The Plagues of Egypt (Hebrew: מכות מצרים, Makot Mitzrayim), also called the ten biblical plagues, were ten calamities that, according to the biblical book of Exodus, Yahweh inflicted upon Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh to release the ill-treated Israelites from slavery. The Pharaoh capitulated after the tenth plague, triggering the Exodus of the Hebrew people.
- Ten plagues of egypt
- Biblical narrative
- 1 Water into blood Ex 71424
- 2 Frogs Ex 725815
- 3 Lice Ex 81619
- 4 Flies Ex 82032
- 5 Diseased livestock Ex 917
- 6 Boils Ex 9812
- 7 Thunderstorm of hail Ex 91335
- 8 Locusts Ex 10120
- 9 Darkness for three days Ex 102129
- 10 Death of firstborn sons Ex 1111236
- The plagues in the Quran
- Scholarly interpretation
- Natural explanations
- Visual art
The plagues served to contrast the power of the God of Israel with the Egyptian gods, invalidating them. Some commentators have associated several of the plagues with judgment on specific gods associated with the Nile, fertility and natural phenomena. According to Exodus 12:12, all the gods of Egypt would be judged through the tenth and final plague: "On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD."
Ten plagues of egypt
The reason for the plagues appears to be two fold: to answer Pharaoh's taunt, "Who [is] the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go?", and to indelibly impress the Israelites with God's power as an object lesson for all time, which was also meant to become known "throughout the world".
According to the Book of Exodus, God hardened Pharaoh's heart so he would be strong enough to persist in his unwillingness to release the people, so that God could manifest his great power and cause his power to be declared among the nations, so that other people would discuss it for generations afterward. In this view, the plagues were punishment for the Egyptians' long abuse of the Israelites, as well as proof that the gods of Egypt were false and powerless. If God triumphed over the gods of Egypt, a world power at that time, then the people of God would be strengthened in their faith, although they were a small people, and would not be tempted to follow the deities that God proved false. Exodus 9:15–16 (JPS Tanakh) portrays Yahweh explaining why he did not accomplish the freedom of the Israelites immediately: "I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you [Pharaoh] and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world."
The plagues seemed to affect "all the land of Egypt", but the children of Israel were unaffected. For the last plague, the Torah indicates that they were only spared from the final plague by sacrificing the Paschal lamb, marking their place directly above their doors with the lamb's blood, and hastily eating the roasted sacrifice together with unleavened bread (now known as Matzoh) which they took from their ovens in haste, as they made ready for the Exodus. The Torah describes God as actually passing through Egypt to kill all firstborn children and cattle, but passing over (hence "passover") houses which have the sign of lambs' blood on the doorpost. It is debated whether it was actually God who came through the streets or one of his angels. Some also think it may be the Holy Spirit. It is most commonly known as the "Angel of Death". The night of this plague, Pharaoh finally relents and sends the Israelites away under their terms.
After the Israelites leave en masse, a departure known as The Exodus, God introduces himself by name and makes an exclusive covenant with the Israelites on the basis of this miraculous deliverance. The Ten Commandments encapsulate the terms of this covenant. Joshua, the successor to Moses, reminds the people of their deliverance through the plagues. According to 1 Samuel, the Philistines also knew of the plagues and feared their author. Later, the psalmist sang of these events.
The Torah also relates God's instructions to Moses that the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt must be celebrated early on the holiday of Passover (Pesaḥ פסח); the rituals observed on Passover recall the events surrounding the exodus from Egypt. The Torah additionally cites God's sparing of the Israelite firstborn as a rationale for the commandment of the redemption of the firstborn. This event is also commemorated by the Fast of the Firstborn on the day preceding Passover but which is traditionally not observed because a siyum celebration is held which obviates the need for a fast.
It seems that the celebration of Passover waned from time to time, since other biblical books provide references to revival of the holiday. For example, it was reinstated by Joshua at Gilgal, by Josiah, by Hezekiah and, after the return from the captivity, by Ezra. By the time of the Second Temple it was firmly established in Israel.
The plagues as they appear in the 1984 New International Version of the Book of Exodus are:
1. Water into blood (דָם): Ex. 7:14–24
This is what the LORD says: By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.
2. Frogs (צְּפַרְדֵּעַ): Ex. 7:25–8:15
This is what the great LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials.
3. Lice (כִּנִּים): Ex. 8:16–19
"And the LORD said [...] Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt." […] When Aaron stretched out his hand with the rod and struck the dust of the ground, lice came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became lice.
The Hebrew noun כִּנִּים (kinim) could be translated as lice, gnats, or fleas.
