plagues of Egypt

plagues of Egypt

plagues of Egypt, in the Bible, the plagues and other troubles brought on Egypt by God through the hands of Moses, because Pharaoh would not let the people of Israel go out of Egypt. The account, in the Book of Exodus, tells how Pharaoh relented each time until the plague was removed, then hardened his heart; in the end he let the children of Israel go, only to pursue them into the Red Sea. The plagues were 10 in number: plague of blood by which the waters of Egypt were turned to blood; plague of frogs; plague of lice; plague of flies; plague of murrain, by which all the cattle of Egypt and none of the Israelites' cattle were killed; plague of boils; plague of hail; plague of locusts; plague of darkness, by which darkness covered Egypt for three days; plague of the first-born, by which all the first-born of Egypt were killed. By tradition the first Passover was observed the night of the 10th plague. After it the Israelites left Egypt.
The Plagues of Egypt the Biblical Plagues or the Ten Plagues are the ten calamities imposed upon Egypt by God in the Bible (as recounted in the book of Exodus, chapters 7 - 12), in order to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go.

The Plagues of Egypt are recognized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The Biblical narrative

The plagues as they appear in the Bible are:

  1. (Exodus 7:14-25) rivers and other water sources turned to blood killing all fish and other water life. (Dam)
  2. (Exodus 8:1-8:15) amphibians (commonly believed to be frogs) (Tsfardeia)
  3. (Exodus 8:16-19) lice or gnats (Kinim)
  4. (Exodus 8:20-30) beasts or flies (Arov)
  5. (Exodus 9:1-7) disease on livestock (Dever)
  6. (Exodus 9:8-12) unhealable boils (Shkhin)
  7. (Exodus 9:13-35) hail mixed with fire (Barad)
  8. (Exodus 10:1-20) locusts (Arbeh)
  9. (Exodus 10:21-29) darkness (Choshech)
  10. (Exodus 11:1-12:36) death of the first-born of all Egyptian families. (Makat Bechorot)

The first three plagues seemed to affect "all the land of Egypt" Ex. 7:21, 8:2, 8:16, while the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th did not affect the children of Israel (Ex. 8:22, 9:4,11,26, 10:23). 8th is unclear. For the last plague the Torah indicates that they were only spared from the final plague by sacrificing the Paschal lamb, marking their doorpost with the lamb's blood, and eating the roasted sacrifice together with Matzot (לחם עוני) in a celebratory feast. The Torah describes the Angel of Death as actually passing through Egypt to kill all firstborn, but passing over (hence "Passover") houses which have the sign of lambs' blood on the doorpost. It was this plague which resulted in Pharaoh finally relenting, and sending the Israelites away at whatever terms they wished.

The Torah also relates God's instructions to Moses that the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt must be celebrated yearly on the holiday of Passover ("Pesah" 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 (Exodus 13:11-16). 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.

The plagues

The following is a summary of the Biblical account of the plagues which is found in chapters 7-12 of Exodus.

The beginning of the curses (Ex. 5:1 - 5:9, 7:8 - 7:13)

Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh, and delivered God's demand that the Israelite slaves be allowed to leave Egypt for the purpose of observing a holiday of worship and prayer for their God. After an initial refusal by Pharaoh, God sent Moses and Aaron back to show him a miraculous sign of warning - Aaron's staff turned into a serpent. Pharaoh's sorcerers also turned their staffs into snakes, but Aaron's then proceeded to swallow theirs before turning back to a staff.

Blood (Ex. 7:14 - 7:25) דָם

The first plague was blood. God instructed Moses to tell Aaron to extend his staff over the river Nile; all of its water turned into blood. As a result of the blood, the fish of the Nile died, filling Egypt with an awful stench. Other water resources used by the Egyptians were turned to blood as well (7:19). Pharaoh's sorcerers demonstrated that they too could turn water into blood, and Pharaoh therefore made no concession to Moses' demands.

Frogs (Ex. 7:26-8:11) צְּפַרְדֵּעַ

The second plague of Egypt was frogs; alternatively they were crocodiles (see Talmud Ketuboth). God commanded Moses to tell Aaron to stretch his staff over the water, and hordes of frogs came and overran Egypt. Pharaoh's sorcerers were also able to duplicate this plague with their magic. However, since they were unable to remove it, Pharaoh was forced to grant permission for the Israelites to leave so that Moses would agree to remove the frogs. To prove that the plague was actually a divine punishment, Moses let Pharaoh choose the time that it would end. Pharaoh chose the following day, and all the frogs died the next day. Nevertheless, Pharaoh rescinded his permission, and the Israelites stayed in Egypt.

