The Ten Plagues: Showdown Between Israel’s God and the Gods of Egypt
One of my favourite movies is The Mummy franchise with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. I have always found ancient Egyptology fascinating. So, when the reading schedule came to Exodus, I couldn’t help but chose to research and write something about the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt. The events of the plagues make for a gripping narrative. It’s no wonder the story has endured as one of the more widely recognized events in the Bible. These spectacular episodes secured Israel’s freedom from slavery. The plagues’ utilitarian purpose is certainly more familiar. But what message was God trying to convey with ten plagues? Couldn’t He have freed Israel by skipping to the last plague since it was the one that, essentially, did the trick? Well, the plagues also served a theological purpose. Through them God revealed Himself as the one true God, having authority over nature and other perceived gods.
Plagues as Signs of God’s Self-Revelation
When Moses and Aaron first appeared before Pharaoh seeking freedom for the Israelites, Pharaoh responded with two questions along with two correlating assertions:
… “Who is the LORD [?], that I should obey him and let Israel go?
I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”
Exodus 5:2 (NIV)
Pharaoh’s questions were not a general ontological inquiry about God. He was referring to a specific God. English translations often capitalize the word ‘Lord’ when translating ‘Yahweh’, God’s personal name. So, Pharaoh was essentially asking, “Who is this new god, Yahweh? I’ve never heard of him so why should I obey him?”
God first introduced His personal name, Yahweh, during His commissioning of Moses at the burning bush. Before the plagues began, He said this about His name:
God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD [Yahweh]. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the LORD [Yahweh] I did not make myself fully known to them.
Exodus 6:2-3 (NIV)
The spectacular events of the ten plagues served as the debut of God’s revelation of His personal name, Yahweh. It is His covenantal name. It signified the everlasting covenant he had established and would later ratify at Sinai with Israel (which would eventually extend to all humanity).
Pharaoh’s first question pertained to a cognitive knowing and the second pertained to a physical action. The plagues served as an answer to both of Pharaoh’s inquiries. As such, its purpose was twofold. First, it was meant as a compelling agent, to drive Pharaoh to release the nation of Israel from enslavement. Second, it was meant as an instructive tool to educate the Egyptians – and the Israelites – about the character of God. Most scholars cogently argue that the plagues were not simply supernatural spectacles but were also to be understood as signs. A sign is a visible marker that communicates a particular information. When God marked Cain’s forehead (Genesis 4:15), the message was specific; it served as a deterrent to anyone who desired to kill Cain. Similarly, the blood on the Israelites’ doorframes during the Passover, communicated to the destroyer to spare their households from the death of their firstborns (Genesis 12:13). Likewise, the ten plagues served to communicate a particular message: Yahweh, Israel’s God was sovereign over Egypt and its inhabitants (and by extension all of humanity), and over all of nature.
God self-revelatory purpose with regard to the plagues is clearly stated in the narrative. First, He intended to reveal to Himself to the Israelites of that generation:
6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD [Yahweh], and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD [Yahweh] your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.
Exodus 6:6-7 (NIV)
He also desired for subsequent Israelite generations to know Him:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them 2 that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD [Yahweh].”
Exodus 10:1-2 (NIV)
His actions declared to the Egyptians that He had authority over them:
14 For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. 15 For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. 16 But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth.
Exodus 9:14-16 (NASB)
He also had authority over nature:
Moses replied, “When I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the LORD [Yahweh]. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the LORD’s [Yahweh].
