Encyclopedia of The Bible – Plagues of Egypt
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Plagues of Egypt

PLAGUES OF EGYPT. A series of ten penal miracles performed upon the pharaoh and people of Egypt (Exod 7-12).

A. The Biblical plagues. The ten wonders performed upon Egypt are collectively called: שְׁפָטִ֖ים, “judgments” (Exod 7:4); מַגֵּפָה, H4487, “pestilence, plague,” participial form of נָגַף, H5597, “to smite, to defeat” (9:14); נֶ֫גַע, H5596, “stroke,” in the sense of a “wound” possibly of Egyp. origin (11:1); and collectively with other miraculous acts as אﯴת֒, H253, “sign”; מﯴפֵת, H4603, “token,” “wonder” (7:3, et al.). The text is most specific in presenting these plagues as the direct result of God’s intervention in human affairs by divine decree. The moral response of God’s justice against the lawless iniquity of the pharaoh and his court, the just recompense for the pharaoh’s hardness of heart, were given historical form in the plagues. Two features of the plagues are uppermost: (1) they are the result of divine activity; (2) they are natural phenomena expanded to catastrophic proportions.

1. Blood. (וַיֵּהָֽפְכ֛וּ לְדָֽם, “and they were turned to blood”). The verb הָפַכְ, H2200, means “lead away,” “take away,” and the noun דָּם, H1947, means “blood.”

That this was really mammalian blood is actually not indicated as has been traditionally assumed. However, nowhere in the OT is the noun used in any other sense without some qualifying term, as “blood of the grape” (Deut 32:14). On the other hand, this transposition of the waters and another natural fluid was performed by the magicians of the pharaoh. To allow such a feat as a demoniac event is to open the door of Biblical interpretation to all manner of superstitious and paganistic notions.

2. Frogs. (בַּֽצְפַרְדְּעִֽים, “with frogs”). This rare word appears only thirteen times in the OT in this context and in Psalms 78:45; 105:30. It is probable that the word is a participial form based on some concept such as “chirp” or “croak.”

3. Gnats. (כִּנִּ֖ם) a term which may have cognates in some of the lesser Sem. languages.

4. Flies. (עָרֹ֑ב, “insects”). This was prob. a biting swamp fly, some sort of phlebotomistic insect. The etymology of this term is not clear, since there are many homophonic words; the rabbinic tradition connects it to many of them.

5. Murrain. (דֶּ֖בֶר כָּבֵ֥ד מְאֹֽד, “very grievous ulcer”). This smote the cattle and draft animals of the country. The precise description or etiology is not indicated, but its result was death (v. 6). In the parallel retelling of the plagues (Ps 78:48), this affliction of the cattle is modified, “He gave over their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to thunderbolts.” There is no necessity to assume that the two accounts are mutually contradictory.

6. Boils. (שְׁחִינ׃֙ אֲבַעְבֻּעֹ֔ת פֹּרֵ֕חַ, “inflammations breaking out in pustules”). This difficult phrase contains two terms found infrequently in the OT. The term שְׁחִינ׃֙ is a nominal form of the same root as Akkad. “to burn.” The participle “breaking out” is fairly common in the OT, but the pl. noun appears only in this passage (Exod 9:9, 10). The term is cognate to Akkad. where it is found frequently in the Assyrian medical texts. The Assyrian contexts in which it appears would tend to support a meaning of a swelling “filled with pus.” Thus the plague was a disease entity raising vesicles or abscesses, such as bubonic plague. The text specifically states, “And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils [inflammations, abscesses], for the boils were upon the magicians” (9:11). This sixth plague reached the counselors of the pharaoh.

7. Hail. (בָּרָ֖ד, “hail”). Hail is mentioned a number of times as a judgment of God (Exod 9:18 et al.; Isa 28:2, 17; Hag 2:17; Rev 8:7 et al.).

8. Locusts. (אַרְבֶּה, H746, literally, “swarm” but usually understood as “locusts in a swarm,” cf. Deut 28:38 et al.). The scourge of locusts that frequently afflicted Egypt are well known from many non-Biblical sources.

9. Darkness. (חֹ֫שֶׁכְ, H3125, “darkness”). This term carries a special cosmic or sinister sense, used initially in Genesis 1:2 and throughout the OT. Traditionally the passage in Exodus 10:21-23, 27 has been explained as a result of the clouding over of the sun by the locusts of the eighth plague. More of a catastrophe is involved, however, because it stands between the last of the grievous but natural plagues and the one great and utterly supernatural one, the harbinger of the tenth.

10. Death of the firstborn. (וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכﯴר׃֮, “first-born shall die”). This last and most awesome scourge demonstrated without any doubt the providence of God in regard to Israel and His determinate council regarding the eldest in each family of both man and beast. Nowhere else in Scripture is such a terrible illustration of God’s judgment displayed. The contrast of Israel’s deliverance and Egypt’s condemnation is repeated over and over in later ages. The total separation, the antithesis between Israelite and Egyptian is stressed in v. 7 of ch. 11.

