Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues
Can we make sense of the Biblical plagues?
Read Ziony Zevit’s article “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, June 1990. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in July 2011.—Ed.
The Book of Exodus in the Bible describes ten Egyptian plagues that bring suffering to the land of pharaoh. Are these Biblical plagues plausible on any level? In the following article, “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues,” Ziony Zevit looks at these Biblical plagues from various vantage points. There’s something unique about these Egyptian plagues as presented in Exodus in the Bible. They’re different from the curses to Israelites as mentioned in Leviticus. Some have connected the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena that were possible in ancient Egypt. Torrential rains in Ethiopia could have sent red clay (“blood”) into the Nile, which could have caused a migration of frogs, further causing lice and flies, which caused the death of cattle and human boils. A second set of meteorological disasters, hailstorms (the seventh of the Biblical plagues) and locusts, may have been followed by a Libyan dust storm—causing darkness.Many of the Egyptian plagues could also be interpreted as “attacks against the Egyptian pantheon,” Zevit notes. Many of the Egyptian plagues mentioned in Exodus in the Bible have some correlation to an Egyptian god or goddess. For example, Heket was represented as a frog and Hathor as a cow. An ancient Egyptian “Coffin Text” refers to the slaying of first-born gods.
A third way to look at the Biblical plagues is by asking, “why ten?” Ultimately the plagues served to increase the faith of the surviving Israelites. On this count ten could be connected to the ten divine utterances of the creation account of Genesis 1. In relating the ten Egyptian plagues, the Exodus in the Bible could represent a parallel account of liberation, affecting all aspects of the created world.
Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues
Were they natural disasters, a demonstration of the impotence of the Egyptian gods or an undoing of Creation?by Ziony Zevit
When the enslaved Israelites sought to leave Egypt, Pharaoh said no. The Lord then visited ten plagues upon the Egyptians until finally Pharaoh permanently relented—the last of the plagues being the slaying of the first-born males of Egypt. Some of the plagues are the type of disasters that recur often in human history—hailstorms and locusts—and therefore appear possible and realistic. Others, less realistic, border on the comic—frogs and lice. Still others are almost surrealistic—blood and darkness—and appear highly improbable.
Many questions have been raised about the plagues on different levels. Some questions are naturalistic and historical: Did the plagues actually occur in the order and manner described in Exodus? Are there any ancient documents or other types of evidence corroborating that they took place or that something like them took place? Can the less realistic and surrealistic plagues be explained as natural phenomena? Other questions are literary and theological: Is the plague narrative a hodgepodge of sources pasted together by ancient editors (redactors)? What is the origin of the traditions in the extant plague narrative? What is the meaning of the narrative in its biblical context? Beyond the obvious story, did the plague narrative have any theological implications for ancient Israel?
My research has not provided answers to all these questions, but it will, I believe, provide some new insights.
For centuries exegetes have been struggling with the order, the number and the meaning of the plagues. As early as the medieval period, Jewish commentators noticed certain patterns in the narrative that reflected a highly organized literary structure. In the 12th century, a rabbi known as the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir),1 who lived in northern France, recognized that only certain plagues were introduced by warnings to Pharaoh, while others were not. To appreciate the pattern, divide the first nine plagues into three groups each; in the first two of each group, Pharaoh is warned that if he does not let the Israelites go, the plague will be visited on the Egyptians; in the third plague of each group, the plague strikes without warning.
In the 13th century Bahya ben Asher2 and in the 15th century Don Isaac Abravanel3 noted a certain repetitive pattern in who brought on the plagues. The first three plagues are brought on by Moses’ brother Aaron, who holds out his staff as the effective instrument (Exodus 7:19; 8:1; 8:12).a In the next group of three, the first two are brought on by God and the third by Moses (Exodus 8:20: 9:6; 9:10). In the last group of three the plagues are brought on by Moses’ holding out his arm with his staff (Exodus 9:22–23; 10:12–13; 10:21 [the last without mention of his staff]).
These patterns indicate that the plague narrative is a conscientiously articulated and tightly wrought composition.
