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|Photo: Hubble image of a Bok globule in the Carina Nebula nicknamed "The Finger of God"|
Etzba Elohim: The Finger of Which God?
The first miraculous sign that Moshe performed before Paroh was the transformation of Aharon’s staff into a snake. This sign was replicated by Paroh’s sorcerers (Shemos 7:11). The first (ibid. 7:22) and second (ibid. 8:3) of the Ten Plagues were also replicated by the sorcerers, but not the third: “The sorcerers did the same with their magic, to draw forth the lice, but they could not … The sorcerers said to Paroh, ‘It is the finger of God!’ Paroh’s heart was strong, and he did not heed them, as Hashem had spoken” (ibid. 8:15).
The phrase exclaimed by the sorcerers was “etzba Elohim.” This is commonly understood to be a concession on their part, and an acknowledgment that this was from Hashem. Rashi, for instance, interprets their words to mean: “this plague was not done with magic; it is from Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu” (Rashi on Shemos 8:15).
There is a glaring problem with this explanation: the Divine name used by the sorcerers is “Elohim,” but this whole time, Moshe has been speaking in the name of Hashem (i.e. the Tetragrammaton). Indeed, when Moshe first approached Paroh in the name of Hashem, Paroh responded: “Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Israel” (ibid. 5:2). But during the second plague, Paroh was already sufficiently familiar with Hashem to the point where he said: “Entreat Hashem that He remove the tzfarde’a from me and my people, and I shall send out the people that they may bring offerings to Hashem” (ibid. 8:4). If the sorcerers intended to admit to Paroh that this was Hashem – the Deity Whom Paroh, himself, had just acknowledged by name in the last plague – why would they say “etzba Elohim”? Why not “etzba Hashem”?
In light of these difficulties, the Ibn Ezra (ibid. 8:15) concludes that “etzba Elohim” was not an acknowledgment on the sorcerers’ part that the plague was sent by Hashem. Rather:
They said to Paroh: “This plague did not come via Aharon on behalf of Israel to send [Israel] forth; rather, it was a plague of Elohim, in accordance with the arrangement of stars over the mazal (Zodiac sign) of Egypt.” I have already explained that Paroh did not deny the Creator, but only [the deity] “Hashem” that Moshe mentioned to him.
Malbim (ibid.) sides with the Ibn Ezra on this matter and explains the pesukim in an even more radical way:
When you look through all these parshiyos you will never find Paroh or the Egyptians calling Hashem by the name “Elokim” but only by the Tetragrammaton. The name “Elohim” was, for them, a reference to the celestial order or to their gods – not to the God of Israel Who was called by the Tetragrammaton. [The only time] they used the name [Elokim] is when they said, “go and offer sacrifices to your Elokim” (ibid. 8:21) – meaning “Elokei Yisrael” (the God of Israel), and not simply “Elohim.” Thus, it is clear that when they said, “etzba Elohim,” they were not referring to the God of Israel, [for if they were,] they should have said “etzba Hashem hu” or “etzba Elokei Yisrael.” Since this plague came without warning, they thought that it didn’t come from the God of Israel for the sake of Israel, because if so, Moshe would have been informed of it [by God] and he would have warned [Paroh] in advance. [Rather,] they said that this plague was sent to them by the God of Egypt, whom they referred to by the unqualified name “Elohim” (lit. “God”) … It is for this reason [that the pasuk subsequently says,] “Paroh’s heart was strong and he did not heed them,” because there was no need to be afraid anymore, for his fear had passed [in light of the sorcerers’ words].
According to this interpretation, there is no indication in the pesukim that any faction of Egypt – neither the sorcerers nor Paroh – acknowledged Hashem’s miraculous intervention until the fourth plague, when Hashem informed Paroh in advance: “I will make a distinction between My people and your people” (ibid. 8:19). It was only after the fourth plague that Paroh said: “Go, bring offerings to your God … entreat for me!” (ibid. 8:24). The fourth plague was Egypt’s first acknowledgment “that I am Hashem in the midst of the land” (ibid. 8:18).
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