Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, refused to release the Hebrew people from slavery and allow them to leave his country. So the Lord sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians to break Pharaohs stubborn will and to demonstrate his power and superiority over the pagan gods of the Egyptians.
These plagues occurred within a period of about nine months, in the following order:
- The water of the Nile River turned into blood (Ex 7:14-25).
- Frogs overran the countryside (Ex 8:1-15).
- People and animals were infested with lice (Ex 8:16-19).
- Swarms of flies covered the land (Ex 8:20-32).
- Disease killed the livestock of Egypt (Ex 9:1-7).
- Boils and sores infected the Egyptians and their animals (Ex 9:8-12).
- Hail destroyed crops and vegetation (Ex 9:13-35).
- Swarms of locusts covered the land (Ex 10:1-20).
- Thick darkness covered Egypt for three days (Ex 10:21-29).
- The Egyptian firstborn, both of the people and their animals, were destroyed by Gods death angel (Ex 11:1-12:30).
From the fourth plague onward, the Israelites were protected, while the Egyptians and their property were destroyed. The Hebrews were delivered from the final plague when they marked their houses, at God’s command, by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. The death angel passed over the Hebrew houses. At this final demonstration of God’s power, the Pharaoh gave in and allowed Moses and the Israelites to leave Egypt. This deliverance became one of the most memorable occasions in Hebrew history. The Passover is celebrated annually even today to commemorate God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery.
What actually happened?
Various explanations have been proposed:-
1. The plague story belongs to the category of non-historical myth; a story told after the event in order to make a theological point about Yahweh’s superiority over the Pharaoh and the gods of the Egyptians.
2. The plagues were natural events that were interpreted as divine judgments.
3. The plagues were natural events, but whose timing and intensity were miraculous. This is the point of view of K.A. Kitchen, Alan Cole and Colin Humphreys. Such scholars note that the word for ‘blood’ can mean either the material or the colour of blood (see, for example, Joel 2:31). Thus, the Nile is understood to have turned red, due a build-up of silt or some kind of micro-organism. This explanation has some merit, but the text does not say that the water became like blood (cf. 2 King 3:22f), but that it became blood. Moreover, it is difficult on this interpretation to explain the statement that the water in jars and tanks turned to blood (Ex 6:19). Similarly, it is possible to discern a link between the rotting frogs and the breeding of gnats and flies, and then for these to cause disease in cattle and humans, but there the train of events ends. As Motyer points out, ‘boils do not lead to hail, nor hail to darkness’.
For Kitchen, ‘the details of the first nine plagues at the Exodus are tied very closely to the annual regime of the Nile in Egypt (July/August to March/April), under the impact of an over-high flood. The details presuppose close knowledge of such special conditions (not every year!) not available to faraway writers in the Levant, or still less in Babylonian exile which was almost a thousand miles away.’
4. The plagues were distinctly and convincingly miraculous, although using natural phenomena. This is consistent with what the text itself says (see Ex 3:20; 8:19, 23, 31; 9:5; 10:4,19, for example). Chester, for example, observes that we are sometimes told the source of the plague (the frogs from the water, the gnats from the dust of the ground, the hail and the darkness from the sky). It is clear that God is mobilising all parts of his creation – land, sea and sky – against Pharaoh. There is no reason to doubt that the plagues were deeply rooted in natural processes, and that there may have been a knock-on effect from some of the earlier to some of the later plagues. But the nature, prior announcement, timing, intensity, selectivity, and moral purpose of the plagues all point to their divine origin.
According to Joseph P. Free, the miraculous element in the plagues can be seen in their (a) intensity – frogs, insects, and darkness are natural phenomena, but experience in an unnatural intensity; (b) prediction = Ex 8:10, 23; 9:5, 18, 29; 10:4; (c) discrimination – some plagues did not affect the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, Ex 8:22; 9:4, 26; (d) orderliness – the severity of the plagues gradually increases; (e) moral purpose.
