Breaking up the world into elements is not a new concept, nor is it limited to Western thought. While Ancient Greece often gets the credit for the concept of four elements: water, air, earth, and fire, many cultures have created the same breakdown. Sometimes there are five elements, and in some cases, they’re categorized a bit differently.
It’s unclear that any of these concepts were developed in the time of the New Kingdom of Egypt, many hundreds of years before the rise of what is now called Ancient Greece. But there are echos of it in Jewish writings about that period.
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given from Heaven through their agency, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1), and it says thereafter in the next verse: “And there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2). But the well returned in the merit of both Moses and Aaron.Taanit: Daf 9a. The William Davidson Talmud. Composed in Talmudic Babylon (c.450 – c.550 CE). Sefaria.
In the Prophets we have the line:
In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.Micah 6:4. Sefaria.
Midrash on this Biblical passage describes in detail the benefits to the Hebrews brought by God by merit of the three siblings.
However, when you were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and when I brought you out from there, I had you lie down under clouds of glory and raised up three redeemers for you to serve you, [as stated] (in (Micah 6:4): AND I SENT MOSES, AARON, AND MIRIAM BEFORE YOU. [Through the merit of Moses you ate manna, <a food> which <even> the holy ancestors had not seen, as stated (in Deut. 8:3)…Midrash Tanchuma Buber: Bamidbar, Siman 2. Composed in Talmudic Israel/Babylon (c.150 – c.750 CE).
Through the merit of Aaron I surrounded you in clouds of glory, as stated (in Ps. 105:39): HE SPREAD A CLOUD FOR A COVER AND A FIRE TO GIVE LIGHT AT NIGHT. There were seven clouds: one from above, one from below, one from each of the four winds, and one before you. He smote snakes and scorpions, leveled the mountains and valleys for them, and burned the thornbushes so that they sent up smoke….
Now the well <came> through the merit of Miriam, who uttered a song by the waters <of the Reed Sea>….The manna was through the merit of Moses.
Some commenters assign the 10 plagues to one of the four elements. Rabbi Kornfeld (following many others) adds in a 5th element of the soul and divides them as follows:
- Water: Blood and Frogs
- Earth: Lice and Mixed Beasts (others say Wild Beasts)
- Fire: Boils and Hail
- Air: Locusts and Darkness
- The Soul: Pestilence and the Death of the Firstborn
Put these ideas together and we have our three children of Jochebed and Amram, each with power over one or more elements. While the commentaries I’ve seen assign water to Aaron, clearly water is Miriam’s dominion, though Torah gives her no role in the ten plagues (she did not even go to the palace).
If we look at the actions of the two brothers during the ten plagues, we see some patterns:
The Ten Plagues
- 1. Blood: Aaron struck the water with his staff.
- 2. Frogs: Aaron stretched hand over the water.
- 3. Bugs: Aaron struck the earth with his staff.
- 4. Wild Animals: No mention of who started it but Moses ended it with prayer.
- 5. Pestilence: By the word of Moses.
- 6. Boils: Moses tossed soot in the air.
- 7. Hail: Moses stretched forth his staff. He stopped it by spreading his hands.
- 8. Locust: Moses raised his arms and the wind brought the locusts. He sent the locusts away via the wind by prayer.
- 9. Darkness: No mention of how it started.
- 10. Death of the First-Born: Moses predicted the timing but did not do anything to bring it forth. This one was all God.
- Additional: At the Red Sea, Moses called the wind that divided the water.
I use the 4 elements as a motif throughout my story. My main character, Ruth, comes to Egypt when Miriam calls her. And they find what they have in common is the power to control water.
I divide the powers as follows:
Aaron, the power of Earth
He “leveled the mountains and valleys” on their journey, caused the floor of the Red Sea to be flat for the fleeing Hebrews and uneven and muddy for the pursuing Egyptian soldiers, and struck his staff on the earth to bring forth insects and other plagues.
Moses, the power of Air
He tossed soot in the air to bring about the plague of boils, brought both the plagues of hail and locusts by manipulating the wind (and sent away the locusts with the wind as well), and his role in parting the Red Sea was by calling a strong wind against the water.
Miriam, the power of Water
Miriam’s well watered both humans and animals during the Exodus (from Midrash and a story so strong most Jews might not realize it’s not in the Torah). She was also a midwife (amniotic fluid being a living water)(midwives are mentioned in Torah but we only know Miriam is one through Midrash). In the early chapters of Exodus, she saved the life of her baby brother Moses by convincing her mother to place him in an ark on the Nile and then she followed him to make sure he was found safely.
God as Fire
God requires sacrifices by fire as part of our worship, and punishes others who try to control fire. God appeared to Moses as a burning bush (that did not require the bush as fuel). God leads the Hebrews through the Exodus with a column of fire by night and a cloud (of smoke?) during the day.
Are these perfect divisions? Nope. Each of the siblings takes on roles outside of their specialty. For example, Moses brings forth water on several occasions. But he struggles with it. It’s not truly his power.
Whether you call it magic or powers or gifts from God, the facility to manipulate the elements in a way beyond normal human ability defines the Exodus.
- Taanit: Daf 9a. The William Davidson Talmud. Composed in Talmudic Babylon (c.450 – c.550 CE). Sefaria.
- The Ten Plagues. Chabad.
- Classical element. Wikipedia.
- Midrash Tanchuma Buber: Bamidbar, Siman 2. Composed in Talmudic Israel/Babylon (c.150 – c.750 CE).
- Divine Order in the 10 Plagues. Rabbi Mordecai Kornfeld’s Weekly Parasha-Page. Passover 5757
- The Four Elements and the Four Seasons. Jill Hammer, Tel Shemesh.
- The Four Elements in Jewish Literature. 2007. Daatemet.
- The Four Elements. Dovid Zaklikowski. Chabad.