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In preparation for the tenth plague, Hashem told the Israelites to smear the blood of the korban Pesach on the lintels and doorposts of their dwellings (Shemot 12:7), assuring them that this would protect them from harm when He inflicted the tenth plague on the Egyptians’ first-born. Indeed, the Torah confirms that HaShem prevented “the Destroyer” (haMashchis) from killing those in houses whose entrances were smeared with blood (12:23).

Who, or what, was “the Destroyer”?

A few weeks ago, participants in Daf Yomi were given a sample of Chazal’s efforts to identify the Destroyer. A braita discussed on Bava Kamma 60a deals with HaShem’s warning to the Israelites not to go out of their dwellings until morning on the night of the tenth plague (12:22). R. Yosef offers the view that once permission was granted to the Destroyer to kill, it did so without distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked, i.e., between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Based on the Sifsei Chachamim, the concern was that the Egyptians would have used news of Israelite deaths on that particular night to undermine Moshe’s status as a prophet and call into question the Israelites’ belief in Hashem.

In his commentary on 12:22, Rashi in effect endorses R. Yosef’s view, adding that the night is the domain of the destroyers. Ramban, after briefly considering Rashi’s comment, cites the Mechilta to essentially the same effect as R. Yosef and Rashi, referring to a “destroying angel.”

In all likelihood, however, the “Destroyer” was neither angel nor demon. Rather, she was the lion-headed ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. She became known to ancient Egyptians as “the Destroyer” (among other names) because of her central role in one of Egypt’s foundational myths, the “Destruction of Humanity.” (In this myth, Sekhmet destroyed Egyptians who were disloyal to her father, the chief god Ra.)

So what 12:23 almost certainly tells us is that HaShem did not allow this bloodthirsty, murderous deity Sekhmet to kill the Israelites in their homes. Of course Sekhmet the Destroyer was not a real entity, but she was real in the minds of the Egyptian pantheists, likely including the Israelites, who later had to be weaned off their participation in Egyptian idol worship (Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, III:32)).

This enhances our understanding of the Torah narrative and demonstrates its realism. When Hashem told the Israelites to smear blood on the entrance to their homes, their initial reaction must have been shock and fear. After all, blood would attract the murderous Sekhmet, with fatal consequences. But the Israelites overcame their fears and did what HaShem told them to do, trusting in His promise to protect them from Sekhmet (12:13). 12:23 is likely speaking from the standpoint of the Israelites. HaShem was true to His word; He prevented the Destroyer from attacking them.

It bears note that we have evidence elsewhere in the Torah that ancient Egyptian mythology played a role in the Torah’s 10-plague narrative. When Moshe and Aharon threatened Pharaoh with the locusts of the eighth plague, Pharaoh was at first willing to allow some Israelites to go into the desert to worship Hashem. But Pharaoh’s response contained a statement that has puzzled commentators: re’u ki ra’ah neged pneichem, which literally means “beware of the evil before you” (Shemot 10:10). Surveying Chazal’s interpretations of this phrase is beyond our scope here. What is important for our purposes here is that Rashi cites an old midrash, explaining in effect that Pharaoh was threatening them with death in the desert at the hands of a bloodthirsty and murderous star deity called “Ra’ah”, who lived in the desert. The authors of this midrash almost certainly had chief Egyptian god Ra in mind. But Ra was not bloodthirsty and murderous, and his mythology did not have him dwelling in the desert. However, the midrash was not far off. The ancient Egyptians did have a bloodthirsty, murderous Egyptian deity whose natural habitat was the desert: Ra’s daughter Sekhmet.

So the Israelites likely knew of and believed in Sekhmet’s bloodthirsty nature. If so, it is hard to imagine a more dramatic demonstration of their courage and faith in Hashem than daubing blood on their doorposts and lintels, thereby risking the wrath of Sekhmet! Their willingness to do so may well have been a significant factor in favor of their Redemption.


Ira Friedman is an independent researcher with a particular interest in the intersection between the Bible and ancient Egyptian history.

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