‘The Hebrew concept of “miracle” was not the same as the modern one, which usually regards miracles as “supernatural,” and sees all else as “natural,” and thus as nonmiraculous. The Hebrews, however, regarded everything in nature as the work of God; it was only that in certain instances he had acted more “wonderfully” (perhaps one would say more “obviously”) than others. There is thus nothing in any way rationalistic in saying that on this occasion God may have sent a series of “natural” disasters (the sort of disasters to which Egypt was geographically prone), but so heightened and in such rapid succession that they constituted a miracle.’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Plagues upon Egypt’)
Bruckner says: ‘Scientific explanations for the plagues interest some interpreters. For example, some have suggested that the “blood” of the Nile was red algae or red mud flooded from the upper Nile from which the frogs fled. Subsequently the gnats and flies bred in dead frogs and spread disease (cattle, blight, and boils). Then seasonal wind blew in hail, locusts, and sand that caused the darkness in some parts of the land. The bubonic plague then accounted for the deaths of the firstborn…Attempts to prove or explain the plagues only in this way, however, miss the point of the text. The narrative claims that the Lord was the initiator and power behind the plagues. The Lord did use “nature,” but the biblical claim is that God used it in a way that demonstrated a specific divine intervention (miraculous).’
The sequence of the plagues
Commenting on the sequence of the plagues, Motyer remarks that they ‘run from the passing discomfort of water turned to blood to the revoltingly disruptive invasion of frogs, to the potentially disease-bearing lice and flies, the commercially damaging animal sickness, the personally debilitating boils, the environmentally disastrous hail and locusts, the terrifying darkness, and end at last with the heart-stopping sadness of the death of the sons.’
‘G. Hort (1957, 1958) has argued that there is a chain of direct causal connections between the nature and sequence of many of the plagues. She assumes that there was a high rainfall in the East African Plateau, the highlands of Ethiopia, and in the Nile Valley that caused the Nile River to rise higher than normal. An excess amount of red sediment was discharged from the river, causing a discoloration of the waters (and the death of fish), giving the appearance of red blood. Then frogs (the second plague) were unseasonably driven to dry land, along with mosquitoes (the third plague) and insects (fourth plague). The pestilence (fifth plague) and inflammation (sixth plague) that struck the livestock occurred when the floodwaters subsided, allowing for the cattle to pasture in open areas. The succeeding three plagues—hailstorms, locusts and darkness—periodically inundate Egypt.’ (DOTP, art. ‘Moses’)
‘The plagues are arranged in three groups of three (Ex 7:14-8:19; 8:20-9:12; 9:13-10:29); the tenth is climactic. The first two plagues in each sequence are preceded by a divine warning, but the third comes unheralded. In the first plague of each series Moses contacts Pharaoh in the morning; no time indication is given for the other two. The plagues are the answer to Pharaoh’s challenge (Ex 5:2; cf. Ex 7:5), and the description of the first plague of each triplet announces the theme of the triplet and gives its purpose. In plagues one through three the theme is the absolute superiority of the Lord (and his agents) over Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods (Ex 7:16, 17).’ (New Geneva)
The purpose of the plagues
According to Ibrahim:-
- The plagues were an indictment and judgment of the gods of Egypt. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord” (Exodus 12:12).
- The plagues were a demonstration of God’s existence and power. Pharaoh rejected Moses’ request that he allow the Israelites to travel three days into the wilderness to worship God (Exodus 5:1-2). The plagues were a rebuttal to Pharaoh’s response. They proved that Israel’s God alone was Lord. “And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it” (Exodus 7:5).
- The plagues were a judgment on Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their cruelty and harshness. “But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions” (Gen. 15:14).
- The plagues were God’s means of forcing Pharaoh to release Israel from Egypt. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exodus 3:19-20).
- The plagues were a prototype, a sample of God’s future judgment. The plagues which came upon the Egyptians for their sin were like those which Israel would experience, if this nation disobeyed the Law which God was soon to give them: “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured” (Deut. 28:27). There is also much similarity between the plagues of Egypt and the plagues described in the Book of Revelation, which are poured out upon the earth in the last days, just preceding the return of our Lord. Thus, in the Book of Revelation we find the victorious tribulation saints singing the “song of Moses” (Rev. 15:3).
Why the first nine plagues?
Motyer poses the question: if God knew from the outset (Ex 4:22f) that Pharaoh would continue to resist right up until the death of the firstborn, why were there all these earlier plagues at all? We must reply (so far as we can reply at all) by saying that God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s genuine responsibility are equally real, even if impossible to reconcile by our our finite minds. The first nine plagues were warnings, and God, far from preventing Pharaoh from repenting, was actually, by means of these warnings, encouraging him to do so. It was a bona fide time of probation. At any point Pharaoh could have stepped across from the path of discipline into the path of obedience and escaped the final penalty.
