By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Here’s a question for you: originally, how many ‘plagues of Egypt’ were there? If you answered ‘ten’, you need to read on. The so-called ‘ten plagues of Egypt’, described in the Book of Exodus, have been the subject of considerable commentary and analysis, but in this post we’re going to try to offer an introduction to, and analysis of, their meaning and significance.
Euhemerism is the branch of literary and mythic analysis which seeks rational, scientific, or historical origins for remarkable events. Of course, believers in the truth of the Bible will not require there to be any such explanations for the plagues of Egypt, but often the miraculous events of the Old Testament appear to have their roots in more everyday, non-supernatural phenomena.
Let’s take a look at some of the leading ideas concerning each of the plagues.
Ten plagues of Egypt: summary
In the famous ‘burning bush’ incident (analysed here), God appeared to Moses and commanded him to unite the tribes of Israel and lead them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan.
God warned Moses that once he has gathered together the children of Israel, Pharaoh would not let them go. After all, they were living as slaves under Egypt’s rule, and the king of Egypt wasn’t going to give up his slaves just like that. But God promised to strike Egypt with miraculous ‘wonders’ and that should do the trick in helping Pharaoh to change his mind.
Moses and his older brother Aaron initially try to appeal to Pharaoh’s better nature, but he doesn’t appear to have one. Having entreated Pharaoh to let his people go, Moses and Aaron turn a rod into a serpent, but Pharaoh summons his magicians of Egypt to replicate the ‘trick’, regarding it as nothing more than a piece of conjuring.
So Moses has to take things up a notch. Enter the ‘ten plagues’, which it’s worth outlining and enumerating here.
7:17 Thus saith the LORD, In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood.
7:18 And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink of the water of the river.
The first plague saw the river Nile turned to blood, causing the death of the fish.
8:2 And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs: 8:3 And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs: 8:4 And the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.
The second plague is the plague of frogs. Plagues of frogs were not unheard of in ancient times, and the Dictionary of the Bible points out that H. Rider Haggard observed one in Africa in modern times (in his book Under Crescent and Star).
8:16 And the LORD said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
8:17 And they did so; for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
The third plague is lice.
8:21 Else, if thou wilt not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thy houses: and the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground whereon they are.
The fourth plague is swarms of flies. Exodus 8:14 tells us that the dead frogs were piled up in heaps, so it’s logical to assume these would have attracted swarms of flies.
9:2 For if thou refuse to let them go, and wilt hold them still, 9:3 Behold, the hand of the LORD is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain.
The fifth plague is the plague of cattle (and other livestock).
9:8 And the LORD said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh.
9:9 And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.
The illness will not just affect the animals, but, in the sixth plague, the people too (‘blains upon man’).
9:22 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch forth thine hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, upon man, and upon beast, and upon every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt.
9:23 And Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt.
The seventh plague is meteorological: thunder and hail upon the land of Egypt.
10:4 Else, if thou refuse to let my people go, behold, to morrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast: 10:5 And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field: 10:6 And they shall fill thy houses, and the houses of all thy servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians
The eighth plague is perhaps the most famous in the popular consciousness: the plague of locusts. A strong east wind (i.e., the sirocco) could well have brought a mass of locusts in the wake of the thunder and hail described above.
10:21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.
10:22 And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: 10:23 They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
The ninth plague is darkness for three days. And believe it or not, the strong electrical wind known as the Khamsin can throw out so much dust and sand as to produce a blackness not dissimilar to modern-day pollution in major cities.
11:4 And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: 11:5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
11:6 And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.
11:7 But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that ye may know how that the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.
The tenth and final plague of Egypt is the killing of the firstborn children of the Egyptians, but with the Israelites being spared. Since Pharaoh had sought to destroy the firstborn of the Israelites, there’s a certain poetic justice to this punishment. Again, if we wished to seek out a more humdrum origin for this plague, we need simply recall that child mortality is naturally worse during the time of epidemics, and pestilence was often worse during the time of the Khamsin wind, as the Dictionary of the Bible reminds us.
Ten plagues of Egypt: analysis
It’s thought that the original sources for the Book of Exodus mentioned eight plagues, rather than the ‘ten plagues of Egypt’ now commonly talked about. Just as there weren’t originally Ten Commandments, so there (probably) weren’t ten plagues, because the third and fourth plagues are both insect-related, and the fifth and sixth (plague and boils) are both illness-related, and so were probably regarded as part of the same package of persecution, if you will.
The most significant of the ten plagues is undoubtedly the tenth and final one, in which the first-born son of every house in Egypt is killed by God. However, the sons of the Israelites are spared, because God commands each family to eat a ceremonial meal and then place the blood of the lamb they have consumed on the door of their house. When God came over and struck down the sons of Egypt, whenever he saw a house with blood of the lamb on its door, he spared the son of that house.
Because God promised to ‘pass over’ the house of any Israelite, Jewish people commemorate this event – which marks the real beginning of the exodus out of Egypt and the founding of the land of Israel – in an annual ceremony known in English as Passover, because God ‘passed over’ the houses of Israel and spared them.
It’s actually quite likely that Passover grew out of an even older agricultural festival, which simply acquired new significance following the story of the exodus. Most such festivals have a strong link with the land and the growing of crops, after all.
In her hugely readable introduction to the stranger aspects of the Bible, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, Kristin Swenson offers some scientific explanations for each of the ten plagues of Egypt. A great rain might have eroded clay into the Nile, causing it to appear red like blood and to choke the fish; this clay would have caused the frogs, infected with anthrax, to migrate into people’s homes, causing lice and flies; these insect infestations would, in turn, cause the deaths of cattle and human boils.
All of this culminates in high infant mortality rates: the so-called slaying of the first-born sons of the houses of Egypt.
Another theory Swenson puts forward is that each plague represents a symbolic swipe at each of the major gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Sure enough, ancient Egyptians had a frog god, Heqet (to offer one example), and Pharaoh himself was regarded as a god on earth, so this would explain why his own people must be killed in the tenth and final plague. Yahweh is asserting his dominance over the Egyptian gods through sending the plagues over Egypt.