4. Flies (עָרוֹב): Ex. 8:20–32
The fourth plague of Egypt was of creatures capable of harming people and livestock. The Torah emphasizes that the ‘arob (עָרוֹב, meaning "mixture" or "swarm") only came against the Egyptians, and that it did not affect the Land of Goshen (where the Israelites lived). Pharaoh asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to allow the Israelites' freedom. However, after the plague was gone, the LORD "hardened Pharaoh's heart", and he refused to keep his promise.
The word ‘arob has caused a difference of opinion among traditional interpreters. The root meaning is (ע.ר.ב), meaning a mixture - implying a diversity, array, or assortment of animals. While Jewish interpreters understand the plague as "wild animals" (such as lions, venomous snakes, rhinos), Gesenius along with many Christian interpreters understand the plague as a swarm of flies.
5. Diseased livestock (דֶּבֶר): Ex. 9:1–7
This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats.
6. Boils (שְׁחִין): Ex. 9:8–12
Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land."
7. Thunderstorm of hail (בָּרָד): Ex. 9:13–35
This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now. Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die. […] The LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation.
8. Locusts (אַרְבֶּה): Ex. 10:1–20
This is what the LORD, the God of the Jews, says: 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.
9. Darkness for three days (חוֹשֶך): Ex. 10:21–29
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt." So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days.
10. Death of firstborn sons.(מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת): Ex. 11:1–12:36
This is what the LORD says: "About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again."
Before this final plague, God commanded Moses to inform all the Israelites to mark lamb's blood above their doors on every door in which case the LORD will pass over them and not "suffer the destroyer to come into your houses and smite you" (chapter 12, v. 23).
After this, Pharaoh, furious, saddened, and afraid that he would be killed next, ordered the Israelites to leave, taking whatever they wanted, and asking Moses to bless him in the name of the LORD. The Israelites did not hesitate, believing that soon Pharaoh would once again change his mind, which he did; and at the end of that night Moses led them out of Egypt with "arms upraised". However, as the Jews left Egypt, the Pharaoh changed his mind again and sent his army after Moses' people. The Jews were trapped by the Red Sea. God split the sea, and the Jews were able to pass safely. As the Egyptian army descended on them, the sea closed before they could reach the Jews.
The plagues in the Quran
In the view of Islam, the plagues were almost identical. It is mentioned in the Quran, specifically in Surah Al-A'raf verse 133 "So We sent on them: the Tuwfan (a calamity causing wholesale death, a flood or a typhoon - Ali, Note 1090 to S. VII.133), the locusts, the Qummal, the frogs, and the blood (as a succession of) manifest signs, yet they remained arrogant, and they were of those people who were criminals". The Quran further relates that the plagues included a mighty blast, showers of stones and earthquakes (Ali, Notes 3462-3464 to S. XXIX.40).
The Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses reviews the events of the past, mentions the "diseases of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 7:15 and 28:60), but means something that afflicted the Israelites, not the Egyptians; in fact, it never mentions the plagues of the book of Exodus. The Exodus plagues are divine judgments, a series of curses like those in Deuteronomy 28:15–68, which mention many of the same afflictions; they are even closer to the curses in the Holiness code, Leviticus 26, since like the Holiness Code they leave room for repentance. The theme that divine punishment should lead to repentance is echoed in the prophets (Amos 4:6–12, Ezekiel 20), and the form of prophetic speech, "Thus says Yahweh", and the figure of the prophet as divine messenger echoed in the late prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the Deuteronomistic history. The theme of Pharaoh's obstinacy is likewise referred to in the 6th century prophets – Isaiah 6:9–13, Jeremiah 5:3, and Ezekiel 3:7–9.
While proponents of biblical archaeology argue that the plague stories are true, a large consensus of historians believe them to be allegorical or inspired by passed-down accounts of disconnected natural disasters. Some scientists claim the plagues can be attributed to a chain of natural phenomena triggered by changes in the climate and environmental disasters hundreds of miles away. Some historians also point to the Ipuwer Papyrus to suggest a possible cataclysmic event in the history of Egypt which might parallel some of the incidents described in the biblical account of the Plagues. However, no reasonable natural explanation can be found for several of these (i.e. the water being turned into literal blood, unpierceable darkness for three days, and all the firstborn - including Pharaoh's son - dying at the same time.