Chester, dealing with the same question, points to Ex 9:15f, where the Lord says that he could already have wiped Pharaoh off the face of the earth, but has raised Pharaoh up in order that “I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” There is, accordingly, a missional element in God exerting his power in this way.
For Chester, Ex 9:15f is key to our understanding of why God put Pharaoh through the first nine plagues, rather than jumping straight to the decisive one (the killing of the firstborn): it was so that God’s name would be proclaimed. Repeatedly, we are told that the purpose of the plagues is to reveal God’s name (Ex 7:15; 8:10; 9:14, 16; 10:1f).
But, as Chester himself says, there is more to it than this. Pharaoh’s reaction to the series of plagues demonstrates ‘the madness of sin’. Calamity after calamity is inflicted on his country, but he refuses to submit. His officials beg him to relent (Ex 10:7), he attempts to negotiate, he gives in and then changes his mind. But he reaches the point where his pride makes it harder for him to go back than to keep going forward.
Cole discusses the plagues in relation to the wrath of God:
‘Some find a moral problem here, not in the actual occurrence of the disasters, nor in the subsequent escape of Israel from the shattered land, but in the biblical interpretation of these disasters as the wrath of God. But, if God is in control of all things, is not everything his work? Unless this was the wrath of God to Egypt, how could it be the salvation of God to Israel? Either both interpretations were correct, or neither was. So the Christian interprets every event in terms of the loving purpose of God towards his life, Rom 8:28. Since no event can shake this faith, it is ultimately the victory that overcomes the world, 1 Jn 5:4.’
As Stuart notes,
‘all the plagues anticipated and progressively led up to the final, ultimate judgment of God in the form of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn.’
Here then is a model for God’s larger dealings with this world: many smaller judgements, which are intended as so many warnings to repent, lead up to the final judgement.
The ten plagues demonstrate God’s power and glory. As Chester points out, this idea is repeated over and over:-
- “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” (7:5)
- “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.” (v 17)
- “It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the Lord our God.” (8:10)
- “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.” (9:14)
- “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.” (9:16)
- “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 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.’” (10:1-2)
As Motyer notes, several aspects of God’s self-revelation are apparent:-
- Knowledge of God as the Lord, Ex 7:17, etc.
- Knowledge of the Lord as the only God, Ex 9:14, etc.
- Knowledge of God as present in the land of Egypt, Ex 8:22, etc.
- Knowledge of God as all-powerful, Ex 9:16, etc.
The plagues demonstrate the Lord’s superiority over Egypt’s ‘gods’
Boice (commenting on Psalm 105) says: ‘In order to understand these plagues we need to understand that they were directed against the gods and goddesses of Egypt and were intended to show the superiority of the God of Israel to the Egyptian gods. There were about eighty major deities in Egypt, all clustered about the three great natural forces of Egyptian life: the Nile river, the land, and the sky. It does not surprise us, therefore, that the plagues God sent against Egypt in this historic battle follow this three-force pattern. The first two plagues were against the gods of the Nile. The next four were against the land gods. The final four plagues were against the gods of the sky, culminating in the death of the firstborn children of Egypt, including the firstborn of Pharaoh, who was to be the next “god.”’
It seems that each plague demonstrated the superiority of the Lord over the various gods of the Egyptians. The following table illustrates:-
Chester agrees: ‘Many of the plagues are attacks on specific Egyptian gods. Hapi, the god of fertility, was closely associated with the Nile. Without the River Nile were was no fertility in Egypt—there was no Egypt. But the Lord turns the Nile to blood (7:19-21). It may be that Pharaoh had come to the Nile in the morning to make an offering to Hapi. Heqt or Heket, another fertility goddess, had the head of a frog—but the frogs are the Lord’s to command (8:1-6). The bull was another symbol of fertility, with shrines across Egypt. The bull-god Apis was worshipped at Memphis and the bull-god Mnevis was worshipped at Heliopolis, while Hathor, the goddess of love, had the head of a cow. None of them could resist the plague on the livestock (9:1-7). Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of plagues, might have been expected to heal the epidemic of boils (v 8-11). Nut, the sky goddess, could not prevent the plague of hail (v 13-26), nor stop the east wind which brought the locusts (10:12-15). Each day Re, the sun-god, was thought to sail through the celestial sea in a boat. Then at night he would descend into the netherworld before rising victorious again with the dawn. But during the ninth plague (10:21-23) he did not rise. Those three days of darkness were a clear sign that he had been defeated.’