Taking the plagues as a whole, however, it is clear that they differ considerably from the curses with which the Israelites are threatened in the so-called curse-lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In the curse-lists, the Lord tells the Israelites what will happen to them if they do not obey the Lord’s laws and commandments, if they breach the covenant. They will suffer, according to Leviticus, terror, consumption, fever, crop failure, defeat at the hands of their enemies, unnecessary fear; wild beasts will consume their children and cattle; they will die by the sword; they will be so hungry that they will eat the flesh of their children and, in the end, go into exile (Leviticus 26:14–26). Similarly in the augmented list of curses in Deuteronomy 28:15–60, they will suffer confusion, consumption, inflammation, madness, blindness, social chaos, military defeat, etc.
The maledictions in the curse-lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy have been shown to be part of a stock of traditional curses employed during the biblical period in the geographical area extending from Israel to ancient Mesopotamia. Not only are they attested in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), but also in the prophets; they also appear in the “curse” sections of contemporaneous ancient Near Eastern treaties.4These “curses” reflect the kinds of things that could, and probably did, happen in this geographical area as a result of natural or humanly-impose calamities. True there is some overlap between these curses and the plagues. Dever (pestilence) occurs both in the Egyptian plagues and in the curse lists of Leviticus. 26:25 and Deuteronomy 28:21. “Boils” occurs in the curse list of Deuteronomy 28:35 while a locust-like plague is mentioned in. Deuteronomy 28:42. Nevertheless, in the Pentateuchal curse lists, the Israelites—on their way to the Promised land—are threatened with disasters they might expect in the ecological system of the land to which they were headed, not those of the land of Egypt from which they were fleeing.
The plagues visited on the Egyptians are quite different.5 To understand their significance we should focus on Egypt in particular rather than the ancient Near East as a whole.
The most sophisticated attempt to relate the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena does so in terms of Egypt’s ecosystem. According to this interpretation, the first six plagues can even be explained in their sequential order: The naturalistic account is connected initially with the violent rain storms that occur in the mountains of Ethiopia. The first plague, blood, is the red clay swept down into the Nile from the Ethiopian highlands. The mud then choked the fish in the area inhabited by the Israelites. The fish clogged the swamps where the frogs lived; the fish, soon infected with anthrax, caused the frogs (the second plague) to leave the Nile for cool areas, taking refuge in people’s houses. But, since the frogs were already infected with the disease, they died in their new habitats. As a consequence, lice, the third plague, and flies, the fourth plague, began to multiply, feeding off the dead frogs. This gave rise to a pestilence that attacked animals, the fifth plague, because the cattle were feeding on grass which by then had also become infected. In man, the symptom of the same disease was boils, the sixth plague.
A second sequence of plagues, according to this explanation, is related to atmospheric and climatic conditions in Egypt. Hailstorms, the seventh plague, came out of nowhere. Although not common, hailstorms do occur rarely in Upper Egypt and occasionally in Lower Egypt during late spring and early fall. In this reconstruction, the hailstorm was followed by the eighth plague, locusts, a more common occurrence. The ninth plague, darkness, was a Libyan dust storm.6
The final plague, the death of the first-born, although not strictly commensurate with the other plagues, can be explained in ecological terms. It may be a reflection of the infant mortality rate in ancient Egypt.7 There is a problem with this explanation, however. According to the biblical narrative, the tenth plague struck all first-born males of whatever age, not just new-born infants.
This ecological explanation of the plagues does not prove that the biblical account is true, but only that it may have some basis in reality. As indicated, it also has weaknesses: The ecological chain is broken after the sixth plague, there being no causality between the plague of boils (the sixth plague) and the hail. The chain is again broken between the ninth and tenth plagues. In addition, there is no real link between the plagues in the seventh-eighth-ninth sequence (hail-locusts-darkness). Nevertheless, this explanation does firmly anchor the first six plagues in the Egyptian ecosystem, just as the curse-lists in the Torah reflect real conditions in the Land of Israel.
Moreover, two ancient Egyptian texts provide additional support. One is relevant to the first plague, blood. In “The Admonitions of Ipu-Wer,” dated at the latest to 2050 B.C.E., the author describes a chaotic period in Egypt: “Why really, the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water.”8
The second text, known as “The Prophecy of Nefer-Rohu” dates towards the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, about 2040–1650 B.C.E.; it relates to the ninth plague, darkness: “The sun disc is covered over. It will not shine (so that) people may see … No one knows when midday falls, for his shadow cannot be distinguished.”9
The ten plagues may also be interpreted as a series of attacks against the Egyptian pantheon. This suggestion finds support in Numbers 33:4 where we are told that the Egyptians buried those who had died by the tenth plague, by which plague “the Lord executed judgments againsttheir gods.”
