The Story Behind the Ten Plagues

The Angel of Death passes by a household in this painting by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872.

Few stories in the Old Testament are as familiar as that of the Ten Plagues that God inflicted on Egypt to convince its hard-hearted Pharaoh to release the captive Israelites. It’s the foundational story of the Old Testament nation of Israel, and is thus filled with historical and theological significance. And it also contains all the ingredients of a powerful Bible story: it features suffering captives, a malicious villain, a rescuing God, and a whole series of terrifying and awe-inspiring miracles.

If you haven’t read the story of the Ten Plagues and the Exodus in a while (or ever), take a few minutes to do so now—you can find it in Exodus 8-13.

I’ll bet it’s the rare person who reads the story of the Ten Plagues and doesn’t find him- or herself brimming with questions: did the Ten Plagues occur exactly as described in the text? Are they metaphorical descriptions of natural disasters or other crises that befell Egypt? Were they natural phenomena that God triggered for his purposes, or were they overtly supernatural in nature? Is this “just” a historical account, or is there theological significance in the different plagues?

Christians have answered these questions in varying ways. Growing up, I read a lot of efforts to explain the ten plagues scientifically: maybe the first plague (water turned to blood) was caused by red-colored aquatic algae, or perhaps the plague of darkness was a massive sandstorm or other natural disaster. Other Christians have offered other explanations over the years.

If you’ve ever been intrigued by the story of the Ten Plagues, I recommend reading a recent article by Ziony Zevit describing three ways to look at the Ten Plagues. Zevit lists some of the questions that have challenged scholars and believers for centuries:

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?

The article lays out some of the traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of the Ten Plagues. Beyond the historical and ecological explanations, some people interpret them as specific polemic attacks on Egyptian religion or as an illustration of God’s mastery over chaos. The article summarizes the most compelling explanations, noting the strengths and weaknesses of the different theories. Among other things, it quickly becomes clear that when reading a complex Biblical story like this one, we shouldn’t stop with the question “How and when did this happen?”—we should also ask “What significance did this story hold for its original audience?” and “What does this story tell us about God?”

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Posted by Andy

Filed under Bible Study