The fourth plague perplexes me. ‘Arov in Hebrew, and translated either as ‘a mixture of wild beasts’ or as ‘swarms of mixed insects’ the affliction involves an unruly, and perhaps unnatural combining of pests – whether winged or footed – who bring ruin to Egypt’s land. Robert Alter opts for ‘the horde’ noting that “the only plausible derivation is from the verbal root that means to mix.” ‘Arov, then, is a kind of witches’ brew – an unholy cocktail of ingredients which, in combination, signals danger and leads to destruction.
In later, rabbinic, Hebrew, the same root – ayin, resh, bet – preserves that sense of danger and impropriety. Rabbinic law, built on Biblically articulated norms, identifies a number of things that ought not to be mixed with one another – wool and flax, milk and meat, permitted wine and prohibited wine – often using the term ta’arovet to describe the forbidden combinations.
The antidote to the plague of ‘arov is separation. As the Torah puts it: “on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no ‘arov shall be there.” Not only land, but people as well. “And I will make a distinction between My people and your people.” [Exodus 8:18-19] The Hebrew for ‘make a distinction’ is the word p’dut which elsewhere in the Bible means ‘to ransom’, ‘to redeem’, ‘to rescue from danger’. As Alter explains verse 19, “God will grant ransom or rescue from the horde to the Israelites, and that saving act will set them apart from the afflicted Egyptians.”
The Plague of Flies by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1896-1902) The Jewish Museum, NY
With these expressions of separateness, this fourth plague moves from puzzling to deeply troubling for me. The narratives of the later plagues will also emphasize the physical (and spiritual?) separation of the Israelites and the Egyptians. With the affliction of ‘arov this ‘unmixing’ of the two peoples makes its first appearance. The ancient Aramaic translations, known as targumim, put quite a fine point on the phenomenon. “I will put a redemption for my people, but upon your people I will bring an affliction.”
Reflecting on the inner dynamic and specific language of this fourth plague raises complex and difficult questions for me. ‘Arov seems to contrast with commitments and attitudes that I hold dear, such things as diversity and dialogue and the dignity of all human beings. How do I make sense of the Torah’s (apparent) abhorrence of mixture and its (apparent) celebration of segregation? Alter’s translation choice, fully supportable on linguistic and narrative grounds, actually heightens my discomfort. We live in a moment in which innocent people are described by those with power and prestige as ’the horde’, an unholy mixture of people intent on bringing ruin to the land.
The first third of the book of Exodus is, of course, the story of the beginnings of a people, one that happens to be my people. In that context, a particularist focus makes good sense. The plague of ‘arov works the particularist side of the street to great effect. Still, demonizing the universal worries me. In a world overrun by the ravages of ethno-nationalism and hate, the universalist side of the street needs our attention as well.