Gnats (Ex. 8:12 - 8:15) כִנִּים

The third plague of Egypt was Kinim, variously translated as Gnats, Lice or Fleas. God instructed Moses to tell Aaron to take his staff and strike at the dust, which turned into a mass of gnats that the Egyptians could not get rid of. The Egyptian sorcerers declared that this act was "the Finger of God", since they were unable to reproduce its effects with their magic.

Flies/Beasts (Ex. 8:16 - 8:28) עָרוֹב

The fourth plague of Egypt was flies or wild animals (the correct translation is unclear), capable of harming people and livestock. The Torah emphasizes that the arov ("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 to worship God in the wilderness. However, after the plague was gone, Pharaoh "hardened his heart" and again refused to keep his promise.

Pestilence (Ex. 9:1 - 9:7) דֶּבֶר

The fifth plague of Egypt was an epidemic disease which exterminated the Egyptian livestock; that is, horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep and goats. The Israelites' cattle were unharmed. Once again, Pharaoh made no concessions.

Incurable boils (Ex. 9:8 - 9:12) שְׁחִין

The sixth plague of Egypt was shkhin. The Shkhin was a kind of skin disease, usually translated as "boils". God commanded Moses and Aaron to each take two handfuls of soot from a furnace, which Moses scattered skyward in Pharaoh's presence. The soot induced festering Shkhin eruptions on Egyptian men and livestock. The Egyptian sorcerers were afflicted along with everyone else, and were unable to heal themselves, much less the rest of Egypt..

Storm (fiery hail) (Ex. 9:13 - 9:35) בָּרָד

The seventh plague of Egypt was a destructive storm. God commanded Moses to stretch his staff skyward, at which point the storm commenced. It was even more evidently supernatural than the previous plagues, a powerful shower of hail intermixed with fire. The storm heavily damaged Egyptian orchards and crops, as well as men and livestock. The storm struck all of Egypt except for the Land of Goshen. Pharaoh asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to allow the Israelites to worship God in the desert, saying "This time I have sinned; God is righteous, I and my people are wicked." As a show of God's mastery over the world, the hail stopped as soon as Moses began praying to God - hail which was then in the air never reached the ground; it simply disappeared. However, after the storm ceased, Pharaoh again "hardened his heart" and refused to keep his promise.

Locusts (Ex. 10:1 - 10:20) אַרְבֶּה

The eighth plague of Egypt was locusts. Before the plague, God informed Moses that from that point on He would "harden Pharaoh's heart," (as promised earlier in 4:21) so that Pharaoh would not give in, and the remaining miracles (the final plagues and the splitting of the sea) would play out.

As with previous plagues, Moses came to Pharaoh and warned him of the impending plague of locusts. Pharaoh's officials begged him to let the Israelites go rather than suffer the devastating effects of a locust-swarm, but he was still unwilling to give in. He proposed a compromise: the Israelite men would be allowed to go, while women, children and livestock would remain in Egypt. Moses repeated God's demand that every last person and animal should go, but Pharaoh refused.

God then had Moses stretch his staff over Egypt, and a wind picked up from the east. The wind continued until the following day, when it brought a locust swarm. The swarm covered the sky, casting a shadow over Egypt. It consumed all the remaining Egyptian crops, leaving no tree or plant standing. Pharaoh again asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to allow all the Israelites to worship God in the desert. As promised, God hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not allow the Israelites to leave.

Darkness (Ex. 10:21 - 10:29) חוֹשֶך

God then commanded Moses to stretch his hands up to the sky, to bring darkness upon Egypt. This darkness was so heavy that one could physically feel it. It lasted for three days, during which time there was light in the homes of the Israelites. Pharaoh then called to Moses and offered to let all the Israelites leave, if only the darkness would be removed from his land. However, he required that their sheep and cattle stay. Moses refused, and went on to say that before long, Pharaoh himself would offer to provide animals for sacrifice. Pharaoh, outraged, then threatened to execute Moses if he should again appear before Pharaoh. Moses replied that he would indeed not visit Pharaoh again.