Watch full-length lectures from the Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination conference, which addressed some of the most challenging issues in Exodus scholarship. The international conference was hosted by Calit2’s Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego in San Diego, CA.
According to this suggestion, the plague of blood (No. 1) was directed against the god Khnum, creator of water and life; or against Hapi, the Nile god; or against Osiris, whose bloodstream was the Nile. Frogs (No.2) was directed against Heket, a goddess of childbirth who was represented as a frog. The pestilence against cattle (No. 5) might have been directed against Hathor, the mother and sky goddess, represented in the form of a cow; or against Apis, symbol of fertility represented as a bull. Hail (No. 7) and locusts (No. 8 ) were, according to this explanation, directed against Seth, who manifests himself in wind and storms; and/or against Isis, goddess of life, who grinds, spins flax and weaves cloth; or against Min, who was worshiped as a god of fertility and vegetation and as a protector of crops. Min is an especially likely candidate for these two plagues because the notations in Exodus 9:31 indicate that the first plague came as the flax and barley were about to be harvested, but before the wheat and spelt had matured. A widely celebrated “Coming out of Min” was celebrated in Egypt at the beginning of the harvest.10 These plagues, in effect, devastated Min’s coming-out party.Darkness (No. 9), pursuing this line of interpretation, could have been directed against various deities associated with the sun—Amon-Re, Aten, Atum or Horus.
Finally, the death of the firstborn (No. 10) was directed against the patron deity of Pharaoh, and the judge of the dead, Osiris.
Additional data from Egyptian religious texts clarifies the terrifying tenth plague. The famous “Cannibal Hymn,” carved in the Old Kingdom pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, about 2300 B.C.E., states: “It is the king who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on that day of slaying the first born.” Variations of this verse appear in a few Coffin Texts, magic texts derived from royal pyramid inscriptions of the Old Kingdom and written on the coffins of nobility of the Middle Kingdom, about 2000 B.C.E. For example, “I am he who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on that night of slaying the first born.”11Although the first-born referred to in the Coffin Text and probably also in the “Cannibal Hymn” are the first-born of gods, these texts indicate that an ancient tradition in Egypt recalled the slaying of all or some of the first-born of gods on a particular night.12
Assuming that some form of this pre-Israelite Egyptian tradition was known during the period of the enslavement, it may have motivated the story of the final plague. However, in the biblical story, he who revealed his hidden name to Moses at the burning bramble bush revealed himself as the Him-whose-name-is-hidden of the Egyptian myth, and alone slew the first-born males of Egypt. In this final plague, then, there was no conflict between the Lord and an Egyptian deity; rather through this plague the triumphant god of Israel fulfilled the role of an anonymous destroyer in a nightmarish prophecy from the Egyptian past.
One weakness in interpreting the plagues solely as a religious polemic against Egyptian gods, however, is that some of the plagues are unaccounted for; and not all of the plagues can be conveniently matched up with Egyptian gods or texts. Specifically, divine candidates are lacking for the third, fourth and sixth plagues—lice, flies and boils. Even if scratching through Egyptian sources might produce some minor candidates that could fill these lacunae, there is another difficulty with the religious polemic interpretation. The Egyptian material on which this interpretation rests comes from different times and different places. The extant data do not enable us to claim that the perception of the pantheon presented above was historically probable in the Western Delta during the 14th–12th centuries B.C.E. when and where Israelites became familiar with it. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, the Egyptian material describing links between Egyptian deities and natural phenomena does provide us with some insights into the way the plagues were intended to be understood.
Another line of interpretation, however, results from Posing the questions: Why ten plagues? Why these ten plagues?
According to Exodus 7:4–5, the function of the plagues is didactic: “I will lay my hands upon Egypt and deliver hosts, my people, the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with great acts of judgment. And the Egyptians shall know that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt.” Despite the reference to the Egyptians learning a lesson—namely, the Lord’s power—it seems clear that the real beneficiaries of the plagues were not intended to be Egyptians. If the education of the Egyptians was the reason for the plagues, the lesson was certainly lost on the intended beneficiaries. The true beneficiaries of the lesson that God said he would teach were the Israelites. As we read in Exodus 14:31: “When Israel saw the mighty act [literally ‘hand/arm’] which the Lord had done in Egypt, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”
What ignited the faith of the Israelites was not their physical redemption from Egypt, but rather “the mighty act which the Lord had done in Egypt”—that is, the plagues.
