The story of the ten plagues of Egypt (Exod. 7.14–12.36) is based on the ancient Israelite tradition of the “great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt” (Deut. 6.22) that God accomplished in order to force Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave that country. Each plague, except the last, has a basis in natural phenomena or diseases that occur in Egypt, either annually or at intervals, between July and April. They form an orderly series, each related to its successor; and their rapid and cumulative severity mounts to a climax in the death of Egypt's firstborn. In these partly ordinary events, the Israelites saw the hand of God active in their behalf.
All three strands composing the book of Exodus told of plagues, though no single source lists all the plagues; J gives eight (1–2, 4–5, 7–10); E, five (1, 7–10); and P, five (1–3, 6, 10). All agree on the first and the last. Sometimes God is shown as directly effecting the plague (Exod. 9.6; 12.29); sometimes Aaron, at Moses' command, is the agent (7.9–10; 8.16–17); and sometimes Moses himself calls down the plague (7.14–18; 9.8, 22–23).
The ten plagues of the final form of the Exodus narrative are as follows:
- 1. Nile water turns to blood (7.14–15). The annual rise of the river normally brings life to Egypt's soil, but on rare occasions putrid waters carrying decaying algae from the vast swamplands of the Sudan join with the waters from Ethiopia's Blue Nile into which volcanoes—active in those days—had spewed sulphuric lava and ash. Thus, once per century or so the water of the Nile would turn red in color and become undrinkable (Exod. 7.14–24).
- 2. Frogs (Exod. 7.25–8.14). When the flooding Nile subsided it left heaps of dead frogs over the land, so many that some were even piled in people's homes. The Egyptians may have believed that their magicians could prevent such a disaster from falling upon the common people.
- 3. Gnats (Exod. 8.16–19). Swarms of “gnats” (whatever noisome insect this name represents) had bred and multiplied in the stagnant pools of water. The magicians confess that “this is the finger of God.”
- 4. Flies (Exod. 8.20–32). The plague of “flies” (the word simply means “insects”) appears to be a variant of the preceding plague; note the poetic parallelism in Psalm 105.31. The sign was not just the coming of myriads of flies but the isolation of Goshen, so that the Hebrews were not affected.
- 5. Cattle murrain (Exod. 9.1–7). Anthrax, hoof‐and‐mouth, or some such disease, resulting from conditions created by former plagues, struck Egypt's farm animals, a principal source of food.
- 6. Boils (Exod. 9.8–12). Ashes from the kiln were thrown into the air and caused boils breaking out in sores on humans and animals alike. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils.
- 7. Hail (Exod. 9.18–35). The scourge of hail (a rare occurrence in Egypt) and thunderstorm destroyed both a whole season's crops and the mudbrick homes of the disease‐ridden peasantry.
- 8. Locusts (Exod. 10.3–20). Always a bane of the Middle East, a plague of locusts devoured whatever was left after the storm was over. The Lord “brought” the locusts by an east wind; when Pharaoh confessed his sin (10.16) God “drove” the locusts by a west wind into the Red Sea.
- 9. Darkness (Exod. 10.21–23). Thick darkness that could be felt may have been brought on by the wind from the desert, carrying with it much dust and sand; but the Israelites had light. The Lord was clearly confronting Amon‐Ra, the sun god, whom the Egyptians worshiped as their divine father.
- 10. Death of the Egyptian firstborn (Exod. 11.1–8). The announcement of the final plague, the death of the firstborn in Egyptian families, from Pharaoh's down even to those of slave girls (11.4–9), is linked with what took place at the first Passover ceremony (12.1–32). It was then that the Lord “chose” Israel, which he had “passed over,” as his firstborn son (Exod. 4.22–23).
The popular theme of the superiority of the Lord's power over that of pagan gods and magicians has here found expression in one of the most characteristic products of Israelite skill in narrative prose. The account has been the source of poetic summaries in Psalms 78.43–51; 105.28–36; of the homily on them in Wisdom of Solomon 11.1–12.2; and the general references to them elsewhere in the Bible (Deut. 6.22; 7.18–19; 11.3; 29.2–3; 1 Sam. 4.8). Several features of the Egyptian plagues reappear in the account of the “seven last plagues” in the book of Revelation (15.1–16.21; 21.9).
See also Exodus, The.
George A. F. Knight