Creation and decreation
‘The ‘plagues’ denigrate Pharaoh’s supposed divinity by demonstrating that he is incapable of maintaining order in the cosmos…Pharaoh’s actions are best understood as a perversion of what God intended when he created human beings to exercise authority over the earth on his behalf.’ (Alexander)
‘The plagues are not an arbitrarily chosen response to Pharaoh’s sins, as if the vehicle could just as well have been foreign armies or an internal revolution. The consequences are cosmic, because the sins are creational.’
‘Pharaoh’s oppressive, antilife measures against Israel are anticreational, striking at the point where God was beginning to fulfill the creational promise of fruitfulness in Israel (Gen. 1:28; Exod. 1:7). Egypt is an embodiment of the forces of chaos, threatening a return of the entire cosmos to its precreation state. The plagues may thus be viewed as the effect of Pharaoh’s anticreational sins upon the cosmic order writ large.’
‘What Pharaoh demonstrated in Exodus 1 is that he did not like the way God had ordered his created world. In the plague narratives, God gave him what he wanted, a world not shaped by God’s purpose, and without his order. So, instead of water bringing life as was God’s desire and intention, water would bring death. Instead of being in their proper order and place as God created them in Genesis 1, all manner of things would run amok. Insects and amphibians would swarm out of control. Instead of human beings having dominion over the animals, animals would have dominion over human beings. Hailstones would be so large as to shatter trees, and specks of dust would become gnats. Instead of light being separated from darkness, as is God’s desire and intention, darkness and disorder would reign.’
‘In chapter 1, the Hebrews filled the land in fulfilment of God’s command in Genesis 1 to fill the earth. But Pharaoh tried to stop this creative energy, becoming a kind of anti-creator. So now, through the plagues, God unravels creation. He sends it into reverse. Water no longer brings life. Animals no longer serve human beings—instead they invade like armies. Light returns to darkness and life to the dust. Creation is heading back into its dark and chaotic state (Genesis 1:2). Everything falls apart. Egypt is unmade. All around Pharaoh the very fabric of his world is falling apart, disintegrating into chaos, darkness and death.
‘Something similar happens to us. We were made to live in obedience to God and in dependence on him. But Romans 1:18-32 says we have exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped created things rather than the Creator. And when we reject God, we are unmade. Our psychological and physical lives become disordered. The result is emotional darkness, mental breakdown, relational conflict and physical addictions. Sickness has entered the world and we are all heading for death, the ultimate act of un-creation. Egypt is a picture of life in meltdown under God’s judgment.
The plagues are a pointer to something bigger and more terrible. God told Pharaoh his judgment would come and it did. And God has told all humanity that judgment is coming. The plagues are a sign that God’s coming judgment is real.’
It is clear (notes Andrew Reid) that from chapter 1 onwards Pharaoh did not want a world that was ordered God’s way. In the plagues, God gave him what he wanted – a world not shaped by God’s purpose, but a world, rather returning to its primeval chaos:-
‘So, instead of water bringing life as was God’s desire and intention, water would bring death. Instead of being in their proper order and place as God created them in Genesis 1, all manner of things would run amok. Insects and amphibians would swarm out of control. Instead of human beings having dominion over the animals, animals would have dominion over human beings. Hailstones would be so large as to shatter trees, and specks of dust would become gnats. Instead of light being separated from darkness, as is God’s desire and intention, darkness and disorder would reign.’
Reid adds that the plagues did not succeed each other relentlessly. Time and again God called the plague to cease. Time and again God warned Pharaoh. Time and again God sought to turn the tide of decreation and restore order. For God’s purposes are ultimately not about judgement and destruction, but about life and blessing. And for this he has sent his Son to bear the worst that the forces of evil could throw at him.
Enns remarks that God could have used any of a number of methods to bring Egypt to its knees. He could, for example, have used a foreign army to overrun Egypt. But instead he unleashes his own creative forces. Pharaoh has set himself against God’s good creation. Consequently, ‘the plagues are creation reversals: Animals harm rather than serve humanity; light ceases and darkness takes over; waters become a source of death rather than life; the climax of Genesis 1 is the creation of humans on the last day, whereas the climax of the plagues is the destruction of human beings in the last plague.’ The prophetic (and, we might add, the poetic literature) frequently shows how God uses his creative forces to achieve his will. See, for example, Isa 13:10, 13; 17:13; 19:5; 28:2; 30:30. See also 1 Kings 18:16-46; Josh 10:1-15.