What was there about the plagues that triggered Israel’s response in faith? Through the plagues the Lord demonstrated that he was the God of creation. As we examine the narrative closely, we will see how this notion is conveyed.
The first plague, blood, is described in Exodus 7:19. There we are told that Aaron is to take his staff and hold it over all of Egypt’s bodies (or gatherings) of water and they will become blood. The Hebrew word for “bodies” or “gatherings” of water is mikveh. This is the same word that appears in the opening chapters of Genesis when God creates the seas: “God called the dry land Earth, and the gatherings (mikveh) of waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10). The use of the word mikveh in Exodus 7:19 in connection with the plague of blood cannot fail to evoke an association with the creation of the seas in Genesis 1:10 and indicates the cosmic import of the plague. Similarly, the expression in Exodus 7:19 “Let them become blood” echoes the use of “Let there be(come)” in the creation story in Genesis.
However, in contrast to the creation, where the primeval waters are not altered by a creative act, the first plague demonstrates that God is able to change the very nature of things.
Plagues two, three and four—frogs, lice and flies—form an interesting triad. The frogs are associated withwater, the lice with earth, and the flies with air. Frogs, we are told, came out of the “rivers, the canals, and the ponds of Egypt” (Exodus 8:1). In Exodus, the Nile swarmed with frogs which then covered all the land (Exodus 7:28–29), while in Genesis God says, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). Understood against the background of Genesis, the frog plague in Egypt was a new creation of life, although not a beneficent one.
Similarly, with lice (the third plague) that came forth from the dust of the earth (Exodus 8:12–13). The lice correspond to the crawling creatures (remes) that come forth from the earth in Genesis 1:24.
Flies (the fourth plague) correspond to the flying creatures; in Genesis God orders that “flying creatures multiply in the land” (Genesis 1:22). In Egypt, the flies not only multiplied in the land, they filled the land. After the fly plague the situation in Egypt was a complete reversal of the one anticipated by the divine blessing to mankind in Genesis 1:28, where God tells man to “Rule the fish of the sea, the winged creatures of the heavens, and all living creatures which creep on the earth.” In Egypt, these creatures were totally out of control.
Was Moses more than an Exodus hero? Discover the Biblical Moses in “The Man Moses” by Peter Machinist, originally published in Bible Review and now available for free in Bible History Daily.
The fifth plague (pestilence) affected only animals, not men; and only the field animals of the Egyptians, not those of the Israelites (Exodus 9:3–7). In Genesis 2:18–20 the animals are created specifically for man. In the plague of pestilence, the domestic animals that were under man’s dominion were taken away from the Egyptians. That which was first created for man was first removed from the Egyptians by the firstplague directed specifically against created things.The sixth plague, boils, is the only one that does not fit easily into the pattern I have been describing. Perhaps it should be understood against the background of the Torah’s laws of purity: A person afflicted with boils is ritually unclean (Leviticus 13:18–23). This is complemented by the stringent demands of Egyptian religion during the New Kingdom, about 1550–1080 B.C.E., concerning the ritual and physical purity requited of priests before entering a sanctuary.13 Egyptians considered themselves superior to other peoples. Pharaoh himself was a god and his officers were priests. Perhaps the image of these superior, “holier than thou” individuals suffering from boils, a painful and unaesthetic affliction, was humorous to the Israelites and was considered a barb against Egyptian religion.
The next two plagues, hail and locusts involve the destruction of another part of creation, primarily vegetation. What was not destroyed by the hail was consumed by the locusts. When these two plagues had run their course, Egypt could be contrasted to the way the world appeared after the third day of creation: “The land brought forth vegetation: seed bearing fruit with seed in it” (Genesis 1:12). By contrast, in Exodus 10:15 we are told that “nothing green was left of tree or grass of the field in all the land of Egypt.”
Perhaps the most misunderstood of all the plagues is darkness, the ninth plague. In Exodus 10:21–23 we read that a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23). What is described here is not simply the absence of light. The darkness is something physical, “a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21b). The alternation of light and darkness, of day and night, has ceased. Yet darkness and light exist side by side in geographically distinct places. The Israelites did have light. In short, in Egypt, God had reverted the relationship between darkness and light to what had been prior to the end of the first day of creation—that is, to the state that existed briefly between Genesis 1:4 and Genesis 1:5.
