from his insouciance when the livestock of Egypt died in the plague of pestilence: "When Pharaoh inquired, he found that not a head of the livestock of Israel had died; yet Pharaoh remained stubborn, and he would not let the people go" (Ex. 9:7). In both plagues it was decreed in advance that there would be clear discrimination in favor of the Israelites, but only in the plague of pestilence did Pharaoh bother to verify this fact, whereas in the plague of first-borns his mind was on something else entirely. The fact that Scripture does not mention the silence of the dogs when this plague was carried out lends expression to Pharaoh's thoughts being elsewhere.

The explanation we have given here for events on the night of the plague of first-borns can also explain Pharaoh's behavior later on, when he again stiffened his neck and set off in pursuit of the Israelites three days after the death of all the Egyptian first-born. It could well be that the haste with which the Israelites were sent off, before the veracity of all of Moses' words had been ascertained, was one of the factors contributing to Pharaoh's quick reversal of sentiment. Had he checked what had gone on among the Israelite dwellings he would have been hesitant to take on "this mighty G‑d, the same G‑d who struck the Egyptians with every kind of plague in the wilderness!" to borrow the words of the Philistines in I Sam. 4:8, who had proven that even in exceptional circumstances He reigns over all, from the life of human beings to the instinctive reactions of animals, and that whatever He wills shall forever come to pass.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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