Exod. 6:7 "...ye [Israelites] shall know that I am the LORD your God..."I suppose someone might call it "showing off", and in a sense, they'd not be far from the truth. God doesn't just want to rescue the Israelites, He wants to rescue them while taking the time to drive home a point to everyone involved. Sure, God could have just forced Pharaoh to change his mind about the Israelites, and they could have just walked away, but what would be the result? Aside from the fact that God is forcing someone to change their mind (something that I think is against His basic nature), there is no justice in it, and no lesson for anyone to learn. What lesson should they learn?
Exod. 7:4 "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD..."
Here's a pretty good analogy, I think. Suppose it was God's will for me to get a Master's Degree in Mathematics (something I've been considering pursuing lately). I could check out a college that offered a good program, get accepted, pass the courses, and earn my degree, with all of those actions proceeding smoothly and easily from one moment to the next because God paved the way for me. After it was said and done, I probably wouldn't think to thank God for the series of everyday miracles that brought me there. On the other hand, if I was reluctant to go back to school, and God firmed my resolve not to, I would say with surety, "I'm not going back to school." Then God could strike me with some sort of awful disease, make me lose my job, and have my car stolen. I might ask, "God, have I made a wrong decision? If you want me to go to school, I don't understand, because I need $22,700 dollars to pay for my expenses, and I just don't have it!" The day after praying this, a check arrives in the mail from the IRS for exactly $22,700 saying that they discovered a mistake on some of my previous tax returns. (Not likely, as I've never made enough to pay that much in taxes, I'm pretty sure.) Then I would enroll in school and my disease would clear up, I'd get a new, better job, and my stolen car would be found. "Wow," I'd say, "clearly God is trying to tell me something."
God is trying to tell somebody something here. He's sending a clear message to Pharaoh, Moses, the Israelites, the Egyptians, and a number of neighboring nations that will all see these bizarre miracles. Message? You'd better take the God of Israel seriously.
Now, people ask (as the SAB does in Exodus) whether it's worth killing children to make this statement. It's a question worth asking, no doubt. In my view, the answer to that is, you have to look at the big picture. We, as living beings, are afraid of death. Why? Well, if you don't believe there is an afterlife (or if you believe the afterlife is something generally unpleasant), then there is a sense of loss in having a loved one die. If, however, you believe that there is such a place as Heaven, and specifically that all children who die go there (I may have mentioned this common Christian belief in an earlier post, I'm not sure...), then while killing hundreds, nay thousands of Egyptian children is cruel to the parents of those children, we have no reason to believe that the children themselves suffered in any way. So we are only left with the question of whether the parents deserved to be punished.
I remember reading a bit of an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre several years ago in which he addressed from an entirely atheistic point of view the idea of responsibility of citizens of a nation for the actions that nation takes as a whole. (I probably don't remember it so very well, and I've not read Sartre extensively, so forgive me if I get his ideas not quite right; in the end, I'm making my own point, but isn't a bit of namedropping fun?) Essentially, it doesn't really matter what sort of government you live under--although perhaps in a democracy, you participate more than would those living under a monarchy--if your government commits some atrocity, you are, in part at least, responsible. Don't like the war in Iraq? Too bad, U.S. citizens, your government is waging it in your name. Lived in Germany during the Third Reich? If you stood passively by as millions were gassed in concentration camps, their blood is on your hands as much as the Nazis. The fact is that Pharaoh systematically tried to kill off the Jews, and he wasn't overthrown by an outraged citizenry. The Egyptians were responsible for the deaths of those Israelite children, and the time was about to come upon them when they would receive the comeuppance for it.
Was it cruelty, or was it justice? It's all speculation, and in a sense, it's only God's place to judge. As for myself, though, I see the strong possibility that this was a righteous act on God's part, despite the personal distaste I may have for the result.