Death of Firstborn (Ex. 11:1 - 12:36) מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת

The tenth and final plague of Egypt was the death of all Egyptian first born males — no one escaped, from the lowest servant to Pharaoh's own first-born son, including first-born of livestock. This was the hardest and cruelest blow upon Egypt and the plague that finally convinced Pharaoh to submit, and let the Israelites go.

God told Moses that this plague would cause Pharaoh to send the Israelites away, and ordered him to prepare the people to leave. He also commanded Moses to teach the ritual of Pesah - the sacrifice of a lamb for God, and the eating of Matzot ("Poor-man's Bread" לחם עוני). God told Moses to order the Israelites to mark their doorpost with the lamb's blood, in order that the angel of death would pass over them.

At midnight, God came through Egypt to take the life of all the Egyptian first-born, including Pharaoh's own son. That night, there was a great cry in Egypt, such as had never been heard before, or ever will be heard again. However, no Israelite first-born was killed, as God "passed over" the Israelite houses.

After this, Pharaoh, furious and saddened, ordered the Israelites to go away, taking whatever they wanted. The Israelites didn't hesitate; and at the end of that night Moses led them out of Egypt with "arms upraised."

Context

Although the main reason for the plagues appears to be Pharaoh's repeated refusal to release the Israelites from slavery, according to the Torah, 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 it to be declared among the nations (Ex. 9:14, 16), so that other peoples would discuss it for generations afterward (Jos. 2:9-11; 9:9; Isa. 4:8; 6:6). 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 powerless. (Ex. 12:12; Nu. 33:4).

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 are a small people, and would not be tempted to follow the deities that God put to shame. Although some have advanced theories as to which of the Egyptian gods would have been discredited by which plague, this is only scantily supported by Midrashic sources, and these attempts have generally produced widely divergent results.

Interpretation

Traditional views

One of the noticeable features of the tales is that there appears to be an underlying pattern, the third, sixth and ninth plagues come without warning, and many Biblical commentators see there as being three sets of three plagues each. Attempts to draw parallels between each have had limited success, and are somewhat disputed. Some point to Rabbi Yehuda (quoted in the Haggadah of Pesach) who implied this idea by grouping the first three, middle three and last four together with the mnemonics DE.ZA.KH. A.DA.SH. BA.A.HA.V.

Another significant feature is that some plagues, but not others, are instigated by Aaron, rather than Moses. Many critical religious commentaries resolve this situation by saying that due to the principle of Ha-karat ha-tov, Moses was obliged to appreciate the help he received earlier from the Nile, as a baby (Exodus 2:1-10), and the dust, when he murdered a guard in his youth, (Exodus 2:11-12) and was therefore unable to smite either of these.

Non-traditional views

According to the documentary hypothesis, the plagues of boils, and of lice, are merely the Priestly source's version of JE's plagues of pestilence, and of flies. The Torah is thus seen as only gaining 10 plagues when both these versions were merged together, and thus treated as separate plagues. Similar merging also allegedly explains the pattern where the third, sixth and ninth plague, come without warning, as originating from different sources to the one in which warning is provided. Likewise, in this hypothesis, one source presents Aaron as carrying out the plague, one presents Moses as their origin, and one presents God as the explicit origin, and since the plagues they each describe do not completely overlap, this provides an explanation for why Moses carries out some plagues, but Aaron carries out others. The hypothesis also breaks the account of the plagues down further.

In an historical context, the greatest candidate for the Israelite presence in Egypt is that of the Hyksos. However, rather than being slaves who escaped, the Hyksos were rulers who were chased out of Egypt. The extreme resistance, in the story, of the unnamed Pharaoh to releasing them therefore, according to such an historical-critical view, serves to provide an explanation of why an Egyptian Pharaoh so angrily chased after the Israelites.

Versions of the Jahwist and Elohist

Within the understanding of the documentary hypothesis, in the Jahwist version of the tale, Moses asks Pharaoh for the release of the people, but Pharaoh refuses, claiming not to know who Yahweh is. Consequently God sends the first plague, and Pharaoh recants, begging Moses for assistance, and immediately allowing the people to go, albeit under certain conditions. The Jahwist continues to describe Moses as insisting on the conditions, but nevertheless begging God to end the plague, which happens, but Pharaoh goes back on his word, and so God sends another plague. This pattern repeats, the Pharaoh gradually acceding to more and more conditions, until, after the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh finally accedes to all of them, even allowing the Israelites to take the ornaments of the Egyptians, begging to be blessed by Yahweh. Nevertheless, true to form, according to the Jahwist, Pharaoh goes back on his word, and chases after the released Israelites in order to recapture them.