Some archaeologists believe the plagues occurred at the ancient city of Pi-Rameses in the Nile Delta, which was the capital of Egypt during the reign of Ramesses II. There is some archaeological material which such archaeologists, for example William F. Albright, have considered to be historical evidence of the Ten Plagues; for example, an ancient water trough found in El Arish bears hieroglyphic markings detailing a period of darkness. Albright and other Christian archaeologists have claimed that such evidence, as well as careful study of the areas ostensibly travelled by the Israelites after the Exodus, make discounting the biblical account untenable. The Egyptian Ipuwer Papyrus describes a series of calamities befalling Egypt, including a river turned to blood, men behaving as wild ibises, and the land generally turned upside down. However, this is usually thought to describe a general and long term ecological disaster lasting for a period of decades, such as that which destroyed the Old Kingdom. The document is usually dated to the end of the Middle Kingdom, or more rarely, to its beginning, fitting the Old Kingdom destruction, but in both cases long before the usual theorized dates for the Exodus.
Some historians have suggested that the plagues are passed-down accounts of several natural disasters, some disconnected, others playing part of a chain reaction. Natural explanations have been suggested for most of the phenomena:
A volcanic eruption did occur in antiquity and could have caused some of the plagues if it occurred at the right time. The eruption of the Thera volcano was 1,050 kilometres (650 mi) away from the northwest part of Egypt. Controversially dated to about 1628 BC, this eruption is one of the largest on record, rivaling that of Tambora, which resulted in 1816's Year Without a Summer. The enormous global impact of this eruption has been recorded in an ash layer deposit found in the Nile delta, tree ring frost scars in the bristlecone pines of the western United States, and a layer of ash in the Greenland ice caps, all dated to the same time and with the same chemical fingerprint as the ash from Thera.
However, all estimates of the date of this eruption are hundreds of years before the Exodus is believed to have taken place; thus the eruption can only have caused some of the plagues if one or other of the dates is wrong, or if the plagues did not actually immediately precede the Exodus.
Following the assumption that at least some of the details are accurately reported, many modern Jews believe that some of the plagues were indeed natural disasters, but argue for the fact that, since they followed one another with such uncommon rapidity, "God's hand was behind them". Indeed, several biblical commentators (Nachmanides and, more recently, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky) have pointed out that, for the plagues to be a real test of faith, they had to contain an element leading to religious doubt.
In his book The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History, and Science Look at The Bible, Siro Igino Trevisanato explores the theory that the plagues were initially caused by the Santorini eruption in Greece. His hypothesis considers a two-stage eruption over a time of a bit less than two years. His studies place the first eruption in 1602 BC, when volcanic ash taints the Nile, causing the first plague and forming a catalyst for many of the subsequent plagues. In 1600 BC, the plume of a Santorini eruption caused the ninth plague, the days of darkness. Trevisanato hypothesizes that the Egyptians (at that time under the occupation of Hyksos), resorted to human sacrifice in an attempt to appease the gods, for they had viewed the ninth plague as a precursor to more. This human sacrifice became known as the tenth plague.
In an article published in 1996, physician-epidemiologist John S. Marr and co-author Curt Malloy integrated biblical, historical and Egyptological sources with modern scientific conjectures in a comprehensive review of natural explanations for the ten plagues, postulating their own specific explanations for the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and tenth plagues. Their explanation also accounted for the apparent selectiveness of the plagues, as implied in the Bible. The paper served as the basis for a website and documentary aired on the Learning Channel from 1998 to 2005.
In visual art, the plagues have generally been reserved for works in series, especially engravings. Still, relatively few depictions in art emerged compared to other religious themes until the 19th century, when the plagues became more common subjects, with John Martin and Joseph Turner producing notable canvases. This trend probably reflected a Romantic attraction to landscape and nature painting, for which the plagues were suited, a Gothic attraction to morbid stories, and a rise in Orientalism, wherein exotic Egyptian themes found currency. Given the importance of noble patronage throughout Western art history, the plagues may have found consistent disfavor because the stories emphasize the limits of a monarch's power, and images of lice, locusts, darkness, and boils were ill-suited for decoration in palaces and churches.
Taking direct inspiration from the Ten Plagues, Iced Earth's eleventh studio album Plagues of Babylon contains many references and allusions to the Plagues. Metallica's song "Creeping Death" makes references to a few of the plagues, in addition to the rest of the story of the Exodus. Perhaps the most successful artistic representation of the plagues is Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt, which, like his perennial favorite, "Messiah", takes a libretto entirely from scripture. The work was especially popular in the 19th century because of its numerous choruses, generally one for each plague, and its playful musical depiction of the plagues. For example, the plague of frogs is performed as a light aria for alto, depicting frogs jumping in the violins, and the plague of flies and lice is a light chorus with fast scurrying runs in the violins.