Exodus 9:29 (NIV)
Ancient Egyptian Religion
The ancients worshipped multiple gods. In fact, most believed in a pantheon of gods. In addition to being polytheistic, Egyptians were also pantheistic. They believed that the gods were identified in nature. For example, the Nile was worshipped as a god. A temple was even built for Hapi, the Nile-god, and the Pharaohs offered gifts to the god in order to engender blessings of agricultural abundance. (*) The sun was also worshipped as the great god Ra. Other gods were believed to preside over the various realms. Osiris was the god of the underworld (the dead) and his son Horus ruled over the earth (the living). (^)
Pharaoh was also considered divine. He was the ultimate authority in the land. He was the “lawgiver, judge, and…only true priest to the gods (Although, other persons performed the priestly duties).” Pharaoh exerted authority over the political, religious and even cosmological domains of life. He was believed to be the son of the sun-god Amun-Re sired with the queen mother. According to Egyptian belief, Horus was the first king of Egypt, and once installed upon the throne, the Pharaohs were thought to take on the physical personification of Horus. Egyptians believed the current, living Pharaoh to be the embodiment of Horus, and once that Pharaoh passed into the afterlife, he then became a manifestation of the god Osiris, perceived ruler of the underworld. The pharaonic dominion then, as Egyptians perceived it, encompassed the earth and even extended into the afterlife. (+)
For this reason, when Yahweh manifested onto the global scene, one of His first undertakings was to establish that He, not Egyptian gods or the Pharaoh – the political superpower at the time – was the sole, sovereign God and ruler of the heavens and the earth. The ten-plagues event was the chosen instrument to announce that fact.
Were the Plagues Simply Natural Events?
Some scholars argue that the plagues were not supernatural events as the Bible purports, but were simply natural events, albeit extraordinary. Proponents for the natural occurrence of the plagues based their claim on the order of the plagues. They argue that each subsequent plague was the direct natural result of the previous one and therefore proves that they occurred naturally. There are two main hypotheses for this view.
The first proposition attributes the plagues to unusually heavy rainfall in the upper Nile region. It is suggested that the flood, caused by the heavy rainfall, carried down red dirt and flagellates – which were also reddish in color – from upper Egypt down to lower Egypt, turning the Nile red. These two elements also polluted the water, making it undrinkable and uninhabitable for the frogs who then left the waters en masse. The frogs then died suddenly from an anthrax infection which they had contracted from the polluted water. The polluted Nile created the perfect breeding conditions for the next two plagues: huge swarms of mosquitos and flies. Next, the cattle died from anthrax after grazing the grass where infected frogs had died. Humans also developed skin anthrax from the bites of infected mosquitoes and flies. These manifested as sores and boils. The next plague – the hailstorm – they argue was not unusual for that time of the year. The heavy rains and hailstorm then produced ideal breeding conditions for locusts who subsequently descended on the land. The plague of darkness, they explain, was caused by a sandstorm, also not usual for the region. (*)
The second proposition attributes the plague events to the aftermath of volcanic activity. According to proponents of this theory, the plagues were a result of the Santorin volcano that is believed to have erupted in Greece around 1500 B.C. In this scenario, the first plague was caused by volcanic ash and rocks falling into the Nile and contaminating it. The now contaminated Nile drove the frogs to leave and the resulting plagues occurred similarly to the reasons outlined above. In this scenario the hailstorm is caused by water vapour in the atmosphere from the volcanic eruption. The darkness, according to this view, is caused by the volcanic ash blocking the sun. (=)
Biblical Rebuttal for Plagues Being Natural Events
Some biblical scholars have highlighted the weaknesses of the argument that the plagues were a series of natural events. Firstly, these scholars note that natural occurring plagues would have emerged gradually over the course of time. However according to the Bible, the plagues began and ended instantaneously at Moses’ command. Secondly, the Egyptians themselves did not perceive the plagues to be naturally occurring phenomena. The magicians were awestruck and recognized the events as the ‘finger of god’ (Exodus 8:19). (*)
Thirdly, the plagues only affected territory where Egyptians dwelled. Natural occurring plagues don’t usually discriminate according to ethnic and political boundaries. Finally, the natural-plague theories fail to account for the final plague. That is because it is impossible for a natural illness or infection to affect only firstborn humans and cattle while leaving everyone else unaffected. (*)
It follows to conclude that, although the plagues were meteorological and ecological events, they were nonetheless supernaturally produced by God because their emergence, intensity and cessation materialized according to Moses’ command.
