The title of this article usually connotes ‘participation’, as opposed to exclusive responsibility. Of course we know that God was the sole cause for all Ten Plagues, and every miracle which ever occurred.
To “have a hand in something” refers to man’s actions, as only man has a “hand”. God created the physical universe and all that is in it. Therefore, He does not partake of His creations – He has no physicality, and certainly no “hand”. So why did I title this article as “God’s Hand in the 10 Plagues”? Am I being misleading? The reason is quite startling.
Exodus 7:5 reads, “And Egypt will know that I am God as I stretch forth My hand on Egypt and take the Israelites from their midst.” Rashi comments on this verse as follows, “Yad mamash lahacos bahem”. This translates as, “A literal hand to smite them.” Rashi suggests that God “stretching forth His hand” as stated in the Torah verse, refers to a real, physical hand! God will smite Egypt with a literal “hand”. Based on Judaism’s fundamentals, the fundamentals of reality itself, this is impossible! There is only one way to understand this statement. But before reading further, think a moment what it might be.
This statement took me back when I first came across it. I asked a wise Rabbi who responded: “It’s not God’s hand, He has no hands. Rather, God created a physical hand as a separate miracle.” Then I understood: God created a hand to smite Egypt, just as He created the first man. God can create what He wishes. This hand was a creation, not part of God, as God has no parts or physicality.
Yet, it disturbed me why this quite, literal hand was required as a response to Egypt. Weren’t the Ten Plagues sufficient?
However rare this miracle is, it is not unprecedented. Later, Baleshaatzar, the grandson of Nevuchadnetzar also experienced a “hand” miracle. Daniel 5:1-6 reads as follows:
“King Baleshaatzar made a great feast for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine before the thousand guests. While under the influence of wine, Baleshaatzar gave an order to bring the golden and silver vessels that Nevuchadnetzar his grandfather had removed from the Sanctuary in Jerusalem, for the king and his nobles, his consorts and his concubines to drink from them. So they brought the golden vessels they had removed from the Sanctuary of the Temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king, his nobles, his consorts and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, copper, iron, wood, and stone. Just then, fingers of a human hand came forth and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, facing the candelabrum; and the king saw the palm of the hand that was writing. The king’s appearance thereupon changed, and his thoughts bewildered him; the belt around his waist opened, and his knees knocked one against the other.”
What took place here? King Baleshaatzar was evil. He too desired to mock the Jews and God by abusing the Temple’s vessels in service to his gods of metal, stone and wood. His sin was clear: “They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, copper, iron, wood, and stone.” Immediately following we read, “Just then, fingers of a human hand came forth and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace…” Meaning, this miracle was a direct response to Baleshaatzar’s praises of idolatry, as it says, “Just then…” (In Egypt’s case too, a hand was a response to their idolatrous culture.)
But let us understand Baleshaatzar: He created a feast for a thousand of his subjects. He was king, yet he serviced those below him. The Prophet repeats this number of 1000 to teach that Baleshaatzar’s desire was these many people – he sought their approval. This is why he celebrated and drank before them. Baleshaatzar was a man whose reality revolved around “people”. Now, as he was sinning against God, to the point of denying God in favor of idolatry, God desired to respond to Baleshaatzar’s sin. His idolatrous inclinations could not go without rebuke, perhaps because he had so many people present as well. God responded by creating a hand, writing on the wall in plain sight, thus, God placed this hand in a well-lit area, near the candelabrum. (Baleshaatzar sought the approval of others, so he would have denied seeing such a miracle had God manifested it to Baleshaatzar while he was alone.) Why was such a miracle needed? It would seem that this miracle was in direct response to idolatry, but it took the form of a ‘hand’ for another reason.
Baleshaatzar valued “people”. This was his value system. Thus, God created a miracle which satisfied Baleshaatzar’ sense of what is real…a human hand. Some other force of nature, even miraculous, might not have struck Baleshaatzar’s subjective sense of reality. So God reached Baleshaatzar’s heart using the very emotion Baleshaatzar worshipped. Since he desired human approval, a miracle of ‘human’ disapproval would alert him, and alert him indeed: “and the king saw the palm of the hand that was writing. The king’s appearance thereupon changed, and his thoughts bewildered him; the belt around his waist opened, and his knees knocked one against the other.” Baleshaatzar was frightened. God’s plan worked.
Similarly, the Egyptians projected some human qualities onto their gods. From the myriad of recovered artifacts and ancient Egyptian idols, we see human forms throughout most of them. How would God reach such people who only thought of gods in terms of human qualities? They even responded to the plague of Lice with the words, “It is the finger of God.” (Exod. 8:15) The Ten Plagues were intended to teach them that God controls all realms: heaven, Earth and all in between. But that was insufficient. They also required a “hand”. Why?
On Exodus 11:4, Daas Zikanim M’Baalie Tosafos explain that God waged a war on Egypt as human king wars. When a human king wars, he first cuts off the water supply, he confuses the enemy with loud trumpets, and he shoots arrows. So too, God cut off the water supply with Blood, He confused the Egyptians with loud Frogs, and shot arrows in the form of Lice. (The parallel continues through all Ten Plagues) But the question is, why does God desire to act, as would human king against Egypt? I believe the answer to be the same reason why God created this “hand”.
As stated, Egypt projected human qualities onto their understanding of deities. To them, any superpower was understood somewhat in human terms. If a claimed power was not expressed in human terms, they would dismiss it. Therefore, in order that God reach them, making them understand that there is a “Superpower” who does not approve of their culture, God first had to speak in their language. Within, or maybe even before the Ten Plagues, God created a real, physical hand passing through Egypt, which smote the Egyptians. Their reaction was one of feeling “disapproval” by a deity – a deity in “their” terms. Had the plagues ensued with no presence of a human quality, the element of “disapproval” would have been absent, and the Egyptians would not have viewed their culture as “unacceptable” by Moses’ God. They would certainly continue in their idolatry. To offer Egypt the best chance at repentance, God desired to relate to them in their terms. The message that a “deity disapproved” of Egypt could only be made known in the manner that Egypt understood.
God saw it necessary that man be related to in his ‘language’: a hand was necessary to appeal to Baleshaatzar’s world of “human” approval, and to also appeal to Egypt’s view of “humanoid” deities.
God desires the best for man, be he a sinner or not, and therefore God uses the appropriate vehicle to reach each man’s set of emotions.