By contrast, although the Elohist presents a similar set of plagues, the story is much less naturalistic. The Elohist has Moses threatening Pharaoh, and then, via his rod, carrying out each plague, until eventually he threatens to kill all the firstborn of Egypt, even giving a ritual to the Israelites so that they can cause this death to pass over their houses. At this point, the fear of Moses amongst the Egyptians reaches such a point that they are described as being insistent that the Israelites should get out of Egypt as soon as possible, before the final plague, apparently not carried out, is visited upon them. The Israelites then leave with a high hand, but are soon chased away by Pharaoh's army.

The Elohist also splits up some of the Jahwist's plagues, making them more elaborate,

  • Making the plague of the river, which in the Jahwist, involves the smiting of the river, leading to the death of the fish, and subsequent swarms of frogs seven days later, into two plagues, one involving the river turning into blood, and a separate involving swarms of frogs
  • Making the plague of hail, which in the Jahwist, is a pestilence attacking everything in the fields, crops and cattle, into two plagues, one involving the cattle being attacked by a pestilence, and the other involving hail and fire against the crops.
  • Making the plague of locusts, which, in the Jahwist, is so great that it covers the land, into a plague of locusts, and a later plague of darkness.

While the Jahwist's presentation of the plagues is much more naturalistic, the plagues just happening, and Moses just praying that they end, it is the Elohist description of the Egyptians' motive in chasing after the Israelites that accords better with an identification of the Israelites as the Hyksos. Generally, in critical scholarship, both these versions are seen as being based on a shared tradition, rather than one taking precedence over the other, with the Elohist seeking to spin Moses as having supernatural powers and the Israelites as being chased because they are feared, rather than hated like the Hyksos.

Versions of the Priestly source and JE

When combined into JE, the story becomes one in which Moses threatened the plague, then made a sign at which God carries the plague out, and then is from time to time asked by Pharaoh for forgiveness, at which point the plague is undone. While the Elohist produced 8 plagues, and thus so did JE, the Jahwists conception, of there being 5 plagues, appears to have been a tradition preserved at least until the Priestly source, who, in writing their own version of JE, also chose 5 plagues, cutting out the plagues of locusts, darkness, and hail.

The Priestly source, however, completely changes the framing of the plagues. Instead of threats to Pharaoh, or punishment for which Pharaoh begs forgiveness, the plagues are presented merely as a trial to prove Yahweh's authority. Each plague is followed by the magicians attempting to duplicate the plague, succeeding on the first two, leading to Pharaoh hardening his heart. The second pair of plagues are also made more immediate and relevant to the magicians, these plagues are of lice rather than flies, and of boils rather than an unspecified pestilence, leading to the magicians being unable to perform these activities. The final plague, the death of firstborn, is also altered to appear as a punishment against the Egyptians.

The Priestly source, keen to assert God as only acting via the Aaronid priesthood, also describes Aaron as being the one instigating the plagues, starting, "And The LORD said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron", whereas it is always Moses who is involved in either carrying out, or stopping, the plagues in JE.

Historicity

Secular thinkers believe the plague stories are simply mythical or allegorical, or inspired by passed-down accounts of disconnected natural disasters. Others have speculated on possible natural inspirations behind the story of the succession of plagues. There are some empirical proofs that the plagues did in fact occur, although many of these are disputed.

Archaeology

There is archaeological material that some Christian archaeologists, such as William F. Albright, have considered 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 traveled by the Israelites after the Exodus, make discounting the biblical account untenable. However, their arguments have not persuaded many archaeologists who do not initially assume the Biblical account is accurate.

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.

Immanuel Velikovsky, the bulk of whose work is rejected by the scientific community, decided that the Egyptian papyrus did, in fact, describe the events of Exodus, along with the major natural catastrophes that he thought preceded it; in his opinion it was the conventional chronologies of Egypt that were wrong by several hundred years.