Currid (cited by Ryken) sets out the following parallels:-
In contrast, God’s creative forces aid the Israelites in their journey across the desert, Ex 16:1–17:7; Num 11:4–35; 20:1–13. ‘Just as [God] is capable of casting darkness over light and turning water into blood, he can make the skies rain quail, the dew of the earth bring forth bread, and water come from a most unlikely source, rocks.’ God can not only use his good creation for his own ends, but also suspend its normal operations to show that he is Lord of all. (Enns)
As Enns also points out, the Exodus miracles set the pattern for what comes later, in Christ. ‘At the beginning of his earthly life, creation announces Christ’s birth through a special star that leads the Magi to him. His first miracle involves changing the natural properties of water and making it wine. This is no mere trick to impress the witnesses or to show them how special he is. This is, rather, a first hint at what Jesus’ life and death are meant to do: turn creation upside down.’
Moreover, ‘like Moses, Jesus has command over the elements. He walks on water; he commands the storms to cease; he provides a miraculous supply of fish and bread; he makes a fig tree wither. These well-known incidents show that he, like the God of the Exodus, has creation at his disposal.’ (Enns)
Then again, ‘at Jesus’ death we see an inversion of this theme. The Gospel writers tell us that darkness came over the earth, the earth shook, and rocks split (Matt. 27:51; Luke 23:44). Here, too, creation signals the deliverance of God’s people, but only by means of the punishment of God’s Son, against whom God’s anger is directed.’ (Enns)
But (now putting the matter differently than Enns), the ultimate re-creative act is the resurrection. Here the normal course of nature is reversed, a new creation is ushered in that is shared by all who are ‘in Christ’ (Eph 1:19f), and a final consummation looked for (Rom 8:18-23).
References and allusions in the rest of Scripture
Childs remarks that, in contrast to the actual deliverance from Egypt, the plagues receive relatively little attention in the rest of Scripture.
In Psa 78 and Psa 105, ‘the plagues were seen as God’s special act of grace, which Israel then rejected because of her own sin.’
‘The book of Revelation is saturated with the imagery from the plague tradition, but in a completely different form. The plague tradition witnessed to the great battle between God and Pharaoh over the rule of his people, but this theme has become both a cosmological and eschatological battle between God and Satan. No longer is the battle a glorious memory in Israel’s past history, but it still lies in the future with its impending threat. The struggle with evil has taken on a new dimension of anguish and terror. The people of God do not stand carefully protected in Goshen, but are called upon to participate in the battle unto death. All the terrors of God and Magog, of the dragon from the deep, of the beasts from Daniel’s visions, are combined into a terrifying picture of the Antichrist.’
Lessons for us today
Regarding the relevance of the plague narrative for us today, Enns warns against a narrowly moralistic approach (be a Moses, don’t be a Pharaoh). The first question to ask is not, ‘What has this got to do with me?’, but rather, ‘What does this tell me about God?’ Let me ask, then, ‘Who else but the supreme judge of the universe can make the heavens and the earth do his bidding?’
Motyer: ‘We have a problem with the plagues simply because we step back from the truth of the wrath of God against sin and the judgment of God upon sinners. We would prefer the bliss of a kingdom of God without moral absolutes, presided over by a God without wrath and entered through a Christ without a cross. But the price for this would be to discard not just this or that bit of the Bible…but the whole God-given book, for in it God has revealed his absolutes and that he is a God of intense, fiery holiness. Jesus died bearing our sins in his body on the cross, for that is what sin merits, and saving us from the wrath to come, for that is where sin leads. If the plagues being with the disasters sin brings, they lead inexorably to the death with which sin ends.’ (p116)
The cosmic effects of human sin. ‘In this ecological age we have often seen the adverse cosmic effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, perhaps not least in the mutations occasioned by ecological disasters and the use of atomic energy. The “nuclear winter” presaged by many is often depicted in plague-like terms. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22).’ (Fretheim)
Who is the Lord? Pharaoh asked this question (Ex 5:2), and the plagues are an extended answer to this enquiry. The Lord sent Moses to Pharaoh with a warning of impending disaster and with the message, “So that you will know that I am the Lord.” (Ex 7:17).
What about other gods? From beginning to end, the plague narrative demonstrates the complete superiority of the Lord over all other ‘gods’. They have power, admittedly, but the Lord is all-powerful. He is incomparable, Ex 8:10.
God’s patience is lasting, but not everlasting. He will warn, and warn again. But, in the end judgement will come.