The final plague, the death of the first-born, is only a forerunner to the complete destruction of all the Egyptians at the Red Sea, or Reed Sea.b Here we hear a twisted, obverse echo of the optimism expressed in Genesis 1:26, where God said, “I will make man in my image and after my likeness.” Instead of creating, he is destroying—first, the first-born, and then, at the sea, all of Egypt.
At the end of the narrative in Exodus, Israel looks back over the stilled water of the sea at a land with no people, no animals and no vegetation, a land in which creation had been undone. Israel is convinced that her redeemer is the Lord of all creation. It is this implicit theological principle that motivated the explicit creation of the literary pattern. He who had just reduced order to chaos was the same as he who had previously ordered the chaos.
One question still remains. What is the significance of the number ten in the Exodus tradition? Why ten plagues? The answer, I believe, is clear. The number of plagues in Exodus was meant to correspond to the ten divine utterances by which the world was created and ordered (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29).14 The destruction of Egypt was part of the redemption of Israel, so the Exodus narrator tied his story of redemption to the story of creation through subtle echoes and word plays.15
Interestingly enough, there are two other accounts of the plagues in the Bible, one in Psalm 78:44–51 and the other in Psalm 105:28–36. These psalms differ somewhat between themselves; they also differ with the narrative in Exodus—regarding what constitutes a plague and the order in which they occurred.16 These differences can be taken to indicate that the specific number and order of the plagues was less important to Israel than the fact of the plagues and what was revealed to Israel through them.
For the psalmists, authors of liturgical texts, there were only seven plagues, a number clearly evoking the seven days of creation. In Egypt, however, the cycle did not end in a Sabbath; it culminated in a silent devastation. At the end of the seventh day (plague), creation in Egypt had been undone.
This tangle of threads—creation, on the one hand, and deliverance from slavery, on the other—is gathered together and neatly knotted in the Sabbath commandment of the Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments as set forth in Exodus, the motivation for observing the sabbath (the fifth commandment) is to commemorate creation: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work … for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:9–11). In the Ten Commandments as set forth in Deuteronomy, however, the reason Israel is commanded to observe the sabbath is different—not creation, but the delivery from Egyptian slavery. After being told to refrain from work on the sabbath—in the same language as in Exodus—the reason is given: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm [a reference to the plagues]; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
As we have already noted, Psalms 78 and 105 preserve a tradition of seven plagues. In the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, Israel is told to remember the seventh-day sabbath to commemorate the six-day creation; in Deuteronomy 5, Israel is to observe the seventh-day sabbath to commemorate the deliverance from Egyptian slavery by God’s outstretched arm involving, according to the tradition in the Psalms, seven plagues.
This explanation of the plagues and their number also answers some historical questions concerning the biblical tradition of the ten plagues:
1. The plague tradition includes calamitous events that do not derive from experiences in the Land of Israel; this establishes a prima facie case that the tradition has roots in an ecological system unknown to the Israelites living in their own land.
2. An Egyptian milieu not only provides a basis for explaining the plagues in terms of natural phenomena, it also allows us plausibly to link at least some of the sequences of plagues.
These two points lead me to conclude that a historical kernel must underlie the Egyptian plague traditions preserved in the Bible.
3. We can speculate a bit further: perhaps a series of natural disasters occurred in Egypt in a relatively short period of time. Egyptian religion would have had to explain it. A link between these disasters and various Egyptian deities (expressing their displeasure) formed.17 No matter how Egyptians interpreted these disasters, Israelites could have accepted the notion that they were divinely caused but would have viewed them as contests between their patron and the gods of Egypt, the result of which were judgments against the gods of Egypt and their earthly representatives.18 Trace of this stage in the development of the tradition can be found in the Biblical narrative. During this, the interpretative stage, the plagues were theologized, providing cosmic meaning to the natural phenomena even as they were removed from the realm of what we would call “nature.”
4. The Plague traditions, which were maintained orally by the Israelites until some time after the establishment of the monarchy, continued to be reworked in the land of Israel. There, far from the ecological context of Egypt, some phenomena natural in Egypt would have appeared incomprehensible to them and even fantastic, inviting imaginative embellishment.
The Israelite traditors, those who passed on the tradition, were no longer familiar with the Egyptian cultural milieu in which the disasters had been theoligized and made meaningful by their ancestors. Thesetraditors, therefore, made them meaningful within their own world view by connection the plagues, which initiated the emergence of Israel as a covenant community, with the creation of the world.
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