Natural explanations

As noted above, some science writers and Bible researchers have suggested that the plagues were passed-down accounts of ordinary natural disasters, and not supernatural miracles. Natural explanations have been suggested for most of the phenomena:

  • (plague 1—water turned into blood, fish died)
    • The redness in the Nile could have actually been pollution caused by volcanic activity, specifically that of Santorini, which erupted around 1500 B.C. and whose ash is found in the Nile region. The silt could make the Nile turn blood red, and would also render it undrinkable. Heavy rains in the red-soiled area of Lake Victoria could have caused reddened water to wash downstream.
    • Alternatively, a red toxic algal bloom (red tide) could have produced large quantities of toxins that would kill fish.
  • (plague 2—frogs) Any blight on the water that killed fish also would have caused frogs to leave the river and, probably, die.
  • (plagues 3 and 4—biting insects and flies) The lack of frogs in the river would have let insect populations, normally kept in check by the frogs, increase massively.
  • (plagues 5 and 6—livestock disease and boils) There are biting flies in the region which transmit livestock diseases; a sudden increase in their number could spark epidemics.
  • (plague 7—fiery hail) Volcanic activity not only brings with it ash, but brimstone, and also alters the weather system, occasionally producing hail. Hail could also have occurred as a completely independent natural weather event, with accompanying lightning as the "fire".
  • (plague 8—locusts) The weight of hail will destroy most crops, leaving several insects and other animals without a normal food source. The remaining crops therefore would become targeted heavily, and thus be destroyed by swarms of locusts which would otherwise be distributed rather thinly. Or the locusts could have increased due to a lack of predators. Even without these explanations, swarms of locusts are not uncommon today.
  • (plague 9—darkness) There could be several causes for unusual darkness: a solar eclipse, a sandstorm, volcanic ash, or simply swarms of locusts large enough to block out the sun.
  • (plague 10—death of the firstborn)
    • If the last plague indeed selectively tended to affect the firstborn, it could be due to food polluted during the time of darkness, either by locusts or by the black mold Cladosporium. When people emerged after the darkness, the firstborn would be given priority, as was usual, and would consequently be more likely to be affected by any toxin or disease carried by the food. Meanwhile, the Israelites ate food prepared and eaten very quickly which would have made it less likely to be infected.
    • The word we know as "firstborn" may have meant the higher social class rather than literally the eldest sons, but the same argument applies.
    • In the 2006 documentary Exodus Decoded, Jewish Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici hypothesised the selectiveness of the tenth plague was under the circumstances similar to the 1986 disaster of Lake Nyos that is related to geological activities that caused the previous plagues in a related chain of events. The hypothesis was that the plagues took place shortly after the eruption of Thera (now known as Santorini), which happened some time between 1550 BCE and 1650 BCE, and recently narrowed to between 1627-1600 BCE, with a 95% probability of accuracy. Jacobovici however places the eruption in 1500 BCE. According to the documentary, the eruption sets off a chain of events resulting in the plagues and eventually the killing of the first born. Jacobovici suggests that the first borns in ancient Egypt had the privilege to sleep close to the floor while other children slept on higher ground or even on roofs. Like in Lake Nyos, when carbon dioxide or other toxic gases escape the surface tension of a nearby waterbody either due to geological activity or over saturation, the gas being heavier than air, "flooded" the nearby area displacing oxygen and killing those who were in its path. Jewish households escaped the fate because they were told to observe their first Passover rituals.

None of these explanations (aside of Jacobovici's) account for the selectiveness of the plagues: according to the Hebrew Bible the plagues affected only the Egyptians, while the Hebrews remained untouched. Typically, modern writers, and particularly skeptics, account for such details of the account as being pious exaggerations, or literary devices, intended to encourage faith.

A volcanic eruption which happened in antiquity and could have caused some of the plagues if it occurred at the right time is the eruption of the Thera volcano 650 miles to the northwest 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 coating 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 a widely acclaimed website and for a documentary aired on the Learning Channel from 1998 to 2005.

Controversy on justification of the tenth plague

The last plague has been depicted by critics as a cruel and unjustifiable punishment against the Egyptians, and is criticized for promoting an unethical Schadenfreude ("pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune"). A common and widely accepted Jewish Midrash explains the dreadful plague by expanding upon Exodus 10:28, where Pharaoh threatens to kill Moses:

When Moses went to Pharaoh to demand of him that he let the people go, the whole event is happening in front of Pharaoh's first born son who teases and mocks his father for allowing the Hebrew shepherd to humiliate him. Enraged by the insult and mad with pride, Pharaoh resolved to have revenge for the plagues, and told Moses that he shall deal with the Hebrews in such a manner that a great cry will be heard in Egypt, such that has never been heard before. This was an allusion to the crimes of his father, who ordered the drowning of the male children of the Hebrews. Therefore, Pharaoh brought this harsh punishment upon his own people. His cruel plan was turned back upon him, so that what Pharaoh wanted to do to the Hebrews, God made to happen to him.