God’s Thrashing of Egyptian Religion and Economy
The plagues not only served a theological purpose but a utilitarian one as well. With each successive event, the impact and devastation intensified for humans and animals, with an aim to compel an Israelite emancipation. (*) All together the plagues utterly destroyed Egypt’s religious, political, and economic systems. The first plague (Nile to blood) was not fatal. It functioned more as an irritant – the people had to dig for water (Exodus 7:24) – a means to capture the attention of the nation. As well, the Nile plague was a direct confrontation to the Nile god, Hapi, who proved to be powerless before Israel’s God, Yahweh. The second plague (Frogs) was also not deadly but was far more distressing than the previous plague. It’s one thing to have to dig for water rather than simply fetching it from the Nile, but it’s another story altogether to have frogs all over my house, and in my bed! Gross! (*)
The third plague (Gnats) ratcheted up the annoyance level, because this time the plague attacked the physical body. The term ‘gnat’ is a general description for any two-winged biting insect. (*) Scholars have posited these gnats to be either lice or mosquitos, or both. Similar to the Nile plague, the event began with a strike of the staff, first the water and now land. This plague demonstrated God’s sovereignty over land and sea. The fourth plague (Flies) marks the first mention of Israelite exemption from the plagues. Even though the narrative had not previously mentioned this fact, one can assume that the Israelite exemption began with the very first plague. Its mention here serves to exacerbate the misery of the Egyptians by making it clear why they are undergoing these calamities: Israelite enslavement. The increase in intensity is also evinced in Pharaoh’s reaction. For the first time he genuinely begins the bargaining process with Moses (Exodus 8:25, 28). (*)
The Thrashing Continues
With the fifth plague (Livestock) comes the first fatal plague, and God’s opening strike against the Egyptian economy. Not only were livestock important for economic sustenance, but also, because the Egyptians were pantheistic, they held great reverence for birds and livestock. In addition to an intensifying discomfort to humans and animals, the sixth plague (Boils) incapacitated Pharaoh’s officials. Egypt’s political system was now being impacted. Pharaoh could no longer rely on his magician advisors. The next two plagues intensified God’s assault on the Egypt’s economy. The seventh plague (Hailstorm) further destroyed Egypt’s livestock, as well as its crops. This is also the first event resulting in human fatalities. The Egyptians relied more on crop farming than shepherding, as such, this plague would have been more devastating to their economy. (*) The hailstorm destroyed the flax and barley harvest, and the subsequent plague (Locusts) wiped out the nation’s fall-back crops, the wheat and spelt. Egypt’s agricultural economy was utterly obliterated.
The next plague (Darkness) was a direct confrontation of the Egypt’s great sun-god Ra, and by extension Pharaoh, who was believed to be the son of Ra. As well, it completely immobilized the entire population. Farming and commerce were effectively halted. In addition, the plague continued to endanger the economy. Lack of sunlight would have hindered plant growth and would have led to the death of animals, who’s sustenance came from plants, and eventually humans who needed plants and animals to survive. (*) The entire country had effectively been shut down. The final plague (Firstborn) was the most devastating because it specifically targeted humans. Not only was the land destroyed but now surviving Egyptians were forced to suffer the anguish of the death of a loved one. The narrative describes the emotional agony of the final plague:
30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
The ten-plagues event functions as an instrument of divine judgment on Egypt for nation’s genocide and enslavement of the Israelite people (Exodus 1:11-22). Through the plague events, Yahweh emerged on the global scene as the all-powerful, sovereign God of Israel who was more than capable of rescuing His people from the dominion Egyptian hegemony.
(*) Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2 of New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 184-268.
(^) Daniel C. Browning Jr. and Kirk Kilpatrick, “Egypt,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Trent C. Butler (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003).
(+) B. A. Strawn, “Pharaoh,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity, 2003), 631-36.
(=) Joel Block, “The Ten Plagues of Egypt,” Religious Education 71 (1976): 519-26