In a parashah that provides us with the substantial theological conundrum of how far human free will extends, we must also contend with another great theological challenge: why does God slaughter innocents? The problem here is not why God allows such an act to happen, but rather that it is God who appears to do the slaughtering - not some intermediary, but God. How can we imagine that to have happened?
Most of the plagues have great visuals. Swarms of locusts, the Nile turned red, hail storms, boils and blackouts are all things we can easily imagine in our mind's eye. But the Eternal One descending on Egypt, wandering from place to place searching for blood above the lintels, entering all those unprotected homes and slaughtering men and boys and even cattle - that plague is nearly unimaginable.
I recently watched Cecile B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments with my children, aged eight and five. They had never seen it before. When it came time for the plague of the slaughtering of the first-born, a strange grey mist descended, wafting through the streets and creeping into homes through badly sealed doorframes and open windows. 'What is that?' my children asked. "God killing the first-borns," I replied. My five year old giggled. "God does not look like that." But what does a murderous God look like?
For turning God into grey mist effectively takes God out of the picture, literally and figuratively. That is an easy thing to do, both visually and theologically. And yet a key lesson of the plagues is that the God that saves also destroys. God is culpable – the challenge for us is to imagine that.