This Midrash justifies the last plague with two main arguments:

  • Retribution in kind מידה כנגד מידה (Mida ke-neged mida): in the Bible the punishment fits to the crime, not only in severity, but also in symbolism. This is for a pedagogic reason: so that everyone, including the sinner himself, shall know why he has been punished by God.
  • Self defense הקם להרגך, השכם להורגו (Ha-kam le-horgecha hashkem le-horgo): Pharaoh planned to slaughter all Hebrew children. By inflicting upon Pharaoh the same thing he planned for the Hebrews, his plan was thwarted.

Under this rationale, it can be seen that God is basically committing the same "evil" that Pharaoh intended to commit. By sending a plague that will kill innocent Egyptian children, God is performing that for which Pharaoh deserved punishment - a crime Pharaoh had not yet committed, but fully intended to. However, one must note that God is the Giver of life and the One who predetermines lifespans. God's taking of a person's life is not the same as man killing man, especially with evil intentions. God merely took the lives of the first-born of those who did not put the sheep's blood over their door, as punishment.

Some scholars, however, disagree with the interpretation of this plague which emphasizes children, and focus rather on the "first-born" aspect of the plague. As was typical in cultures of the time (and is seen many times in the Old Testament), the custom was for the first-born son to be the major inheritor, from the lowest strata of society to the throne of Pharaoh itself; and thus the first-born sons of Egypt would embody the leadership of the families of the nation. In addition, according to this interpretation, the priests of Egypt were largely first-born sons. Thus, in this view, the first-born sons of Egypt were in fact the decision makers, and communally responsible for the deeds of the nation, good or evil.

Popular culture

  • The 1956 film The Ten Commandments depicts the plagues of Blood, Hail, Darkness, and Death of the Firstborn, and alludes to Frogs, Boils and Flies, but omits those of Lice, Death of Cattle, and Locusts. The film also omits the funnel-cloud they followed out of Egypt, and it creates a funnel-cloud of fire before nightfall whereas The Book of Exodus says it had been fire all night long out of Egypt, and now as they passed through the Red Sea on this second night it was fire again illuminating forward upon the Israelites as it pushed them forward, but this time as dark cloud to the west for the Egyptians who looked up at it as they followed not realizing they were on sea bed. In the morning, the dawn light overpowered the look of fire, restoring it to only a cloud. William Whiston (translator of Josephus) claimed a comet caused this. And we must also note the rise and set of the full moon in the clear sky over the Israelites as a source of light.
  • The Ten Plagues of Egypt were dramatized by the heavy metal group Metallica in their song "Creeping Death", on their 1984 release Ride the Lightning. Late bassist Cliff Burton came up with the title of the song while watching the 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, specifically when the Angel of Death moved among Egyptians, killing the firstborn in each family. The plagues were also dramatized (albeit diverging somewhat from the canonical list) as part of a modern horror film in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).
  • The band Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards have the song "Ten Plagues of Egypt" on their first self titled album.
  • The Reaping, starring Hilary Swank, released in 2007, depicts the Ten Plagues in modern Louisiana, brought upon a town of satanic cultists, and gives a natural explanation to the occurrences.
  • In the 1999 release of The Mummy, Imhotep brings about several of the plagues as he seeks to be fully resurrected. The most notable are the locusts, flies and gnats, water (and apparently whiskey) turning to blood, boils and sores, the hailstorm of fire and an eclipse, but not in the order listed in the holy books. As the character of Imhotep is shown to have died during the early reign of Ramesses II, the film implies that the Plagues of Egypt occurred during or before the reign of Seti I.
  • In the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, which told the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, all ten plagues are shown in some form, but the lice and fleas are seemingly replaced by beetles, ants and crickets.
  • In the 1999 film Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson, Exodus 8:2 and the plague of frogs is referenced frequently.
  • In Charles R. Pellegrino's novel Dust, many of the Ten Plagues are given a scientific basis as part of the 33-million-year cycle of extinction events on Earth.
  • The song "Pray for Plagues" by the band Bring Me The Horizon references the first and tenth plagues extensively.

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References

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