The Plague of Darkness was the 9th of the ten plagues that God unleashed against Egypt. After the darkness ended, Pharaoh seemed ready to free the Jewish people.
The Plague of Darkness
This plague was sent against the Egyptian people without any warning. God commanded Moses to stretch out his hand toward heaven. He did this and a deep darkness fell on Egypt for 3 days.
The plague itself is described in three short verses, Exodus 10:21 – 23.
After the Darkness
The verses I want to study today describe what happened after the plague ended:
24. And Pharaoh called to Moses, and said, Go, serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds stay; let your little ones also go with you.
25. And Moses said, You must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.
26. Also our cattle will go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for we must take it to serve the Lord our God; and we know not with what we must serve the Lord, until we come there.
Moses and Pharaoh Negotiate
This was not the first time that Pharaoh and Moses talked about who would be leaving Egypt.
Here is their conversation before the 8th plague, the plague of Locusts:
8. And Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh; and he said to them, Go, serve the Lord your God, but who are they who shall go?
9. And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast for the Lord.
At that time Pharaoh would not permit the children to leave.
Before this, after the plague of the Wild Beasts (4th plague), Pharaoh said he would permit the Jewish people to serve God, but they had to remain in Egypt.
24. And Pharaoh said, I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away; entreat for me.
In summary, Moses and Pharaoh had several conversations / negotiations about who would be permitted to leave Egypt.
Now let’s look at our verses phrase by phrase.
24 And Pharaoh called to Moses, and said, Go, serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds stay; let your little ones also go with you.
And Pharaoh called to Moses, and said
Malbim explains that the Hebrew phrase “kra el” (translated “called to”) is not a summons to come to a person. Rather, it means an invitation to meet and talk.
Malbim understands that after the darkness ended, Moses came and was standing in front of Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh invited him to speak.
Malbim would translate the verse this way: And Pharaoh invited Moses [to speak], and said …”
This approach to understanding our verse makes sense if we view the various conversations between Moses and Pharaoh as an ongoing negotiation. In this verse, Pharaoh signaled to Moses that he was ready to renew the negotiation.
I have access to multiple English translations, but none of them follow Malbim’s approach. About half of them treat the phrase as a summons from Pharaoh to Moses. The rest translate it as “called to” in keeping with the basic meaning of the Hebrew word “kra.”
Go, serve the Lord
This phrase implies that Pharaoh is permitting all of the Jewish people to leave Egypt.
Many of the plagues ended after Pharaoh asked Moses to pray. Why didn’t Pharaoh ask Moses to end the plague of darkness?
Chizkuni suggests that Pharaoh thought (incorrectly) that the Jews were also in darkness and that no prayer would be effective.
only let your flocks and your herds stay
The Hebrew word “yutzag” is translated as “stay.” The 3-letter root is the idea of setting something in place. Since the animals are already in a place, the idea here is that they should remain in that place (Egypt).
Why did Pharaoh want the animals to remain in Egypt?
Several commentators say the cattle were to be left behind as a pledge that the Jewish people would return to Egypt.
Rabbi Sorotzkin adds that Pharaoh realized that the Jewish people did not leave Egypt during the 3 days of Darkness. Therefore, Pharaoh assumed they would return after 3 days of festival in the wilderness. But he wasn’t 100% sure, so he wanted them to leave their animals.
let your little ones also go with you
As I mentioned above, this is Pharaoh conceding the point that all of the Jewish people must be permitted to leave.
25 And Moses said, You must give us also sacrifices [Hebrew: zevachim] and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.
And Moses said, You must give us also
The Hebrew word “gam” is translated as “also.” Frequently in the Torah the word “gam” is used to include something not stated explicitly in the verse.
Rashi explains that it will not be enough for you (Pharaoh) that we take our cattle, you will also insist that we take some of yours.
Moses is telling Pharaoh that all of the Jewish people’s animals must come with them. Pharaoh may think that they only need to take the animals that can be brought as offerings.
Not so, states Moses. It’s possible that God will demand more offerings than the available animals. Therefore, they will also take their donkeys, camels, and horses because they could be sold to purchase animals for offerings. [from the commentary All the Etim in the Torah]
sacrifices [Hebrew: zevachim] and burnt offerings
Sacrifices is the translation of the Hebrew “zevachim.”
Burnt offerings is the translation of the Hebrew “olot.”
Daat Mikra explains that “zevachim” often means peace offerings. A peace offering is one where parts of the animal are burned on the altar but the meat is eaten. To be clear, Daat Mikra is saying all of these animals would be used for offerings.
Torah Temimah takes a different approach.
Torah Temimah, based on the Gemara (Zevachim 116a), says in this context “zevachim” means animals that are to be eaten. And that burnt offerings are ones that are totally consumed on the altar.
He bases this on the concept that before the giving of the Torah, people only brought totally burnt offerings. After the giving of the Torah, there is a category of offering (called peace offerings) that are partially burned and partially eaten.
However, even after the giving of the Torah, a non-Jew was not permitted to bring a peace offering in the Jewish Temple.
Based on this, Torah Temimah explains that the word “sacrifices” must mean an animal that slaughtered so that it can be eaten but not as sacrificial offering.
Therefore, Moses was saying that Pharaoh would give the Jewish people animals. Some would be totally consumed on the altar, but others would only be eaten.
that we may sacrifice [Hebrew: vasinu] to the Lord our God
Here the verb “sacrifice” is the translation of “vasinu” which is from the 3-letter root ayin-sin-hey. The basic meaning of this root is make or do.
When this root is used in relation to offerings, it means to bring an offering in the proper way. [Daat Mikra]
R. Sorotzkin understands Exodus 12 as the fulfillment of what Moses is saying in this verse.
30. And Pharaoh rose up in the night …
31. And he called for Moses and Aaron by night, and said, Rise up, and get out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said.
32. Take also your flocks and also your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also.
The repetition in Exodus 12:32 of the word “also” (Hebrew: gam) indicates that in fact Pharaoh gave animals to Moses.
In addition, R. Sorotzkin understands the Gemara (Avodah Zara 24a) to mean that Moses did bring offerings from the animals that Pharaoh gave to him.
Ramban in his commentary completely disagrees. According to Ramban, Moses did not intend to actually bring Pharaoh’s cattle as offerings to God. Rather, Moses was warning Pharaoh about the harshness of the plagues. Moses is predicting that eventually Pharaoh would willingly give the Jewish people anything so that they would leave Egypt.
26 Also our cattle will go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for we must take it to serve the Lord our God; and we know not with what we must serve the Lord, until we come there.
Also our cattle will go with us
Malbim explains the phrase “will go with us” to mean the cattle will come voluntarily because they don’t want to stay in Egypt.
He uses this verse to teach us that we should be willing to serve God with full dedication.
Here is how I understand these verses.
Pharaoh is trying different strategies to make a deal so that the plagues will end. However, he’s never willing to give up full control over the Jewish people.
Moses tells him that none of the Jew’s property will stay in Egypt. He also hints to Pharaoh that soon he will be willing to give up his own property so that the Jews will leave.
This is fulfilled in Exodus 12:32 when Pharaoh asks Moses to bless him.
We do see that Moses always speak to Pharaoh with a measure of respect.