B. The theological significance. That Egypt’s gods (the animistic worship of idols) were being cursed is made clear, “and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exod 12:12). Just in what way and to what degree the pagan cult of the Egyptians was involved in the plagues is not clear. The knowledge extant concerning the practical everyday worship of the Egyp. pantheon is meager, and for all intents and purposes little or nothing is known about their metaphysical assumptions from the documented sources. It is obvious, however, that the twenty-two Egyp. provinces each had their respective religious center and totemic animal or plant. It is precisely the attributes of these deities that are involved in the plagues, but whether each of the plagues was thought to be the special domain of one or another of the Egyp. gods cannot be stated with certainty. The plagues, however, were outward physical consequents of inward moral conditions. “Not merely the Egyptians, but likewise the Egyptians’ gods are involved in the conflict” (G. Vos, Biblical Theology [1954], 124-130, quoted from 126). The situation of the Exodus from Egypt comprised not merely the physical bondage of the Jews but also the spiritual oppression of sin from which they were released by an act of God’s special grace. In the same fashion that Yahweh intervened to free them from pharaoh, so also He freed them from the restraints and penalty of their iniquity. Nowhere in the OT is the particularistic quality of God’s grace so openly declared as in the Exodus. The identical judgments and circumstances that delivered Israel sentenced Egypt—the one to salvation, the other to reprobation. As a prefigurement of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, the Exodus and the plagues that accompanied it derive their true meaning and proper perspective. The sacred poetry of later ages celebrate the ev ent, and the clear remembrance of it is reiterated at the Passover and celebration of the first communion by Jesus before His death. The two events, the Exodus and the Passion, are acts of God’s special grace, by which not only deliverance but atonement and redemption are accomplished. In the OT motif of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, the Exodus and the plagues are an event of momentous proportions; upon them rests the faith of Israel in the covenant promises of God. The restriction of the miraculous events of the Exodus to one small area and to one short period of time demonstrates the divine character of the action. The miracles of Scripture are not magical ways to accomplish difficult feats before an illiterate, credulous, and prescientific audience. They are transcendent and supernatural assurances that the word-revelation—given at the same time, in this case the ordinances of the Passover and the law—are true and of absolute divine authority. The declaration of God, “and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and...multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exod 7:3) is for the purpose that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (7:5). Ultimately the plagues caused Egypt in its suffering to admit Yahweh’s sovereignty and to glorify the God of Israel.

C. Modern interpretations of the plagues. In both rabbinic and Christian exegesis, a number of attempts have been made to accomodate the narrative of the plagues to the theological Zeitgeist. The anti-Semitism of the medieval church caused its scholars to dwell upon the fig. relationships within the story. A favorite study was the numeristic meaning of the “10” that was thought to be the number of perfection. With the rise of rationalism, after the Renaissance and Reformation, the theme of the plagues was felt to be a crude and barbaric legend, a vestige of the evolution of sophisticated religion. With the coming of the negative higher critical theses in the 19th cent., the Exodus narratives were dismembered according to the documentary hypothesis. It may be admitted that certain portions of the Pentateuch do indicate the use and collation of prior documents, but Exodus 7-12 is a prime example of the subjectivity of the Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen method. The division of the text into “J,” Yahwist sources; “E,” Elohist sources; and “P,” Priestly sources is proposed on the basis of “style” and the fact that the Psalmic reiterations of the plagues (Ps 78; 105) do not include all the plagues and rearrange the order as given in Exodus 7-12. The scheme of division is as follows:

The sources and their literary genres are deduced. If this division is made, however, and each of the lines of evidence then followed through, the resultant stories are meaningless in themselves. It must also be added, in retrospect, that many diverse opinions concerning the alignment of the above sources also exist. Another and more recent development in the exegesis of the narrative has been the attempt to locate some extra-Biblical account of the plagues in the Egyp. sources available. This was attempted in the 19th cent., but has gained wider recognition in the 20th, particularly through the efforts of a group of scholars advocating a neo-catastrophic view of earth history. According to this presentation, extraterrestrial events such as the passage of comets and alterations in the earth’s elliptic affected human history. The Jewish scholar I. Velikovsky has been a storm center of controversy for proposing that a natural catastrophe of astronomical origin and cosmic proportions caused the events of the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the fire and smoke from Sinai. This and similar speculations have been set forth in such books as, Worlds in Collision and Ages in Chaos. Velikovsky seeks the synchronism of the Exodus account with the Egyp. Middle Kingdom papyrus, The Admonitions of Ipu-Wer (Leiden Papyrus I, 344). This badly damaged text is assumed to have been written on the basis of a work current about 2000 b.c. and thought to indicate the situation of Egyp. society in the First Intermediate Period. Undoubtedly the date of the Exodus is one of the most perplexing problems in Old World archeology as it is placed on a scale which, in turn, is useless if indeed Velikovsky’s theories or any substantial portion of them are correct. Entirely too much of the 19th cent. organization of the Biblical history was based upon a dependence upon Egyptian and Mesopotamian chronology, which has been seriously eroded in the 20th cent. The expansion of man’s horizon by the American and Soviet achievements in space will no doubt alter fundamentally the way in which the history of the past is comprehended. Although Velikovsky and his followers may well be discredited in regard to their views of the ancient world, yet the reliability of their methods of understanding the past will carry the day. It is necessary, however, to point out that these speculations do not involve nor require a divine initiation for the plagues, a point on which the Biblical narrative is adamant. Recent works on comparative religions have tended to treat the story of the ten plagues simply as a Sem. myth. The events of the Exodus are undeniable, and the archeological record of the conquest of Pal. under Joshua is beyond question; no humanistic explanations yet devised will suffice. The rest of Scripture, including the gospel traditions, presupposes and comments upon the fact of the Exodus, and its historicity is confirmed beyond question by the NT writers. To excise it from the OT as some mere aggregate of ancient fancy is to deprive the Christian religion of its greatest single example of God’s salvation in the OT period. To do such would undercut the teaching of Jesus and the purpose of the Atonement.

Bibliography C. Leemans, Monumens égyptiens du Musée d’antiquités des Pays-Bas à Leide (1841-1882), II pls. cv-cxiii; E. W. Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses (1843); A. H. Gardiner, The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage (1909); J. H. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (1933); M. G. Kyle, ISBE vol. IV (1939), 2403-2406; J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture, III-IV (1940), 725-737; ed. A. de Grazia, The Velikovsky Affair (1966).